The Ugly Stepsister: Rhetoric

 Joseph Kugelmass wrote an insightful article for Inside Higher Ed entitled “Stop Using Rhetoric to Teach Writing.”

He says that after five years of teaching composition, he feels it is a mistake to make Aristotelian rhetoric the foundation of writing instruction.

My first thought, sophist that I am, was: Perhaps Quintillian rhetoric would be better?

Then I thought of the minimal rhetoric I have seen taught in composition courses. I would expect since he argues against it that he has seen quite a bit of it. I have not.

Kugelmass makes some interesting points about audience; logos, ethos, and pathos; and advertising. But for me, the pivotal quote was:

The field of rhetoric ought to remain a discipline in its own right, instead of becoming simply another word for using language, and as a discipline it is not broad enough to cover all the moments of aesthetic discovery and delight that initiate students into the writer’s world.

Obviously as a PhD with a first field in Rhetoric and Composition, I have a horse in the race.

I agree with him that rhetoric ought to remain a discipline in its own right. It did not for quite some time in American educational history and I hope rhetoric never again disappears from our universities.

In addition, I agree that rhetoric should not become another word for using language. Nor should it, as it has to some extent, be used to identify specific types of constructions. (Rhetorical questions?)

And I agree with him as well that rhetoric is not wide enough to cover all the beauty in writing.

cinderellaBUT to me the implication is that rhetoric and its study does not add enough to writing instruction to warrant its inclusion. This, I feel, is a serious error.

While it is true that students speak to their parents differently than they speak to their friends, many students do not yet understand the different audiences of work and academia when they come to our classes.

Yes, probably the students Kugelmass teaches at prep school do. That is part of their home life.

But many students who are struggling in college are struggling because their home life did not prepare them for the different culture, the different expectations, and the different rhetorics used outside their home. This is where English teachers, rhetoricians in particular, can offer a significant value-add.

Looking at logos, pathos, and ethos and how it operates across different cultures could be very helpful for many of our students. Discussing when and where to use them specifically could make a difference to them as well. And identifying what establishes credibility for different audiences would also be helpful.

For instance, in some cultures relationship is the main point of credibility. Students from those cultures attempt to develop a relationship within the writing that moves them away from the typically logical and external writing that academia prefers. They don’t understand why they have lost points, why “you” and “I” are unacceptable, and how they are not meeting the expectations for the composition.

2 thoughts on “The Ugly Stepsister: Rhetoric”

  1. Just a note in passing to say thanks for the post, and also to say that I would never want to see rhetoric eliminated from the writing curriculum; my complaint is with how the term is sometimes mis-applied, and how it is used to justify the exclusion of literature, longer works, and a range of possible assignments (such as creative pieces) that young writers enjoy and benefit from.

  2. I agree with you that the word is often misapplied. And I think it is an additional misapplication of rhetoric to use it to justify the exclusion of literature in English classes, long or short.

    I would think that rhetoric could help with creative writing, too, rather than displace it.

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