All Stripped Down

I was upset when the institution where I got my M.A. stripped the disciplinary label Rhetoric from its degree—while they still wear their allegance in one form (Department of Rhetoric and Writing), the degree is listed as Professional and Technical Writing. History repeats, with the latest change here purging the name even from the department label: the University of Minnesota no longer has a program in Rhetoric, (they have reserved the possibility of incorporating it as an interdisciplinary program). I selected this program because it was one of the oldest (almost a hundred years old) Rhetoric programs in the country. Things change, I guess. An article in the Washington Post declares it to be the return to “an old standard to ensure its success: teaching students to write better.”

Blink. Seems to me that this is what we’ve been trying to do all along. The “old standard” is embedded in our department’s 19th century roots.

The push to improve writing is taking hold at many colleges and universities amid a national debate about what higher education in 21st century should look like in the face of government projections that nearly two-thirds of all high-growth, high-wage jobs created in the next decade will require a college degree — a degree only one-third of adults have.

. . . Even at VCU [Virginia Commonwealth University], where institutional change is easier to accomplish because its traditions are not as enshrined, [Vice Provost Joseph] Marolla said he met resistance to designing curriculum around skill areas instead of the traditional content areas. It took him two years to convince his colleagues that the curriculum change should revolve around six skill areas — communication, critical thinking, information fluency, collaborative work, ethical and civic responsibility, and quantitative literacy.

“Academics say, ‘No, no, no, I don’t work with skills. Competencies, maybe, but not skills. It’s not what I do,’ ” he said.

But whatever it is called, writing is in demand. “The number one thing everyone says is that people have to be able to write,” he said.

Whatever it is called, it is a vital matter to establish that this is a field of study, not simply an academic or vocational service enterprise. For that reason, it is absolutely important what it is called. In my opinion, “Professional and Technical Writing” is dangerously close to “studio art,” the bastard stepchild of the Art Department. Classes in pottery making consistently maintain less prestige than those in Art History. Whatever the future of the University of Minnesota Writing Studies Department is, it seems to me that it is contingent on the exercise of the studies portion of the label.

There has been, historically, a great way of enumerating the difference between skills-based writing instruction and the discipline that I have chosen to commit myself to. It’s not just a debate over a label—it’s a difference in the conception of the “writing” tradition.

Its direction needs to be defined, because in one sense, and that the most fundamental, rhetoric stands in contrast, not merely with other studies, but with other English literary studies. It requires a different attitude, faces toward an opposite goal. The others all contemplate acquisition: in pursuing them the mind gains possession of certain facts and principles, and achieves a certain discipline as the result; but from beginning to end its attitude is mainly receptive. The study of rhetoric contemplates presentation: in pursuing it the student’s mind, though equally occupied with facts, principles, discipline, is set predominantly in the attitude of construction, creation. Other studies are something to know; this is something to do. The facts and principles comprised in rhetoric represent what the writer must have in mind in the actual production of literature; guides they are for his mind’s acting, not incomes of knowledge whereby his mind is merely acted upon. This character of the study places rhetoric in a class by itself; it stands alone in presupposing the student as an originator, not a mere absorber, of thought and impulse.

Now the rhetorical course should labor to be throughout the exponent and inspirer of this creative attitude. It misses its grand opportunity if it is not. As mere knowledge indeed rhetoric is worth little; it is as skill and power that its true worth becomes manifest. Nor does its power end with the college course. Herein, in truth, lies in great part our encouragement, that long after college days are over, when in meeting the real tasks of life the man has forever shelved his Greek and Latin and mathematics, he begins to inquire anew into the principles of expression. He has thoughts, and wants to impart them. He sets himself to recollect or discover the procedures that once, perhaps, he little esteemed; they are very real and important to him now. Thus this undergraduate study of rhetoric is the initial stage of a discipline that must last the student through life, must be his resource whenever he has occasion to write.

John Franklin Genung, The Study of Rhetoric in the College Course (1887) from The Origins of Composition Studies in the American College, 1875-1925 John C. Berereton, Ed.

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