On the History of Rhetoric & Composition Studies

To be accurate, Lauer’s “Rhetoric and Composition” is more a cross between a brief history on the eponymous subjects and a crash course in the theories composing the discipline as a whole. It’s not really a full history on the subject of composition or of rhetoric. In all fairness to Lauer though and, again, for the sake of accuracy, I believe I should disclose I took a course for a whole semester on rhetoric and writing as an undergrad and I wouldn’t say I received a full history on the subjects either! The breadth of the field and of the research being conducted within the field is something I do believe Lauer did an effective job communicating. Also, just how expansive the study of rhetoric is now is another aspect of the field Lauer explored and explained well for “newbies” to the discipline.

And, now that I have established my novice status, I would like to delve into my thoughts on this reading. Since there was such an abundance of information–an almost overwhelming amount–I’ve decided to focus my reflection on what “stood out” to me most. While reading this work, the parts that most caught my eye are ones I think I may want to pursue more in the course of my own studies which may be a self-centered way to read a text–or not, according to which rhetorical mode/school of thought you subscribe.

Anyway, what first struck me while reading this article is not how many disciplines or modes rhetoric transverses and not the pedagogical applications of rhetoric but the individual vs. the sociocultural divide. What I mean by that is how a number of theories seem to focus either on the individual as propagator or on society/context as the mastermind behind rhetorical acts. More than that, there seems to be whole bodies of study devoted to researching whether a rhetorical work is facilitated by a writer or merely filtered through the writer–is the voice within the work the writer’s? Or their society’s? The agency or lack thereof of a writer/rhetor is a topic that fascinates me because I’m a writer, aren’t I? Is what I’m writing now mine or is it something circumstance has twisted the strings just so to get out of me? That whole concept is disconcerting in the best kind of way.

After moving past that mini-existential crisis, another part of this reading that captured my attention was style, which is a topic near and dear to me. In many academic articles I read in my undergrad, style always seemed to be relegated a minor concern–something to review once a work was completed and not something you should overly invest in. But, as I believe Lauer touches on, style and voice are intertwined and voice is essential to writing because it sets the tone–no, is the tone–of your work. I have never understood how style can be regarded as a mere superficial detail. This whole article, I believe, does a decent job of communicating that the study of rhetoric is the study of the interconnectedness of writing’s many parts. Researchers and theorists all have their niches but studying rhetoric is, at its core, the attempt to understand not just the interactions of writing processes, but the larger intersection of humanity and communication(?). At least, this seems to be the case in the field since the “social turn.”

One of the last parts of this reading that gave me pause almost as much as it held my attention was the section on writing ideologies. What with my invested interest in the individual/social divide in the discipline, I guess this isn’t a surprise but, here, I’m mainly focused on the theories–postmodernist and Barbara Couture’s–Lauer discussed. The postmodernist ideology removed the agency of the writer from the equation and forwarded moral relativism while Couture’s instilled people with purpose and their writing as, ultimately, a facilitator of truth. (At least, that’s what I interpreted.) Finding truth through writing is something I, personally, believe in already but I found it interesting that it was an actual key component of a writing ideology. Also, I wonder how effective the methods of this ideology are at determining truth (Truth? Does Couture mean Plato’s big “T” Truth?). Regardless, I think it would be both fascinating and enlightening to study the processes one goes through in order to arrive at their–or the–truth on the page.

Overall and as cliché as it may sound, Lauer’s article/book chapter gave me a lot to think about and provided me with a better sense of the study of rhetoric and composition’s purview. I wish I could say more about what I have read but there’s just so much information I was provided and it’s difficult to process it all, let alone respond thoughtfully to all of it! And, rhetoric is a thoughtful subject. Every word and turn of phrase comes with a hidden message at least a dozen researchers are already attempting to decipher and then compose a study around, right?

So, that said, I think I’m going to allow you, my–faithful (if you’ve made it this far!)–readers, return to your thoughts as I return to my mulling over twisted strings, the voice ringing in my words mine?, and the truthiness of things.

~Till next time~

***If you are interested on reading more of my thoughts, you can check out my blog on eliterature & digital storytelling here***



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