Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Connors says, "Boo to the Modes"

In fact, what Robert J. Connors said some 25 years ago was, "the only teachers still making real classroom use of the modes are those out of touch with current theory" (119). According to Connors, the modes of discourse (narration, description, exposition, persuasion) died in 1950.

Crap. If I had read this article ("The Rise and Fall of the Modes of Discourse") a year ago, I would probably be teaching basic writing somewhat differently right now. As in, not structured around modes of discourse.

When I taught first-year composition instead, we were given the writing assignments that were required; however, for basic writing, we didn't really get any guidance at all as to what kinds of writing assignments would be appropriate once we were in the classroom. During the first couple of weeks I had second thoughts about the assignments I'd put in the syllabus and my students complained they didn't like the assigned topics.

So I decided to generalize the assignments into their basic forms, letting the students pick their own topics. I remembered high school English, being required to write definition essays, classification and division essays, process essays. Now according to Connors, these aren't modes--these are methods of exposition (115). But every textbook I've looked at that claims to organize itself by the modes makes no distinction between the two. Like those textbooks, I placed narration and description alongside comparison/contrast and definition.

Now I say I wouldn't have organized my course by the modes/methods of exposition had I known before that it had been dead since long before I was born. But I'm not sure that the modes are as awful as Connors lets on. It's true they emphasize product over process. But I find the denigration of product a bit over-the-top. Yes, to teach writing we need to teach process. But isn't the end goal a decent product? Can't we teach both?

I think my students have really learned something by being given a fairly broad form and being told to find some content to suit it. In particular, they've learned that there's more than one way to write an essay. They've even learned that the modes are fluid--that they can incorporate narration into a definition essay with success. They've got a basketfull of techniques to use when assigned a topic. So I don't see what Connors's problem is.

Work Cited
Connors, Robert J. "The Rise and Fall of the Modes of Discourse." On Research Writing: The Braddock Essays, 1975-1998. Ed. Lisa Ede. New York: Bedford St. Martin's, 1999. 110-121.

Monday, November 5, 2007

Don't Stifle the Young Folks

Giambattista Vico argues that it's important not to stifle young people's ordinary knowledge by enforcing Cartesian doubt about all things which can't be absolutely proven. In his own words, "we should be careful to avoid that the growth of common sense be stifled in them by a habit of advanced speculative criticism" (868). Too much modern philosophy stunts growth. Descartes's style of philosophy is better suited to more mature scholars: "Just as old age is powerful in reason, so is adolescence in imagination" (868).

Vico doesn't cite Quintilian, but he has some similar ideas. For Quintilian, the issue isn't common sense, but creativity. A child should be allowed to "be daring, invent much, and delight much in what it invents, though it be often not sufficiently severe and correct" (370). For both Vico and Quintilian, education isn't about making sure the student is never wrong, but rather making sure that they learn as they go. It's important not to lose common sense and creativity along the way. Instead of tearing students down and trying to rebuild what from scratch, we should build on the tools the students already have.

Works Cited

Quintilian. From Institutes of Oratory. Trans. John Selby Watson. The Rhetorical Tradition: Readings from Classical Times to the Present. Ed. Patricia Bizzell and Bruce Herzberg. Boston: Bedford/St. Martins, 2001. 364-428.

Vico, Giambattista. From On the Study Methods of Our Time. Trans. Elio Gianturco. The Rhetorical Tradition: Readings from Classical Times to the Present. Ed. Patricia Bizzell and Bruce Herzberg. Boston: Bedford/St. Martins, 2001. 865-878.

Friday, October 26, 2007

Lady-like Rhetoric

Can I say I really liked Diana's method of class discussion? I had never heard of this silent discussion before, but is very nice (and very much like low-tech blogging).

Here's the passage from Christine de Pizan's The Treasure of the City of Ladies I picked out to write about during class: "She [the princess] will show the reasons [to the prince], which she will understand thoroughly, and she will show how it is necessary for a prince, if he wishes to reign long in peace and glory, to be loved by his subjects and by his people."

This passage interests me because on the one hand, Pizan is arguing for the importance of a lady's rhetoric, but on the other hand, casting the lady solely in a supporting role. The princess listens to the subjects with a woman's patience and compassion, then explains everything to her husband rationally. That's actually quite nice--Pizan's princess will not merely make emotional appeals but will lay out the reasons so that her husband can understand.

But, of course, the lady's rhetoric here is used in a carefully limited ways. She uses rhetoric because she can't actually do anything. She can only ask her husband to do things. Although the princess is presumably perfectly intelligent (and I'm thankful for that), she nonetheless is limited by her social roles. She must maintain a perfect harmony where she never comes into conflict with either her husband or his subjects. And while that makes for an interesting rhetoric, I'm glad it's not a rhetoric that I'm forced to use.

Work Cited

de Pizan, Christine. From The Treasure of the City of Ladies. Trans. Sarah Lawson. The Rhetorical Tradition: Readings from Classical Times to the Present. Ed. Patricia Bizzell and Bruce Herzberg. Boston: Bedford/St. Martins, 2001. 546-551.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

On Christian Oratory?

So when only two people in classed raised their hands as having read Augustine before, I was shocked. I read him in every class I ever took in medieval studies (but I suppose I never read him in any other classes). Confessions was one of the first things I read in college. I can't say On Free Will or City of God did quite as much for me although they were still interesting. But I'd never read On Christian Doctrine before, at least not the excerpt we read for class, so I was surprised at how much Augustine, the Christian philosopher, had to say about rhetoric.

Augustine has a lot of good advice when it comes to eloquence: content matters ("those who speak with wisdom are heard with profit" 459), don't go overboard with a incessantly grand style (478), and models of are more useful than rules (457). But when I try to examine Augustine's view of rhetoric, I'm drawn back to the title. On Christian Doctrine. And doctrine may not really be the best word here, even if it does look more like the Latin doctrina than the English teaching. The book was not called On Christian Oratory, and certainly not On Oratory. So how sure can I be that this is the extent of rhetoric for Augustine? Has he merely narrowed his scope to talk about the relevance of rhetoric to Christian teaching? Perhaps political speeches weren't common in his day, but what about courts?

I know Augustine is aware of courts, because he talks about them in City of God, which I don't even have a copy of to cite. I can't help wondering what Augustine might have said in On Christian Oratory. Would he still have said that Christian oratory is for instruction and persuasion in Christian doctrine? That although we sometimes find ourselves in legal trouble, we shouldn't spend too much time on these worldly concerns? I'd like to imagine that he would see a place for even Christian lawyers, but I don't think he would, as disillusioned as he was with the world.

Work Cited
Augustine. On Christian Doctrine. Trans. Therese Sullivan. The Rhetorical Tradition: Readings from Classical Times to the Present. Ed. Patricia Bizzell and Bruce Herzberg. Boston: Bedford/St. Martins, 2001. 456-485.

Tuesday, October 9, 2007

Cicero is not a believer in specialism

It seems to me that Cicero really doesn't think there is such a thing as a good specialist. In De Oratore, Antonius argues that Crassus is quite silly in thinking that the orator must be educated in every subject. As Antonius puts it, Crassus "included, under the single vocation and title of orator, omniscience in every topic and every art" (311). On the other hand, Antonius thinks an orator simply is "a man who can use language agreeable to the ear, and arguments suited to convince, in law court disputes and in debates of public business" (311). Cicero knows that many people will find his ideas far-fetched, but I think he still backs Crassus on this one.

Take for instance, Cicero's argument elsewhere "that good men are always happy" ("Discussions at Tusculum (V)" 68). Where most people would think that the connection between moral goodness and happiness isn't that tight, Cicero sees the two as always co-occurring. If you really are a good person, you won't be distracted by a little thing like torture. And you wouldn't be happy deep down if you had your priorities completely out of whack. Likewise, while many would take Antonius's side here and say that oratory is about speaking, not about knowing everything about every subject, Cicero is less willing to divide the two. Oratory isn't a surface level knack for expressing yourself with eloquence. It's more inclusive and requires that you actually know what you're talking about and how to relate to your audience.

Works Cited

Cicero. "Discussions at Tusculum (V)." On the Good Life. Trans. Michael Grant. Middlesex, Eng.: Penguin, 1985. 49-117.

Cicero. From De Oratore. Trans. E.W. Sutton and H. Rackham. The Rhetorical Tradition: Readings from Classical Ties to the Present. Ed. Patricia Bizzell and Bruce Herzberg. Boston: Bedford/St. Martins, 2001. 289-339.

Friday, September 28, 2007

Analysis of Stem Cell Research Campaign Ad

We've all seen the Claire McCaskill's campaign ad from last year with Michael J. Fox, right? In case you haven't, it's on YouTube.

The obvious enthymeme here is Vote for Claire McCaskill because she'll support stem cell research.

But certainly there's a lot more going on. Why, for instance do we need a famous actor like Michael J. Fox in order to tell us that McCaskill is pro-stem cell research? We need only look at Jim Talent's voting record to see that he (as Fox says) not only opposes funding, but also tried to make the research illegal in Missouri.

So Fox is here to be a sign of what stem cell research can do. McCaskill appeals to our pathos. Seeing the star of Teen Wolf unable to control his movements, we're moved to pity and we want to believe that stem cell research can help real people that we feel a connection with.

So the ad contains the premise that supporting stem cell research can help treat people like Michael J. Fox. And the premise that supporting Claire McCaskill is supporting stem cell research. One unstated assumption is that we ought to support stem cell research if it helps people like Michael J. Fox. Another is that supporting stem cell research should be done through electing advocates to the US government.

The ad actually ignores the main claim of those who oppose (human embryonic) stem cell research: that it destroys human life (or potential human life, or the sanctity of human life). The question is, does the ad address those who accept that claim? If so, then it has to also contain the assumption that the destruction of embryos is justifiable, either because they are not life or because they are less important than people like Michael J. Fox. That, or McCaskill hopes by not mentioning the issue, people will forget about that objection because the painful-to-watch image of a familiar face and voice behind erratic movements caused by over-medication is much stronger than that of petri dishes in a lab.

Monday, September 24, 2007

Why is Plato's Gorgias so agreeable?

Would Plato lie? Sure, he's only human. Lots of people find it hard to follow their own ethical principles. But is the Gorgias so deceptive that Plato couldn't have fooled himself into thinking it was okay? Because clearly Bruce McComiskey is right about the real Gorgias being less likely to assent to everything Socrates would have said. Gorgias was an accomplished rhetorician, so even if Socrates caught him in a few contradictions, it seems he would at least have had a better response than "Apparently" any time that Socrates asked him a question that would make Gorgias look stupid. Like a modern politician, Gorgias would likely have refused to be backed into a corner with a yes or no question, preferring instead to simply state his beliefs in his own words, perhaps even putting Socrates on the defense rather than letting Socrates control the debate.

I find McComiskey's argument unconvincing when it portrays Plato as willing to do anything to stop the democrats. I can accept that Plato strongly opposed democracy. But how involved did Plato really want to get in politics? Did he see the Gorgias as a rhetorical piece, designed to persuade people, or did he see it as a philosophical piece, designed to demonstrate truth? I simply don't see enough evidence to believe that Plato wanted the Gorgias to be rhetorical to see him as misrepresenting sophistic arguments in order to see the end of democracy.

What seems most likely to me is that because Plato saw truth as being singular and universal, he believed that sophists really would have to assent to Socrates's arguments (if they listened to him and let him set the terms of debate). If they answered yes or no questions reasonably, even sophists would have to agree with Plato.

Work Cited
McComiskey, Bruce. "Disassembling Plato's Critique of Rhetoric in the Gorgias (447a-466a)." Rhetoric Review 10.2 (1997): 205-216.

Friday, September 21, 2007

Spelling news

Just thought you English-y types might be interested in the decline of the hyphen reported by Reuters:
Thousands of hyphens perish as English marches on | Reuters

Personally I find hyphens confusing when they're part of the established spelling of a word (as opposed to clarify what word is modifying what). I'll be back to talk about kairos in a few hours.

Thursday, September 13, 2007

How Important Is Aspasia's Personal Life?

I had one more question in my pocket for the discussion Tuesday which no one picked: What to you make of the attention given to the biographies of rhetorically important women (Sappho (22), Aspasia (36), Diotima (44))? How important is it to understand the historical reality of the lives they led as opposed to their rhetorical practices and theories? Perhaps I should take the hint that the question wasn't that interesting, but I can't really help it. I wanted to talk about our obsession with women's personal lives.

It makes sense that we talk about Aspasia's personal life, since we don't really have anything of hers to read. She was notable for affecting notable men, so her relationship with Pericles is certainly important. And since Aspasia has gotten some flack for not adhering to the role of an Athenian wife, I can understand that we want to free her from charges that she was a prostitute. Still, how important is it, really, whether she was a prostitute or not? When I read about rhetoric, do I really expect to learn whether Cicero was sexually pure? Bizzell and Herzberg seem intent on confirming that Aspasia was no whore--that even if she were a prostitute, it was due to the social roles of the time (57). They seem to suggest that she really would have married Pericles (making her a proper woman), but since the law didn't allow foreigners to marry Athenian citizens, she was his official concubine (57). I was really worried there for a second that I might have been reading about a woman who didn't live up to my moral standards.

Now let me be fair: I understand that we don't want to let ancient Greek jokes obscure what we might otherwise be able to learn from Aspasia. But I'm just not sure that focusing on the sex lives of influential women is always called for, even when we're trying to help.

Works Cited
Bizzell, Patricia, and Bruce Herzberg, eds. "Aspasia." The Rhetorical Tradition: Readings from Classical Ties to the Present. Boston: Bedford/St. Martins, 2001. 56-60.

Glenn, Cheryl. Rhetoric Retold: Regendering the Tradition from Antiquity through the Renaissance. Carbondale: Southern Illinois UP, 1997.

Friday, September 7, 2007

Dissoi Logoi actually analyzes arguments

I'm not entirely sure whether we were supposed to read Dissoi Logoi, but certainly it fits in with the our other readings for the week. I find Dissoi Logoi interesting because the arguments are simple, yet it's hard to tell if the writer actually backs his own conclusions or whether he's offering them up as something to think about. The section about good and bad seems somewhat weak, with supporting examples about how it is "illness is bad for the sick but good for the doctors" (48), because most doctors would be hard-pressed to argue that they'd prefer more illness in the world. Without illness, a doctor would simply find another profession (and enjoy life without illness). The section about seemly and shameful acts is much more convincing.

Seemly and shameful don't seem quite as tied up in our sense of absolute ethics. It's easier to admit that something is only shameful based on your perspective than it is that something is only bad based on your perspective. Not only perspective, but also context figures into the arguments about seemly and shameful behavior. It seems reasonable to conclude that having sex in one's bedroom is entirely appropriate, but that's not the case if you move outside (49). I'm not so sure I agree that a wife ought to decorate herself "with white lead and wear gold ornaments" (50), but luckily the writer goes on to explain how different cultures have differing ideas of what is seemly.

Strangely, however, the writer goes on to conclude that "all things are seemly when done at the right moment, but shameful when done at the wrong moment" (50). I wonder about the translation of the word "moment," because "moment" implies an issue of time, yet most of the examples so far were of place or social situation. This conclusion is absurd--simply because context plays a role in determining whether an act is shameful doesn't imply that every act can go either way, which becomes clear when you become more specific: "In Sparta it is seemly for girls to exercise naked, in Sparta it is shameful for girls to exercise naked" (51). Honestly, I'm impressed at this writer's ability to actually analyze arguments instead of beat people over the head with them.

Works Cited

Dissoi Logoi
. Trans. T. M. Robinson. The Rhetorical Tradition: Readings from Classical Ties to the Present. Ed. Patricia Bizzell and Bruce Herzberg. Boston: Bedford/St. Martins, 2001. 48-55.

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Technically Correct

I wonder if Plato believes that Socrates's speech A (preferring non-lovers) is technically equal to Socrates's speech B (preferring lovers). That is, I wonder if Truth is not only a moral but also a technical necessity. John C. Adams argues that Socrates's speech A is "technically correct, but morally depraved as far is it celebrates the virtue of being an evil lover in a more rhetorically effective manner than Lysias' speech" (8). And while I find this language useful, I wonder whether the issue is not morality--that Plato is not simply claiming that Socrates would be impious to deliver the speech preferring non-lovers to lovers, but additionally that he would be a poor rhetor.

Truth is not a side issue for Plato, as far as I can tell. Socrates in fact asks Phaedrus if a rhetor needs to "know the truth about the matters of which he is to speak" (156). Phaedrus has heard otherwise, but Socrates seems to make the point that rhetoric needs Truth even to be technically good. I cannot truly say that an argument is good if it comes to a conclusion I know to be false. It might be interesting or pretty, but to be rhetorically good it must also be True.

Works Cited

Adams, John C. "The Rhetorical Significance of the Conversion of the Lover's Soul in Plato's Phaedrus." Rhetoric Society Quarterly 26.3 (1996): 7-16.

Plato. Phaedrus. Trans. H. N. Fowler. The Rhetorical Tradition: Readings from Classical Ties to the Present. Ed. Patricia Bizzell and Bruce Herzberg. Boston: Bedford/St. Martins, 2001. 138-168.

Tuesday, August 21, 2007


Welcome to Amy's blog about the history of rhetoric.