This August I found myself sitting at a new table, in a new home, in a new town, preparing a new course for a new job at a new university. With a hiking boot on a placemat.
I had just moved to Hancock, Michigan a few days before. Unless you’re one of the relatively few people who have fully explored Michigan’s Upper Peninsula (U.P.), then Hancock is in a part of the country you don’t know exists. It sits in the middle of the Keweenaw Peninsula, which juts north off the U.P. about 60 miles straight up and out into the breadth of Lake Superior. In essence, it’s an upper peninsula of the Upper Peninsula and, a couple days after landing on this rocky outcropping, it was still remote.
How does one begin anew? Sitting at that dining room table with the hiking boot on a placemat, this question had a multiple resonance for me. For besides just setting up my own life is such a strange and different place, I faced what felt like the equally intimidating problem of designing an entirely new course. Despite having taught college composition for almost a decade in grad school, this year I was going to teach a new curriculum on the history of rhetoric. The syllabus wasn’t too hard to write (I love the history of rhetoric), but I was having trouble designing new writing assignments that would afford a good deal of creativity in a course that wasn’t supported by the workshop context of a regular composition class. I had set upon the idea of having my students do rhetorical analyses of everyday objects, asking them to use the principles and techniques of a rhetorical theorist from our syllabus to help guide their own inquiries. I wanted my students to get a sense for how different rhetoricians and philosophers had different notions of “rhetoricity,” and to think creatively about which versions of it made the most sense to them in the material context of their personal lives. It seemed like a generally good assignment, but I was worried by my use of the word “rhetoricity” in the assignment description. I myself struggle with this term (in a way I do with all fruitful concepts) and if “rhetoricity” was a hard idea for me to get my head around, how would my Intro to Rhetoric undergrads react to it? How could I make this technical and theoretical concept more approachable to them?
The solution I came up with was to do a model rhetorical analysis myself, a videocast in which I gave an Aristotelian analysis of the rhetoricity of my hiking boot, which was why it was now sitting on my new dining room table. If my students were unsure of how to analyze an object’s rhetoricity, they could just watch my own performance and use it as a model.
But that solution immediately suggested a concomitant problem: if the point of considering rhetoricity’s variety and ubiquity was to give students an opportunity to think about that potential differently, mightn’t offering a teacher’s rhetorical model work against that very inventional intention? Would this model really support my students’ creative thinking, or was I running the risk of getting 60 some-odd Aristotelian analyses of footwear? Put more simply, do rhetorical models help or hurt composition? I wasn’t sure.
Nor, it turns out, was the rhetorical tradition. Throughout its history, instruction in rhetoric and writing has had an ambiguous relation to the question of models. Take, for instance, the birth of the western rhetorical tradition in ancient Greece. Training in sophistic rhetoric required students to memorize models and topoi prepared and dictated by their teachers, yet this hardly resulted in compositions known for the conservative redeployment of pre-fabricated thinking. Instead, the sophists became famous (and infamous) for their ability to question established lines of thought, for extemporaneous invention, for poetic creativity and for a level word-play that rivals deconstructionists. As pedagogs the Sophists may have had conservative models, but their students produced discourse that outpaced that instruction’s limits. Roman rhetoric is no less ambiguous. Take Cicero. He argued against a subservience to ancient models in rhetorical training, but also (in a classic teacherly example of “do what I say, not what I do”) modeled his own De Oratore after Platonic and Aristotelian discourses. Renaissance rhetoric is no help either; Erasmus encourages students to cultivate a creative stylistic copia or abundance, and shows them how to do it with—you guessed it—models. Enlightenment rhetorics participated in a similar avocation of human agency and knowledge production, but often through pedagogies emphasizing repetitive practice and training.
Our contemporary pedagogies are no less mixed. In one sense, we can think of them as divisible along a line marked by expressivist pedagogy on one side and discourse communities approaches (DCAs) on the other. DCAs might be more ready to introduce students to paradigmatic models, while expressivists would abjure such standards in favor of giving students artistic independence. Yet even that division is too simple. Take, for example, a writing teacher like Geoffrey Sirc. His pedagogy certainly favors the expressivist valorization of student-centered composition, but this in no way stops Sirc from giving his students (and other composition instructors) productive models to learn from. His paradigms are the Sex Pistols, Jackson Pollack, and Tupac. His point, of course, is not to get his students to copy a pre-existent standard, but to find in these models an example of the creative courage it takes to do justice to one’s own truth, just as the Pistols, Pollack, and Pac did.
Needless to say, I’m no Jackson Pollack. I lack the Pistols’ fire and Pac’s conviction. I’m a hesitant writer at the best of times, but occasionally, usually late at night, I write a sentence or two that I am proud of. Few of these are seen beyond my laptop screen. I’ve published a couple of things, and while they are meaningful to me, I’m under no illusions about their inspirational value. Yet I still love to write and speak well. Honestly, I can’t entirely explain why, except to say that Sirc is right about how important it is for us to have opportunities to express ourselves, and to have that be the model for our composition. Sitting there at that new table, with the hiking boot on the placemat, it occurred to me that, pedagogical issues aside, I just wanted to try and say some marginally creative things about a hiking boot. And so I did. It felt good to do just do a little rhetorical analysis for the first time in this new and still slightly strange place. After defending and graduating in May, I had given myself the entire summer off from academia, but now it was time to start again and videoing myself talking boot-leather, vibram soles, and available means of persuasion--it felt good.
Clearly it wasn’t my students who needed this model, but I showed it to them anyway. I wanted them to get a better sense for what “rhetoricity” meant, but I also wanted them to see how unaccountably excited I was to try to speak creatively about my hiking boot. I don’t think I’m naive in believing such expressive enthusiasm makes a difference. It’s a model for my own writing and so perhaps it will work as a model for theirs. In any case, now it’s available to them.