Histories and Counter-Histories

In the afterward to A Counter-History of Composition, Byron Hawk articulates several conceptual starting places for constructing a “sub/versive history,” a methodology that opens up historiography, that “moves beyond the binary designations and teleology of revisionary history to produce multiple counter-histories” (260). That is, Hawk’s interest is not to replace one history with another as a revisionist historiographer might do (i.e. Kitzhaber, Berlin, Crowley, or Connors), but to multiply histories to open up possibilities for the field that respond to exigencies of his time. As far as Hawk’s is concerned, our present time requires ecological, vitalist theories of composition. His counter-history thus revisits how vitalism has been positioned in order to create pedagogies centered on environments over specific subjectivities that develop from tactics like hermeneutics or heuristics. In other words, Hawk’s perspective on history is that it always already fulfills a rhetorical purpose.

In theory, historiography in comp/rhet has consistently acknowledged this point — in various Octologs, essays on methodologies (especially feminist ones), or in other monographs. That said, the degree to which our histories have been framed as rhetorical has varied considerably. For example, throughout Invention in Rhetoric and Composition, Janice Lauer uses four pedagogies to stress the ways scholars and practitioners have traditionally approached invention: as natural ability pedagogies, imitation pedagogies, practice pedagogies, and art pedagogies. She revisits this typology throughout Invention, but doesn’t explain how or why this lens makes the most sense for her history. Though she admits that sometimes these pedagogies are integrated, this typology is found throughout her work (see “Instructional Issues: Toward an Integration” from 1988). Lauer is certainly aware of the limits of history; she calls her approach merely “illustrative” in the face of the long historical record; but she does not imply that Invention is a work of rhetoric itself.

A more complicated example perhaps is James Berlin’s Rhetoric & Reality. Berlin uses epistemology as a terministic screen (via Burke) to identify three theories — objective, subjective, and transactional — for understanding how the field has approached college writing instruction throughout the 20th century. This method, he argues, should not read as a totality; he notes in the introduction that his “taxonomy is not meant to be taken as exhaustive of the entire field of rhetoric, but is simply an attempt to make manageable the discussion of the major rhetorics I have encountered in examining this period” (6). Here Berlin admits that his method is limiting, but still claims to offer a “true,” albeit incomplete, history. Later in the introduction, Berlin reflects on his role as the historian, that it is up to each “to make every effort to be aware of the nature of her point of view and its interpretive strategies, and to be candid about them with her reader” (17). Berlin’s interpretive strategy, then, is that epistemology is a means to interpret reality and exposes the rhetorical values of the time. This is especially important with pedagogy if, as Berlin notes, the very act of teaching is to provide “students with guidance in seeing and structuring their experience, with a set of tacit rules about distinguishing truth from falsity, reality from illusion” (7). The remainder of Rhetoric & Reality then uses these three epistemologies (objective, subjective, transactional) to structure and define how composition instruction has morphed since the 19th century.

The issue between Hawk and Berlin is not so much that Berlin wouldn’t accept alternative histories, but that he does very little to situate his history rhetorically. The problem with this, as Sharon Crowley argued in her review of the book, is that the taxonomy is “driven by its own inner compulsion.” In other words, Berlin’s emphasis on rhetoric as the search for truth precludes other important possibilities in his 100-year history. How then, does one come to terms with the rhetoric of history? What makes certain histories better than others? Or is that even the right question? After all, although Lauer and Berlin’s do not claim to understand history as rhetorical, as introductions to the field, their books are instrumental.

Hawk’s afterward sketches some of the basic concepts necessary for a counter-history; moreover, he borrows these stances from Nietzsche to describe the rhetorical use of historiography: history as monumental, antiquarian, and critical. A monumental stance offers first-run, archetypal histories, where authors sketch narratives of important figures who might inspire or persuade readers. The problem with such histories is that they are hegemonic. Hence, the antiquarian stance is a necessary revision to fill the gaps or to write entirely new narratives of the past; they “go back in history and bring up forgotten details, to remember those people and events that were pushed aside by historical forces” (261). Whereas Connors’s Composition-Rhetoric: Backgrounds, Theory, and Pedagogy might be monumental, Royster’s Traces of a Stream might be seen as antiquarian because it attempts to recover a history of African-American women that monumental histories exclude. The problem with both approaches, however, is that they tend to be positivist and reinforce the present. Critical stances, by contrast, resist determinism and “remembers only to forget” (261). According to Nietzsche, whereas monumental and antiquarian stances provide narrative accounts of history, a critical stance is fundamentally argumentative and “invents an origin in the past” (261).

One such example of a critical history might be found in Crowley’s Composition in the University, a collection of polemical essays that trace composition’s marginalized status in the academy to the universal requirement of the writing course. Arguing that the roots of the course are found (unfortunately) in the humanist imperative set by literary studies, Crowley shows how English departments have made various cases for the universal requirement based on taste, correctness, “liberal education,” personal moral and ethical development, or textual analysis. Through a variety of (counter-)historical methods in Composition — including a close reading of recent lit debates in the field and case studies like that of Norman Foerster at Iowa in the 1940s — Crowley seeks to remember to forget. That is, in the coda of Composition, she explicitly proposes to abolish the universal requirement.

The point of all these histories isn’t to choose one, but to place them in a particular context — and ultimately in dialogue with each other to do as Hawk advises, multiply histories. The field can only be better for it.