Passing the major exam: a final reflection on the process

As you could guess from the title, I passed my major exam. After a summer filled with anxious blogging about my studying process and some admittedly uneven discussions of the texts themselves, I have to say that the actual writing of the exams went fairly smoothly. By the time I wrote the final exam, I was truly ready, taking way too many notes on actual and potential source texts. In that sense, the best part of this process is that I now feel prepared to move on to the minor exam, which is essentially a pre-dissertation boot camp — except way more fun. Before I discuss that, at the risk of sounding arrogant, I just want to recapture some of the reasons why I think I got through this phase as smoothly as I did:

  • I minimized my professional obligations. This summer I was lucky to receive a grant to develop a course for Spring 2014, so I didn’t have to leave the house to teach or meet much with anyone regularly on campus. Aside from this, my only true obligation was prepping for exams.
  • As a family, we prioritized my studying. We hired a babysitter for the kids while E. taught Summer Start in the mornings. Although it was really difficult listening to them play around the house and in the yard all morning, this gave me 4-5 hours of (granted, often interrupted) study time per day — which was necessary, but not so much time that I screwed around. I owe so much to E. for making this happen.
  • I was flexible with my reading. I went into the summer thinking I’d try to tackle every piece on the list to some extent, but what ended up happening was more modest. Truthfully, I simply prioritized monographs that I hadn’t read before; I ended up reading those thoroughly and (surprisingly) drawing on them extensively in my actual exams. And when I got bogged down with a really difficult text, like Grammar of Motives, I backed off and reminded myself of the overall goal. I skimmed the anthologies but when it came to actually writing the exam, I searched them carefully for potentially relevant arguments for the task at hand. For example, when my first exam asked me to assess Berlin’s influence on the field, I searched each anthology for instances where Rhetoric and Reality or words like historiography were mentioned.
  • I consistently reflected on my study process. Because time felt like the only enemy this summer, it was crucial that I developed — and then constantly reassessed — strategies for studying. At first I thought print notes made sense, but I quickly realized this was slowing me down too much. I also now feel quite silly for trying to write my own exam questions. The practice exam also showed me how much time a week really provides for the task. I needed to know a few core books really, really well (for me they were Hawk’s Counter-History, Berkenktotter and Huckin’s Genre Knowledge, Berlin’s Rhetoric and Reality, and Horner et al’s recent collection Cross-Language Relations in Composition). Then I needed to be able to map the others. In this way, skimming all the texts and reviews the first week of studying made a lot of sense.

Now that it’s over, I get to focus on Parts Two and Three, which include a annotated bib of 25 books and a publishable article. I met with some potential advisors last week who offered some wonderful, thoughtful and qualified advice on thinking about this important in-between phase. Basically, while I have an article in mind, I’m going to concentrate on balancing the bibliography while prepping for two national conference presentations in the spring, with hopes that the article and one or two diss chapters will organically evolve from that work. So far I have some promising leads on ways of looking at zines and sociocultural theories of process. One of the fundamental questions I’m thinking of asking at this point is: How and where have zine writers learned to do what they do? Where or how did they learn how to compose, participate, and circulate their work? How does their learning continue and what are its implications for importing a DIY ethos in to the composition classroom?

In short, this moment feels as pivotal as it should: full of anxiety, excitement, and all sort of possibility.

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.

Inventing Invention: Anticipating the Exam Question(s)

After spending all of last week (and this weekend) reading four books on the exam list I haven’t engaged much previously, I’ve completed most of the books that could be tagged as composition “histories”:

Berlin, James A. Rhetoric and Reality: Writing Instruction in American Colleges, 1900 – 1985. Southern Illinois University Press, 1987. Print.

Crowley, Sharon. Composition in the University: Historical and Polemical Essays. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1998. Print.

Hawk, Byron. A Counter-History of Composition: Toward Methodologies of Complexity. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2007. Print.

Lauer, Janice M. Invention in Rhetoric and Composition. Annotated edition. West Lafayette: Parlor Press, 2004. Print.

As I mentioned before, I was trying to read across texts more than within categories, but I started with histories because (1) this would give me a fuller context of the field, and (2) these four books are actually more than histories — they’re an amalgamation of that plus theory and methodologies, and include key discussions of ancient rhetoric, technology, and above all, pedagogy. Hawk’s Counter-History, for example, uses a postmodern, historiographical methodology to revisit the concept of vitalism — an ontological philosophy that can be traced to Aristotle — in order to open up the possibilities for new pedagogies that respond  to contemporary digital technologies. Although Lauer’s Invention is primarily a straightforward history of the canon, she provides numerous sections on pedagogy, a few on technology, and throughout the book discusses various methodologies that have been used to study invention.

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Pages from my Muji notebook

Before I begin to synthesize these texts more fully, I want to consider how best to do that. But first let me reassess how I’ve been reading this week, which has tested some of Adler’s methods that I blogged about two weeks ago. First, I’ve started reading each time with Adler’s inspectional method — reading reviews of the books, skimming TOCs and indexes, and in most cases, reading important chapters analytically while inspecting the others (there’s no way I could have read Hawk’s book analytically in full). As I read, I’ve been taking printed notes in one of my nifty Muji notebooks, mostly to try to internalize the info. My hope is that this blog is the final step and will do the real work in preparing for the exam — forcing me to arrange the arguments, methods, and evidence from the books on the list to make strong arguments about the field as a whole. This raises a few fundamental questions for me:

  • How many books should be discussed per post? Incorporating more books in a post (as opposed to individual summaries) would better approximate the requirements of the exam, but waiting to a week to write a post leads to fewer posts (and less writing practice overall).
  • How much summary should I work toward? In other words, what’s the goal of the post? Writing solid summaries are important (and could help me once I am actually writing the exam), but as I discovered from practice exams, I tend to dedicate too much space to it in my responses. Pushing efficient synthesis would be better practice for late July.
  • Perhaps the hardest question is this: what should I write about? In other words, how should I select topics or arguments to blog about as I synthesize? In response to this question, I’ve decided to do something Hawk advocates we teach our own students: to develop our own heuristics depending on our goals. I’m appropriating him here, but I think part of the point of the exam process is anticipating the questions. What conversations are being sustained in composition and rhetoric? What are our fundamental problems? What questions make sense across programs and subfields? What evidence is valued? What is our tradition?

In that spirit, I spent some time yesterday afternoon reading back through my print notes and coming up with some possibilities. I offer a few here; I’ll answer one of these in a subsequent post today or tomorrow. One last thought: I think this method is working well except for one notable drawback: I’m already behind schedule. According to my exam prep calendar, I was supposed to be rereading Cintron’s Angels Town today — and I’ve already skipped over Berkenkotter & Huckin’s Genre Knowledge in Disciplinary Communication. I’ll make up this work somehow, but this already tells me the process is too slow.

  • Lauer’s history in Invention in Rhetoric and Composition ends around 2003 — just before new media and digital writing have arguably dominated the field’s conversations on invention. How can Hawk’s Counter-History be read as a continuation of some of the major strands of Lauer’s history? How could it be read as a critique of her history?
  • Berlin, Crowley, Hawk, and Lauer each frame the rhetorical situation differently. It is essential to Berlin’s three theories of rhetoric (objective, subjective, and transactional); it’s used by Lauer to trace epistemic manifestations of invention; it’s briefly taken up by Crowley to discredit the stability of the academic essay (and hence the universal requirement for FYC); and finally, it is critiqued most explicitly by Hawk as being too static. Evaluate these positions and ultimately make a case for the 21st century conception of the rhetorical situation.
  • These four books each try to come to terms with composition’s past, but do so using various historiographical methods — and for specific purposes. Make these purposes explicit and explain the extent to which their various methodologies succeed or fail to meet them.
  • Invention, according to Lauer, was largely ignored in the first half of the 20th century because current traditional pedagogies assumed it couldn’t be taught. Hawk’s book, then, could be read as a response to the way this schism affected subsequent histories of invention and, thus, precludes an understanding of its uses for the 21st century. Explain the extent to which Hawk’s critique of Berlin supports this perspective.

Intro to histories of rhetoric: readings

Predictably enough, I approached the six readings for 5/24 in the order they were listed in the syllabus. As I was reading each piece, I kept wondering how the ordering of these texts would influence my initial understandings of rhetoric’s history — how they would add up to my initial metahistory – especially since I know next to nothing about classical rhetoric or historiography. And now that I’m done with the set, there’s no doubt that a rereading of all would shift my “horizon of expectation” (to borrow from Jauss). As I reflected on each piece, it seemed a bit strange to me that the first four readings – Kellner, Atwill, Berlin, and Schlib – seemed less accessible than Enos and White. But after finishing White, I think I’m starting to understand why.

In White’s 1978 seminal essay, he argues that histories are “verbal fictions” that use a process he calls “emplotment” to string together stories from individual facts (that I assume are less contestable or at least already subsumed into the collective consciousness of the culture to which it speaks). These stories (or “chronicles”) conform, however, to “specific kinds of plot structures,” akin to archetypes through the use of narrative tropes – metaphor, irony, metonymy, and synecdoche – in order to refamiliarize history for its readers so that they might understand traumatic events and, in turn, “make sense of [their] own life-histories.”

[If I can accurately relate this to my own experience with these readings, it would mean that since I did not have a strong history (narrative) from which to build (to refamiliarize), it would make sense why I would be frustrated by these other theorists. Without some device (call it schema, metonymy, etc.) to recall some kind of history, it’s awfully difficult to incorporate it into your own perspective. OR maybe that’s what makes the others strong – they avoid narrative through theory and therefore rewrite history through that genre? I don’t know…]

While it seems that although Enos and White are both dissatisfied with the quality of contemporary historical scholarship, they disagree on the reasons. Whereas White argues that it is not literary enough, Enos believes that it’s too literary, basing most its data on secondary texts. According to Enos scholars should be more concerned with basic/primary research – archival and field work, translations, actual digs in Greece, etc. – rather than “eliciting a reaction to secondary sources.” While Enos makes it clear that he’s not against criticism, he’s concerned about those texts working “independently from basic research and existing as ends in themselves.” At stake, he believes, is the history of rhetoric, which is dramatically captured in the last few lines of his article. Of course, the problem with the argument is one of traditional definitions – an issue indirectly called out by the texts five years earlier (I think?) in Writing Histories of Rhetorics. Specifically, what does “history” and “rhetoric” even mean? (Sigh.)

The weakness with Enos, however, is also his strength. And what I found strong (and personally relieving) about both the White and Enos texts is that they were more accessible because they offered an explicit methodology on how to approach histories. Though their ideas seemed incompatible, I at least felt that if I were to undertake a research project under their supervision, they’d tell me what I’d need to do. On the other hand, with Kellner, Atwill, Berlin, and Schlib, I felt lost in the postmodern slipperiness. Anyway, here’s a quick breakdown of those:

Kellner raises essential questions about the difference between history and rhetoric, admitting both terms “exhibit an endlessly bewildering double nature.” He goes on to argue that the textbook in which his article is being anthologized – and the textbook for many of these texts (Writing Histories of Rhetorics) – is actually “a struggle for power over the discourse.” He then characterizes some of the authors and the editor through a parable centered on a mother’s death. In the end, however, his point is to privilege rhetoric since its tradition is the “strand of meaning” formed by the historian. As he says in the last paragraph, “you are rhetoricians first.”

Berlin seems to agree with Kellner’s view when he argues, “the formulation of rhetoric is a product of the economic, social, and political conditions of a specific historical moment” and therefore histories will change as rhetorics change. Rhetoric is never unified and that we always already have a plurality of rhetorics. Berlin then offers a vague historiographic method that challenges all totalistic, grand historical narratives that builds off of Lyotard. I had trouble figuring out how his call for self-reflection would be used.

Both Atwill and Schilb take a more taxonomic approach to the history of rhetoric. Atwill uses Lyotard and Barbara Smith to sketch what she sees as three genres of history writing: semantic, pragmatic, and syntactic. Her purpose is to generate more terms that will help explain the “signifying functions” of history that take place in the present. Schilb, on the other hand, categorizes different anxieties historians face whenever they are charged to write a history of rhetoric. Each of the five anxieties evoked – taxomania (ironically?), espistemologia, canonia, Brumairism, and heterophobia – “reduces the complexity … we should pursue” as historiographers and we should, therefore, call them out.