Stop Using Rhetoric to Teach Writing

It's time to question an increasingly popular way to organize a key part of undergraduate education, writes Joseph Kugelmass.

December 23, 2008

"Say what you will about the tenets of National Socialism, dude, at least it’s an ethos."
-- The Big Lebowski

After almost five years teaching writing, English, ESL, and humanities courses to high school students and undergraduates, I have come to the conclusion that it is a serious mistake to ground undergraduate instruction in writing in the basics of Aristotelian rhetoric. I believe doing so is increasingly common, and that it is increasingly normal for universities to reframe composition jobs as being in “rhetoric and composition.”

This is a discussion somewhat rooted in the practicalities of teaching first-year undergraduates to write, but it has much broader implications. It is part of a larger conversation about what, exactly, the humanities are supposed to mean at a historical moment when college-level reading and writing skills are quite valuable, yet also when the political and economic conditions put “anti-ideological” pressure on institutions of higher learning. In other words, universities increasingly see themselves as preparing students to write fluently on any topic, from any perspective.

This is not the “end” of ideological instruction, naturally, since its final consequence is to encourage students to write for the highest bidder, making every young writer into a copy writer. But it is worth examining how rhetorically themed instruction in writing -- especially in ethos, pathos, and logos -- arose as a natural way of resolving political conflicts between Western institutions, and to consider the consequences of this paradigm shift for our students. My objection is not merely political; it is also pedagogical, since "rhetoric and composition" forecloses many other valuable ways of teaching reading and writing.

How Critical Thinking Evolved Into Rhetoric

From the middle of the last century until fairly recently, the idea that the purpose of undergraduate education is to foster “critical thinking” has had a virtual monopoly in both academic and popular circles. This goal has been institutionalized around the globe, wherever students are tested on "critical reasoning" skills.

It is an answer I myself have given on many occasions, and it holds up well for an old chestnut. It is a difficult code to enforce in a humanities classroom. It is a concept best suited to the inspection of evidence. Education researcher Lion Gardiner described critical reasoning as "the capacity to evaluate skillfully and fairly the quality of evidence and detect error, hypocrisy, manipulation, dissembling, and bias." Unfortunately, presented with something like a Max Ernst painting or a Martin Luther King speech, students will be hard-pressed to find error, hypocrisy, or bias. Critical reasoning will not help them to “unpack” the text, as we say in the humanities, though it may help when they are called upon to construct a rigorous argument.

Equally important, critical reasoning is pushed to its limits by contemporary culture and politics. Perhaps the greatest exemplar and champion of critical reasoning was Theodor Adorno, who was driven by his own feeling of integrity to extreme positions of dissent and hysterical rejections of popular culture. What are we to tell students about critical reasoning when the president and his cabinet simply lie about Iraq in order to drum up popular support for a war? If you watch one hour of television programming, you see about 20 minutes of advertising, all of which is likely contaminated with “error, hypocrisy, manipulation, dissembling, and bias.” While Westerners have invented all sorts of defenses against this assault on reason, they are leaky dams at best; most of us simply cannot keep track of every sort of irrational appeal we are simultaneously trying to ignore, or ridicule, or protest against, or embrace in the name of glamor or kitsch.

Teaching a class too much in this mode produces an unhappily smug series of field trips through “our stupid popular culture,” “our stupid political landscape,” and so on, along with the depressing feeling that nobody, the instructor included, will follow through in practice on the overwhelmingly negative evaluations of culture that the “critical thinking” method produces.

Rhetoric solved many of these problems by giving critical thinking a positive, broadly applicable core; rather than merely giving students a way to filter out misinformation, we were empowering them to persuade audiences. All of a sudden, a speech by Martin Luther King that had been almost unreadable (was King giving us good evidence about the lives of African-Americans or not?) became full of content, now that we were seeing it through Aristotle’s Big Three: ethos, pathos, and logos.

Furthermore, the rhetorical approach seemed to resolve the increasingly tense problem of what students ought to be reading or otherwise studying. There were visual and auditory rhetorics earning the attention of scholars in every field; in fact, anything that had an audience apparently had a rhetoric, so you could finally teach pop culture alongside of canonical literature without drearily insisting that pop culture was lies, damn lies, and false advertising. You could seamlessly blend new media into traditional writing curriculums, which was good since students had less stomach for reading, less training in it, and more of an appetite for mixed media or short pieces. Overall, the rhetorical approach tended to produce surprisingly positive evaluations of, well, just about everything, because rhetoric became a pleasure in and of itself: the film Thank You For Smoking is a product of the New Age of Rhetoric, where even a cigarette ad can be the object of much grudging classroom admiration. If an audience liked it or was influenced by it, you were hard-pressed to say, as a detached rhetorician, that the audience was wrong.

The Politics of Teaching Rhetoric

In addition to substituting something more agreeable for the relentlessly negative core of the “critical thinking” curriculum, rhetoric solved an urgent political problem: how institutions of higher education were supposed to weather the Bush years without being relentlessly punished for “extreme” political leanings. After 9/11, when David Horowitz’s star was on the rise, the Congress was majority Republican, governorships were going Republican all over the country, and Dubya had consolidated his popular base, there was a feeling among academics that blindly going forward with some version of leftist theory was simply irresponsible. Doing so created easy targets for Horowitz and his kind, and excluded professors from thrilling conversations about how the Internet could foster a better, more sustainable, more user-driven global market and global culture.

Many academics, abandoning the radical politics of theory, began to talk and write as though they were trying out for a new edition of The Best and the Brightest — as though they were the cabinet advisors to some non-existent moderate Democratic administration, presumably run by Martin Sheen. I remember being dumbfounded when a famous interpreter of the Frankfurt School (a group of philosophers that included Adorno), coming to give a talk at UC Irvine, chucked all that critical nonsense about dialectics to discuss how Bush could have done better at international diplomacy. This was also the period, you may remember, when the American right pushed the hardest for “balanced” course readers and syllabi. It was the second coming of the Intelligent Design movement. All across the country, TAs and adjuncts murmured to each other about how to teach critical thinking without “silencing” conservative perspectives.

Of course, looking back, the post-Clinton years seem like some kind of bad dream, an epiphenomenon that has now been brought to an end by Obama’s election. That may be true at the highest levels of American government, but institutional changes within the academy do not reverse themselves so quickly, particularly when a whole generation of graduate students is trained under a certain politically ambivalent model. Rhetoric, which was already prominent for the reasons I mentioned earlier, easily adapted itself to this environment by simultaneously avowing its neutrality (let’s analyze a speech by George W. Bush!) and promising a sort of sideways “rhetorical critique” that would lead students to the truth. In theory, you could show students that Bush’s speeches used all kinds of logical fallacies in order to divide the word along axes of good and evil, or that his rhetoric was inconsistent in its appeals and therefore untrustworthy.

In reality, however, teachers tended to fall back on dogma whenever they tried to perform a rhetorical critique of politically successful discourse. For example, if you wanted to prove that George Bush presented an overly polarized picture of nations and human beings, you had to invoke your own personal theory that out there, in the real world that transcends discourse, things weren’t so “black and white.” Or, in a different example, you might have to just announce that most scientists believe in evolution or global warming, thus giving your students the “right answer” independent of audience or Aristotle’s categories of appeals.

Students will, of course, dutifully reproduce this kind of information in the essays they submit, but the frame created by the focus on rhetoric makes such information look like bias. Hanging over every discussion is the idea that all perspectives contain bias, or the equivalent idea that everyone has a valid belief. This relativism is inherent to rhetoric itself, when it is isolated as a field of study. It is something that Aristotle narrowly avoided by simply announcing that his essentially technical discourses on rhetoric were subordinate to truth, and that only truthful orators could use rhetoric rightfully. His important corollary has been lost in the contemporary revival of ethos, pathos, and logos. If everyone is right, or everyone is biased, then alliances, not truths, are the highest values.

It may seem strange to talk about evolution or global warming or geopolitics period in this context. After all, our subject is writing courses, which are taught mostly by people with apolitical degrees (English, history, philosophy, etc.). In high school there is a much sharper delineation between English or language arts, which covers literature, expository writing, and creative writing, and other classes that cover recent history or introductory political science. Well, it is strange. The centrist politicizing of the writing classroom is not especially helpful to students, who are neither challenged politically nor pushed as hard as they could be as writers. The political focus is simply the result of the growing power of composition as a discipline, a discipline that blindly attempts to separate writing from literature, and that justifies itself intellectually by citing the supposed political value of rhetorical analysis.

Teaching Them What They Already Know: Composition and Literature

Most people have, within certain familiar realms, a very sophisticated, intuitive understanding of rhetorical strategy. Teenagers know how to shift from one vocabulary to another, depending on audience, and sound completely different in their essays than they do in casual conversation or on IM programs. They have different ways of speaking to parents and friends, and they work hard on crafting online and offline persona that others will find appealing. One of the gratifying things about teaching rhetoric is that students “get it” right away, because it relates to certain fundamental social skills. Thus, when a class works together on a rhetorical analysis, students often manage to rapidly produce useful observations. This is especially true when they are dealing with something comfortable, like a scene from a movie.

Less discussed, though, is the fact that students “get” rhetoric (and we find it easy to teach) because it follows an intersubjective logic similar to that of capital. Rhetoric goes hand-in-hand with advertising, the dominant language of contemporary desire. Students find themselves growing up in a world where demographics — audiences — are created out of thin air by advertising in its various forms, and where mass production aligns itself to the desires of a consumer audience. Furthermore, rhetorical analysis is dissociative: Anyone who has tried to teach ethos, pathos, and logos as operations to be performed on a text knows how students arbitrarily divide the text up into “emotional” sections and “argumentative” sections, even though such divisions are rarely defensible.

This is not the students’ fault, as we send them gunning for whatever holism a text possesses. The lysis of the text feels oddly familiar, though, because contemporary culture is similarly dissociative. Logic is the calculated process of competition and oppression, emotion is the catharsis of sentimentality, and personality is likability; to put the matter crudely, ethos, pathos, and logos correspond to the capitalist triptych of the advertiser (the “front man”), the consumer, and the accountant.

Holism is not always wanted. There are times when ad hoc writing is the most logical response to a particular situation, and there is also a place for the modest ambitions of, say, a humor column. Nonetheless, I believe that teachers of writing ought to see it as their particular mission to teach holism, particularly as it manifests in the peculiar written technologies of literature and longer creative nonfiction. In short, our mission is to teach English, not composition or writing, regardless of what our students choose for their major.

Literature tends to be de-emphasized in composition courses because it is hard to abstract arguments from it, impossible to put your finger on the “speaker’s ethos,” and tough to separate the emotional resonances from the ideas. Even earlier works of non-fiction are less invested in ethos: I taught both Joseph Mitchell and Chuck Klosterman this year, and found that Klosterman but not Mitchell can be easily analyzed for ethos. Klosterman is a 21st century writer, eager to tell you about what he bought at the Gap or how he seduced a woman in Michigan. Mitchell, on the other hand, writes “I caught up with Joe Gould…”, and then writes about Gould, not himself. Over the course of a whole book like Women In Love, we certainly get a sense of something like the breadth of D. H. Lawrence’s personality, but always indirectly, mediated as it is by plot, character, setting, and all the conventions of fiction.

The same problem recurs with studies of literature’s audiences; especially in 2008, trying to discuss the “audience” of Jane Austen is frequently unhelpful. The people Austen was ostensibly writing “for” did not include Edward Said, but by now Said is an important part of any discussion about Austen. There are texts that are heavily determined by (and determining of) audience, and others that are not. There are historical claims to be made about literature’s audiences, but these claims never exhaust the work itself.

There is a great deal of general anxiety among teachers that students will not read big books, particularly big books that aren’t anthologies. This premonition is very often correct; over the course of my life, I have been assigned a lot of big books that I didn’t finish. Nonetheless, by setting the bar high, we get more from students than we otherwise would. The big problem occurs when the alternative, having students write about short opinion pieces and pop culture, gets so entrenched that instruction in writing becomes completely generalized, indistinguishable from the incidental flow of words that fills up the day. It is true that other artistic forms are just as holistic as literature, but unfortunately they do not simultaneously teach writing. That is why writing curricula must emphasize longer texts, and why universities must take a more enlightened view of how undergraduate instruction in English will translate into real-world skills.

At first glance, it seems useless to have engineers or business majors practicing creative writing or analyzing literary form and content. Yet this training is exactly what will make them imaginative, subtle, and compassionate writers. Without such practice, they will be competent, but not compelling. A mixed approach, focusing on literature, serious creative non-fiction, and criticism, with rhetoric as a useful but limited subcategory, will give students the horizon they need to excel as writers, regardless of what kind of writing they eventually do. The field of rhetoric ought to remain a discipline in its own right, instead of becoming simply another word for using language, and as a discipline it is not broad enough to cover all the moments of aesthetic discovery and delight that initiate students into the writer’s world.

That kind of mixed curriculum in today’s academic environment requires immense dedication on the part of students, and it means leaving enough room in student schedules so that they can puzzle over long and unfamiliar texts. Out of discussions of character and circumstance, real conversations about situational ethics and diverse viewpoints can take place, on a far more sophisticated level than discussions of rhetorical efficacy that boil down to relativism. Society can be judged complexly; it does not need to automatically be scolded in the name of “critical reasoning,” or praised because it runs on rhetoric. Out of the intricacies of narration, criticism, and poetics, a conversation about style can take place that allows students to discover authorial voice and to take a writerly approach to individuality that goes infinitely beyond Bush’s “cowboy” schtick. Finally, the classroom can be a place where a felt response to imaginary circumstances prepares students for a world in which they will frequently have to make ethical decisions whose implications go far beyond anything they can directly see or experience.

Such courses seldom reflect what undergraduates “already do” every day, and success will be a struggle for them. It is probably not what they already know, but I fully believe it is what they hope to learn.


Joseph Kugelmass is a graduate student at the University of California, Irvine. During the summer, he teaches ESL and SAT Prep at Phillips Academy, in Andover, Mass. He is a co-editor and contributor for The Valve, and also blogs at The Kugelmass Episodes.


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