As every piece of data seems to further establish the growing wealth disparity within the United States (and globally), Composition as a field, a pedagogy, and a set of ethical commitments seems a bit at a loss. Now a full fledged discipline, Composition currently engages in a commitment to public rhetoric that leaves behind many of the advocacy practices which first pushed it’s presence into the modern university. We are “public rhetoricians;” not politicized rhetoricians. We teach the public sphere, we do not change it. And the arguments which push such a stance continue to gain increased nuanced and visibility in the field.
Case in point: Recently Brian Gogan has published an article in C’s re-invigorating the “letter to the editor” assignment (“Expanding the Aims of Public Rhetoric and Writing Pedagogy: Writing Letters to the Editor,” June 2014). In a nuanced and carefully argued essay, Googan establishes that it is not the assignment itself which is flawed, but the pedagogical framework in which it exists. A framework that promises too much while simultaneously asks too little of the students. The “letter,” that is, asks students to imagine a theory of change that overestimates the power of any one piece of discourse and, in doing so, teaches them little about the way public discourse exists within an ecology. To that end, Coogan asks us to understand the assignment as a moment where students can come to understand how discourse calls an audience into being, providing them a sense of rhetorical agency, as well as how that agency exists within a complex ecology where the results of that discursive call are difficult to measure. So the student who has her letter published in a newspaper, through on-line responses, has helped to create a new, albeit small, public. Similarly, the student whose letter was not published, still gained the insight into discourse is used to hail forth a new public. And given the complexity of any ecological discursive system, which the students have studied in relationship to their issue, both can have some sense that they have altered the discursive terrain within which their letter existed. And although Gogan does not provide a sense of how to estimate such change, such a conclusion seem intuitively true.
What is interesting about such arguments on how to educate students to understand their public role – and Gogan’s is clearly a strong version of this argument – is that the student is not asked to assess the change that their writing might have produced within the context of other change models. The “letter to the editor” is part of a complex ecology of change, but such “letters” need to be understood within other strategies – such as mass protest, non-profit advocacy, legislative campaigns. By reducing public writing to letters, with the impact of such letters essentially unknowable within a particular ecology, our field seems to want to imagine this discursive insight is the limits of our pedagogical mission. It seems to relieve the pressure to teach additional models of change to our students as part of any public rhetoric project.
And while I agree with Gogan that our field too often equates “the streets” with the “real,” I also believe that if we are going to have them write to editors, we also need to have students take part in other forms of discursive public work that move beyond individual efforts. That is, we need to teach them other strategies which link the written word more directly to collective action, to attempts to create a strategic intervention in ecologies of power. Indeed, it is the continued absence of a need to teach collective action (Welch and Wilkey excepted) which marks the current state of our self described public role, our politics.
Individual insight trumps collective vision.
At such moments, I have to wonder what those advocates, the Smithermans, Villanuevas, and others would say about how we have built upon the heritage of their hard work. I’m afraid we will too often be found wanting.