Saturday, March 08, 2008

Department Names Matter

When I moved from California to Minnesota, I was part of the Department of Rhetoric. During the year it was decided that Rhetoric, the Writing Center, and the General College would merge into something called the Department of Writing Studies.

This week, three professors from what was the Dept. of Rhetoric have announced they will join other departments, the Dept. of Communications in particular. Among the departures are two of the better-known faculty from our previous incarnation as Rhetoric. With them, so goes some of what made the program special. (There is an National Communication Association, to which most of these faculty belong.)

I believe in classical rhetoric as a way to introduce communications to students. The Aristotelian, Platonic, and Sophist skills and knowledge still matter when analyzing human discourse, even as I argue for moving beyond the triad of ethos, pathos, and logos. I also believe “Rhetoric of (fill in the blank)” starts to suffer the same degradation we have seen in “(fill in the blank) Studies” programs.

With a desire to embrace classical rhetoric as a starting point, I also believe we need to illustrate that speech and text are related. This is why teaching public speaking within rhetoric was logical. It is also why a “Dept. of Communications” begins to look like a reasonable location for “rhetoricians” and those whose studies are grounded in classical rhetoric.

I am not a theorist looking to apply “rhetoric” to everything humans do. Instead, I am in favor of teaching and exploring the practical applications of rhetorical skills. The “rhetoric of science” doesn't appeal to me because it begins to degenerate into debates about “what is truth” and gets lost in a post-modern ludicrousness that would be funny if it weren't so wasteful of the academy.

While rhetoric can be applied to speech, writing, and even visual media, I do not accept the idea that “writing” means every form of human composition. If anything, there is a stronger argument for Composition and Rhetoric than Writing Studies as a home for students of rhetoric. Writing Studies might be a logical home for members of the Association of Teaching of Technical Writing… but I do not want a career teaching either technical or academic writing.

I study computers, software, the Internet and special needs education. I include creative writing and academic writing in what I want to teach, from poetry to basic term papers. Working with autistic students, non-native speakers, and others is not about teaching a particular form of writing. I don't care what the students start writing — it is about them learning to express their ideas, regardless of form.
It is definitely not about teaching in a First Year Composition (FYC) Program, which is which many universities do have. I would rather be in a creative writing program, as a teacher, than anything emphasizing the academic.

I ended up in “Rhetoric” because that is where the Online Writing Lab (OWL) was housed. I want to explore using technology, any technology, to help students write. It simply happened that technology was in the Dept. of Rhetoric, along with some of the best theorists and researchers.

Names do matter. Writing Studies, even while claiming everything is a text, is about writing academic papers. It is not about creative non-fiction, poetry, or public speaking. It is not about traditional rhetoric. It is not about anything more than improving how students writer papers for other academic courses. Writing Studies is a department that serves the demands of other departments…


This is not were some of the best online education and technology theorists belong, but it is where they are now. I am now in a department that “services” external forces. Something to write about, I suppose.

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