Rhetoric without a Home

When I read through the discussion groups and mailing lists for composition and rhetoric scholars, it is impossible to miss the political biases of the major figures and the most vocal members of these communities. The scholarly communities I observe, and sometimes in which I attempt to participate, are focused "social justice" and various "studies" (women's, queer / LGBT, colonialism, minority).

It can require some effort to find research focused on teaching effective writing and communication. The scholars will argue that focusing on inequity and political issues is a form of advocating for new approaches to teaching. But teaching what? My colleagues have a confusing, contradictory history of arguing for "minority dialects" while also trying to teach college composition skills.

As a scholar, I want to focus on how to best communicate complex concepts. I understand we should ask "why" we teach something and what the ethical implications of our practices are, but in the end I want to be the most effective teacher of rhetoric I can be.

I understand that many of my colleagues focus on "social justice" because they feel compelled to do so. They are upper-middle-class revolutionaries, with their doctorate degrees, houses, iPads, iPhones, and double-shot venti mochas. They find themselves protesting the system in which they have found success. Are there problems to address in society? Yes. But maybe the writing or rhetoric classroom isn't the best place to begin the revolution. If you are so compelled to act, then go… take action!

"What about you?" I've been asked. "You're striving to improve the lives of your students."

Yes, I do want to improve the lives of my students and others: by teaching them to write and communicate in the world as it is. If they use those communication skills to become advocates, that's great. If they use those skills to become successful in business, that's fine with me, too. I hope they communicate honestly and ethically, but I don't seek to convert students to my political or philosophical viewpoint. Nor do I hide my views, certainly, since students can find my writings online and in print.

In my classroom, undergraduate economics, statistics, and business majors learn to write and speak more effectively. It is not my job to change business majors seeking to work in finance into Peace Corp volunteers. Not that I don't assign readings that challenge all viewpoints, but I don't view "saving souls" as my role. And yes, that does represent my underlying social philosophy, making it oddly political to be open to all student views on these matters.

When I mention that I teach "rhetoric of economics" within a business school some of my composition and rhetoric colleagues appear to be horrified. There are many underlying assumptions about what I must teach, namely the assumption that I must be actively promoting greed and some simplistic Ayn Rand social Darwinism. Sorry, but that's not what I teach.

I teach how to write about the math and models that underly economics. These are often statistical models that have nothing to do with profit and loss. I am not teaching my students that greed is good or that life is all about having the most toys.

Economics is a broad field, focused on how models of efficiency and scarcity. Economists might study how to best allocate resources, or they might study how people negotiate within personal relationships. Yes, there are economics behind love and romance: biological efficiency versus psychological efficacy.

My dean studies voting methodologies and sports scheduling. My program director studies climate change and public policy. But, rhetoricians don't understand what economists study. Rhetoric of economics? Composition and rhetoric scholars assume rhetoric of economics must involve labor or class, which is not what "economics" means. Curious that rhetoricians, who constantly defend the word "rhetoric," resist what "economics" means, reflecting the biases of some rhetorical scholars.

A colleague has suggested that I stop trying to submit papers and research to composition and rhetoric journals. Instead, focus on economics journals. Rhetoric of economics doesn't seem to have a place within rhetoric at this moment. It might, but not at the present.

My other interests are also not "trendy" within rhetoric at this moment. If I do explore the rhetoric of fiction or the rhetoric of philosophy in the future, I'll likely have to concentrate on journals that explore creative writing or philosophy, not rhetoric journals or collections. Even the "interdisciplinary" journals and collections don't seem as broadly conceived as I would hope. In the end, they reflect the biases of the scholars within rhetoric.

I already had "homes" as a creative writer. Now, I've found a home as an educator. Next, to find a home as a scholar.


  1. I can quite understand the problems you're running into -- on the one hand, the pressure to teach something "relevant", when actually teaching one's discipline provides students with much more valuable skills and knowledge -- and on the other hand, the difficulty in finding a good designation for what you're doing.

    I tend to think that one of the benefits of actually teaching one's subject well -- leaving any sort of "social justice", queer theory, et al. applications for the students to sort out themselves on their own time -- is that you help them connect with the people of the past who took the discipline seriously. You provide them with a capacity to go on and make sense out of what others already have contributed.

    1. I have thought it curious that the "great theorists" in the humanities went to the same classes and lectures as everyone else. They learned basic skills, some foundational knowledge, and then created their own specialties. When you learn music, you have to learn the scales, the basics. "Discovery" never worked well for me when learning a musical instrument.

      Teaching the basics is a good way to provide tools for later exploration. Let students create their own paths.

      The political nature of teaching gets in the way, sometimes. Teaching is, by nature, an act of advocating for students.


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