Beyond the binaries

It’s probably just a case of too much Berlin (IS there such a thing?), but I’ve become a bit burned out on “binary opposition.” And then I read Kameen’s “Rewording the Rhetoric of Composition.” There they were—more binaries. Kameen lists numerous pairs which, as he says, are “usually conceived as polar opposites rather than dialectical contraries” (4):

  • thought/feeling
  • form/content
  • process/product
  • expression/communication
  • self/audience

I think one strength of Kameen’s argument lies in his attempt to restore “a dialectical relationship among the binary concepts” (4) through the inventive power of language. Kameen invokes Coleridge’s concept of imagination to illustrate “a refreshing and rigorous alternative” (8) to these binaries.

Kameen calls on “a companionable set of dual concepts” (22) from dialectical epistemology: primary and secondary (Freud); complex thinking and conceptual thinking (Vygotsky); and logical and paleological (Arieti). What is most interesting to me is Arieti’s idea of a “tertiary process” that mediates between the two binaries. Arieti explains that “the tertiary process…blends the two worlds of mind and matter, and in many cases, the rational with the irrational. Instead of rejecting the primitive…the creative mind integrates it with normal logical processes in what seems a ‘magic’ synthesis from which the new, the unexpected, the desirable emerge” (22-3). This tertiary process makes synthesis between the two ways of knowing possible, and this, Kameen claims, is most akin to Coleridge’s “imagination.”

Reality is much more nuanced and complex than a choice between two competing binaries. Kameen’s approach was a refreshing respite from the either/or view of most theorists.

More questions than answers about Critical/Cultural Studies

Fulkerson’s article served as an important introduction to the field for me. I found it fascinating to see how much has changed in composition and how much has stayed the same since I was an undergrad in the 80s. Of greatest interest to me in this article was Fulkerson’s overview of the Critical/Cultural Studies approaches, mainly because even though I’ve been aware of the trend toward cultural studies, I had only a vague understanding of how this has impacted the English department, particularly the writing program. I’m hesitant to just jump on the Fulkerson bandwagon critiquing CCS, but I certainly have some questions about this “social turn.” Maybe you can help me out by offering an opposing viewpoint to Fulkerson or by recommending some other readings. (I imagine this topic will be revisited since it appears that Berlin is in the CCS camp.) Here are some of the questions I had after reading Fulkerson:

  1. Why has writing instruction been removed from First Year Writing (at least by CCS advocates)? It does appear that writing is not as much taught as merely expected, much as in other writing-focused courses.
  2. How is a course of the description Fulkerson provides justified as being in the English department? As he points out, the pedagogy and axiology of CCS is much akin to that of courses in the departments of history, sociology, anthropology, or environmental science (661).
  3. What has happened to learner needs and expectations? If students are interested in exploring these ideas, plenty of avenues exist for this in other departments (see #2). As Durst discovered, what students—those “career-oriented pragmatists”—expect from a writing course is “dramatically at odds with the views and approaches of the teacher” (664). Do students’ goals (career and otherwise) have a place in the curriculum?
  4. Aren’t those who are insisting that writing courses must teach resistance to hegemonic discourse in fact practicing a form of hegemony? Fulkerson points out that the texts for examination in the CCS course are those “judged important by the teacher” (662) and that assessment of student writing amounts to judging how well the student has reflected the teacher’s views (“contemporary mimeticism”) (663). With only one perspective represented in readings and with the balance of power clearly still in favor of the professor thanks to his/her greater knowledge and ability to dispense grades, it seems that the ideal of the democratic classroom has been supplanted by further hegemony. Or is this just Fulkerson’s anti-CCS bias?
  5. Is the purpose of FYW to teach values? I laughed when I read Durst’s account of the angst of the first-year teaching assistants lamenting that their students didn’t listen to NPR or read the Atlantic Monthly, but I was frankly astounded when I read of their struggles to define their goals: “Was the goal to teach them better values or better writing or both?” (664) Who exactly is it that decides what these “better values” are?

Although I’ve centered on the CCS aspects of this article, the other areas of focus in Fulkerson’s article were equally intriguing to me, and I look forward to reading others’ blog posts about them. The disunity within the discipline of composition as Fulkerson outlined left me troubled and realizing that with such a lack of consensus, it is more critical than ever that someone wanting to teaching composition have a clear view of the competing composition theories and be able to articulate his/her own theory.

The representative anecdote and heuristics

Ross Winterowd’s “Dramatism in Themes and Poems” provided an “aha” moment for me about why dramatism is so named—it’s about actors (agents), scenes, acts, purposes, agency: basically, all the elements of great drama (and any story) apply to rhetoric as well. It is this perspective of rhetoric as drama that provides what I think is a promising approach to infusing composition with life.

Winterowd points out that Burke’s technical definition of drama is “representative anecdote,” which can be defined in two ways, either “appropriate examples/support” or “conceptual pivot” (enthymeme, thesis, topic sentence, theme). And it is following from this point, Winterowd asserts, that Burke started a “revolution” (582), although be it one that has gone largely unnoticed (584).  Aristotle, of course, elevated the enthymeme as the “most effective among various forms of persuasion” (584), and it has reigned as the quintessence of logic throughout Western history. Burke, on the other hand, took the other course, developing the dramatistic conception of synecdoche (representative anecdote) as conceptual pivot (583).

This development—argument through synecdoche—is not an either/or proposition: “Burke is telling us that we progress not only via enthymemes (logical proposition), but also, importantly, via synecdoches (representative anecdotes)….Humans live not by enthymemes (theses, topic sentences) alone” (582, emphasis mine). Aristotle is not negated, merely supplemented.

Aristotle did address both the deductive argument (based on the enthymeme) and the inductive argument (based on the example), Winterowd reminds us, but Burke’s conception of argument by example differs significantly from Aristotle’s. An example in Aristotle’s paradigm is one of two samples that are classified under a particular genus. For Burke, dramatism as representative anecdote involves synecdoches, i.e., reasoning from part to whole, which Aristotle specifically rejected (587).

Both Aristotelian and Burkean arguments point to an overarching idea or point—the deductive to the enthymeme and the representative anecdote to “the terminological structure that is evolved in conformity with it.” Thankfully Winterowd provides his reader with a translation: this can also be called the “paradigm” or “prototype” (587). Winterowd provides research that demonstrates that readers seek enthymematic generalities (Kintsch and van Dijk, 584), which would seem to disadvantage Burke’s dramatism, but as Winterowd quips, “The great disadvantage of the representative anecdote is that it does not lead readily to the closure of an enthymeme. Its great advantage is that is does not force such closure” (588).

Winterowd suggests four implications for this understanding of appositional style, a term borrowed from hemispheric specialization research by Joseph Bogen (586). I’ll briefly discuss two. He suggests that high school and college writing teachers should respect the appositional styles of the students who prefer this means of expression, which, while a laudatory pedagogical goal, as Ron pointed out, may be more practical in the humanities than in technical disciplines. His second implication, though, I felt was of use to students in many disciplines—Winterowd says that the representative anecdote “is marvelously heuristic,” a way to “build an understanding of the world.” Whether the final product is presented in an enthematic or dramatistic manner, using the representative anecdote could provide students with an effective means of generating content, and one that uses a way of thinking that some students may find more natural.