Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Rhetoric and the Public Sphere

Rhetoric and the Public Sphere

The readings for my blog post are Mike Rose’s “Writing for the Public” and Jenkins, Chapter Nine: “Blog This!”

When we had our class discussion about House of Leaves, we wondered as a group if Danielewski was mocking academia with his extensive footnotes. I believe it was Ian who mentioned that academic language is often so dense, it excludes non-academics.

Back in my undergraduate years, I took a difficult class that was devoted to the works on John Keats. I wrote this hifalutin essay, connecting Keats’ medical background to his nature poetry. I thought I was pretty fancy. Upon receiving an A from a professor that I admire, I brought the paper to my Dad, who said he was proud of me, and sat down to read it.

He said, “I can’t read this.”

I didn’t believe him. How could he not get it? The man is no dummy, and he went to college himself. I asked him why.

“I understand the words individually,” he said, “but I can’t really make any meaning out of what you’re trying to say.” He added hopefully, “I’m glad you got an A!”

This brings us to Mike Rose, an academic troubled by the “linguistic bubble of our specialties.” Not only does academic writing pose problems for pedestrian access, as in the case of my outsider father, it also creates problems in journalism when non-academics use the sexy and “edgy” language to make their polemic point. Rose believes rhetoric is going to save academic writing from extinction, and offers two of his graduate courses and the start of a solution. As someone who would love to structure a freshman composition class around rhetoric, this is music to my ears.

In the class where I am a TA, the first round of papers was a disaster. One of the suggestions I gave my students was to read their paper out loud as part of the proofreading process. I’m sure you’ll be shocked to know that the rewrites were better. Hearing writing out loud forces the author to consider their audience. I’m currently writing this blog with an “out loud” voice running through my head, and often imagine how one of my parents would read the last sentence I wrote. Rose calls this “a kind of bilingualism,” and just like you change your voice between friends and dear old grandma, so should academics lighten the hell up.

Here’s the essay he was talking about, Patricia Nelson “Dancing with Professors”:


Pretty amusing, if not a little rude.

Jenkins, in Chapter 9 of our reading, takes this line of thought a step further, saying there is a gap between journalism and blogging. He uses interesting language, often lumping bloggers into a mysterious and anonymous “they” pronoun. Yet it’s clear what side of the fence he’s on when he refers to bloggers as “grassroots Intermediaries,” and not for example, talentless hacks with a digital soapbox.


Does academia have a responsibility to change, on behalf of the public? Is the ultimate goal here a wider readership, or scholastic rigor?

Would you take a rhetoric writing class during your graduate program?

How can we teach our students that not everyone on blogger knows what they’re talking about?

When you think about teaching rhetoric, what do you imagine?

These are the questions I pose to you, dear classmates.


  1. Great questions, Alex. I quite frankly don't believe that we have to sacrifice academic rigor to obtain a wider readership. Writing for the public does not mean "writing to dummies." What it does demand is that we make our terms clear. Most academic writing that gives allegiance to what Professor Limerick calls a "cult of obscurity" is poor writing (She's a professor at my alma mater by the way - never had her as a teacher, but her presence was legendary). In fact, the academic writing I admire the most is that which explains difficult, erudite topics in clear language. Most people accuse literary theorists of being particularly obscure, but I think is more of an attempt to dismiss them than grapple with the complexity of their ideas. That said, I have read too many attempts to "mimic" the language of theory as a means to disguise the weakness of their argument. Basically, I want to suggest that writing for the public encourages all of us to be better writers. That is a good thing.

  2. I think it's pretty obvious where I'm going to fall in this discussion, but I'll hop into the fray nonetheless. I'm going to side with the Alexes (Alexs? Alexxi?) and agree that there can be a medium that can be obtained between being intelligent, engaging in rigorous rhetoric, and sounding like a daffy fool.

    I enjoy your story regarding your paper Alex, especially since I can relate to it. A good amount. When I was an undergraduate I was chosen to present a paper at a symposium. I had never done so before, and so to ease a bit of the white-knuckle-puke-fear, I asked my Mom if I could read it out loud to her.

    She nodded, and then told me I was very smart. What this immediately translated to in my head was "You just vomited academic salad all over her for ten minutes."

    I'm not a fan of vomiting on beloved ones, and so I was a bit saddened by my fall back into obscurity.

    Somewhat fittingly I was reading an essay by Frantz Fanon yesterday where he was wielding HIS mightly Marxist rhetoric. One of his most salient points was that even social philosophers such as himself should speak in the language of the people, so that they can participate in this discourse. It makes a lot of sense.

    A lot of sense indeed.


    'Cause when I boil down all my desire to spend countless hours writing papers and despairing (see: digital story, I ask myself why I'm doing this. It isn't to build some ivory tower stacked with books and protected by jargon. It's to (try, I realize I'll never achieve this) educate the masses. Try and distill in them the ability to think critically and to also communicate with one another.

    Academics are brilliant people, there's countless professors who I frankly adore, admire, and look up to. But without channeling this sexy intellectual laser for good, for illuminating others, what is the point?

    That's me at least. I don't think that dedicating a life to tilling the fields of scholar debate, continual publishing, et cetera is worthwhile unless it is being channeled into something outside of that aim. To enriching the masses, even on a high school or college level.

    That's just me though.

  3. Alex, I really liked the story you shared about your experience sharing your undergraduate paper with your father. I think this is something that most of us can probably relate to; I know when I ask my husband or a friend who is outside of the discipline to read a paper, I am often met with answers like “Yeah, it’s really good. I don’t know what it says, but it sounds good.” Which just makes me think that what I’m writing must not really be very clear. When I tutor I am always telling the students that someone should be able to read their paper and have a pretty good idea what the paper is about, even if they have never read the books or articles that the paper is written about. I think the kind of clarity that Rose is arguing for is something that we should all be striving for, but that does not mean giving up “scholastic rigor.” Rose’s assertion that he “encourage[s] a kind of bilingualism” (286) and the “fostering of a hybrid professional identity—the life lived both in specialization and in the public sphere” (289) is a great solution to navigating between worlds. By teaching his students to write for multiple audiences he is, not only teaching them to be better writers, but also allowing them to reach a greater audience.

    In response to your question: I think I would take a rhetoric writing class if it was offered, because I would like to use the skills I gain here to make the greatest impact possible. (I in no way think my writing is on the level that it could be impenetrable to a general audience, but it wouldn’t hurt to get better!)

    (As a kind of digression): I love the Patricia Nelson Limerick article, “Dancing with Professors,” I read it last year and I often find myself referring back to it. The kind of writing that she is talking about is exactly the kind of writing that I hope to teach my future students not to be afraid of. I think the same way you teach a student that not every blogger is correct in what he or she is saying, is the same way you teach students to critically analyze academic writing.

    (This link is kind of an interesting follow up on where literary theory is now, and it touches on the ideas of clarity that we are talking about.) http://www.nytimes.com/2011/10/16/books/review/i-was-an-under-age-semiotician.html

  4. First thing I want to comment on: As it seems to me, Alex, you seem to be able to be "navigating between [the two] worlds," as Samantha puts it, quite well. I guess this is a thing most of us (future teachers) have to be practicing, especially when it comes to putting complex ideas into "simpler" units so our students can deal with them, even if it does not necessarily have to do with writing.

    In general I think that it would be an illusion to try to make all of our academic writing accesible to 'the public' (I'm putting this in inverted commas because I think it is sometimes arrogant, or at least really hard, to keep the 'two worlds' strictly seperate). But still, there may be some issues that cannot be understood by everybody. Even within the academic sphere, we (students of English) might not have a clue of what other academics are writing about. Maybe we should start by working on our general writing skills so that at least all our fellow students can understand what we are referring to (I hope you can follow my point so far because otherwise, I would be making quite a fool of myself right now). When we get to that point we should improve our 'public' writing. What I have in mind as sort of an 'ideal' is that we will be able to adjust our writing to the different occasions we have to deal with in our profession as (future) teachers and/or profs.

    So, to answer one of your questions, Alex, I think it would be quite useful for all of us to take at least one rhetoric class during our studies. This way we could make sure people are able to decide which style/tone/register/whatever is appropriate in a specific situation.

    One more thing to say is that there must be something between vomiting all over your beloved ones (which is, I totally agree with you, Ian, not a desirable thing to do) and 'sloppiness'--which I do not mean in an offensive way, I hope all of you understand--, and I am wondering if that 'something between' could be a sytle of writing that fits (most of) the rhetoric both in- an outside the academic world...

  5. Sam, I agree with you about Rose's bilingualism quote and finding a way to work with both worlds. I think everyone can benefit from this. When I read my friends' papers to edit them or help them with their ideas and I ask them difficult questions about the text, they don't answer in the same language--they usually answer in their daily language, which is fine when trying to understand the meaning and translate it in our minds; however, I wonder if it would be easier for writers to write more effectively if they could translate the readings and write using "academic" writing? I also think the same for those papers where you have absolutely no idea what the author is trying to say. Wouldn't it be great for students to be exposed to both sides? For students to learn how to not only read and translate these difficult texts but also put them in their own words for greater meaning? I think Rose's idea is beneficial and could work really well, I am just wondering how I would do this in my own future classrooms especially when these academic texts already have the preconceived notion that they are too difficult to make sense.

  6. I really liked this post, Alex. It had a conversational tone to it, which is easier for me to read while I'm reading on a computer screen (I laugh in your face, remediation!). I'm operating on only 4.5 hours of sleep, so I can only find the energy to answer one of your awesome litany of questions: Does academia have a responsibility to change, on behalf of the public? Is the ultimate goal here a wider readership, or scholastic rigor?

    I don't think academia has a responsibility to change. It's hard to read for a reason (granted, some of it sounds psychobabble, depending on the reader and his/her niche of research) because in order to construct a society of intellectuals (the "elites"), we have to make the goal a pretty difficult endeavor so that not every Tom, Dick, Jane, and Susan gets tenure at Harvard University. The structure is there for a reason. Is it elitist? Hell yeah it is. But it serves a greater purpose. Just like I don't want a surgeon who barely passed med school to perform open-heart surgery on me or my family members, I don't want to trust my education and future success to someone who got to where they are by the easy route.

    But back to literacy and rhetoric and all such as that: We need to strike a balance with upcoming kids about how to write for a newspaper, for example, and how to write for a scholarly journal (and with the dearth of jobs in the humanities, it's a useful skill). What I love about academia is that it's ultimately self-selecting. The people who want to understand difficult texts/translations/etc. are going to find away to understand it. The ones who don't want to commit themselves to it have not much else (as far as they are concerned) to lose.

  7. Academia has no responsibility to change. While we are into the subject, perhaps we might determine what change is (versus grow and adapt to a new environment). The ultimate goal for us is different: we want a wider readership, just as we want to maintain scholastic rigor. We cannot hold the same expectations for every individual: our world does not work this way, and public education is increasingly becoming more and more individualized. I wouldn't take a rhetoric writing class as a grad program because I've made a decision to focus on classes that truly interest me and connect to my occupation. I'm at the point in my grad program where I feel what I am interested in is what I should study. We teach our students already that blogging is opinions, just as much as writing a letter to an editor is not fact, but opinion. We further this explanation with examples of how blogging removes identity, whereas an anonymous letter is rarely published in a newspaper. We use this argument to bolster the authority of printed/published manuscripts, versus ideas displayed on the internet. We then back this up with the fact that without ideas, we lose a huge part of thinking. Basically, we need these crazy ideas to give us things to research and write about. When I think about teaching rhetoric to my seventh graders (and I'm imagining my 7th graders post- April vacation), I see disaster. For older grades, however, I see an opportunity to add to skills they have mastered as middle school students, and further their ability to defend their writing. I also see the need for more hours, longer days, and an extended school year to fit in another aspect of our curriculum!


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