At the 2011 Federation Rhetoric Symposium (FRS), I heard Dr. Nancy Welch, professor of English at the University of Vermont, deliver a talk called “What We Teach When We Teach (Only) Moderation and Civility.” Her argument intrigued me, so at the conference I purchased her 2008 book Living Room: Teaching Public Writing in a Privatized World. Welch’s discussion of civic literacy through writing dovetailed perfectly with the FRS conference theme of “Writing Democracy: A Rhetoric of (T) here” and informed my own nascent pedagogical project to teach students public writing through multimodal composition. When I read Welch’s book, I realized that not only does she give a rationale for teaching public writing under the constraints of neoliberal hegemony, but she also gives readers insights into how we use rhetorical history to build community literacy.
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Dr. Welch aims her book at an audience primarily of scholars and teachers of composition and rhetoric; however, her text could also be pertinent for sociologists, anthropologists, sociolinguists, historians, public policymakers, political scientists, critical theorists, media scholars, social workers, public school educators, psychologists, and philosophers. In fact, the book makes the argument for civic rhetoric as vernacular art in an accessible, palatable way that would also appeal to those not in academia: for [End Page 151] example, community book clubs and writing workshops. Although Welch’s work is carefully researched and eloquently articulated, her writing is, like bell hooks’s, crafted to reach a larger constituency through its engaging narratives and its recursive unity.
The exigency for the book arose from two defining events in Welch’s life of activism: a rally in Times Square protesting the “Shock and Awe” bombing campaign in Iraq in the spring of 2003 and a march two days later down Broadway to Washington Square. The Conference on College Composition and Communication was held in New York that year, and Welch recalls attending the first “emergency protest” in a sea of black umbrellas as the NYPD barricaded the throngs of protestors into a confined two-block space. The second protest filled forty blocks, as police allowed protestors to move about unmolested in the sunny, unseasonably warm weather. Welch explains that she uses the “helpless despair” of the first night coupled with the “unrelenting hope of the Saturday march” to “inform [her] approach to the chapters in this book” (3). She reveals that both of these perspectives have enabled her to think about how to teach writing in a way that “supports access, voice, and impact” while also keeping in mind the “formidable constraints” that prevent people from trying to change the status quo (4).
These two events inform the overarching goal of the text: to bring together two conversations in composition studies. The first conversation, a burgeoning interest in teaching public writing, manifests in the work of Hannah Arendt, Jürgen Habermas, Nancy Fraser, Gilles Deleuze, and others, work that seeks to animate a discussion of how various publics engage in debate in a shrinking sphere of influence. An increasing tension between the social turn in composition studies since the 1980s and the corresponding privatization of the national social and political milieu forms one of the dominant themes in this text, and Welch employs these notions of public and private in discussing issues of the content and context of arguments that students create. The second conversation concerns the revival of readings of rhetorical history in the work of Jacqueline Jones Royster, Jean C. Williams, Jane Greer, Anne Ruggles Gere, Susan Jarratt, and others—histories of middle-class populations who have devised a wealth of strategies and venues in which to make arguments about issues of concern. Welch uses this idea of rhetorical recovery as seen through socioeconomic class to explore questions of form and genre of the public discourse written by students.
In describing these ongoing conversations, she raises a valid concern: previous conversations have focused primarily on middle-class forums and practices. Welch exhorts the reader to engage in scholarship and pedagogy to expand...