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Pedagogy 2.1 (2001) 61-77

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Using Historical Practices to Teach Rhetorical Theory

Wade Mahon

The categories, canons, and vocabulary of classical rhetoric circulate freely in many composition classrooms, testimony to a renewed scholarly interest in rhetorical theory since the 1960s. 1 Nevertheless, the "remote and theoretical" interests of the historical scholar and the "proximate and applied" concerns of the freshman composition instructor (Murphy 1989: 338) are often difficult to reconcile in a field whose bifurcated title--composition and rhetoric (or vice versa)--indicates enduring disciplinary tensions. David Fleming (1998: 173) points out that in English departments "rhetoric is featured prominently at the two extremes of higher education: at one end, a fifteen-week course on writing for incoming freshmen; at the other, a multi-year program of advanced study for PhD students. Between the two, is little or nothing." The consequence of this polarization is a discipline "doomed to educational marginalization" (172). In this essay I would like to take up Fleming's closing challenge, that "contemporary rhetoric doesn't quite know what to do with its educational impulse" (185), and suggest one way of rethinking pedagogical uses of theory and practice in courses devoted to rhetorical theory, rather than composition.

The polarization Fleming identifies between rhetoric and composition highlights important conflicts in values that are reflected, more generally, in pedagogical methods used in English and other university departments. These conflicts revolve around contrasting pairs of terms, such as theory and practice, content and skills, and reading and writing, in which the first items [End Page 61] are privileged. A course on rhetorical theory, like courses on literary theory, history, themes, genres, authors, and other subjects, falls into the category of courses that teach "content," whereas a course on the practice of composition emphasizes "skills." These skills are seen as fundamental to a student's ability to write about literary or rhetorical theories, but not quite at the heart of the discipline of rhetoric or literature. Accordingly, those who primarily teach skills-oriented courses generally have less prestige and often receive lower salaries. However, they tend to make a similar assumption about theory: it is useful as a foundation for pedagogical practices and writing strategies but is not an end in itself. 2 Such cross-purposes help explain the conflict Fleming mentions. If the purpose of the course is to improve student writing, then theory has limited usefulness; if it is to gain a better understanding of theory, then practical writing skills, however useful for communicating what one has learned, are not explicitly or directly part of the learning process itself.

My purpose in this essay is to illustrate one way for practice to play a larger role in the learning process in a content-oriented course. One of my guiding assumptions is that the pedagogical practices of a discipline in any given historical period are closely related to the ideas and circumstances that produce them. A second assumption is that teachers of rhetoric should strive to practice in the theory classroom what they preach in the composition classroom. Instead of overemphasizing either subject at the expense of the other, instructors can balance the relationship between content and skills (or between theory and practice) by self-consciously applying historical writing practices to the study of rhetorical theory. While I focus on rhetoric courses, I also argue that readers concerned with other areas in English studies will find this method appropriate for examining the blending of practice and theory in their fields.

The Centrality of Classical Rhetoric in Writing Pedagogy

Since rhetoric has such a broad range of meanings and uses, I want to point out that I limit my course content to the Western "rhetorical tradition" (Patricia Bizzell and Bruce Herzberg's [2001] anthology is one of the required texts) from the ancient Greeks to the present. This focus serves my purposes in this article for three reasons. First, a limited historical survey of theories and texts is analogous to the scope of other content-oriented courses in English departments and presents similar problems of selection and coverage of the required content. Second...


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