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Common Knowledge 9.1 (2003) 42-49
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Rhetoric and Competition
To begin, a confession: I take the first part of my title from an embarrassing verbal slip I made while giving the presidential address at the convention of the Modern Language Association of America in December 2000. With considerable irony, at that moment my topic (and my title) was "Rhetoric and Composition"—the one area within my field of literary and language studies that I felt had moved beyond competition, beyond purely argumentative models of teaching and research, in order to explore more collaborative possibilities. My unconscious substitution of competition for composition was greeted with much merriment by the audience, and I admit that I have been haunted by it ever since—not so much out of personal embarrassment as out of concern about what my mistake revealed about the linkage between what we say (rhetoric) and how we act (competition) in the academy. Why is it that rhetoric and competition seem to go together so well in our current academic context?
One of the themes of my address was a plea for us all to learn to think beyond agonistics and to conceive of new ways of working together collaboratively—in the classroom, in our research, and in our professional life generally. Just before my tongue tripped me up, I had made a perhaps perverse analogy between the modern academy and its historical predecessor in Greece. Noting that the lyceum had been named after Apollo Lukeios (the wolfish Apollo), I had suggested that this root made that earlier place of learning into a "place of [End Page 42] wolves"—and this description resonated all too well with my growing sense that higher education was also becoming wolfish. At some point in the twentieth century, we appear to have lost the sense of being part of a "novitiate culture," and in my field that has meant (for better or worse) losing a sense of being what Donald Goellnicht calls a "priesthood presiding over the dissemination of Truth and Beauty." 1 I had argued that to link this loss with the expansion of market economies, as Goellnicht does, is not as farfetched as it may at first seem. Today's increased competition, both within and among institutions, all too often does follow the model of corporate capitalism; and the "pecking order" evaluation methods of business have been all too easily translated into the status hierarchy of higher education.
This competition (and its attendant rhetoric) exist, however, not only at the institutional level. The classroom and the academic conference can equally be sites of combat and one-upmanship. The clever and the articulate win in the battle of words that has become the defining characteristic of education, at least when conceived as a primarily adversarial process. This definition may explain why certain personality types dominate academic life: they are the ones who "enjoy, or can tolerate, a contentious environment." 2 Jane Tompkins recounts a conference scenario that many of us, sadly, will find familiar:
A woman is giving a paper. It is an attack on another woman's recent book; the entire paper is devoted to demolishing it, and the speaker is doing a superb job. The audience has begun to catch the spirit of the paper, which is witty, elegant, pellucid, and razor sharp; they appreciate the deftness, the brilliance, the grace, with which the assassination is being conducted; the speaker's intelligence flatters their intelligence, her taste becomes their taste, her principles their principles. They start to laugh at the jokes. They are inside the paper now, pulling with the speaker, seeing her victim in the same way she does, as the enemy, as someone whose example should be held up to scorn because her work is pernicious and damaging to the cause. 3
A colleague as an "enemy" to be scorned and condemned? The academy rightly values critical thinking, but increasingly we seem to define that quality in terms of the wolfish belittling and even demolishing of opposing positions. Is this limitation of what constitutes our critical, intellectual mandate in...