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  • "Buck"ing the System:Gertrude Buck's Contribution to Composition and Rhetoric
  • Susan Pagnac (bio)
A Feminist Legacy: The Rhetoric and Pedagogy of Gertrude Buck. By Suzanne Bordelon. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 2007.

In her biography A Feminist Legacy: The Rhetoric and Pedagogy of Gertrude Buck, Suzanne Bordelon focuses on Buck's collaborative and expressivist pedagogy, her innovative solutions to departmental difficulties, and her work to prepare women for more participative roles in a democratic society. Buck may be unfamiliar to many in our discipline even though she was the first woman to earn a PhD in composition and rhetoric in 1898 from the University of Michigan. Her work is important because she challenged the patriarchal paradigm with her reformist views of pedagogy and rhetoric. She defied the dominant paradigm through her work at the Detroit Normal Training School and Vassar College as well as her involvement in the suffrage and Little Theater (community theater) movements. Additionally, Buck's pedagogy clearly anticipates more modern composition pedagogies such as process theory and expressionism as well as writing program administration theory. Buck's work provides modern readers with a rich cultural, historical, and institutional slice of life in early-twentieth-century college composition as well as a historical perspective on current composition theories and practices. [End Page 431]

Bordelon establishes Buck's social views and briefly sketches her life details in the first chapter. She describes Buck's pedagogy as "reject[ing] faculty psychology in favor of a more functionalist approach, emphasizing human interests, the self and thought" (27). In her pedagogy, Buck resisted the traditions of the time, worked to eliminate power inequities between men and women, and promoted cooperation. To fulfill these goals in her writing program, Buck wrote several textbooks that were used in Vassar's English courses. These textbooks emphasized an inductive approach (considered female-friendly at a time when women were not allowed to vote), dialogue, collaboration, and exploration. Buck's pedagogy anticipated composition process pedagogy by asking students to approach writing differently. According to Bordelon, Buck felt that writing is "a process of communication, a way for people to connect and cooperate with each other" (29). Further, Buck's pedagogy anticipated the current write-for-real movement by asking students to write for legitimate audiences in addition to their instructors. Within Bordelon's book, then, writing teachers can see how aspects of their own pedagogies echo Buck's pedagogical and rhetorical theories. Instructors will better understand where many of our most cherished teaching ideals—a student-centered classroom, for example—come from and can apply those ideals to their classrooms and curriculums with a stronger sense of purpose. Buck's pedagogy can also help teachers discover new ways to think about their teaching, particularly since she focused on examining all the aspects of a particular topic with her students and asked students to write about their interests.

In chapter 2, Bordelon traces the beginnings of Buck's progressive pedagogy and rhetoric to her collaboration with Harriet M. Scott at the Detroit Normal Training School, an experimental school influenced by the work of John Dewey and Fred Newton Scott (Harriet's brother). According to Bordelon, Buck and Scott's work at the school generally advanced contemporary practices in education by emphasizing "individual interests and the need to develop moral citizens" and resisting the traditional view of education (48). Before the 1890s and the beginning of the progressive education movement in America, education was focused on the teacher in a Freiresque banking model; in other words, it was not the student-centered education of today. Bordelon characterizes this traditional view of education as centering on "control and the desires of the teacher," which led to a "lack of concern for the child and emphasis on filling the mind with facts" (46).

As a natural extension of this work, Buck and Harriet Scott cowrote Organic Education: A Manual for Teachers in Primary and Grammar Grades (1897). In this text, Buck and Scott's educational methodology focused on [End Page 432] students' individual interests rather than dictated themes and topics, the socialization of students to ameliorate the "isolated entities" of the schools, and the philosophy of the "interconnected nature...


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