The Telling of History and its Absences

Encountering the readings–Berlin’s Rhetoric and Reality and David Gold, Catherine L. Hobbs, and James A. Berlin’s “Writing Instruction in School and College English”–I was thinking about the role that history plays. As someone who is new to the discipline, the past few readings have been helpful at giving some definitions and names. And with a few of them under my belt, I can start making connections and noticing absences.

But more broadly, I was thinking of these histories along four different frameworks: as genealogy, progress story, hagiography, and catalog.

In terms of genealogy, I’m referring to Nietzsche’s tactic, like in The Genealogy of Morals, of tracing the evolution of a concept by going to its early iterations, following its timeline, mapping its etymology and evolution, and interpreting. In the mode of Foucault’s archaeology, genealogy becomes increasingly concerned with power.

I get some of this genealogy in Berlin’s tracing of “rhetoric.” Though the terms are largely his, he traces the general usage of this subject area and the differing ways that it evolved. I get a sense of differing people, like Elbow and the expressivists, or Corbett and the more classical thinkers, using rhetoric and writing instruction in different ways, depending on their preferences and the cultural-scientific issues of the time. With Gold et al., the focus seems more general and diffuse, less focused on the generative works of theorists than the broader ecology in which these theorists are enmeshed.

But for both, I get a sense of progress story. In Berlin, I always get a sense of deficit. As he moves through each outlook, something is lacking, whether it be too much focus on the social or a lack of clarity or overly technocratic research. I imagine his social-epistemic rhetoric fills this deficit, in his framing.

Gold et al. also has a progress narrative of sorts, though it is a little more complicated. They note the limits of current diversity and labor practices in the discipline and the early progress of movements like “Student’s Right to their Own Language,” but they also note times–often around crisis–when more conservative, remedial approaches challenge the more progressive elements.

Indeed, the main progress that Gold et al. seem to note is a growth in the complexity and depth of composition and rhetoric as a discipline. Many other elements–like diversity or complexity of curriculum–seem more contingent, more of a messy give-and-take, than a linear progression of ever-advancing knowledge and inclusion.

When it comes to hagiography, the tracing of a saint’s narrative, I’m not sure any one figure stands out as particularly central, be it Elbow, Freire, etc. Many figures in many different ways participate in their own ways, and Berlin, in particular, tries to be generous with the contribution of more controversial and seemingly minor characters like the cognitive objective rhetoricians. These feels promising, but I’m often concerned with the way the field itself might get spun as a saint of sorts.

When the Franciscans asked Thomas de Cilano to write the Life of Francis, he drew upon the work of others who had already attempted a biography of the Saint, and the officiated document was meant to give unity, depth, and further authority to the Franciscans. This differed from Bonaventure’s text, which aligned further with mystical elements and the theology of Francis as a Christ-like figure. Other hagiographies served different roles, depending on the situation.

Though I think I would need to engage more critically with these texts, I’d be curious to examine the potentially hagiographic elements that they may contain: how the discipline came to (heroically) stand up for key beliefs, how it came to overcome the (elitist) literary and belletristic emphasis of liberal arts and English classes, how it synthesized and grew from Dewey or cultural studies. Phrased another way, what role does history play when it comes to making the field heroic or meaningful–something to be proud of?

By catalog, I would mean a less narrative approach to history. In places, Gold et al. veers in this direction, but Berlin has a very narrative approach, moving from movement and giving a somewhat more linear feeling.

Going through these broader conceptions of history, however, I notice someone missing: the students and the individual teachers. Though their voices turn up in spaces, official documents, key research, and more, impersonal historical details feel more dominant, at least in terms of who is doing the talking.

In this way, I wonder what a more student-centered or lived out approach might feel like, something that de Certeau’s historigraphy or Benjamin’s Arcades project might point to: something closer to the voices and things of the everyday and less like the broad, deduced labels, decades, and editorializing of Berlin, Harris, and Gold et al.

For example, I was thinking about the work of Tarez Samra Graban in “From Location(s) to Locatability” and the way this tries to approach the metadata of more scattered, less obvious resources–like student papers–to make a more “feminist” historiography.

In our field, particularly, a more Hegelian model that minimizes these sorts of actants beyond key geniuses or government funding projects feels particularly out of place. When it comes to the telling of history–and the purpose of that telling–I see Berlin, Harris, and others having a key role in the articulation and naming of trends, the tracing of genealogy, the hagiography of the field, etc., but seeing these approaches, I see the need for other approaches all the more.

[Image: “Hunting History” by Vinoth Chandar]

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