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Rhetoric Society of America, 2014

posted: 6.26.14 by Andrea Lunsford

Attending the Rhetoric Society of America meeting in San Antonio (May 22-26) reminded me of why I chose the field of rhetoric and composition some 40+ years ago.  Rhetoric, I soon discovered, is an art, theory, and practice that is infinitely portable, and scholars and teachers can apply it to a wide and diverse range of topics and questions.  Not so much a traditional discipline as a way of being in the world, rhetoric fit beautifully with my eclectic interests.  When it came time to write a dissertation, in fact, I found myself working simultaneously on two big projects:  a study of the writing of college students who were labeled “remedial” and another of 19th century Scottish rhetorician and mental philosopher Alexander Bain, whose influence we still feel today in matters of organization and paragraph structure.

So RSA, with its broad base in rhetorical studies and its catholic approach to research, was (and is!) a natural home for me, along with CCCC.  This year, I came to the RSA meeting a day early to participate in the meeting of the American Society for the History of Rhetoric, which regularly convenes the day before RSA officially begins.  In addition to hearing a series of top notch papers—from Barbara Biesecker’s meditation on the very different functions of “until” in two speeches (one by Bush, one by Obama), to Scott Stroud’s witty and utterly clear exploration of Kant’s relation to rhetoric, to Ekaterina Haskins’s gripping analysis of “spatial freedom,” all of which offered new avenues of investigation.

During the lunch break, I ran into Janice Lauer, legendary leader of Purdue’s exemplary Rhetoric and Composition Ph.D. program, convener of the Purdue Seminar for many years, and author of a series of important works on invention. In her typically low-key way, Janice began to reminisce about the “pre-RSA” days, beginning in 1964 when a handful of scholars (including Edward P. J. Corbett from English and George Yoos from Communications) began to envision a new organization.  Janice was there from the beginning (the only woman, of course) and is a treasure trove of institutional memory.  Looking from those early days of meeting in a small hotel room at CCCC to this year’s RSA conference suggests how successful the organization has been:  there were 1300 + participants in San Diego.

Listening to scholars from philosophy (such as Biesecker and Linda Martín Alcoff), communication studies (such as Kirt Wilson, Dana Cloud, and Ned O’Gorman), Rhetoric and Composition (such as Krista Ratcliffe, Jordynn Jack, and Jessica Enoch), East Asian Studies (such as Hangping Xu), and several other disciplines assured me that the interdisciplinary nature of RSA is still intact.  But I can still only dream of a robust institutional structure that could make room for such variety. A few universities have long-standing collaborations between rhet/comp scholars and those in communication studies (Penn State or the University of Wisconsin at Madison, for instance), but most traditional disciplinary boundaries are still firmly in place.  This fact of life was made vivid and visible in the friendly but telling conversation between Roxanne Mountford (from rhetoric and composition) and Bill Keith (from communication studies).  In a lively hour-long discussion, they identified a bit of common ground between the two fields (a focus on audience and purpose) along with very different approaches to pedagogy and to concepts such as invention and process.  These two disciplinary fields were both once part of the MLA, as were linguistics and English Education.  But communications (then speech) left MLA 100 years ago, followed shortly by the English Education folks (who founded NCTE), and linguistics.  Some rhet/comp scholars in English remained in MLA, though the last couple of decades have seen a diminution of those numbers, most likely in favor of belonging to RSA and CCCC.  Thus the once large and inclusive field of “English Studies” is now widely fragmented and dispersed.

In general, I approve of this move though it’s hard for me to see fifty or seventy-five years into the future in terms of rhet/comp scholars.  Will we still be scattered across departments and disciplines?  Will we have coalesced into a new disciplinary home outside both English and Communication Studies, as is happening with the creation of new departments (such as those at Michigan State, Kentucky, and Texas)?  If so, what will be the eventual shape of this new home and its discipline? What do you think?

For now, I can’t see that far into the future. But I am hoping that RSA will still be around and will be able to help answer some of these pressing questions.

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