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Moe, Peter Wayne. William Coles and “Themewriting” as Epideictic. CCC, Feb. 2018. Posted 03/02/2018.

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Moe, Peter Wayne. “Reading Coles Reading Themes: Epideictic Rhetoric and the Teaching of Writing.” College Composition and Communication 69.3 (2018): 433-57. Print.

Peter Wayne Moe presents a reading of The Plural I: The Teaching of Writing by William E. Coles, Jr. Published in 1978, The Plural I narrates a course Coles taught in the fall of 1965-66 at the Case Institute of Technology (434). In Moe’s view, Coles’s course and his representation of it illuminate the relationship between writing pedagogy and epideictic rhetoric.

Moe notes that reviewers of Coles’s book found it counter to “the dominant traditions and pedagogies shaping composition” and thus “hard to read, hard to place, hard to value” (434). Moe hopes to “recover, and find value in” Coles’s contribution to the field (435).

Moe explores scholarly definitions and judgments of epideictic, many of which denigrate this rhetoric as superficial stylistic display that reinforces a community’s received values and therefore stifles critical inquiry (436). Moe contrasts it with “pragmatic” rhetorics that result in actions, like rhetorics of the “courtroom or senate” (435). He cites scholarship arguing that the role of the audience in the epideictic is not to act or “be persuaded; rather, the audience observes” (438). In doing so, an audience participates in epideictic as often defined: as bestowing “praise and blame” (438).

Scholars cited by Moe note that the “display” characterizing epideictic lays out “the shared values of a community”; etymologically, Moe shows, the term means “showing forth”; it is the rhetoric of “making known” (436). Moe argues that in performing these functions, epideictic becomes “the foundation from which a rhetor can praise and blame” (436). He contrasts the view that this showing forth sustains shared values with the contention that, in fact, epideictic can “reshape shared values,” and he argues that this reshaping is what Coles achieves in his use of this form in his writing classroom (437).

Moe cites Dale L. Sullivan to present education as fundamentally epideictic because it works to teach reasoning skills fitting particular contexts and “to instill in the student sentiments or emotions appropriate within the orthodoxy which the teacher represents” (Sullivan, qtd. in Moe 437). However, in Moe’s reading, Coles did not represent orthodoxy but instead pushed against it, using “little more than [the] praise and blame [of] student writing” to generate “sustained inquiry” capable of critically resisting banality and conformity (438).

Moe writes that The Plural I tracks the weekly assignments of a required first-year composition course, Humanities I (434). The chapters consist of these thirty assignments, several student papers mimeographed for discussion (ninety-four in all), and Coles’s account of each week’s classroom discussion (439). There was no textbook. According to Moe, “Coles dramatizes the classroom conversation; he does not transcribe.” Coles insisted that in these narratives nothing was made up (439).

Tracing Coles’s lessons through selected examples, Moe writes that Coles began by assigning an essay asking students to differentiate between amateurism and professionalism. The resulting essays, Coles declaimed, were “[t]riumphs of self-obliteration, . . . put-up jobs everyone of them, and as much of a bore to read as they must have been to write” (qtd. in Moe 440). In Coles’s view, these efforts represented what he called “Themewriting,” in which students displayed their understanding of what a teacher expected them to sound like (440).

Moe argues that this rhetorical choice represents students’ conception of the “shared values of this community, this classroom, and this teacher” (440), in which they draw on familiar patterns and commonplaces, believing that the community honors writing that, in Coles’s words, is “well-organized. It’s Clear, Logical, and Coherent. It’s neat” (qtd. in Moe 441). Coles asks questions that push students to challenge the voice of the Themewritten essays, ultimately creating consensus that “no one talks the way this paper sounds” (441). Moe depicts Cole creating a game of Themewriting in which students discover their ability to convert any set of terms‑for example, “man, black, and TNT” (442)— into a formulaic set of moves that are both “inevitable” and “moralistic” (443).

Coles’s project, Moe contends, is to push students to think about what they are doing with language when they act on these assumptions about “what makes good writing” by undermining their confidence in these apparently sacrosanct shared values (443). Among Coles’s stated intentions is the development of a “common vocabulary” (qtd. in Moe 443) that will provide new ways to characterize writing (443). Developing this vocabulary, Moe argues, “serves an epideictic function, uniting the class in their practice of praise and blame” (443).

As part of this vocabulary production, Coles encourages the adoption of metaphors like “sky-writing” or “mayonnaise” to capture the characteristics the class assigned to Themewriting (444). Among these metaphors are the names such as Steve, or Suzie, a “character who ‘isn’t a character at all’ because she is composed solely of clichés” (Coles, qtd. in Moe 445). Coles finds, however, that students fall back too glibly on these critical terms, using them to avoid grappling with stylistic nuances that suggest deeper struggles with language (446).

As the class nears its end, Moe contends that students discover that “avoiding the rhetoric of cant” is nearly impossible, and that articulating “‘another way of talking’” has been the difficult goal of Coles’s method (Coles, qtd. in Moe 447). Their loss of confidence in Themewriting and the challenges of finding a new understanding of what language can do upset students and left them feeling as if, in Coles’s words, “‘readiness with’ a certain kind of language is the same thing as a ‘loss of words’” (qtd. in Moe 448). However, Moe points out that students begin to notice how they manipulate language to create “a stylistic self” (449):

The “self construable from the way words fall on a page” is integral to Coles’s teaching. He clarifies that such a self is “not a mock or false self. . . .” The assignment sequence in The Plural I seeks to bring students to an awareness of how language constitutes this stylistic self and how one might use language in light of that awareness. (439)

Moe argues that writing teachers read student work as epideictic, reading it against the shared values of a community, not so much to be persuaded by arguments as to respond to the writer’s display of his or her use of language to create a particular stylistic self. He states that “persuasion, if it does occur, is a product of display—how well the student shows forth the various conventions of the discourses he or she hopes to enter” (451). This display is the ground on which persuasion “and other rhetorical acts” can take place (451). He argues that the value in Coles’s pedagogy is that he impels students to understand more precisely what they are doing when they partake in this display. Once they have recognized the shared values of the community, they become capable of “resisting them, rewriting them even, through praise and blame” (452).

Author: vanderso

I'm a recently retired associate professor of English in Southern Indiana. I've been teaching writing for twenty-five years, but I feel I have much to learn about how people really learn to write. In this blog, I'll be sharing research and thoughts and hopefully gathering information from others about the process of learning to write.

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