College Composition Weekly: Summaries of research for college writing professionals

Read, Comment On, and Share News of the Latest from the Rhetoric and Composition Journals


2 Comments

Wootton, Lacey. Truth-Telling by NTT Faculty as Parrhesiastes.

Wootton, Lacey. “The Affordances of Governance Structures for the Non-Tenure-Track Parrhesiastes.” Forum: Issues about Part-Time and Contingent Faculty 24.1 (2020): A10-A16. Print.

Writing in the Fall 2020 Forum: Issues about Part-Time and Contingent Faculty, Lacey Wootton argues that non-tenure-track (NTT) faculty should consider the rhetorical practice parrhesia, “speaking frankly,” especially in contexts of unequal power. She writes that parrhesia can be grounded in existing institutional structures where it can enhance faculty’s ability to foreground important and often unwelcome truths.

Wootton explores three different interpretations of parrhesia. In that of Michel Foucault, the parrhesiaste’s first allegiance is to the truth, a stance that may lead to risk and lost relationships but which is necessary if speaking truth can play its “disruptive and critical” role (A12). Kristen Kennedy’s interpretation, Wootton writes, draws on Cynic rhetoric; in this manifestation, the use of parrhesia is linked to kairos and context in that it can be an effective move if its “ethical imperative to speak” signals the inequity of the spaces it disrupts (qtd. in Wootton A12). Not only the speech itself but also the rhetor’s visibility in the particular setting calls out the exclusionary nature of the setting on which it intrudes.

Wootton also cites Arthur E. Walzer, for whom the truth enacted by parrhesia can be  delivered with “artifice and guile . . . that allow the truth to be heard and the relationship to be maintained” (A12).

Wootton contends that institutional structures in academia can provide a context in which parrhesia is appropriate and in fact invited. When NTT faculty hold positions, often appointed ones, on committees and other institutionalized bodies, parrhesia becomes a manifestation of their acknowledged role (A13). These positions within an institution’s accepted hierarchy can constitute the “standing” necessary for effective  intervention, in Foucault’s formulation (A13).

A risk for parrhesiastes who adopt this strategy is that of losing “one’s allegiance to the outsider agenda” and instead settling into “business as usual” (A13). In Wootton’s view, a commitment to parrhesia’s role as truth-telling can undergird the courage necessary to disrupt norms.

Wootton accentuates a need for “political intelligence and structural understanding” for NTT faculty working to move within an institution’s governance environment (A14). She advises that finding pathways into the structural spaces that supply standing requires attention to local conditions; although structural opportunities for participation are often embedded in faculty manuals and other written policies, Wootton writes that “one can’t fully understand local politics” through such documents alone (A14). NTT faculty must work through a “long, incremental process” that may begin with filling in gaps in committees at the department level, “not displacing tenure-line faculty, but rather supplementing their work” (A15).

Such persistence, she argues, foregrounds the power of parrhesia as “presence”: In itself, the figure of the truth-teller confronting risk for the sake of the greater good through the “expected rhetorical behaviors” (A 13) of “codified structures” can disrupt oppressive norms (A 14).


Leave a comment

Brown, William Christopher. Systemic Inequity in English Scholarly Journals. Forum, Spring 2020. Posted 05/24/2020.

Brown, William Christopher. “Scholarly Journals Should Not Replicate the Systemic Inequality of Higher Education.” Forum: Issues about Part-Time and Contingent Faculty 23.2 (2020): A3-A9. Print.

In Forum: Issues about Part-Time and Contingent Faculty, published twice yearly by the Conference on College Composition and Communication, a section of the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE), William Christopher Brown critiques the exclusion of non-tenure-track and contingent faculty from important academic positions in English programs and publications.

Pointing to ongoing concern about labor inequity in higher education and in English studies in particular, Brown cites scholarship that characterizes contingent faculty, including full-time faculty not on a tenure track, as “the new faculty majority.” He cites data showing that as of 2014, contingent labor constituted “65% of all faculty employment,” while data on English departments show that the field accounts for substantial percentages of this labor force (A3). Further, data show that the majority of first-year writing courses are taught by faculty not on a tenure track (A4).

In Brown’s view, the importance of these part-time or non-tenure-track faculty to the field warrants concern over a posting on the “Announcements and Calls for Papers” page of the NCTE journal College English in May 2018. This job posting solicited applications for the next editor of the journal English Education. The ad specifically required that applicants be either tenured or far along the tenure path with “a reasonable certainty” of success. In addition, applicants must have published “in English Education or a national journal of similar quality” (qtd. in Brown A3).

Writing as a member and 2018-2019 chair of the Modern Language Association’s Committee on Contingent Labor in the Profession (A3), Brown argues that despite the journal’s stated mission of “serv[ing]” instructors in the field, this set of requirements “prohibits a majority of faculty associated with the field from serving in a leadership position as editor” (A4).

Brown notes that appointments to editorships and other leadership positions often require that applicants have access to institutional support, such as release time, office staff, and adequate compensation, features which, he posits, the field’s leaders see as “a privilege of the tenured and tenure-track faculty” (A4). In addition, he notes numerous institutions that restrict “publishing subventions”—subsidizes for publishing costs that facilitate the production of academic monographs—to faculty with tenured, tenure-track, or emeritus rank (A4-A5). He argues that this restriction is problematic because more and more non-tenure-track positions now include a research requirement (A5).

Moreover, he contends, increasing numbers of contingent faculty are committed to and successful in academic research and publication, with many having earned PhDs (A6). He points to one writing-center-coordinator position with non-tenure-track status that pays only 80% of what a new tenure-track hire would earn, but requires research, in his view, “provid[ing] lofty goals of research without enhancing the conditions necessary for research to occur” (A6). He presents these cases as ongoing examples of inequity in the field, as more labor and expertise is demanded of contingent faculty while that expertise and ability to lead are denigrated.

Brown notes that the appearance of the English Education ad in an NCTE journal belies the claims on the NCTE website that the organization’s mission is to

strengthen or create inclusive hubs, . . . providing access for more diverse voices to create, collaborate, and lead, within and beyond the organization. (qtd. in Brown A6)

The author cites data from the Teachers Insurance and Annuity Association of Americaa (TIAA) showing that tenure-track hiring does not meet this goal, with minorities and women occupying tenure-track appointments at lower rates than their actual representation among faculty (A7). Thus, by limiting leadership positions to tenure-track faculty, Brown claims, NCTE perpetuates the lack of diversity it proposes to address.

Brown adds his voice to those of other scholars who have called for contingent faculty to raise their visibility and make themselves heard. He argues that these faculty bring important strengths to the scholarly conversation, and urges those responsible for leadership appointments to consider how their exclusion of contingent faculty increases inequity while denying valuable contributions to the field (A7-A8).

 


Leave a comment

Driscoll et al. Self-Care in Doctoral Education. CCC, Feb. 2020. Posted 04/29/2020.

Driscoll, Dana Lynn, S. Rebecca Leigh, and Nadia Francine Zamin. “Self-Care as Professionalization: A Case for Ethical Doctoral Education in Composition Studies.” College Composition and Communication 71.3 (2020): 453-80. Print.

Dana Lynn Driscoll, S. Rebecca Leigh, and Nadia Francine Zamin seek to open a conversation about self-care as a needed component of professional practice in composition, English studies, and related fields. They argue that despite widespread discussions about the life/work balance challenges in areas of the humanities, composition scholarship has paid scant attention to this issue (457). They focus on doctoral programs but recognize the need for better self-care in most forms of academic life (476).

The authors document an ongoing conversation as well as data about faculty and student burnout leading to attrition in humanities programs. They report, for example, a U. C. Berkeley study from 2014 showing that “almost 64% of doctoral students in the arts and humanities were clinically depressed” and a statistic from American Academy of Arts and Sciences showing a degree-completion rate in humanities doctoral programs of 42% (454). They cite concern dating back to Wendy Bishop’s 2000 CCCC Chair’s address and a 1986 article by Maxine Hairston that burnout is “just part of the job” (455).

A further literature review reveals attention to labor conditions for graduate students and, often, women and minorities that the authors see as linked to the need for self-care. Yet, they claim, this work seldom suggests solutions or directly posits how self-care can help address labor exploitation and what Beth Goodbee calls “epistemic injustice” that often casts women and minorities as less capable and thus triggers anxiety about living up to academic demands (qtd. in Driscoll et al. 459). Advice on self-care, the authors write, more often shows up in “self-help” books directed to academics rather than in the academic press (457).

Driscoll et al. developed and piloted a survey that they then distributed widely through listservs and doctoral programs across fields in the post-secondary language arts (460). Their study analyzed responses from 348 students in different stages of their doctoral work and in different specializations; 213 were female, 79 male, 3 gender-nonconforming, and 6 who preferred to not to answer. The 85 faculty respondents, all actively teaching in doctoral programs, included 54 females, 17 males, and 1 gender-nonconforming person (462). Of selected, diverse subsets approached by the authors, 9 students and 8 faculty participated in follow-up interviews (461). The authors note the gender skew and performed a one-way analysis of variance on Likert-scale questions (461).

Faculty reported more self-care practices than students; overall, the authors report that such practices fell into “physiological” actions, such as “getting enough sleep” or “seeing the doctor or dentist”; a wide range of “personal life” efforts such as spending time with friends or working on hobbies; and “professional life” choices focused on improving the work/life balance, such as working off campus or saying “no” (463).

According to the authors, the survey and comments reveal three widespread “barriers” to self-care. Sixty percent of faculty and nearly 90% of students indicated suffering from “academic guilt,” feeling that all their time should be invested in their academic life (464). One student writes that failing to work hard enough implies not “car[ing] enough” about the profession, and that wanting “a more balanced life” affected the decision of whether to apply for a research-institution job (464).

“Burnout,” resulting from what one tenured faculty member called “extreme demands” and leading to a lack of time for self-care, affected 54.3% of faculty and 68.5% of student respondents (464). One student reported concern over “mentors [who] make themselves physically ill over the amount of work they pile on themselves.” These attitudes, the tenured faculty member writes, are “normalized” (qtd. in Driscoll et al. 465).

Feeling that they are failing to work hard enough results in a third barrier to self-care, “imposter syndrome.” Although the study did not ask explicitly about this response, more than 40% addressed concerns that they did not belong in their programs in their interviews (465-66).

The authors report that although majorities of both faculty and students do practice some form of self-care, large majorities of those who do “feel the need to hide it from their academic community” (466). This problem, the authors’ data suggests, is more acute for women and minority students, who both want more opportunities for self-care and more discussion about it in their programs but reveal more guilt in expressing their needs (467). Among faculty, while the authors report “less pronounced” gender differences, data from female faculty still revealed that they experienced more guilt and more tendency to work harder rather than seeking self-care (467).

Driscoll et al. point to psychology as one of the fields in which adequate self-care is a professional “ethical obligation” because it results in practitioners who are better able to address the needs of their students and clients (456-57, 469-70). Self-care as part of professionalism in humanities doctoral programs, the authors write, includes “faculty modeling and mentorship, accessible tools and strategies, and opportunities for self-reflection and discussion” (470). Faculty who have dealt with their own burnout and health crises, the authors recommend, should openly share their experiences and solutions, for example, modeling writing practices and demonstrating to students that it is okay to make a mistake (472). Students can be given tools for choosing commitments and for monotasking, learning when “to politely decline” (472).

In the authors’ view, reflection and discussion can especially help faculty and students recognize how the larger culture of labor shifts in higher education systemically pressures academics to yield to corporatization by working harder even though doing so leads to diminishing results (474). Driscoll et al. call for consideration of this larger culture alongside individual strategies. Student respondents to the study noted “the contradiction of faculty demanding too much while suggesting self-care at the same time” (475). Citing Beth Blum, the authors warn that “calls for ‘self-help’” can be “masks for the cruelty [that is] present” (475) when the focus is on “efficiency, performance, and competitive achievement” (Blum, qtd. in Driscoll et al. 475).

The authors report study limitations, including the exclusive focus on doctoral programs and the need to rely on self-report. Moreover, they note the preponderance of female respondents, positing that women may be more likely to respond to the topic. Finally, they recognize that they did not include race (461-62).

A closing quote from a “full professor faculty participant” reiterates the need for “a disciplinary norm” in which composition becomes a profession capable of “attending to entire whole humans” (qtd. in Driscoll et al. 476). The authors hope that this change will lead away from guilt and burnout and instead toward “the best labor that we are capable of doing” (476).


Leave a comment

Gindlesparger, Kathryn Johnson. Ethical Representation in the “Study-Abroad Blog.” CE, Sept. 2018. Posted 10/15/2018.

Gindlesparger, Kathryn Johnson. “‘Share Your Awesome Time with Others’: Interrogating Privilege and Identification in the Study-Abroad Blog.” College English 81.1 (2018): 7-26. Print.

Kathryn Johnson Gindlesparger analyses the ethical dimensions of “study-abroad blogs” that students produce to document their trips. In Gindlesparger’s view, such blogs as currently constructed by study-abroad planning agencies like International Student Exchange Programs (ISEP) enable problematic representations and identifications. She argues for a more thoughtful, ethically aware approach to such responses to study-abroad experiences.

Gindlesparger’s analysis focuses on three of thirteen first- and second-year students enrolled in her 2012 “Contemporary Europe” class; the class addressed “tensions that may go unnoticed” if courses are “less inclusive of internationally traumatic subject matter” (8). Students recorded their experiences during a three-week trip that included two Holocaust sites and one “youth center for Bosnian refugees in Berlin” (8). The three students gave permission for their materials to be included in the study and participated in reflective interviews five years later (9).

The study-abroad industry, Gindlesparger writes, is experiencing an “explosion,” with shorter trips now the more common format (9). She reports that institutions find the trips to be revenue-generating vehicles; she sees the student blogs not only as ways to share experiences with home audiences but also as marketing tools (9).

Gindlesparger’s first object of analysis is an ISEP “advice column,” “How to Write a Study Abroad Blog: 5 Tips for Success” (11). She contends that the genre as constructed by this document and others like it, including her own assignment sheet, positions students to respond to exposure to others’ trauma in troubling ways.

The five tips reported by Gindlesparger are “Write,” “Reflect on your experience,” “Share photos,” “Keep it short,” and “Be honest” (12). Essential to the tip advice, she states, is the emphasis on “positive experience” that can be depicted as “action”: the advice sheet instructs students to “keep your content to what is most exciting and noteworthy” (qtd. in Gindlesparger 12). Examples in the sheet, in Gindlesparger’s view, suggest that for U. S. students, a study-abroad experience allows them to act as “conquerors of a passive world” that is their “playground” and to consider their trip as “a vacation-oriented experience” (12).

This configuration of the rhetorical situation inherent in a study-abroad trip, Gindlesparger writes, turns the experience into a means by which the students focus on their own “personal growth and development” (Talya Zemach-Bersin, qtd. in Gindlesparger 10). In this view, growth that results from encountering less affluent cultures or sites of trauma can translate into the accumulation of “cultural capital” (9), such that students may “use the misfortune of others to explore their own privilege” (8).

Gindlesparger finds that directing students to make connections between what they encounter and their own experiences contributes to problematic representation and appropriation of cultures and historical trauma. In particular, she argues, the exhortation to relate personally to what study-abroad students observe creates problems because questions about “what surprised you or what you have learned” are “arhetorical tools that can be applied to any situation” (13). The blog tips, as well as the perceived need to allow students freedom to choose their own subjects, make no rhetorical or ethical distinction between visits to a concentration camp and a beach day (14).

The blog entries and later interviews of Gindlesparger’s three study subjects explore the genre demands of the blogs. In Gindlesparger’s analysis, “Eric” responded to a meeting with a Holocaust survivor by “positioning her life experience as entertainment for Eric’s gain” (15) as he casts her history as a “tragic masterpiece” and a vivid “painting” for his consumption (qtd. in Gindlesparger 15). Eric has difficulty moving beyond his earlier school readings on the Holocaust as he tries to relate to an individual whose experiences may not have been captured in those readings (16). In his interview, Eric notes his earlier urge to handle the experience by “tying a bow on it” (qtd. in Gindlesparger 16).

According to Gindlesparger, “Emily” “overidentifi[es]” with Nazis assembled in a Nuremberg stadium used for rallies when she imagines that she can put herself in the Nazis’ shoes and assigns her own values to their response to Hitler (17), contending that they might have felt “helpless” before Hitler’s tactics. Gindlesparger argues that the blog genre insists that the “complex intellectual task of trying to understand” Nazis must be “‘exciting,’ ‘awesome,’ or at least show how [Emily] is bettered” (17).

Gindlesparger writes that Alyssa’s response to the Mauthausen Concentration Camp is the “inciting incident” for her study (18). Alyssa’s blog entry attempts to relate the experiences of the camp victims to her own ROTC basic training (18). Getting up early and the arrangement of the camp trigger identification with the prisoners (18), to the point that “[t]he gas chamber experience was something I could somewhat relate to” (qtd. in Gindlesparger 18). In her interview, Gindlesparger recounts, Alyssa focused on the blog’s mandate to keep her report “awesome” by writing something “readable and enjoyable” (19), with the result that she was discouraged from dealing with the emotional experience of the concentration camp.

From the interviews, Gindlesparger concludes that students resist addressing discomforting experiences, choosing instead the tactic encouraged by the blog genre, “identifying from similarity” (20). This kind of identification glosses over differences that might challenge students’ complacency or comfort. Gindlesparger turns to Krista Ratcliffe’s concept of “rhetorical listening,” in which participating in what Ratcliffe calls a “genuine conversation” can allow “working through their own discomfort” to become “the students’ end goal” (20). Gindlesparger proposes Dominick LaCapra’s “empathetic unsettlement” as a way to undercut inappropriate closure and resist the temptation to see others’ horrific experiences as somehow accruing to an observer’s spiritual gain (20).

Noting that the three students were “genuine, caring sympathetic people” who did their best to respond to expectations as they understood them (19), and that two of the three found it hard to explain their blog entries (21), Gindlesparger suggests more attention to the rhetorical demands of the genre itself as part of the “predeparture preparation” (21). She also recommends calling attention to the time-intensive nature of working through unsettlement, in contrast to the genre’s demands for fast, brief responses, as well as asking for revision after contemplative work in order to allow students to reevaluate “tidy” responses (22). Similarly, exploring students’ own positionality in preparation for exposure to others’ trauma and creating opportunities for more extensive interaction with difference during the trip can enable students to “identify from difference rather than similarity” (23). Gindlesparger finds these pedagogical choices important as composition increasingly engages with audiences and experiences outside of the classroom (23).


Leave a comment

Opel and Rhodes. User-Centered Design in the Writing Classroom. C&C, in press. Posted 09/09/2018.

Opel, Dawn S., and Jacqueline Rhodes. “Beyond Student as User: Rhetoric, Multimodality, and User-Centered Design.” Computers and Composition (in press) (2017): xxx. Web. 10 Aug. 2018.

Dawn S. Opel and Jacqueline Rhodes write about the complexities that arise when rhetoric and composition incorporates the principles of user-centered design (UCD) into pedagogical methodologies.

Interest in UCD follows from the work of scholars on usability in technical communication, who, the authors note, have addressed the concept of usability as a process of “design and testing of digital technologies” (1). Because technical communication shares affinities with rhetoric and composition, concepts like UCD have migrated into writing pedagogy (2). Opel and Rhodes are concerned that this migration has been accepted uncritically and urge a closer look at how UCD can best enhance the values and goals of current rhetoric and composition theory and instruction (3, 7). They offer a heuristic for adopting UCD to the composition classroom.

According to Opel and Rhodes, industry has incorporated UCD into the larger construct of “user experience” (UX), a term that draws on a number of fields, including market research, branding, psychology, anthropology, library science, software design, and graphic arts, as well as others (2). Technical communication scholar Michael Salvo advanced an early definition of UCD as “a process of collecting data from users, creating feedback in the form of information, and then delivering that information to designers” (qtd. in Opel and Rhodes 2). Writing more recently within the field of UX, Jesse James Garrett offers what the authors call an “extend[ed]” notion of UCD as “the practice of creating engaging, efficient user experiences” (qtd. in Opel and Rhodes 2). The authors see this latter approach as more concerned with making room for user input during design (2).

Opel and Rhodes see problems with such efforts to import UCD into rhetoric and composition because of differences in the underlying philosophies and theoretical approaches. They note that many of the fields from which UX, and by extension UCD, draws are “positivist” in nature, valorizing universal optimal designs (3). The authors cite scholarship from composition scholars acknowledging disjunction among three “competing mentalities” (Keith Garrison, qtd. in Opel and Rhodes 3): “the scientist, philosopher, and rhetorician” (3). This competition makes an affiliation between the positivist bent of UCD and the de-centered, constructivist values of composition problematic (3).

Opel and Rhodes write that a too-facile adoption of UCD principles can ignore the distinction between “user” and “learner” (4). The authors suggest a comparison with the approach taken in engineering pedagogy, which has assimilated tenets of “learner-centered design” (LCD) from the field of education (3). Resembling composition’s concept of active learning, LCD brings into UCD the components of “role-playing, case-based learning, project-based learning, and reflection” (3).

The authors advance their discussion of concerns about UCD in composition by exploring their understanding of rhetoric as ethics. They note that “the concept of UX has emerged in disciplinary conversations, bridging rhetoric, the digital humanities, and UCD” (4). Citing Jesse Stommel’s work on the digital humanities, the authors contend that the goal of this field is “not the creation of an effective system,” but rather “a purposeful breaking” (5) that functions as “an ethical interrogation, if not intervention” (4) into any system that purports to erase cultural differences (5). Arguing that rhetoric is about the relations within a system rather than the structure of the system itself, the authors draw on Kenneth Burke’s claims that all choices and actions have ethical consequences and result from the ethical decisions made by agents (5). In the authors’ view, “Designers, writers, users, and readers, then, can act . . . for ethical or unethical purposes” (5).

From this perspective, compositionists who import UCD into classroom practice have an ethical responsibility to interrogate what the authors see as “an ethic of expediency and efficiency” (6; emphasis original) that arrives via the industry-based vocabulary in which actors’ decisions are “tied inextricably to accumulation of capital” (4). Opel and Rhodes write that compositionists can too easily become like “contemporary UX professionals, who conduct research on consumers/users, rather than design in concert with users . . . in participatory design frameworks” (6).

As an alternative for composition instruction, the authors propose a “theory+play” methodology that sees students as active participants in design, simultaneously recuperating the emphasis on “learner” that “user” tends to elide (7). In this view, multimodal composition, as understood in the field, offers scope for play in that it provides opportunities for “remix and mashup” (6) that accord with the idea of play as defined by Jody Shipka: a process of “purposeful choosing, adaptation, and material flexibility” (qtd. in Opel and Rhodes 7). In such play, the authors contend, actors can ask “what-if questions,” imagine new “realities,” and explore how choices constrain and enable action (7). This approach, in the authors’ view inherent in multimodality, “emphasiz[es] agency rather than reception on the part of students” (7).

Consonant with the emphasis on play is the concept of “speculative design,” which moves from a product intended to meet a predetermined goal to a process that explores what is possible, with the focus more on the “discussion” than the product (7).

The authors note that it is common to think of design as “problem solving” (9). They address, however, the issue of what happens when the problems faced by cultures today do not admit of solutions. In this respect, they argue for rhetoric understood as “embodied, relational, ethical, and playful” (7). They draw on Burke’s comic frame as a foundation for such rhetoric, in that it “insists on the continued responsiveness/responsibility of interactants” (7). Multimodal play, then, constitutes a rhetorical act in which students take responsibility for their purposes and choices and the consequences of their activities as “co-creators/designers of discourse operating in complex public spheres” (8).

The authors’ heuristic for incorporating UCD into the classroom provides seven tenets. Several of these address the need for interrogation of “industry rhetoric” as it extols “expediency, efficiency, engagement” (8). Other principles ask for examination of factors like “the cultural systems of normativity” that commonly drive design when it is seen as problem-solving (8).

Opel and Rhodes suggest that these principles follow from a view of design as an act that recognizes its rhetorical nature and that further takes on the inevitable ethical component of all rhetorics as, in Burke’s formulation, “rhetoric,” “persuasion,” and “meaning” (6) are inextricably linked to the purposeful acts of intentional agents. For Opel and Rhodes, UCD that truly positions students as co-designers can enable students to understand their responsibilities within such roles.


Leave a comment

Kraemer, Don J. Ethics, Morality, and Justice. CCC, June 2017. Posted 07/16/2017.

Kraemer, Don J. “The Good, the Right, and the Decent: Ethical Dispositions, the Moral Viewpoint, and Just Pedagogy.” College Composition and Communication 68.4 (2017): 603-28. Print.

Don J. Kraemer argues that scholars in composition studies conflate the terms “ethical” and “moral.” He contends that distinguishing between these concepts through examining the ethical-moral interface as ‘a topic” (607; emphasis original) can provide a heuristic opportunity that can enhance compositionists’ efforts to work with diverse student views and values.

A starting point for Kraemer is Joseph Harris’s 2015 article, “Reasoning at the Point of a Gun,” in which Harris records discussion with grad students about a first-year student writing in opposition to gun control (603-04). Kraemer reports that Harris’s concerns included both urging the student “to inhabit, at least for a moment, a point of view you disagree with” and, at the same time, “find[ing] a way to help him develop the argument he wants to make” (qtd. in Kraemer 605, 604).

Kraemer presents these goals as representing the confrontation between the moral and the ethical. He also quotes Patricia Bizzell’s 2009 “Composition Studies Saves the World!”, maintaining that her reference to her “personal morality” (qtd. in Kraemer 605) actually describes “an ethics” (604-05).

To explore the distinctions between these concepts, Kraemer draws on a “kantian” approach in which, “ethically, we evaluate our actions in terms of the good, morally in terms of the right or obligatory” (606; emphasis original). He argues that we all belong to varied communities that may or may not share the same range of values or goods, that values can conflict even for individuals, and that these conflicts become “moral conflicts” in that we use moral reasoning to assess and judge them (605-06).

A further distinction Kraemer invokes to illuminate the moral-ethical interface is the difference between “what one is to be” and “what one is to do” (James Porter, qtd. in Kraemer 606-07). Kraemer categorizes questions about the kind of person an individual would like to be as ethical in that they deal with individual aspirations and values, the individual’s “good,” while questions about actions are questions about “what is the right thing to do,” that is, “the right thing for one, for anyone to do” (607) and therefore moral; emphasis original). For Kraemer, what individuals aspire to may or may not accord with the universal right thing supplied by morality (607).

Kraemer argues that when morality and ethics confront each other, as they must, we use morality to assess and reason about our ethical choices. In this process, the ethical good, which may accrue to groups and communities as well as individuals and which may be specific to particular circumstances, is not overridden by the moral, universal judgment but is taken into account. When, in Kant’s words, “human morality” and “human happiness” come together in “union and harmony,” the result is the “highest possible good in the world” (qtd. in Kraemer 607). “This,” Kraemer writes, “is the just” (607).

An important component of the just in Kraemer’s formulation is that it takes into account what doing the right thing will cost the individual actor or the community in which a particular version of the good is invoked. The heuristic value of the moral-ethical distinction, in this view, is that it sustains the “inventive tension” (615) between what we owe others (the moral) and what we see as important to achieve, to succeed at (the ethical) (611).

This view of ethics provides Kraemer with the argument that an ethically directed writer might value the rewards, both tangible and psychic, of doing a particular kind of writing well, even if that kind of writing does not commit the individual to making the highest use of his time by acting specifically to benefit others (610, 619); in fact, an individual’s practice of the good as she sees it in her writing may “may add to a reader’s labors, if not also offend that person, or worse” (615). Yet morality does not disappear; it involves the question “as to who benefits and who bears the cost” of an individual or group’s ethical choices (611). When these two kinds of stances “face each other,” we approach “the just” (611).

Kraemer develops his argument through a reading of John Duffy’s “Ethical Dispositions: A Discourse for Rhetoric and Composition.” Bringing this text into conversation with Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics and Chaïm Perelman and Lucie Olbrechts-Tyteca’s The New Rhetoric: A Treatise on Argumentation, Kraemer traces what he sees as Duffy’s movement between the ethical and the moral, arguing that keeping these terms separate allows a more fruitful understanding of the dilemma faced by writing teachers as they work to support students’ individual goals while also fostering a set of dispositions claimed by rhetoric and composition as foundational to the field’s mission.

For example, Kraemer examines Duffy’s statement that asking students to respond to counterarguments in their texts fosters “the dispositions of tolerance, generosity, and self-awareness” (qtd.. in Kraemer 616). For Kraemer, this exhortation to students “seems unnecessarily unilateral” (616). If listening to others respectfully signals care for their ends and “that person’s life as an end in itself,” then we are obligated to “inquir[e] how his ends, taken as policy, would affect us—as well as any of the people we have the luck (good or bad) not to be” (617). In other words, this obligation requires us to expend the same rigor in examining our own position as that of others.

Kraemer provides an example of how such discussions in Duffy might more usefully reflect this interplay between morality and ethics:

It has indeed been the moral side of the discussion that has been voiced. . . . Giving voice to ethical virtue can take as little as adding, to the sentence that follows, “and to themselves”: “To teach these particular practices is therefore to teach students to read, speak and write in ways that express their commitments to other human beings [and to themselves] (Duffy 224; bracketed material added). (618)

Kraemer addresses the problem of morality when it is imagined as and critiqued as a rigid universal code. He agrees with Duffy that a moral code adopted from the perspective of one group to the exclusion of others fails as a source of reasoning about the just. However, he contends that “writing pedagogy will be better informed . . . if morality is not dispensed with as a preexisting standard only” (612). Dismissing its attention to what might constitute the good for everyone and embracing only values attached to specific local contexts diminishes the power morality has to call ethics to account.

Apropos of the “‘perfect’ justice” that may result from too rigid an application of the universal, Kraemer turns to Aristotle’s idea of “decency,” which “corrects” laws that fail to establish the just universality they intend (620). Decency derives from the “practical wisdom” in play when morality “judg[es] in situations with that situation’s particulars in mind” (620).

Applied to the writing classroom, such decency, in Kraemer’s view, honors both individual decisions about “what a course well taught might mean” and claims about what such a course “might do for all students” (621). The tension between these goals is where Kraemer argues that we approach justice, a willingness, despite our individual ethics, to “try to establish terms with one another that everyone can agree are reasonable and fair” (621).


1 Comment

Duffy, John. Virtue Ethics in Writing Classrooms. Jan. CE. Posted 02/20/2017.

Duffy, John. “The Good Writer: Virtue Ethics and the Teaching of Writing.” College English 79.3 (2017): 229-50. Print.

John Duffy argues that compositionists should embrace a form of the moral philosophy called virtue ethics as a basis for the teaching of writing.

He proposes that the ethical is as much a dimension of good writing as the “rhetorical, the linguistic, or the aesthetic” (229). Ethical decisions, he writes, are inherent in building a relationship with an audience, a major task undertaken by all writers . When a writing teacher encourages students to evaluate sources for their reliability or to examine counterarguments, Duffy contends, he or she is actually asking students to make ethical choices (230). Each choice is a partial answer to the question, “What kind of person do I want to be?”, which to Duffy is primarily an ethical question. Learning to make such choices, he argues, is how a student becomes a “good writer” (230).

Traditionally, Duffy writes, ethical systems were seen as either deontological—governed by a priori rules and principles—or consequentialist, dependent on the outcomes of actions (230). More recently, scholars have turned to “postmodern ethics” as an alternative. Duffy contends that “none of these frameworks . . . provides an adequate account of how writers define themselves ethically” (230).

The contrasting system of virtue ethics, he argues, is “both old and new,” dating at least to Aristotle and expounded explicitly in Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics (230). Duffy quotes a definition by Rosalind Hursthouse: “a virtuous person is a morally good, excellent, or admirable person who acts and reacts well, rightly, as she should—she gets things right” (231). This concept, Duffy believes, can be translated into “rhetorical virtues,” or “discursive practices” that become “rationales for making ethical decisions in the writing class” (231).

According to Duffy, scholars who have turned to the virtue ethics as alternatives to deontology and consequentialism have noted that the traditional moral theories have become “unintelligible” or “incoherent” for a number of reasons, for example their grounding in pronouncements of God or their tendency to cobble together disparate theories with “incommensurable moral claims” (232). A neo-Aristotelian ethics, in contrast, focuses on a larger sense of how to live, with a supreme happiness, eudaimonia, as a culmination in that it is not a context-specific happiness such as one might experience after an instant of good fortune but rather a sense of “living well throughout the course of a lifetime” (233).

For Aristotle, Duffy maintains, achieving such a practice of happiness depends on fulfilling a telos—a purpose or “function”—with the “distinctively human function” being “rationality, the ability of humans to exercise reason” (234), in particular using “phronesis, or practical wisdom” to arrive at “the right course of action in a specific set of circumstances” (234).

Much current thinking about virtue ethics, Duffy states, applies such reasoning to specific fields, such as medicine, education, or law (235). The kind of virtue that can be enacted ethically in such situations, Duffy stresses, is learned through “instruction, practice, and habit”; it is not innate (235). “Rhetorical virtues,” then, become “discursive practices of virtue,” for example, expressions of “honesty, accountability, [and] generosity” (235).

Duffy addresses three specific objections to the concept of virtue: “its associations with an exclusively Christian doctrine, with right-wing ideology and with the historical oppression of women” (235). Despite its history as a component of Christian thinking, he contends, the idea of virtue appears in other contexts such as classical Greek culture and in other religions. Moreover, important virtues such as “open-mindedness, tolerance, and humility” do not rely on a religious endorsement to be valid (236). According to Duffy, the equation of virtue ethics with “character education,” which shifts responsibility for oppression to individual deficiencies rather than to systemic causes, is a political “appropriation” of the concept; a “virtue ethics framework” can be separated from such uses and even used to counter them (236).

Finally, Duffy counters the connection of the word “virtue” to an oppressive depiction of virtuous women as those who meet gendered domestic ideals with examples of feminist scholars who have presented “feminist virtue theor[ies]” to show that “the history of a term is not necessarily predictive of its future” (237). He points to the historical trajectory of the word “rhetoric” as a parallel example of a term that has carried many meanings throughout its evolution (237).

Duffy offers practical, theoretical, and cultural reasons to incorporate the concept of virtue into writing classrooms. He argues that compositionists already teach rhetorical virtues when they teach argument, in which the making of claims, the provision of evidence, and the openness to counterarguments create contexts of mutual trust and accountability between writers and audiences (238). For Duffy, teaching writing falls under Alisdair McIntyre’s definition of “practices,” that is, “coherent and complex forms of socially cooperative human activity” (qtd. in Duffy 239); virtues arise as practitioners work toward “excellence” (239). Duffy contends that writing teachers share “a loosely defined set of practices” that have been subjected to the open critique necessary to the “ongoing project” (241) of developing an ethics (239).

Theoretically, he argues, deontology cannot supply a sound rhetorical ethics because of its dependence on received wisdom; rhetoric is most necessary, he writes, when such a priori pronouncements cannot offer a clear path (240). Consequentialism fails because ethical writing will not always achieve its goals (241). Culturally, rhetorical ethics should offer a corrective to today’s corrosive public discourse; postmodern ethics, which has guided many in composition studies, has, in Duffy’s view, offered important challenges to the oppression and injustice committed in the name of “universality” and “foundation” (243), but the “skepticism and critique” that it supports must be augmented with “the language of the virtues” which can “address the possibilities of opening dialogues, finding affinities, acknowledging interdependencies, and talking to those strangers we most fear and mistrust” (244).

The practice of rhetorical ethics, Duffy concludes, must be developed locally to serve the specific contexts students encounter; citing John Gage, he encourages classroom practice that locates students in situations in which they must “exercise practical wisdom, or phronesis” (244). Acknowledging that the kind of rhetorical ethics inherent in rational argument may not always be adequate or may fail when no common ground is possible, Duffy argues that students can learn from exemplars “[h[ow . . . a good writer [would] resist such conditions” (245). Even if other forms of communication are needed, Duffy contends, composition should honor the contribution of “rhetorical virtues” like those found in ethical argumentation to the definition of a “good writer” committed to the goal of “creating [a] better world” (246).