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Fleming, David. Fear of Persuasion in English Language Arts. CE, July 2019. Posted 09/02/2019.

Fleming, David. “Fear of Persuasion in the English Language Arts.” College English 81.6 (2019): 508-41. Print.

David Fleming expresses concern that English instruction at all levels has banished “persuasion” as one of the rhetorical arts. He argues that scholars and practitioners in the English Language Arts should reconsider the importance of persuasion as a central element of human communication and reinvigorate it as part of the language curriculum.

Fleming examines the history of “persuasion” from ancient Greek culture through present-day curricula like that included in the Common Core State Standards for preK-12 classrooms and currently taught in college composition classes. The Greeks, he points out, considered persuasion a god in the form of Peitho, seen as a vital force in all forms of political and cultural life (508), particularly because of its power to bring people together (509). The god, however, had two sides, one involving “eros, beauty, and seduction” and the other including “logos, speech, and reason” (508-09). Its seductive powers mean that persuasion “needs discipline” if its practitioners are to maximize its worth without giving in to its “vices” (510).

Fleming draws on the contrast between the Isocratean rhetorical tradition and the Socratic philosophical approach to illustrate persuasion’s complex history. The Socratic tradition turned to a dialectical search for truth, characterizing persuasion as the ability to “mov[e] crowds of uneducated listeners” (509). This strand, Fleming writes, led to “modern philosophy,” as developed by thinkers like René Descartes, John Locke, and Immanuel Kant, for whom “disagreement” was to be taken as a “sign of error” on the part of one of the arguers (511).

In contrast, Isocrates, in a tradition continued by Quintillian and Cicero, argued for rhetorical practice “centered on language, literature, and the arts of social influence, rather than mathematics, dialectic, and truth seeking” (509). This tradition, Fleming writes, appears as well in the late eighteenth-century British Enlightenment, with the work of George Campbell and Hugh Blair. Fleming states that in Campbell’s view, persuasion was the most important of the four aims of discourse because it acted on the “will” and generated action (512).

Fleming reports that this respect for persuasion as one of a range of forms of discourse continued through the nineteenth century in United States education. John Franklin Genung’s “influential 1886 textbook” considered persuasion “sovereign” among rhetorical aims because it spoke to “the whole man—not to his mind alone, but to mind and heart and will” (Genung, qtd. in Fleming 513). U. S. education in these years is characterized as an “oratorical culture” with a “backdrop of momentous social issues” (513), in which powerful public speakers influenced public opinion and spurred action.

In Fleming’s view, persuasion lost ground in education as “scientific, technical, and commercial pursuits” replaced the “traditional arts,” writing supplanted speaking, and persuasion became “weaponized” for commercial and political ends (514). Educators began to consider persuasive tactics as a form of domineering violence and urged a turn to argument seen as “inquiry, discovery, or communication” (Amy Knoblauch, qtd. in Fleming 515).

Argument as opposed to persuasion, Fleming indicates, experienced a resurgence with Stephen Toulmin’s 1958 The Uses of Argument, in which, in Fleming’s view, “practical reasoning” cast argument as “all about justification, the relationship of statements, not of people” (516). Educators, he contends, came to see argument and persuasion as separate kinds of discourse, with persuasion the negative form. This opposition, Fleming writes, runs counter to the rhetorical tradition, in which the two work in concert (516). Fleming notes that a search of CompPile he conducted finds mention of persuasion “declining precipitously” in college writing literature from the 1990s (516).

Fleming cites Kenneth Burke’s argument that persuasion is inherent in communication and defends persuasion through the claims of political scientist Bryan Garsten, who focuses on the role persuasion plays in democracy. Like Burke, Fleming writes, Garsten urges us to recognize the ubiquity of disagreement; for Garsten, persuasion requires respect for those with whom we disagree, including an awareness of their right to freely reject our claims. Acknowledging the legitimacy of persuasion, in Fleming’s view, validates our “situated capacity to judge controversial matters” rather than handing judgment over to “a sovereign public authority of some kind” like a monarch or “reason itself” (519-20). In Garsten’s words,

The presumption . . . that there is such a thing as persuasion that lies between manipulation and pandering . . . is the presumption of democratic politics. (qtd. in Fleming 520; ellipses in Fleming)

Fleming documents the rejection of persuasion in the Common Core State Standards, which provide benchmarks for English and math in preK-12 education. The Standards privilege argument defined as “a reasoned, logical way of demonstrating that the writer’s position, belief, or conclusion is valid” (qtd. in Fleming 522). Text from the ELA Standards, Fleming maintains, makes clear that arguing from ethos or pathos is inferior to arguing from logos—in Fleming’s view, dismissing “the key insight of Aristotelian rhetorical theory, that persuasive argument is a matter of ethos, pathos, and logos” (523; emphasis original).

Fleming explores online resources spreading the view that persuasion is to be avoided because of its appeal to the emotions rather than “facts, reasons, and evidence” (ReadWriteThink.org, qtd. in Fleming 524). Fleming contends that this distaste for persuasion may be a reaction to poorly designed timed writing prompts that asked students to take positions based entirely on subjective experience (527).

He expresses concern that few scholars in rhetoric and composition have addressed the “hyperlogical” slant driving current approaches to argumentation (528). Some have examined the fact vs. opinion binary that Fleming believes exacerbates the rejection of persuasion. Analyzing an NPR segment on a sixth-grade argument assignment, Fleming challenges the claim that “facts” can be opinion-free, contending instead that students will be better served in a polemic culture if they understand that “their arguments are always based on evidence that is itself always constructed, contingent, and debatable” (532).

The example in question presents students with two sets of opposing facts, in Fleming’s view failing students by not providing the tools to assess situations where both sides may be partially right or wrong (533). Moreover, in his view, students are not allowed to use appeals that would gain adherence in a real-world decision-making context. He argues that an opinion can be an embodied “judgment” resulting from joining argument and persuasion rather than uncoupling them (533-34).

Fleming sees persuasion as a form of communication that “tries to move others while still respecting their autonomy, that appreciates the legitimate role of character and emotion in human judgment and action” (535). Rejecting this art, he claims, can lead to a belief that anyone holding opposing views is in error, “even evil,” a situation “more ethically dangerous” than the vices attributed to persuasion (535).


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Bailey & Bizzaro. Research in Creative Writing. August RTE. Posted 08/25/2017.

Bailey, Christine, and Patrick Bizzaro. “Research in Creative Writing: Theory into Practice.” Research in the Teaching of English 52.1 (2017): 77-97. Print.

Christine Bailey and Patrick Bizzaro discuss the disciplinarity of creative writing and its place in relation to the discipline of composition. They work to establish an aesthetic means of interpreting and representing data about creative writing in the belief that in order to emerge as a discipline its own right, creative writing must arrive at a set of shared values and understandings as to how research is conducted.

Bailey and Bizzaro’s concerns derive from their belief that creative writing must either establish itself as a discipline or it will be incorporated into composition studies (81). They contend that creative writing studies, like other emerging disciplines, must account for, in the words of Timothy J. San Pedro, “hierarchies of power” within institutions (qtd. in Bailey and Bizzaro 78) such that extant disciplines control or oppress less powerful disciplines, much as “teaching practices and the texts used in schools” oppress marginal student groups (78). A decision to use the methodologies of the “dominant knowledges” thus accedes to “imperial legacies” (San Pedro, qtd. in Bailey and Bizzaro 78).

Bailey and Bizzaro report that discussion of creative writing by compositionists such as Douglas Hesse and Wendy Bishop has tended to address how creative writing can be appropriately positioned as part of composition (79). Drawing on Bishop, the authors ascribe anxiety within some English departments over the role of creative writing to “genre-fear,” that is, “the belief that two disciplines cannot simultaneously occupy the same genre” (79).

They recount Bishop’s attempt to resolve the tension between creative writing studies and composition by including both under what she called a de facto “ready-made synthesis” that she characterized as the “study of writers writing” (qtd. in Bailey and Bizzaro 80). In the authors’ view, this attempt fails because the two fields differ substantially: “what one values as the basis for making knowledge differs from what the other values” (80).

The authors see creative writing studies itself as partially responsible for the difficulties the field has faced in establishing itself as a discipline (79, 80-81). They draw on Stephen Toulmin’s approach to disciplinarity: “a discipline exists ‘where men’s [sic] shared commitment to a sufficiently agreed set of ideals leads to the development of an isolable and self-defining repertory of procedures” (qtd. In Bailey and Bizzaro 80). The authors elaborate to contend that in a discipline, practitioners develop shared views as to what counts as knowledge and similarly shared views about the most appropriate means of gathering and reporting that knowledge (80).

Creative writing studies, they contend, has not yet acted on these criteria (81). Rather, they state, creative writers seem to eschew empirical research in favor of “craft interviews” consisting of “writers’ self-reports”; meanwhile, compositionists have undertaken to fill the gap by applying research methodologies appropriate to composition but not to creative writing (81). The authors’ purpose, in this article, is to model a research methodology that they consider more in keeping with the effort to define and apply the specific values accruing to creative writing.

The methodology they advance involves gathering, interpreting, and representing aesthetic works via an aesthetic form, in this case, the novel. Students in nine sections of first-year-writing classes in spring and fall 2013 responded to a “creative-narrative” prompt: “How did you come to this place in your life? Tell me your story” (84). Students were asked to respond with “a creative piece such as a poem, screenplay, or graphic novel” (84). All students were invited to participate with the understanding that their work would be confidential and might be represented in published research that might take on an alternative form such as a novel; the work of students who signed consent forms was duplicated and analyzed (84-85).

Data ultimately consisted of 57 artifacts, 55 of which were poems (85). Coding drew on the work of scholars like K. M. Powell, Elspeth Probyn, and Roz Ivanič to examine students’ constructions of self through the creative-narrative process, and on that of James E. Seitz to consider how students’ use of metaphor created meaning (85, 86). Further coding was based on Kara P. Alexander’s 2011 study of literacy narratives (86).

This analysis was combined with the results of a demographic survey to generate six groups revolving around “[c]ommon threads” in the data (86); “personas” revealed through the coded characteristics divided students into those who, for example, “had a solid identity in religion”; “were spiritually lost”; were “uncertain of identity [and] desiring change”; were “reclusive” with “strong family ties”; were interested in themes of “redemption or reformation”; or “had lived in multiple cultures” (86). This list, the authors state, corresponds to “a standard analysis” that they contrast with their alternative creative presentation (86).

In their methodology, Bailey and Bizzaro translate the “composites” identified by the descriptors into six characters for a young-adult novel Bailey developed (88). Drawing on specific poems by students who fell into each composite as well as on shared traits that emerged from analysis of identity markers and imagery in the poems, the authors strove to balance the identities revealed through the composites with the individuality of the different students. They explore how the characters of “Liz” and “Emmy” are derived from the “data” provided by the poems (89-90), and offer an excerpt of the resulting novel (90-92).

They present examples of other scholars who have “used aesthetic expressions in the development of research methods” (88). Such methods include ethnography, a form of research that the authors consider “ultimately a means of interpretive writing” (93). Thus, in their view, creating a novel from the data presented in poems is a process of interpreting those data, and the novel is similar to the kind of “storytell[ing]” (93) in which ethnography gathers data, then uses it to represent, interpret, and preserve individuals and their larger cultures (92-93).

They continue to contend that embracing research methods that value aesthetic response is essential if creative writing is to establish itself as a discipline (93). These methodologies, they argue, can encourage teachers to both value aesthetic elements of student work and to use their own aesthetic responses to enhance teaching, particularly as these methods of gathering and representing data result in “aesthetic objects” that are “evocative, engage readers’ imaginations, and resonate with the world we share not only with our students but also with our colleagues in creative writing” (94). They argue that “when the ‘literariness’ of data reports [becomes] a consideration in the presentation of research,” composition and creative writing will have achieved “an equitable relationship in writing studies” (95).