Booth, Elbow, Dewey, Jones

Catching up on summaries:

I commented earlier on Elbow’s note that no one had responded to his “doubting and believing” appendix in WWT. There seem to be two notable responses since – a 2002 article in RR by Donald C. Jones, and a back-and-forth between Wayne Booth and Elbow in CE in 2005.

Jones compares Elbow’s stance quite favorably to John Dewey’s pragmatic rhetoric, which centers around decisions based on probability, and challenges the picture of Elbow as an “expressivist” – even a Platonist – via Berlin’s taxonomy. This miscategorization, Jones claims, is due to a serious case of “either/or” thinking – namely, between the extremes of Platonistic truths and Foucault’s postmodern prison. Elbow’s rhetoric and pedagogy is an attempt at a middle ground – pragmatism, the philosophical insistence on making practical decisions without getting too depressed or preachy about reality, and further that neither the individual or the social realm alone creates knowledge. Given that I was reconsidering Elbow’s expressivist label while I read WWT, I read with this essay, definitely.

Pragmatism is sometimes difficult for me to separate from social constructivism. These days I try to think of pragmatism in a sophistic sense of being active in making meaning – that is, being an agent of aggressive power rather than a passively constructed construct. We can talk all day about how our culture and context shapes us, but at the end of the day, we have to make choices, and rhetoric, if it is allowed to keep invention, allows those choices. And if we take Conley’s two-part definition of rhetoric – 1) a wish toward what rhetoric should be and 2) a creation of a historical context – then social construction is built-in to rhetoric.

Bleh. Anyway, Booth and Elbow in 2005 practically fell over each other in embracing this kind of middle-ground, all-encompassing, pragmatic rhetoric. They have their private terms – Booth’s “listening-rhetoric” and Elbow’s “doubting and believing,” but it’s all the same side of the same coin.

I tend to think of skepticism as the middle-ground between positivism and relativism, but Booth pits skepticism against dogmatism, and I found some of his arguments criticizing skepticism to be, well, fallacious, given my definition of it – he seems to have had in mind a sort of absolute, no-holds-barred skepticism that never changes its mind, where mine is much more fluid. Why would anyone be a skeptic if not to find a good reason for changing their mind? The purpose of being skeptical is to find the surest footing (or rather, what is probably the surest footing), not to look haughty and sniff at the air.

Elbow follows suit, though with more of an emphasis on pedagogy and what he calls safety. I haven’t called safety by safety before – maybe “comfort” or “comfortable,” but he’s got a finger on yet another key problem with composition. It’s very difficult to get students into a mindset where they feel comfortable to talk in a classroom environment. Alone, it’s rarely a problem. I can get almost any student to pontificate at length about their writing one on one. In groups, it’s also relatively easy. But in front of the class, it’s a crapshoot, something I can never take for granted, and something that either seems to develop over the semester or becomes stillborn. Some of it is peer pressure. Some of it is confusion over expectations. Some of it is waiting me out, an active resistance. But over all of those, it’s a hesistance to embrace the idea of critique, and that is rooted in an ever deeper problem – the inability to read with the texts in the first place. I’ve still to find a class that does particularly well with my summarization exercise. I’m beginning to think I should re-focus FYC the next time I teach it to focus even harder on understanding texts (in Elbow’s terms, “believing”) before we even attempt to criticize them.

If it is not apparent that I am drifting quite steadily in the direction of this pragmatic, all-emcompassing rhetoric, then I’ll say it: I am. I have some problems with the dismissal of what I think are some useful elements of classical rhetoric, which I think is a huge resource that should continue to be mined extensively – various treatments of arrangement and style in particular. But all in all, I’m finding a home to put my thoughts in.

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