Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Diversifying Rhetorical Methods, Or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love My Hubris

by Steven S. Vrooman

Presented at the Engaging Pedagogy Conference, Seguin, TX, May 17, 2017

Aristotle’s three modes of rhetoric were ethos, pathos and logos, but these are, with apologies, inexact.
Although rhetorical criticism has often been taught as an application of various “methods,” these tend to produce, in the words of my doctoral advisor, Cheree Carlson, “cookie-cutter” projects that stamp the pentad or Symbolic Convergence Theory. This is not the same as what Janesick (1994) calls methodolatry, but it is in the same family. Janesick is talking about the kinds of specific methodological practices in ethnography, which, in contrast to most rhetorical criticism articles, is usually far more honest about how it does its work. Rhetoric, by erasing the conditions of practice by which a piece of criticism is undertaken, shifts its methodolatric burden onto its theorists, who become magic totem words that are supposed to tell us exactly what is happening. You know the words. Burke. Bohrmann, Fisher.
We diversify this list, when we do so, by carting over loads of ideological criticism, which, to be fair, people like Burke were doing on the sly anyway, but this leaves us with a decidedly problematic set of methodolatries. As Grossberg (1997) argued years ago, in between NCA panels where he wondered why so much cultural studies work was “so fucking boring,” we typically just find domination and resistance exactly where we expect to find them.
What is the epistemological status of a Burkean critic who sees the world as ripe for slicing with Burke’s box of knives? We can build an alternative rhetoric using, say, Anzaldua, but all of these approaches verge on hagiography. Anzaldua at least has cool words we can use to label our practices for us and allow us to explain to advisers what our “method” is. But what of lesser-known scholars, who don’t have five keywords to bold before the abstract? We risk the possibility that there is “real” rhetoric, with systems and models and names for things, and “fake” rhetoric, which is clearly an attempt to open up the canon, but seems to carry a different standard for how much it can lift. If it were good, wouldn’t there be steps like this other stuff we see in the Foss books, a student might ask?
And they will ask that even more in my class, which has, by this time, already taken students through a set of detailed tables of options for exploring and applying schemes, figures and tropes, as well as argument structure and fallacy (see the vast charts at I do find that students experience everything to follow in the class as less intellectually rigorous than what they’ve worked through in the tables.
So I feel it my task in this to generate those tables. There is something to struggling with Butler or West or Irigaray and then leaving them to float in a pool of confusion when asked to pick a method out of the bunch. And Stacey Waite’s (2016) hilarious account of reading passages from Judith Butler with her students shows that struggling through those moments with them can be pretty great.
This semester I played both sides by doing this intellectual kick into the deep end of the pool that reminds us all so fondly of graduate school seminars but then moving to the clearer set of charts. I know. I know. Butler’s approach cannot be reduced to such blankety blankety schemes, and it just reifies the kind of blankety blankety privilege her work stands against by reducing it in this way.
Does it, though? How do you teach Butler? Make them read? They don’t, btw. You give them some ideas before they start to guide their reading? Critical guiding questions? Then you do reading groups or pull the class into a circle for a discussion? Maybe you eventually are dramatically compelled to rise to the chalkboard in a moment of transcendent joy which you will use as your Facebook status about how wonderful your students are later that afternoon. You grasp the chalk and begin to . . . what? Write words. Then more words. Now you have a spatial diagram. Perhaps you use an arrow or two. Maybe you even number some concepts for them so that you have an answer when they tell you, “I’m still not sure exactly what we are supposed to do for this project.”
See what you did, with all the haze of constructivist and dialogic and postmodern and decentered teaching? You faked it. You made it look, to the students, like they did the work. But, you know, they don’t buy it. Either you explained it clearly enough that they think you are a genius and are so glad for the privilege of taking courses with you, or, worse, that you are a bore and they left confused. Rarely, as a classroom body, do they think they did this or could do it again without you.
This drives me nuts. This is fake pedagogy. Fake democratization.
I would prefer to cut out that bit, read the hard texts for them, process it into outline form and provide it to them in a form that they can immediately begin applying. I see that as far more empowering.
And I regularly see nonmajors in my introductory rhetorical methods class do better work with these tools than what I see in the journals or in conferences.
Back to Aristotle.
I break the pieces of rhetoric into interlocking funnels:
Schemes build structure (think Michael Leff). Narratives build genre. Arguments build ideology. Okay. But we know that’s not the whole story. Ideology, for example, is composed of, well, everything. So that’s what the grey circles are for. We start the class with schemes and they figure out how to do original research to analyze a structure. Same for arguments, although their theses tend to be of fairly small scope. All the rest of rhetorical criticism builds accounts of how all of this fits together, but so often it seems a kind of narrative + genre + ideology + structure question.
In the bad old days I used Burke and a social movements rhetoric textbook to explore these issues.
To build a version of the good new days, I, as I indicated, first just gave them articles or chapters and we struggled, disingenuously, as a class, to develop methods from them. Plenty were about being excluded from the rhetorical canon or even from public discourse, so that helped to process the perceived problem of “Why don’t we have these in chart form if they are so great?” We built methods with them:

For their final project they simply had to choose one of the 9 articles to use for what we were calling the MashUp section of the course. The project, which is course cumulative, used schemes, Perelman’s argument typology, fallacies, the material which used to be Burke (now MashUp) and the social movements book. This had, in the past, been a different social movement for each student. This time, all students had Black Lives Matter. Each student selected a different set of data (some social media content, some video content and some press coverage). They did a final presentation and paper, which they uploaded to a shared class blog ( for potential aggregation into a larger project.
At a basic level, given that before 100% of the students used Burke, a dead straight white male theorist, this time around only 12.5% did. I included a Burke reading as part of the diverse MashUp.
A more complex analysis of these results requires a bit of understanding about Burke, Burke’s connection to social movement theory, and the unique structure of the Black Lives Matter movement. Burkean analysis has many parts, but given his dramatistic framework, the typical elements used for the final project are either his frames or his notion of perspective by incongruity and its relationship to rhetorical bureaucracy. A quick and vaguely inaccurate version of these ideas is that Burke values either tragic framed movements (like the peace movement of the 1960s, morally rejecting the evil Establishment) or the comic (Gandhi, MLK, etc., which use civil disobedience to educate the foolish, not evil, system). Perspective by incongruity is akin to Gramscian hegemony analysis, which is interested in how power-laden discourses are stretched by power structures and cracked by resistance. In Burke’s case, he highlights the use of irony and satire in such cases.
This all connects with social movement theory largely built on a Burkean framework that privileges clear moral conflict. Other, non-Burkean elements of social movement theory involve clear leadership structures, internal communication rituals, etc. When it is all put together, the ideal movement is almost exactly the opposite of the less-structured, social media-driven, just name their names style of BLM, what my students called “hashtag salad”:

I had a feeling that if I had assigned this kind of movement using Burkean analysis, as usual, the result would have been just like the two previous times individual students chose BLM or three times they chose similar less-structured movements (WTO, Occupy Wall Street) for their final project – they suggested the movement was unclear and disorganized and thus would not be successful. In this case, the results were more mixed, with 5 students concluding that BLM was making errors that were in keeping with Burkean judgments, 6 suggesting that their different structure was an asset and the other 5 members of class arguing more complex theses like:

There is a boomer-millennial divide in terms of strategy, and suspicion of old leadership style, “respectability politics,” is important, because those models led to civil rights settling for not enough. They are stuck in mestizaje stage in connections between generations, but are struggling to develop nepantla.


BLM and others use fallacies, and their unorganized hierarchy allows them to exploit fallacies that are popular and funny enough to get attention but to be able to deny the ineffective or things that cross lines, which is a kind of turn to mdw nfr instead of Aristotle, which helps to pull in people who see news and just get angry.

In these kinds of examples, students were able to use the MashUp article concepts not just as an alternative to the traditional 60s-fetishizing vibe of classic rhetorical social movement theory, but as a key lever in mediating a more complex conversation between that and BLM, and, in many cases, other methods in the class, like fallacies.
Okay. All good. But….
In talking with other faculty interested in diversifying readings and ideas in their classes, there was some resistance to my idea of simplifying these texts down into a set of tools in a table. So I sought to open the class process and let them develop it. I remain skeptical of both the honesty of that approach and the relative lack of agency it gives the students. Although my more top-down table method has problems, it is the better option, all the things considered, I think. My plan is, for Spring 2018, to give the students the table and some of the readings and problematize the whole concept with them. The idea is that I admit that my readings and table entries are simplifications and the class is based on testing them out as much as using them, with the students rewarded for what they can read or generate for the readings that are new. This style can work exceptionally well if the instructor is committed to it. Let them know that all of this is contingent and incomplete. There is always more to do.
I am going to produce a draft of a table below here for you, but I struggle with all the things that I think you’d hope I’d be struggling with here:
1.    Does he have sufficient training to represent these ideas with any degree of fidelity?
2.    Especially given that his embodied experience in the world has been one of vast rafts of privilege.
3.    And the hubris of this table is EXACTLY the sort of reductive thing we’d expect in that case.
Let me take these totally legit criticisms in turn. Not to dispute them, but to explore their implications a bit.
One. I have had a lot of training. My coursework, teaching and research in Cultural Studies, Women’s Studies and African American studies have helped me here. Of course, I’ve been doing Burke stuff for 25 years, so I will likely reduce him to table form far more accurately, so this is a fair point. However, I’d like to underline that this is just not my problem alone. Part of the reason I want to do this project is that NO ONE has the right training for this if we entertain the possibility, even for a bit, that critical academic work does not have to exist in non-step-oriented postmodern form. We have to give it form for the students. We also hope we teach them to supercede our training wheels. And we put those wheels on for other methods. The Foss textbook give plenty of steps to even such mush as “genre criticism.” Why does the Burgchardt textbook give us a history piece and a cultural studies/ideological criticism piece as 2/3 of the “feminist criticism” section? When we strip diverse critical practices of the possibility of being abstracted into method, we reify something terrible. All our postmodern huffing and puffing will not blow down the methodological parts catalog of positivism. Thus we have “real” rhetoric on the one hand and something squishier on the other. It’s what we heard about feminist theory in an unfortunate graduate seminar years ago. The prof suggested that it would be more accurate to call feminist theory poetry or something instead, since it didn’t have the specificity and rigor one would expect of “real” academic work. I swear Kristin Hibler actually had steam come out of her ears, like in the cartoons, in response to this.
All of which reminds me that we are also putting an enormous burden on young faculty and graduate students to prepare, anew, every time, this stack of methods that swirl in their heads and experiences, this orbit of complexly written text that they need to sift and choose to help students to sift and choose. Of course, they also have other things they’d like to apply their skills and consciousness to, as well, in their departments, schools, communities, the world. Maybe they need to have a bigger voice in the union or faculty governance or a community organization. Maybe they need to have more time to write and publish and compete in a positivist model of scholarly presentationpublicationproduction that unfairly allocates privilege. Maybe they need to, as my friend was told at a Research One school, “spend less time with his students” in order to get tenure. He didn’t. So he didn’t. What if we could be better about not policing our own reductivism in the extended form of ideological purity texts we like to inflict on each other in the left.
Two. My privilege has been a titanic raft. This is true. Thus, it is entirely likely that I will get the nuances of nepantla wrong. But EVERYONE gets Burke’s Pentad wrong. Everyone. I have never seen or heard a piece of pentadic criticism that doesn’t have giant howlers of errors in the method. We just don’t care about that as much, I guess, although old Burkeans will read you the riot act if you happen to define “division” in a new-ish way, so maybe I’m wrong. This critique is true. But only someone with my unique combination of hubris and privilege would try this thing. Most others out there diversifying rhetoric kind of abandon the systematization gig in their syllabi. I think this is a waiting game. Eventually all the ancient Burkeans will die off, leaving their lumbering reptilian methods to the fossil record. But that ultimately abandons rhetoric to cultural studies and ideological criticism. And I don’t like that. I find so much of that work just dishonest enough to be grating. It lacks methodological openness while preaching openness and thus Grossberg’s twin critiques tend to be true: it’s boring and predictable.
Three. Look, tables, right? It’s not ideal. I can only speak for my students. Know how many people learn Perelman in their classes besides me? I am not all-seeing, but there are almost no other examples. He’s, as Dr. Carlson said back in the day, quaint and too hard. Ha! Aristotle is quaint but we still teach that stuff. Perelman is too hard to make accessible so we don’t try. We turn to methods that we can easier gloss for our students. It’s why we still use psychoanalysis in feminist cultural criticism. It’s wrong. But it has clear methods. And if we know how wrong it is going in, we can use that as a helpful lever even as the method illuminates stuff for use to critique. We are building a toolbox of methods, as another old prof of mine, Dr. Hasian, used to say. Except, it’s not enough to know when to use a wrench and when a hammer. We have to know that the whole box is a problem at the outset. But, really, don’t you already think that about EVERYTHING anyway? Anyway, I turned Perelman into method and am preserving the Mishnaic tradition of Judaic argument analysis for the WASPish world of most rhetorical method, with some error. Always some error. Tables work. They help students to do work faster. Our job is to help them process the implications of what the tables leave out. But remember, they are NOT reading for your classes. You are doing that with chalk daily anyway. Or on a PowerPoint. This version gives the students more power in the equation. And, to bring the shibboleth of assessment to critical scholarship, aren’t student outcomes the things that matter most here?
My old philosophy prof, Jasper Blystone, who taught a class called “Postmodernism,” gave us Lechte’s 50 Key Contemporary Thinkers book. It’s like a Cliff’s Notes to current theorists. He admitted, sheepinshly, that this wasn’t the same as reading, say, all of Foucault, but, who does that anyway if they are also reading all of Derrida and Freud and Haraway, etc. He argued that that’s what the European model of graduate education does. The ideas are more important than struggling with every text. He might have been right. But he taught postmodernism, so we will never know J.
Plus, this only works if we give them the texts. I’ve got hyperlinks below. These usually exist on the interwebs. The students get a quick summary from me and if they want to use a method they have to drop in on the full, complex text and have a longer visit.
Thus, the table, in its current form is below. It is not at all complete. It will, honestly, never be complete. But it’s a start. Note that we could throw the usual suspects like Burke and Bohrmann and Fischer on here, too, and I will, but we already know what that looks like.
Biesekcer’s techne
“by scrupulously working within and against the grain of the the word's historically constituted semantic field, techne can be used to refer to a kind of "getting through" or ad hoc "making do" by a subject whose resources are necessarily located in and circumscribed by the field within which she operates, but whose enunciation, in always and already exceeding and falling short of its intending subject, harbors within it the possibility of disrupting, fragmenting, and altering the horizon of human action out of which it emerges.” (p. 155)
Perfomative queer sensibility with special focus on:
1)    Irony
2)    Aestheticism
3)    Theatricality
4)    Humor
Cyborg theory
We are cyborgs, multiple and contested. Look for:
1)    Places where boundaries bleed. Infections.
2)    Signs of excess. Appendages.
3)    Trickster narratives of flows of control.
Double jeopardy
If oppressions multiply effects instead of add effects, how do those play out?
The queer practice of “illicit imagination” involves reading into texts, between the lines, etc., for things that could not be said.
We live with “complex personhood” and are haunted by contradictions. The ghost is the mostly hidden visitation of organized structures  of power that work to be removed from memory
Medu nefer
Ancient Egyptian “good speech” suggests that ethics and truth are, unlike Aristotle, not separable – rhetorical effectiveenss and ethics are inseperable
Multiplicity is a new subjectivity – a synthesis of structures of oppression and freedom.
Multiple definition
Persuasion requires definition of concepts mutually acceptable to all before further proceeding.
Mestizaje identity pivoted to critique all categories.
Vocal speech in the African tradition creates worlds, and both build community while also delivering imperative to it, call and response. It is not separable from the concepts “behind” the word, as in the European tradition.
Rhetorical conversation
Women, excluded from the public sphere, developed a particular rhetoric which expands the values of good private conversation to public discourse directed to “gaining the audience,” not “gaining the applause.” Key values are:
1)    Wit: Gentle humor allows strategic, planned communication to enter with goodwill and spontaneity
2)    Elocution: Attention to politeness and truthfulness matching idea, voice and body.
Madame de Scudery via Jane Donawerth
Ruthless critique
Radicalism is therefore the epistemological work of shattering the political
unconscious of terror that structures the boundaries of common sense and consensus.” (p. 182)
shame paradox
Decreasing visibility from others serves to actually increase visibility of self/acts.
The ethic of caring
Black feminist wisdom offers these three things for us to care about in interacting with the world
1)    Individual uniqueness
2)    Emotion-laden dialogue
3)    Empathy
I know. It’s not nearly good enough. Wanna give me a hand? I am feeling a textbook in this.

Grossberg, L. (1997). Dancing in spite of myself: Essays on popular culture. Durham: Duke University Press.
Grossberg, L. (2005, Nov.). Comments. In J. Hay (Chair), Critical and cultural studies now – A forum. Panel conducted at the National Communication Association Annual Convention, Boston, MA.
Janesick, V. J. (1994). The dance of qualitative research design: Metaphor, methodolatry, and meaning. In. N. K. Denzin, & Y. S. Lincoln (Eds.) Handbook of qualitative research (pp. 209-219). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
            Waite, S. (2016). The unavailable means of persuasion: A queer ethos for feminist writers and teachers. In K. J. Ryan, N. Meyers, and R. James (Eds), Rethinking ethos: A feminist ecological approach to rhetoric (pp. 71-88). Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press.

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