Revolution Lullabye

November 15, 2010

Miller, Managing to Make a Difference

Miller, Thomas P. “Managing to Make a Difference.” In A Field of Dreams: Independent Writing Programs and the Future of Composition Studies. Ed. Peggy O’Neill, Angela Crow, and Larry W. Burton. Logan: Utah State UP, 2002. 253-267. Print.

Miller argues that the discipline and independent writing programs and departments in particular need to draw on rhetorical theories and concepts to answer some of the challenges that stand-alone writing programs and departments face. He asks and explores the question, “What is rhetoric and what good is it?”, in order to point out the rich theories and ideas available to the field, a comprehensive history of rhetoric as a humanistic, pragmatic discipline. He disagrees with the idea that creating stand-alone departments with tenured faculty will increase the standing of the discipline at the university, questioning why rhetoric and composition would want to buy into a tenure system that privileges insular, specialized conversation separate from the practical outside world which is the place where civic rhetoric occurs. He argues that investing the teaching of writing with the power and practicality of rhetoric could help reverse the unethical treatment of contingent faculty; that the current university structure, with its positioning of writing as a skills-based course, is supported by the continual turnover of teachers. He uses the metaphor of bifocals to argue that independent writing programs need to continue shifting back and forth between attending to the local needs of their students and faculty and the larger moves in the field and the university structure, finding a progressive place where they can do civic rhetorical work.

Notes and Quotes

“Such systems for making the teaching of writing manageable can make it invisible, in part by keeping writing teachers moving on from institution to institution, where they become but fleeting shadows in crowded hallways who can be ignored by ‘regular’ faculty. The invisible men and women of the profession haunt our dreams as we haunt theirs, much like Ellison’s Invisible Man, whose main character looked to a prestigious college to gain professional standing and left with nightmares that his letter of recommendation amounted to a single line: keep this boy running. One way that the higher educational system has kept itself running is by keeping teachers of writing on the move, looking to find a place for themselves in a profession that has depended upon their absence for its sense of itself” (266).

“If rhetoric is to become an aid in negotiating the conflicted goals of writing programs, we must expand our fields of vision to include the domains where it has practical import” (265). Social movements, political movements, state educational systems, institutional reform, labor organizing, organizational communication

“What is rhetoric and what good is it?” – “A rhetorical stance is oriented to purposeful action, not merely criticizing or theorizing, but applying critical understanding to the question of what and how one should act in this situation here and now.” (260).

Some of the concepts he uses – phronesis (practical wisdom as an alternative to scientific inquiry); collapsing the binary of teaching and research by shifting to a third alternative: service (seeing differences as the possibility for a new alternative); rhetoric’s focus on the arts of citizenship (bridging the service orientation of composition with the university’s desire to be seen as an active member of its community); understanding the rhetorical situation and contextual resources of each writing program (designing within rhetorical constraints).

“Writing is everyone’s concern and nobody’s responsibility because prevailing reward systems devalue teaching in general and the teaching of writing in particular. In fairly systematic ways, college faculty have failed to come to terms with the fact that they teach for a living, because they have been rewarded for thinking otherwise” (254).

“I believe that some of the disabling dualisms that constrain our efforts can effectively mediated by rhetoric, if we view it as a pragmatic philosophy of social praxis and not simply a set of techniques for writing. When understood as a civic philosophy of deliberative action, rhetoric can help us bridge the gaps between professional discourses and personal forms of writing, between belletristic and utilitarian value systems, and between research and service missions, if we can put on our bifocals and shift our gaze back and forth between its immediate practical applications and more long-range reflections on the situations, audiences, and purposes that confront us” (256).

“One of the basic challenges that confront independent writing programs is to harness the power of providing an essential service without becoming defined as essentially a service provider” (256).


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