Fleming, David. “Becoming rhetorical: An education in the topics.” In Bahri, Deepika; Joseph Petraglia (Eds.), The realms of rhetoric: Inquiries into the prospects for rhetoric education. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 2003.
Fleming shows, through an investigation of the topics (topoi), how there is true rhetorical knowledge and how that knowledge can push students to develop in discursive ability. He calls for scholars and teachers of rhetoric to turn back to the heart of rhetoric, which depends upon a multiyear curriculum where students have the opportunity to develop, naturally and deeply, as rhetoricians influenced by ethics and virtue towards civic, responsible ends. He warns against rudimentary definitions of rhetoric – “checklists” of terms and ideas divorced from a larger ethical base – and also all-encompassing theories of rhetoric that, in their largeness, make rhetoric also meaningless. The goal of rhetoric, Fleming argues, is not so much to transmit a certain kind of knowledge but to develop a certain kind of person, an ethical, productive, civically-minded, knowledgable leader. That development depends on practice, imitation, exercises, and repetition.
Topics depend on understanding the commonplaces of a particular culture – what that culture values, what opinions are generally accepted, the “endoxa” of a community, what allows people to meet together on the same ground.
Rhetorical education, Fleming argues, can’t hope that students will absorb a rhetorical sensibility through mere exposure to many different disciplines and ways of knowing, the foundation of liberal arts education. Rather, rhetorical education needs to help students develop a rhetorical self-consciousness, flexible but still concrete in vocabulary and purpose, “an art that, once learned, confers on students a genuine practical and ethical ability” (105).
Fleming, with this goal in mind, proposes a richer, teachable theory of the topics that includes five broad categories of rhetorical knowledge: 1. circumstantial knowledge; 2. verbal formulae, 3. common sense; 4. models of textual development; and 5. logical norms.
Notes and Quotes
“The topics we organize this way shuold be infinitely malleable, capable of being adapted and used in multiple ways in different situations. What I am after, in other words, is a theory that can accomodate diverse kinds of resources, one that is focused on situated practice in particular communities, and one that sees the words and things of those communities as practically plastic in the hands of its speakers, hearers, writers, and readers” (104).
rhetoric can’t be taught in one course – it needs to be infused into an entire curriculum
“Where classical rhetoric took a remarkably precise language and dedicated it to an ambitious political-ethical project, the new rhetoric takes a highly elastic vocabulary and puts it to rather trivial ends” (93).
topics: “an ancient set of pedagogical resources designed to help speakers and writers invent arguments for public debate” (94): “My appraoch will be to see the topics as a species of political knowledge that, through theory and practice, can be made part of the student’s very character” (94)
“Rhetoric is at once overburdened and underburdeded with content” (94) – the challenge is to find a place between particularilty and generality (95)
the topics are commonplaces – places to go to discover arguments, a set of heuristics to help invention
connection between Toulmin’s warrants and Aristotle’s topics.
modern rhetorical theory has taken out the content and context of the original topics in order to create a more universal form of rhetoric.
Problem: “A theory of argument situated at the intersection of politics [specificity] and logic [generality] will always elude us; the best we can do is choose one path or the other and stick to it, hoping that our students, at least, will learn to merge the two in their practical lives” (103)
need something more substantial than the rhetorical triangle
Fleming’s theory of topics:
- circumstantial knowledge – context, history, people, places, familiarity
- verbal formulae – discursive resources and languages of the community, through wide reading and listening
- common sense – values, truths, preferences that exist in that community
- modes of textual development – the structures of everyday arguments in the community, patterns, modes, things that direct and shape thought in that community
- logical norms – the norms that authorize arguments, warrants, inference
The problem of the paper cycle in typical freshman composition classes: (110)
- they are too long for close work but too short to do real work: “they are neither the kind of discursive chunk that constitutes an utterance, a move in written or spoken discourse, nor the kind of project that results from weeks, months, or even years of active engagement with real intellectual or practical problems.
- they aren’t sequenced developmentally, to build off each other
- students work on them too slowly, tediously drafting over and over again
Draws on the ideas of the New London Group: inquiry into a specific text or situation, recursive thinking and writing. Gives example of Brown vs Board of Education sourcebook