Feminist Rhetorics, Circulation, and Anthropology

I went to a C’s panel where Paula Matheiu, Tom Fox, Diana George, John Trimbur talked about the circulation of public rhetoric. It seems to be a trend in our field’s scholarship, one that Royster and Kirsch expand on here in relation to feminist rhetoric and feminist historiography, naming “social circulation” as “a metaphor that helps us imagine the ways in which women’s rhetorical activities take on different meanings in different contexts across space and time” (151).

The term “rhetorical activities” is interpreted creatively to name things as “rhetorical” that do not fit into our traditional canon. Royster and Kirsch name garden clubs, parents groups, and social circles of quilters as potential sites of rhetorical activities with circulations worth recognizing and learning from (101). Their notion of rhetorical activities is an interesting addition to the scholarship on circulation, which focuses on more explicitly public texts and narratives.

They also add new dimensions to the questions of circulation. Following this chapter, we might ask: How does meaning circulate in contexts of patriarchy?How do gender norms of a given time affect the possibilities of circulation? What are the many ongoing uses and meanings of a text, artifact, or rhetorical activity?  I see interesting connections here to the anthropology of writing because it is only through a deep, contextual look not only at the artifacts themselves but also the local social and cultural practices that one can answer these questions of social circulation, as Royster and Kirsch point out.

The project shifts feminist historiography into an active process:

the imperative is to assess how feminist rhetorics recover (even after devastating first effects) and survive, to identify their reoccurrences and track the wake of reuse and reinterpretation–again, as an active process, rather than a more passive one, with words, concepts, stories, and beliefs put to ne and renewable uses (104).

What methodological challenges does this call present to us? How can we expand the boundaries of rhetoric to realize unseen contributions in our projects and track the circulation of meaning in the local contexts?

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Angels’ Town Ethos

I want to add to our discussion on ethos from last Monday’s class, looking at ethos both as a concept within a theory of ethnography and as a tool for shaping the narrative of Cintron’s text.

Really, I want to look closer at how the character who writes the text affects the persuasiveness of the text’s claims.

Cintron begins the text with “starting places,” a chapter on method (or post-method?) and positionality. Here he describes his peripheral upbringing between Mexican and American cultures (4-6, 13-14) and also his theory that “the persuasiveness of the ethnographic knowledge claim is constituted through and through, both in the moments of fieldwork and the moments of the final text by ethos” (4). Through this section, he self-reflexively defines his writing character and in doing so creates an ethos of self-reflexivity. He creates his character while he describes the creation of character, but that doesn’t mean that he  gets outside of ethos as “the appearance of ethos” (2).

Perhaps the more self-reflexive and positioned the writing character, the more the contemporary academic reader trusts him/her. I’m not trying to say we should distrust Cintron, only that the creation of ethos is thick in this opening section and the text as a whole.

Consider too that Cintron not only describes his self-reflexive position, but builds ethos by describing his many roles in the community:

  • He is a collector of materials: “Two hundred pages of fieldnotes […] eighty hours of formal and informal interviews” (10)
  • Community activist: “an active member in several Latino/a organizations” (8).
  • Long term resident and researcher: “Started in 1981 when my family and I moved there while I attended graduate school in nearby Chicago”; fieldwork from 1987-1988 and 1990-1991 (8).
  • “Took on many social roles: a child’s tutor, one who takes children to a park to play baseball or to a museum in Chicago, a builder of Halloween masks,  a translator for adults…” (9).
Of those various roles, the collector of materials seems to be secondary to the ethos created through active participation with the community. We see the material of his fieldwork only as a jumping off point–it is used more commonly for the beginning of a question than the evidence for a claim. The evidence for a claim, following Cintron’s theory of ethnography, more often comes from the ethos of the writing character: “The right to make a knowledge claim […] is deeply intertwined with the creation of ethos, an ethos that is acceptable to the Other” (3-4). Not only that, but he has created an ethos in the text of a researcher who has ethos with “the Other,” primarily through his sympathetic descriptions  and his list of community roles and relationships–the evidence of an insider status. The community ethos is traded in for writerly ethos–it seems like a subtle switch that is used to replace more traditional knowledge claims.
For instance, instead of triangulating data on how Valerio “escaped LD ‘Reality'” or created respect in conditions of no respect at the end of chapter four, Cintron backs off his implicit claims in a move that privileges ethos and pathos over logos: “I found my mind drifting at times as I became more interested in watching my feelings becoming unusually rich as the different people around the stoop spoke. Edmundo and I had been doing this work together for five years now […] Whatever I had hoped to record and interpret seemed less significant now than the affection between Edumundo and me for all the crazy years spent together” (128).
A number of questions appear through this chapter based on the fieldwork, but answers elude Cintron and the reader. What we are left with is trust for Cintron’s implicit claims, his caveats and theories, based more on what he later identifies as “a deep reservoir of memories” than on identifiable data from the field (232).

As Cintron describes, “The rational argument does not necessarily persuade when reason is made pure […] In matters of persuasion, then, character plays an important role” (2-3).

In my final reading of the book, it is much less about the eastside of Aurora Illinois and much more about Cintron and the creation of Cintron’s writing character.

On the final page, he says that “Other than demanding honesty and hard work of any fieldworker, I do not think that more can be asked” (232). His book certainly shows both, but only within the limits of a text’s ethos, which can only provide the appearance of honesty or hard work for a writing character.

I leave the text a bit uncomfortable and unsettled on questions of how to conduct fieldwork. I have really paradoxical responses to the text. It was frustratingly enjoyable, and persuasive in its escape from claim making. It seems like the perfect post-modern ethnography, one that always comes back to the subjective experience instead of making a contained claim, meanwhile reflecting on the inability to represent outside of one’s experience.

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Defining an Anthropology of Writing

 What is the anthropology of writing?

“Primarily, an anthropological perspective on writing means to examine writing as both cultural and social practice. Anthropologists define culture as the abilities, notions and forms of behaviour persons have acquired as members of society.

Culture refers to those aspects of humanity that are not natural but which are created. Writing certainly is part of culture understood in this way. Culture is closely related to society, and anthropology has always concerned itself with both the cultural and the social. Society is everything that has to do with how humans interact and organize their life. […] Drawing on the association of culture with society, the anthropology of writing can then be defined as the comparative study of writing as social and cultural practice.” (8-9)

For me, the most useful gems of the chapter are the distinctions between American and British scholarship on writing and the scholarship done in France on the anthropology of writing. As part of these distinction, there are anthropological terms useful in the anthropology of writing. I want to give those terms and definitions and would encourage others to add to the list as they read their chapters of the book.

Defining the Field

The closest thing to an anthropology of writing we have in the US and UK is New Literacy Studies, which also looks at writing as a social and cultural practice. The editors of the book say it “seeks to broaden the focus of (New) Literacy Studies by reframing it as the anthropology of writing,” but they offer no clear distinction between the two traditions (ix).  However, there is a useful section that defines the anthropology of writing against popular studies of writing in disciplines like comp/rhet, English literature, and linguisics. As you look through your chapters, it would be interesting to mark any distinctions made or insights that help us reframe the current work of NLS or the field of composition and rhetoric.

Some points to define the anthropology of writing:

Vs. discourse analysis’s focus on produced texts, an anthropology of writing looks at the social processes of production and the social/cultural uses of those texts (7).

Vs. the literary perspective’s focus on novels and literature, an anthropology of writing looks at what may be considered, at first, mundane texts: “the studies in this book examine everyday acts of writing and their significance in relation to private life and to work” (7).

Vs. an educational perspective’s focus on writing as a set of skills to be learned, the anthropology of writing sees the forms and structures of literacy education [as] an object of study in themselves” (8). While the work of an anthropology of writing may have educational implications, the discipline’s interest is in broader social and cultural uses outside of educational contexts (we might say outside of traditional educational contexts if we think of education itself as a broad social and cultural process, not one contained within schools).

Key Terms

Actant: “A concept that crucially includes humans and non-human objects,” which can include “technologies as active agents, without however falling into the trap of technological determinism” (21).

Cultural Field: “Those artefacts and practices which are deemed aesthetically or intellectually pleasing and valuable […] it emphasizes that within given societies there is competition over what is deemed to be ‘cultural'” (18).

Habitus: Our introduction to The Anthropology of Writing describes habitus as “interiorized models of thinking and behaving” (16). The introduction to Bourdieu’s The Field of Cultural Production describes habitus as “a set of dispositions which generates practices and perceptions. The habitus is the result of a long process of inculcation, beginning in early childhood, which becomes a ‘second sense’ or a second nature” (5). A habitus is a “structuring structure,” because it can “generate practices adjusted to specific situations” (5).

Literacy Events:  “In the New Literacy Studies, the notion of a ‘literacy event’ is a central analytic tool. Heath (1983: 93) defi nes a literacy event as ‘any occasion during which a piece of writing is integral to the nature of the participants’ interactions and their interpretative processes’. Barton and Hamilton (2000: 8) gloss the notion of a ‘literacy event’ as ‘activities where literacy has a role. Usually there is a written text, or texts, central to the activity and there may be talk around the text. Events are observable episodes which arise from practices and are shaped by them'” (87).

Ordinary Writing: Defined by Sinor as “writing that is typically unseen or ignored, and is primarily defined by its status as discardable […] the very things we cannot read because they are so commonplace as to be boring, to refuse our regard or interpretation” (173).

Vernacular Literacies: Barton and Hamilton are cited as describing these literacies as “not regulated by the formal rules and procedures of dominant social institutions and which have their origins in everyday life” (174).

Writing Acts: Borrowing from J.L. Austin’s “speech act,” Fraenkel’s “Writing Acts: When Writing Is Doing,” works on “a model of the writing act that can account for the graphic force of inscriptions, the effect of displaying these writings, and certain other aspects of writing and reading in action, based on an analysis of the specific situations in which they occur” (37).

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No Content in Particular

“Activity Theory and its Implications for Writing Instruction” by David Russell 1995 (from transcript)

Before checking the date of this article (it wasn’t on the draft), I was stewing in preparation for another rant-driven critique. Considering the date, I now think that the article as prescient and perhaps influential in the development of a more genre-conscious field. Much of Russel’s work seems to have been taken up.

Summary and Response
Russel starts by setting up Activity Theory, which I know little about and so was excited to read. The figure on page 4 is instructive:

As seen above, activity theory works between the subject, the tools of action, and the objective or desired outcome. Applied to writing in college comp, Russell goes on to identify ambiguous objectives (drawing on the work of Kitzhaber) and thus seeks to redefine the goals of composition for better writing instruction with more reasonable goals.

Activity systems are composed of the following aspects:

  1. historically developed
  2. mediated by tools
  3. dialectically structured
  4. analyzed as relations of participants and tools
  5. changed through zones of proximal development (5)

Russel focuses on these aspects of activity systems to develop and apply a theory of how learning happens–specifically how it happens in relation to explicit goals, instead of the ambiguous goals of generalizable knowledge or the myth of autonomous literacy (Brian Street’s term).

To illustrate this point, Russell goes into an elaborate analogy of what one might call “ball literacy.” Russell describes that he’s a ping-pong star, but this doesn’t make him good at games like jacks (which his daughter, apparently, owns him at). Why would we claim to teach “writing in general” when we know that the goals, styles, and expectations of writing (those things that make up genre conventions) are far more various than games using balls?

This analogy works for me, although in 2012 this argument would need a number of qualifications because the discipline has changed. We (good teachers and comp programs) no longer claim to teach “writing in general.” We perhaps did not acknowledge that what was taught simply as “good writing” was actually a specific genre–work like Russell’s likely elicited this acknowledgement.

Today, it is clear that when we say “we teach writing,” we mean we teach academic writing geared towards successful writing in humanities courses at the undergraduate level, normally on cultural issues. Here at Syracuse this definition mostly applies. This may be the broader liberal education course that Russel ends up arguing for as one of a few solutions (the others being a WAC model and genre-conscious class).

The popular although sometimes unacknowledged and undefined genre we teach in composition, like any other, is generalizable to some degree. Just like playing ping-pong develops hand-eye coordination, which would be useful in jacks, crickett and a variety of other ball-driven sports; writing for college courses in the humanities involves some carry-over skills for writing in the sciences and the workplace. The point for me is to be conscious of the role of genre in writing and to study it–Russel focuses on this point in his conclusion, perhaps leading to the “writing about writing” courses that seem to be popular at some institutions. This self-reflective instruction encourages students to learn about their learning–that reflective moment seems critical for the development of general skills in writing.


-Are we conscious enough about the uses of genre in classes at SU? What about the other institutions you’ve taught at?

-How does Activity Theory help as a theoretical framework for Russell’s argument?

-What moves did you find useful in Russell’s article? Which were methodologically suspect?






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Qualitative Research Methods

I’m going to outline a few questions in response to Stake’s Qualitative Research. This is going to develop through the next two days, as I read more deeply and prepare to present on Monday:

1. How does Stake’s work help us react to the empirical/subjective, quantitative/qualitative divide in the field?

  • He tells us/shows us that “all scientific research is a mixture of qualitative and quantitative method” (13)
  • He separates “professional knowledge” and “science” as ways of understanding the uses of each: “Scientists try to find out what is true in general. Professional people try to find out what is true about individual clients, classrooms or communities” (17)
  • Qualitative aims for explanation, quantitative for understanding. Part of quantitative work is the realization that causes, in specific cases, are often multiple (19-25)
  • With what Stake gives us, we can better place ourselves in the debates between more quantitative and qualitative method in our field and, I think, we can see how our own epistemologies and desires correspond with each.

2. Considering the many urges to “do good” in our field, what does Stake provide in terms of caution and/or effective method?

  • “Empathy and advocacy are and should be part of the lifestyle of each researcher” (14)
  • On page 108 there is a cloud map for qualitative research methods, with “advocacy” and “empathy” as two of the smallest circles on the map.
  • “Almost no one believe the social researcher can operate without exercising personal values” (200).
  • Types of advocacy in research study are multiple but always present, from advocating for the people we work with and for a more democratic society, to advocating for the research method itself or for more attention to a particular “thing” that has gone unnoticed or researched (201)
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On Connors, Prejudice, and Trenches

Since I’m the last to post, I thought I’d start a summary and discussion of Robert Connor’s “Dreams and Play: Historical Method and Methodology.”


But first I wanted to throw this section on the “Pleasure of Philosophy” by Will Durant for discussion about the role of composition and rhetoric as an either theoretical or a scientific discipline:

“Every science begins as philosophy and ends as art: It arises in hypothesis and flows into achievement. Philosophy is a hypothetical interpretation of the unknown (as in metaphysics), or of the inexactly known (as in ethics or political philosophy). It is the front trench in the siege of truth. Science is the captured territory, and behind it are those secure regions in which knowledge and art build our imperfect and marvelous world. Philosophy seems to stand still, perplexed, but only because she leaves the fruits of victory to her daughters the sciences, and herself passes on, divinely discontent, to the uncertain and unexplored.”

Some of the recent work calls for a return of empirical methods and replicable research, which i think is valuable to our field and needed for its justification, articulation, and defense. At the same time, I want to think of some of the most important work in composition and rhetoric is at the “front trench in the siege of truth” and that this status necessitates inter-methodological approaches, creative strategies of truth construction, and the articulation of data from the classroom, the street, and the bone. Often it seems that comp/rhet out paces education fields in pedagogy by working with the inexactly known, and that we leave the fruits of our labor to disciplines like ed. and communication once it is captured and ready for empirical study–and I don’t have a problem with this. This is all to say that I’m okay with some empirical work too–I just don’t want to sacrifice RAD research for rad research.

Let’s talk about this…


Back to Connors…

The article is split by the following questions:

  1. What constitutes data in historical studies?
  2. How are data used in producing knowledge?
  3. What can and cannot be answered by historical research?
  4. What problems emerge in the process of inquiry?

As a whole, Connors provides theory and guidelines for historical research methods based on his own work in histories of composition, specifically with archival research. Among the most useful aspects of the article is the way it names traps that lead toward unethical and/or unpersuasive research. (He doesn’t use the word “ethical” but one can easily read this into his discussion in a way that links with Barton especially.)

Connors’ definition on what makes historical research starts to dissect the ways in which histories can be unethically written:

  1. “the historian’s perceptions of the present,
  2. her assemblage of claims based on study of materials from the past,
  3. and an ongoing internal dialogue about cultural preconceptions and prejudices and the historian’s own” (15).

In concrete ways, Connors shows how these aspects of historical research are unavoidable and in doing so focuses the readers attention on ways to reflect and protect ourselves from being too wrapped up in the present, too focused on accepted claims, and too guided by cultural perceptions.

On the first element of historical research, he challenges us to start with flexible hypotheses when going into an archive, acknowledging that we don’t go into a research study without a guiding question or curiosity, one that often relates to contemporary debates. But he advises us to “browse with directed intention,” not a fleshed out and determined answer (24).

On the next element, he warns a historical researcher against relying to heavily on secondary sources, saying the historian may rely too heavily on “received wisdom” and could be “constrained by those sources,” presenting no threat to the “standard idea […] that way lies orthodoxy, and bad history” (33).

On the third element of historical research–cultural prejudice–Connors has little to offer in terms of advice. He instructs us to “study the prejudices as data” and gives a few fairly weak examples: “Why do we dismiss the terms clearness, force, and elegance while we accept unity, coherence, and emphasis?” (21). When considering prejudice in historical research, predisposition to terms of composition wasn’t the first thing that came to mind. The prejudices of race and gender discussed by Royster in historical research are much more complex and need to be unearthed and recovered, often requiring us to transform our research methods in the process before we can study prejudice as data. Connors gives us little on this front, making it an unimaginative and stifling treatment of the concept of prejudice in historical research. All this reminds me of the way his research has been critiqued as prejudiced (See the following review of Connors for Roxanne Mountford’s famous repartee: “Dear Bob, What were you thinking?”).

As a whole, this article is an extension of Connor’s Octalog discussion on research methods where he played a conservative, although far from positivistic, role. Connors provides a concrete, rational, useful primer on historical research in the field, one that–with a few important qualifications and additions–seems to have become the norm. The readings this week on empirical and RAD research methods and quantitative data show that we are a far cry from the Postmodern methods of theorists like Victor Vitanza who would ask “What’s the proof for proof” and “What’s the evidence for evidence?” But I still want to discuss this–what have we learned from the days of deconstruction and postmodernism that we are bringing into our empirical research today? Has this work faded? Been co-opted? Merged with more traditional ideas of research? Do we accept Connors methods just with some attention to the ways in which race, class, gender, abelism affect our gathering of data and historical facts? Or are we still searching for a capacious methodology that outruns the predudices of our era?

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