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In Theorizing Composition: A Critical Sourcebook of Theory and Scholarship in Contemporary Composition Studies, ed. Mary Kennedy (Westport: Greenwood, 1998), pp. 263-65. 

ROGERIAN RHETORIC

Doug Brent
Faculty of General Studies
University of Calgary


SUMMARY OF THEORY

Rogerian rhetoric was introduced by Young. Becker and Pike in their 1970 textbook, Rhetoric: Discovery and Change. Traditional rhetoric, Young, Becker and Pike claimed, assumes an adversarial relationship in which the rhetor uses modes of persuasion to break down the audience's resistance to the claims presented. This rhetoric may work when the audience has a dispassionate desire to seek truth through argument or is an objective third party such as a judge. In emotionally charged situations, however, the audience will hold more strongly to its beliefs the more strongly those beliefs are challenged.

Young, Backer and Pike suggest breaking these barriers to communication by using a variant of Rogers' non-directive therapy. In "Communication: Its Blocking and its Facilitation," Rogers suggests that in emotional disputes, neither party should put forward a position until she has carefully, non-judgmentally and with the maximum possible empathy restated the position of the other, to the other's satisfaction. This will convey to the other the sense that he is understood and that the two parties are more similar than different, thereby creating a context for communica tion.

Young, Becker and Pike admit that this is not as easy to accomplish in writing as it is in face to face discussion. However, they claim that a writer can approximate Rogerian discussion through a strategy with the following general stages:

1. An introduction to the problem and a demonstration that the opponent's position is understood. 2. A statement of the contexts in which the opponent's position may be valid. 3. A statement of the writer's position, including the contexts in which it is valid. 4. A statement of how the opponent's position would benefit if he were to adopt elements of the writer's position. If the writer can show that the positions complement each other, that each supplies what the other lacks, so much the better. (283)

It is vital that when the rhetor imagines and restates the audience's perspective, she does so not to find holes in it or even to make partial concessions as in traditional debate, but genuinely to search for areas of validity.

SIGNIFICANCE AND RECEPTION IN COMPOSITION STUDIES

Rogerian rhetoric was controversial from its beginning . While some like Bator and Hairston embraced it immediately, others argued that is nothing but warmed-over Aristotelian rhetoric (Lunsford), that persuasion and non-directive therapy are fundamentally incompatible (Ede), or that it ignores the fundamentally conflict-laden processes of history (Pounds). Lassner suggests that, while it may be legitimate for a man to surrender some of his traditional rhetorical power, a woman will find such a surrender too much like returning to the passive rhetorical position occupied by women ever since Aristotle asserted that public speaking would damage a woman's uterus. Finally, I have argued (Brent 1991) that Rogerian rhetoric in its original form is grounded in a wish, traceable to General Semantics, to transcend language in order to obtain an objective, value-neutral stance which we now believe to be impossible.

Because of such theoretical objections, combined with the practical difficulty of conveying empathy without sounding like a politician trying to buy votes, Rogerian rhetoric has had difficulty achieving unqualified acceptance. Yet it has had an uncanny persistence. For many scholars, the turn toward dialogism, collaborative learning and social construction of knowledge makes Rogerian rhetoric more rather than less interesting, despite problems with its earliest formulations. Teich's 1992 collection Rogerian Perspectives: Collaborative Rhetoric for Oral and Written Communication brings together a number of long-term supporters of Rogerian rhetoric (Coe, Bator, Zappen, Teich, and Young himself) with newer scholars to offer ways in which Rogerian rhetoric can still be relevant in the nineties.

Rogerian rhetoric may have been handicapped by a tendency to see it merely as a persuasive technique, in which capacity it is inadequate or contradictory. Rogerian argument is perhaps best seen not as a persuasive strategy but as an invention heuristic that encourages writers to begin by imagining the world as others see it (Brent 1996). Rogerian rhetoric may have retained its appeal in composition studies not so much because it helps students win arguments as because it may help them grow into more tolerant, more inclusive, and more dialogic human beings.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Primary Texts

Rogers, Carl R. "Communication: Its Blocking and its Facilitation." On Becoming a Person. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1961. 329-337

Young, Richard E., Alton L. Becker and Kenneth L. Pike. Rhetoric: Discovery and Change. New York: Harcourt, 1970.
 
 

Textbooks Incorporating Rogerian Rhetoric

Coe, Richard M. Process, Form, and Substance: A Rhetoric for Advanced Writers. 2nd ed. Englewood Cliffs: Prentice Hall., 1990.

Flower, Linda. Problem-Solving Strategies for Writers. 4th ed. Fort Worth: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1993.

Hairston, Maxine. A Contemporary Rhetoric. 3rd ed. Boston: Houghton, 1982.

Major Scholarship in Composition

Bator, Paul. "Aristotelian and Rogerian Rhetoric." College Composition and Communication. 31:427-32.

Brent, Doug. "Young, Becker and Pike's 'Rogerian' Rhetoric: A Twenty-Year Reassessment." College English 53 (1991) :452-66.

Brent, Doug. "Rogerian Rhetoric: Ethical Growth through Alternative Forms of Argumentation." Argument Revisited, Argument Redefined: Negotiating Meaning in the Composition Classroom. Ed. Barbara Emmel, Paula Resch and Deborah Tenney. Thousand Oakes: Sage, 1996.

Ede, Lisa. "Is Rogerian Rhetoric Really Rogerian"? Rhetoric Review 3 (1984): 40- 48.

Hairston, Maxine. "Carl Rogers' Alternative to Traditional Rhetoric." College Composition and Communication. 27 (1976): 373-77.

Lassner, Phyllis. "Feminist Responses to Rogerian Argument." Rhetoric Review 8 (1990): 220-32.

Lunsford, Andrea A. "Aristotelian vs. Rogerian Argument: A Reassessment." College Composition and Communication 30 (1979): 146-51.

Pounds, Wayne. "The Context of No Context: A Burkean Critique of Rogerian Rhetoric." Rhetoric Society Quarterly 17 (1987): 45-59.

Teich, Nathaniel, ed. Rogerian Perspectives: Collaborative Rhetoric for Oral and Written Communication. Northwood, N.J.: Ablex, 1992.