forthcoming in Roger Graves and Heather Graves, ed., Composition in Canada
Same Roots, Different Soil:
Rhetoric in a Communications Studies Program
Faculty of Communication and Culture
University of Calgary
Draft: June 7 2003
Despite sharing the roots of rhetorical theory with other writing programs located in English departments, the rhetoric program at the University of Calgary is deeply affected by its positioning as part of a program in Communications Studies. In addition to courses in rhetoric and professional writing, students take courses in media studies, cultural studies, and the social context of information technology. The faculty in which the program is located, Communication and Culture, is interdisciplinary, bringing a combination of a humanities and a social sciences orientation to its programs. The chapter contextualizes the growth and structure of this program by surveying the distinct history of Communications Studies as a discipline that grows out of both Speech Communication and Mass Media departments in the United States, and which therefore brings a unique set of disciplinary orientations when developed in the Canadian context.
In both Canada and the United States, writing is frequently taught within more or less traditional English departments. Exceptions abound, of course: the present volume describes a number of writing programs have either broken away from the English department or never have been associated with an English department, except perhaps distantly. However, writing in the English language is traditionally considered to be the province of the Department of English if it is taught at all. James Berlin argues that this arrangement goes back to the end of the nineteen century, when English departments emerged primarily to serve the composition needs of students, and only later and secondarily to teach literature (Berlin 1985).
The literature is deeply divided on whether this is a healthy arrangement. The argument that literature and composition are naturally affiliated is a hardy perennial, and often is phrased as simple common sense:
Composition theory and critical theory are indeed opposite sides of the same coin, and the “teaching” of writing and the “teaching” of literature are applications of theories that are closely connected, often inseparable, and always fundamental to the study of language. (Horner, 1983, p. 2)
However, the common-sense position that reading and writing must somehow have a lot to do with each other – which few compositionists would deny when stated in such basic terms – has been refuted again and again when “reading” is defined as the reading, analysis and critique of literature in the heated political atmosphere of the average English Department. “As I read the history of critical theory in my lifetime,” says Jay Robinson, “critical theory and composition theory are . . . currencies as different as the pound and the yen.” (1985). Professional writing is even more removed from literature than is academic writing. In an article wryly titled “Can This Marriage Be Saved?” (1999), MacNealy and Heaton report that when teachers of professional and technical writing they are housed in English departments as opposed to various other sorts of free-standing programs or programs with other affiliations such as Journalism or Engineering, they report widespread dissatisfaction and a perception of lack of support.
In her 1985 address to the CCC Convention, Maxine Hairston made what is probably the most definitive statement of compositionists’ troubled relationship with their literary colleagues:
We keep trying to find ways to join contemporary literary theory with composition theory. Such a goal makes sense in many ways, but people who are trying to achieve it seem to be on a one-way street – they are eager to find ways by which we can use literary theory in the teaching of writing, but I hear no one talking about using what we know about writing processes to help us teach literature. Nor do I see any prospect of setting up a dialogue with the literary critics on this matter because they don’t know writing theory and, as far as I know, are making no attempt to learn. (p. 274)
Hairston’s grim – one might justifiably say bitter – analysis of the situation is intended to reflect on the profession of English studies as a whole and not on specific English departments in particular, some of which furnish relatively happy homes for compositionists and literati alike. But it stands as a useful reminder of the fundamental problems of combining in one department people who speak what Winterowd (1997) calls the “prestige” dialect of literary studies with those who speak a dialect that is frequently considered to be lower-class.
Hairston’s suggested solution may be summarized as “Don’t get angry – get out.” Although she does not recommend a radical split between composition and literature for all departments, she does suggest that in many cases we might be wise to heed the example of the teachers of speech who split from the National Council of Teacher of English in 1914 and set up their own shop:
Perhaps it’s time we repeated the exodus, this time taking freshman English with us. Perhaps we should even consider joining with speech communication and journalism to form a new and vital department of language and communication, and once more make humanism and rhetoric relevant in our modern society. (1985, p. 281)
This is, in a nutshell, what the writing program at the University of Calgary did, although without radical fanfare. The program was never part of the English department to begin with, and grew extensions into the wider world of Communications Studies without the need of making a nasty rupture from its roots.
The union of rhetoric and composition with Communications Studies rather than English at the University of Calgary is the product partly of some conscious decisions and partly of a set of fortuitous local circumstances that expedited this unusual growth pattern. In this chapter I will chart the evolution of this program as it increasingly entered the orbit of mass media and cultural studies rather than literary studies. In particular I want to consider the unique history of Communications programs in Canada and contemplate what this seemingly obvious but highly unusual union might mean.
The Early Days
First, some (now ancient) history.
In 1976, the Effective Writing Program was created in response to the typical problem that has generated so many composition programs, and arguably the entire field of Composition Studies itself: the perception that incoming students had inadequate writing skills. The program took a shape that was common in the Seventies and has not become significantly less common since: an entry test, written by all incoming students, and a suite of courses (non-credit in this particular case) intended to remediate those who did not pass the test. With many variations (exemptions, credit courses, a shift in emphasis to a Writing Centre), this is still the structure of the Effective Writing program to this day – though, as detailed below, we have been doing a lot else since.
The positioning of the program outside the English department resulted from a set of unusual and, I believe, highly fortuitous circumstances. When a writing program is initially positioned outside the English department (as opposed to breaking away later when a certain intellectual critical mass is reached), a common response is to position it somewhere that is more or less isolated from the academic mainstream, in Student Services for instance, or directly under one Vice President or other. This is the positioning of our counterparts at the University of Alberta and the University of Lethbridge, and may I say candidly though with little direct evidence, I attribute the emaciated state of those two programs in part to this positioning. Teaching composition is not like teaching literature, but it’s not much like counselling, recruitment or parking space assignment either, and being situated outside an environment of academic teaching and research is highly likely to contribute to perpetual marginality unless the program has extremely robust support from both the university community at large and the people who teach in it.
At the University of Calgary, the horns of this dilemma were avoided owing to the existence of University College. Several years earlier, the elephantine Faculty of Arts and Sciences was broken up into Humanities, Social Sciences and Science. However, the university also wanted to preserve the advantages of having most entering students register in the same faculty. First year students, after all, seldom have a clear idea of who they are and what they want to be, and when they do, they usually find out a year or so later that they were wrong. So why not have all such students register in University College in their first year, take courses from across the disciplines, and transfer into a major program in a line faculty the next year?
This model has recently been phased out, but at the time it provided a perfect vehicle for a handful of interdisciplinary programs such as Canadian Studies and Women’s Studies, and also for a writing program intended to serve all students. The Faculty of General Studies (now the Faculty of Communication and Culture) was created as a logical outgrowth of University College. Until recently it performed the same holding-tank service as University College, but its elevation to full faculty status meant that it also could provide a more fertile ground for interdisciplinary academic programs. Now it seems as though everyone is “doing interdisciplinarity” (though everyone seems to mean something different by it), but in 1983, the postmodern blurring of genres was in its infancy and it seemed important to devote a separate faculty to this enterprise.
For us in the Effective Writing Program, this new status represented an unparalleled challenge and opportunity. For the first time we had an opportunity to develop our own credit courses and to knit them into a coherent program, not just to teach credit courses by secondment to the English department (who at that time was hungry for people to teach their junior Composition course).
The choice of the name Communications Studies for this program, rather than some name that included the word “Rhetoric,” was largely a strategic (perhaps cowardly) move. In the mid-eighties we really didn’t think “Rhetoric” would sell. We ourselves – almost entirely educated in traditional English departments – were just beginning to work out what the word meant. How could we expect students, not to mention our colleagues across the university, to make sense of it?
In retrospect, we would likely have made the same decision knowing what we know now. But at the time, we did not realize the vast implications of this choice of label. If we had been reading our Kenneth Burke more carefully, we might have realized the significance of naming in terms of identification and division. We had signally clearly what we were unlike (the English department) and at the same time, less consciously, what we were like (Communications Studies programs across Canada). In many respects we were in fact not very much like those programs, at least not at the time, and it took us a considerable amount of time to work out exactly what sort of parlour we had invited ourselves to.
The Roots We Didn’t Know We Had: American Communications Studies
Before continuing with this story, I must back up a few steps to locate the field of Communications Studies. (The term is more commonly spelled without the “s” – Communication Studies – but I will use the form Communications for consistency because that’s the way we chose to spell it.) From a compositionist’s point of view, Communications Studies logically would seem to mean teaching people to communicate, and in some programs in colleges and technical schools it means precisely and only that. But Communications Studies has a vast though relatively recent history, a history that we bought into with our assumption of the label. To understand what is going on at the University of Calgary and the interesting bedfellows that share the Faculty of Communication and Culture, it is important to understand that history.
Whereas the history of English Studies in Canada begins with a strongly British model and a rejection of American ideals (Hubert 1991), Canadian Communications Studies adopted a largely American model, though with a number of unique Canadian twists which I will come to later. But “mainline” Canadian programs in Communications adopted only one, or at most two, of three intertwined strands of American Communications Studies. Let me back up a little further to explain these strands.
In the US, one strand of Communications got its start in 1914 when the teachers of speech (as noted by Hairston above) walked out of the National Council of Teachers of English and set up the National Association of Academic Teachers of Public Speaking (now the National Communication Association) (Becker 1989). In many ways the divide was similar to the one that continues to plague English departments. The theoretical underpinnings of the Speech teachers had their roots deep in classical and neoclassical rhetoric rather than the pre-New Critical literary theory that was just beginning to emerge. Perhaps more importantly, Speech was closely tied to practice – to making students ready for the rough and tumble of everyday civic and political life – rather than to the contemplation of great texts, and was therefore suspect, and unsupported.
Nonetheless, the contemplation of texts followed the speech teachers like the Ark of the Covenant carried through the desert. In 1925, Wichelns’ essay “The Literary Criticism of Oratory” set up rhetorical criticism – the systematic inquiry into the means by which particular speeches have their effects – as the focus of study for Departments of Speech, or Speech Communication and they gradually became better known (Becker 1989). This focus on rhetorical criticism, reaffirmed by Black in 1965, was gradually extended beyond neo-Aristotelian criticism of great speeches to the analysis of a wide variety of objects of popular culture. Today it remains one of the strongest currents in modern departments of speech, augmented by a somewhat more social scientific stream of small-group and interpersonal communication into which these departments branched in the Sixties.
It is tempting to accuse the early teachers of Speech, suddenly orphaned by their own design and casting about for something more respectable to do than teaching students how to declaim with dramatic gestures, of grasping for the activity familiar to them from their youth, literary criticism, now beginning to gain prestige almost daily. There may be considerable truth in this. Suffice it to say, however, that the emphasis on criticism of the products of rhetoric did little to further study of how to teach the practice of rhetoric, despite the fact that the American obsession with democracy at the individual and town-hall level provided a fertile ground for studying how every American boy and girl could be made functioning citizens of a democratic society. Skilled in criticism, Speech Communication remained relatively innocent of the strides in pedagogical theory made by its Composition Theory counterpart from the early Seventies on.
Another strand of American Communications Studies appeared quite independently as a result of a quite different set of pressures, with a quite different disciplinary focus. This research emerged in the thirties in response to a pressing need to understand the apparently immense but imponderable power of the mass media. This was the strand dubbed “administrative” communications research by Paul Lazarsfeld in 1941, a term which, Hamilton argues (2002), has continued to dichotomize the field to this day. The “administrative” label is intended to suggest that it is “carried through in the service of some kind of administrative agency of public or private character” (Lazarsfeld, 1941, quoted in Hamilton, 2002). While this form of research is not necessarily commissioned by some agency, it is generally carried out in the service of some form of puzzle-solving that is generally felt to be of social importance. Puzzle-solving in the realm of audience effects requires the counting of immense numbers of individual events. Such methodologies require, naturally, immense funding; thus was born a long and productive relationship between administrative Communications Studies and various funding sources, notably the US Government.
It is this strand that formed the foundation of many American departments of Communication – by which, in this context, is generally meant Mass Communication, with little or no reference to principles that we would recognize as “rhetorical.”
This strand is distinguished from a third, dubbed by Lazarsfeld “critical” communications. This stream has its roots in the humanistic, socially conscious and largely leftist social criticism practiced in Europe by the Frankfurt school. Imported into the United States between the wars, as leftist thinkers such as Max Horkheimer, Theodore Adorno and Herbert Marcuse watched the approach of fascism and wisely boarded ships, critical communications theory set up an initially uneasy relationship with the more entrenched, and certainly better funded, administrative programs of communication (Kinaban, 2002). Transmuted into Cultural Studies in a movement led by Stuart Hall, critical theory took up linguistic and semiotic approaches in the sixties and senenties, and then gradually moved in a more ethnographic direction as it took up from anthropology both a methodology and a broad view of culture as constituted in human communication – a view that rhetoricians would recognize as “epistemic.”
Its Marxist leanings muted in some manifestations, but with its politics still on its sleeve, critical communications theory has achieved something of a rapproachement with administrative approaches, and both exist, albeit not always in complete comfort, in many American departments of Communications. Cultural Studies, with its critical and humanistic roots and constructivist epistemology, has many clear similarities with the rhetorical tradition, Yet its Marxist heritage and its continuing suspicion of the dimensions of power enshrined in media institutions continues to set it somewhat apart from the rhetorical tradition with its faith that dialogue is the way to uncover (or in its later manifestations, create) whatever passes for truth and justified action in the realm of the contingent and the uncertain. Despite these tensions, however, the various strands of American Communications Studies have increasingly fallen together in the United States, with departments of Speech and departments of Mass Communication frequently merging or engaging in takeovers of each other with varying degrees of hostility. For convenience I will call this fallen-together discipline of Communications “Media Studies,” though I am conscious of the degree to which this elides important distinctions between administrative, critical and rhetorical approaches to the study of communication.
Communications Studies in Canada
Communications Studies in Canada, though strongly influenced by the American model, has not surprisingly followed a somewhat different course, despite its strong roots in American Communications Studies.
First, in Canada the split between the literature and speech teachers never happened. The reasons for this different history are not clear. Perhaps Canada’s approach to civic democracy, less obsessive than the United States’, provided less fertile ground for the development of critical mass in Speech as a discipline. Or perhaps, as Hubert argues (1991), resistance to both Scottish and American educational models resulted in a more general turning-away from rhetoric throughout English Studies, providing no models of rhetoric with sufficient currency to allow the formation of an independent discipline. Suffice it to say that in Canada, there were no departments of Speech Communication to preserve the spirit of rhetoric as an academically respectable discipline. Cut off from its roots in orality, it largely withered away. Where American histories of Communications give at least a nod to the dual origins of the discipline in Speech and Mass Media studies, Canadian histories (eg Robinson, 2000; Dorland, 2002) make absolutely no mention of speech, rhetoric, or anything else that could remotely be identified as such.
What these histories do mention is Royal Commissions and related government task forces. Gertrude Robinson’s epic of Canadian Communications Studies, presented as the 1999 Southam Lecture to the Canadian Communication Association (Robinson, 2000), begins with a table, not of university programs, but of Crown corporations (Canada Council, CRTC) and Royal Commissions dating back to 1951. Academic programs in Communications Studies begin shortly thereafter, propelled by classic Canadian concern about our cultural industries and what American influence may be doing to them. Fittingly, then, Canadian Communications Studies has its roots in a heady mixture of cultural angst and bureaucracy.
To some extent, Hamilton argues (2002), this Canadian tradition did not have to endure the severe split between critical and administrative streams that our American colleagues did. With the state of Canadian culture its central agenda, and possibly less hostile to the Marxist tone of early critical theory, Canadian Communications Studies is arguably more “cultural” at its core than its American counterpart. In addition, much of the centre of gravity of Canadian Communications Studies is located in Quebec, giving it an intense interest in its position of being a marginalized culture within a marginalized culture.
Canadian Communications Studies is still trying to distinguish itself from its American counterpart, spawning a generation of articles on the subject of “What’s Canadian about Canadian Communications Studies?” The jury is still very much out on this subject. One key difference is an elevated attention to the political economy of telecommunications and cultural industries (dating back at least to Harold Innis’ influential theories on the material conditions of communication and empire). Other authors (eg. Babe 2000) attempt to locate the Canadian-ness of the field by reference to its founding fathers, including Marshall McLuhan. McLuhan, though out of favour in many circles for his inconsistency, lack of methodology, and outright zaniness, anchored Canadian Communications Studies securely in a relatively humanistic, thoroughly anti-positivist ethic that rejected by name the greats of American administrative media studies. He dismisses quantitative methods in communications effects research, including the father along with all his children: “Paul Lazarsfeld’s helpless unawareness of the nature and effects of radio is not a personal defect, but a universally shared ineptitude” (1964, p. 298). As noted above, however, this elevated critical awareness and relatively qualitative bias does not extend to the uptake of the rhetorical tradition except in cases in which it has been imported by infusion.
This, then, is the company in which the nascent program in Communications Studies found itself in the mid eighties, having innocently adopted the name as more saleable than Rhetoric or any of its variants. As discussed below, it was not a bad choice, and had a variety of highly positive consequences. Knowing what we know now, we would likely do it again – though life would have been better at the time if a rag-tag group of literary scholars turned rhetoricians had known a little more about what we were getting into.
Where Are We Now?
Having made the decision to become a Communications Studies program rather than any of the other things that we might have chosen to become, a great many things have happened to the writing program at the University of Calgary.
To begin with one of the more disappointing developments, I will start with the history of Writing Across the Curriculum – or lack thereof. Within the program there has been pressure to move away from standardized testing toward some form of Writing Across the Curriculum for over a decade. This pressure is in response to a good deal of criticism of the universal testing model. This criticism is nowhere near as wide-spread or as consistent as one might expect. A recent thorough literature review on large-scale testing, conducted as part of yet another attempt to reform the program, reveals surprisingly little solid research or even polemic on the subject of large-scale university testing. Where we thought we would find mounds of argument supporting our intuitive suspicion of time-limited decontextualized writing tests, we found a highly mixed bag of articles arguing the merits and pitfalls (usually the latter) of large-scale state-run tests aimed more at testing the system as a whole than at testing students, together with articles providing locally useful information on various types of scoring, sample sizes, the pros and cons of holistic vs. analytical scoring, and such like. We found relatively little on the wider question of whether a test of this type is methodologically sound or not.
Among the few genuinely useful statements on the subject is the College Composition and Communication Position Statement on Writing Assessment, which declares in no uncertain terms:
Essay tests that ask students to form and articulate opinions about some important issue . . . without time to reflect, to talk to others, to read on the subject, to revise and so forth – that is, without taking into account through either appropriate classroom practice or the assessment process itself – encourage distorted notions of what writing is. They also encourage poor teaching and little learning. Even teachers who recognize and employ the methods used by real writers in working with students can find their best efforts undercut by assessments such as these. (1995)
Olson and Luchte (1986) also offer some harsh criticism:
The grading criteria in use at most schools also neglect the rhetorical considerations of audience and purpose and instead isolate formal features as standards for grading. In other words, they ask for the standard 1950’s English essay, and there is an obvious explanation for why they do so: the agents of institutional authority that have decreed these tests are unaware of the formidable philosophic and linguistic arguments against the current-traditional paradigm. All they care about are the formal features, . . . and often only a few of these, such as grammar and syntax. (p. 11)
Yet these are relatively isolated voices. The overall impression conveyed by this review of the literature on testing is that of a general sense of complacency regarding decontextualized system-wide assessment. Possibly this only means that those most opposed to such systems have given up complaining publicly about them and moved on to other things such as designing WAC programs.
WAC’s possible moment came in 1992, when the Department of English got out of the writing business altogether. Hitherto, English 201 (Introductory Composition) had been a popular course across the campus. Subsequently, students were exempted from the Effective Writing Test if they received a C- or better in English 201, which made it, understandably, even more popular. Faced with a huge influx of students in a course in which they had little interest, resident expertise or permanent funding, the English department simply cancelled the course.
Publicly stated reasons for doing so made a great deal of pedagogical sense. The minutes of a meeting to discuss the issue (1991) include the following summary of remarks made by the chair of the English Department:
A single half-course that attempts to teach writing with no other academic context was considered to be unworkable. The writing assignments that must be set in such a course have little relevance outside the course, and students tend to receive signals, whether intended or not, that writing skills are not relevant (they receive good marks on essays in other courses while continuing to do poorly in 201).
Whether or not one agrees that a course on “writing” is unworkable, it is hard to argue with the idea that writing skills are better taught in context. The English Department continued to teach writing in the context of literary study, and hoped that perhaps History would teach it in the context of History, Physics in the context of Physics, et cetera. Essentially they articulated the bones of a WAC, or more properly Writing in the Disciplines, program. This move coincided nicely with a General Faculties Council study on the feasibility of some form of Writing Across the Curriculum.
Unfortunately, the term “No New Resources” was already cemented into the university’s economic thinking, threatening to replace Mo Shuile Togam Suas (Gaelic for “I will lift up my eyes”) as the official University of Calgary motto. The only way to implement Writing Across the Curriculum with no new resources was to survey the university at large to determine how many courses already contained a reasonable writing component. It was hoped that students could be required to take a certain number of these courses in order to graduate.
Recognized at the time as a weak option (obviously, containing a writing component says nothing about determination or ability to teach this component), this plan looked even weaker once it was discovered that, although there were many courses that met this requirement, the total number of seats in these courses was hugely insufficient to meet demand. In retrospect, this should come as no surprise, since courses that publicly announce a strong writing component are almost certain to be taught in small sections and therefore are unlikely to be able to deal with a major cross-disciplinary demand.
If not dead, then, WAC at the University of Calgary has remained comatose. Repeated attempts to revive the issue in the context of a major university-wide curriculum overhaul were met with bland indifference. Part of the reason is clearly resources. Colleagues across the country may wonder, as they pay their monthly heating bills, what Alberta is doing with its huge oil revenues. I am not entirely sure, but I can assure them that they are not going into higher education, resulting in an ongoing slow-burning economic crisis that strangles many initiatives, WAC among them.
But there is also appears to be a strong culture at the University of Calgary of characterizing writing as a matter of error-eradication, and of letting someone else do the job. A recent survey of department heads across the campus revealed that, yes, they were deeply concerned about their students’ writing skills, and no, they did not feel that they had the competence within their units to do anything about it. The most common suggestion was to reduce the number of exemptions to the Effective Writing Test.
It is not clear whether it is the existence of the test itself that produces this attitude. I am tempted to suspect that it is. As long as there is a test that purports to screen out and remediate students with the worst problems, writing is characterized as problem-based, something that should be “fixed” by the experts before students move on. For some time we thought that the test might have the potential to keep writing on the institutional screen and perhaps push the university community in the direction of some form of WAC, as Lawrence Steven reports happening at Laurentian in his article “The Grain of Sand in the Oyster” (1991). Perhaps because of the size of the institution, attempts to use course-based exemptions as a lever to create a WAC program have come to naught; the grain of sand remains a grain of sand.
Lest this chapter lapse into hand-wringing over what we have failed to accomplish, let me move on to what we have succeeded in accomplishing. We resisted the temptation to step into the vacuum left by the English department and get seriously into first-year composition, largely because of the University of Calgary’s bizarre system in which funding is almost totally unconnected to the number of students taught. Whereas first-year composition is normally regarded as the bread-and-butter of many American English departments, for us it would have likely condemned us to offer ever-escalating numbers of sections funded by soft money staffed by legions of underpaid sessional instructors. Despite this refusal to take on this particular load, the Communications Studies major (as opposed to the still largely remedial Effective Writing Program) has grown to over 300 students, and we have had to impose strict quotas to prevent it growing beyond our ability to serve the students.
In this major, rhetoric courses form a fairly comfortable and egalitatian mix with other courses foregrounding cultural studies, public relations, the history of communications media (with a strong nod in the direction of Ong and McLuhan), and empirical research in communications. The program occupies a unique position,. blending not only some of the traditional fare that one might expect in American departments of Speech Communication and Mass Communication, but also an emphasis on rhetorical theory in the Composition Studies mode, a territory normally claimed by departments of English.
This is probably the greatest reward we have reaped from our unique positioning. The literature on writing programs abounds with studies decrying the fracture of speaking and writing. Some argue from a practical point of view: speaking is a good way of putting writing into practice, of performing it as a bodily activity before a present audience, of pulling it down from the abstract regions of the interplay of texts (Beadle & Perrico, 1990; Cecil & Koester, 1999). Others, like Hairston (1985) and Welsh (1993) argue more philosophically for the common theoretical bases of the study of speech and writing. Janice Norton is a particularly strong advocate of this reunion. In “Sleeping with the enemy: Recoupling rhetorical studies and rhetoric and composition” (2002), Norton argues that the dismembering of rhetoric into departments of Speech and Rhetoric/Composition, and the further subfeuding between the English Rhetoric people and the English Composition people within English departments, risks “the diminution of rhetoric as a viable theoretical presence within the academy” (p. 26). By allowing itself to continue in ignorance of what is happening in departments of Speech, Rhet/Comp has ironically “permitted literary studies to co-opt one of the most viable political tools at its disposal, that of criticism” (p. 24).
We take pride, therefore, in the fact that our first and still one of our most important intermediate-level courses, “Spoken and Written Discourse,” uses a foundation of rhetorical theory as a means to theorize the important similarities and equally important differences between written and spoken modes of communication, both undertaken in the area of civil discourse and argumentation designed to establish appropriate courses of action. Never mind that in the first instance we yoked writing with speaking at least partly as a political measure, to mark this territory as clearly different from that claimed by the English department. That was many years ago, and the important methodological and philosophical advantages of mounting both modes of discourse squarely on the common foundation of rhetorical theory persist long after the politics have become irrelevant.
Not only do written and spoken rhetoric rub shoulders at the University of Calgary, so does Rhetoric and Cultural Studies. It has always seemed that Rhetoric and Cultural Studies ought to have more to do with each other than they generally do. As noted above, their intellectual histories differ, sometimes greatly, the former rooted in a liberal-pluralist notion of civil society as a place where truth is made in discourse, the latter in a critical, sometimes cynical, often Marxist notion of unequal power that is constructed and reconstructed in discourse. But they share an important vision of language as an epistemic process in which knowledge and human culture is not just communicated but made in an ongoing, reciprocal process. In their more recent incarnations, both owe a great deal to antifoundationalist philosophers such as Rorty and Oakeshott, who underpin an epistemology that is relentlessly based on social communication. Both insist that there are no great canonical texts – that culture is built from everyday pieces of mediated discourse and popular culture, and that a television advertisement is as worthy of study as a Romantic poem.
As James Berlin argues (1992, 1993), doing Cultural Studies can come fairly naturally to academics who occupy the social-epistemic space that rhetoric affords, as long as they are not frightened off by the political critique and sometimes opaque language with which Cultural Studies is frequently invested. Cultural Studies has a great deal to offer Rhetorical Studies, not least of which is a relatively robust set of methodologies (semiotics and discourse analysis) imported from linguistics. These methodologies offer an alternative to the frankly worn-out methodologies that often inform rhetorical criticism in the tradition of American departments of Speech Communication. Moreover, Cultural Studies offers a way of engaging Rhetoric students in critiques of power and the ways in which power is produced and reproduced in language, interrogating the inherently conservative and liberal-pluralist values of traditional rhetoric without necessarily requiring a full uptake of the neo-Marxist values on which Cultural Studies was originally founded.
Given these theoretical convergences, it is good that our students can move relatively smoothly among the various perspectives offered by an enlarged view of Communications Studies. In an effort to provide some focus to match the eclecticism, the options lists for the program are divided into Rhetoric and Discourse and Media Studies. This division is sometime mirrored in popular sentiment in the faculty, in which at times ghosts of the old lit/comp divisions re-emerge, in this case instantiated as differences between the Cultural Studies folks and the Rhetoric/Professional Communication folks, the latter occasionally suspected of being a bit too applied and a bit too oriented to cross-university service for everyone’s liking. On the other hand, writing can be accused of being submerged under the heavier historical freight of Communications Studies. But in general, writing, speech and media/cultural studies make reasonably comfortable bedfellows, and students are richer for it. So are faculty members, who must learn to speak, or at least have respect for, discourses that are traditionally balkanized across two or three departments.
The yoking-together of disparate theoretical orientations was accentuated when we acquired a graduate program, not by the usual process of penetrating slowly upward from an undergraduate program, but as a fully-formed package. Just at the time the rhetoric folks in General Studies were busy transforming a remedial writing program into a wide-ranging major in Communications Studies, a totally separate graduate program in Communication Studies (without the “s”) was created, directly under the Faculty of Graduate Studies and formally associated with no undergraduate program at all. This program, modelled on other Canadian programs in turn modelled on American programs, emphasised telecommunications, organizational communication and mass media. It was staffed by faculty members with little knowledge of or interest in rhetoric, which they tended to associate with (allegedly moribund) American departments of Speech Communication. Eventually required by statute to find a home in a line faculty, the Graduate Program in Communication Studies was logically housed in the Faculty of General Studies, home of the Undergraduate Program in Communications Studies.
I will not bore the reader with long tales of the initial territory-staking, ground-pawing, plumage-flashing and other flurries and flareups of the Human Barnyard. Suffice it to say that the first few years largely replicated the common experience of rhetoricians and literature specialists in a Department of English. But the non-departmentalized character of the faculty made turf hard to maintain, and the programs have interpenetrated to the point at which only an old hand would recognize the remnants of old turf, like disused fenceposts protruding from the soil and largely covered by the shifting Prairie landscape.
Resources have slowed the full-scale emergence of rhetoric in the graduate program. Although the reformed Faculty of Communication and Culture has undergone significant growth over the past decade, and Communications Studies is far and away its largest program, faculty have remained thin on the ground, and rhetoricians even thinner. Owing to the system mentioned above in which funding is not coupled to student numbers, there just have not been the people to spare from serving the 300-odd undergraduates to mount a credible presence in the graduate program, which has remained largely focussed on cultural, media and policy studies.
However, this too is in the process of changing. We have just been able to make one new tenure-track hire squarely in the area of Rhetoric and Professional Communication, and expect to be able to make another shortly. With some new blood to replace those of us who are being siphoned off into administration, retirement and other black holes, the University of Calgary is well positioned to offer MA and PhD programs that combine the best of rhetorical and media studies. We hope to combine these programs with a newly refurbished graduate assistanceship program that offers students not only funding but, more important, experience and explicit training in the pedagogical skills that many of them will be using for the rest of their professional careers. Starting in September 2003, graduate students will have available to them a for-credit graduate course in “Communications Pedagogy,” something of a code for the theory and practice of how to coach, assess, and respond to written assignments. Thus we hope to avoid turning loose on undergraduate writing students a legion of hapless graduate students who signed up to study the film industry in Canada or the influence of post-colonialism on information technologies, and who therefore know even less about teaching composition than the much-maligned English Literature student. We hope that this will represent a significant breaking of ground and will attract graduate students with a genuine interest in Rhetoric and Composition.
In short, then, the unique (one might say idiosyncratic) positioning of a rhetoric program in an interdisciplinary Faculty of Communication and Culture has been a positive experience. The existence of this faculty has allowed the program to develop along more interdisciplinary lines that would have been possible elsewhere, while retaining a firmly academic and research-driven agenda that would be more difficult to achieve outside a line faculty. The intersection of writing, speech and cultural/media studies, while occasionally fraught with its own problems (not least of which is trying to be too encompassing with too few faculty members) also brings rewards in the form of a rich and unusual interdisciplinary environment.
We hope to trade on this uniqueness and position ourselves as different from any other Communications Studies program in Canada. Our mongrel heritage has served us well and we are proud of it.
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