Rhetoric Is Back
by Hans Bergmann


 
 

Rhetoric is back. Quintilian and his Institutio oratoria dominated the classrooms of the western world for 2000 years and were then put on the shelf when colleges and universities began to concentrate on educating engineers and agricultural experts. By the early twentieth century rhetoric began returning to American classrooms -- as "technical writing," as "business writing," and even (the absurdly named) "creative writing." But most of all, in every American college and university, rhetoric returned as "composition," now taught in thousands of freshman sections semester after semester. The late industrial age realized it wanted persuadio after all, and the electronic age has embraced it even more enthusiastically.

For most of the twentieth century the tool of freshman rhetoric was the sturdy industrial age machine, the typewriter. The English Matters logo -- look off there to your left at our frame -- is our eulogy to the ancient machines now packed away -- the Olivetti Lettera 22, the Olympia Portable, the rounded and plastic Smith Corona Electric (to name only the ones in my basement). The typewriter changed the workplace and eventually the writing classroom. The rhetorical space was the 8 1/2 x 11 white page and its typed letters struggling to imitate the printed book. The page was clean and professional, and devoid of the personality of handwriting -- although the misalignments and white-out corrections did retain something of the hand. The computer has changed the rhetorical space again and a new understanding of rhetorical requirements is coming. This issue of English Matters addresses the new space, particularly as it appears for students and teachers in college composition classrooms.

Many now complain about the effect computers have on writing. The Chronicle of Higher Education ran an article recently on how "Technology Transforms Writing and the Teaching of Writing" (November 26, 1999). It quotes techno-disgruntled Sven Birkerts (author of The Gutenberg Elegies), who thinks that the ease of creation, and the students' enthusiasm for e-mail, is finally a hindrance to good prose. "Where writing is concerned, quantity and quality are in an inverse relation. The very nature of technology generates a vast amount of prose and discourages the next step, which would be to prune, winnow, consolidate it. Give it texture and depth. That can't be done by the machine." This complaint may be valid, but it seems to assume that there is still an alternative to using the computer and its word processing. (An alternative as in -- "Send the students to the Typewriting Lab for intensive practice"?) Quality -- and pruning and winnowing -- must occur in the new rhetorical space.

The articles and examples and links in this issue of English Matters show that the new rhetorical space makes demands on student writers greater than, and certainly different from, those the typewriter made. Ken Thompson, in "Enhanced Digital Text for English 201," shows how students in English 201 learn the rhetorical and technical skills with which to create digital texts that exploit the new medium effectively. The issue has synopses of, and videotape from, a conversation at a forum called "Rhetoric on the Internet: The Screen as Rhetorical Space." The participants speculate on the rhetorical possibilities and pitfalls of the new space, thinking for example about the link as a new sort of punctuation mark or the retarding devices that will be necessary to keep the reading from always jumping away from the reading page. Jim Henry, in "Excavating the Subject," explains a long-term project -- an archaeological dig, in Foucault's metaphor -- to uncover the collaborative workings of discourse in specific local writing cultures. He looks forward to the use of the new rhetorical space, the sites, as places for collaborative composition. Ruth Fischer, "Computers and Composition at George Mason University," shows that the change in the composition classroom has come far enough, even in a comparatively short time, to deserve a history.

Anne Aronson's "Online Journals: Making the Visual Visible in Academic Writing" demonstrates the complex series of visual choices that creating an on-line text demands. Following Richard Lanham, Aronson shows how "electronic texts oscillate between the transparent-something one looks THROUGH and the opaque-something one looks AT." The varieties of rhetorical skill required to create the texts Aronson describes are intimidatingly large and yet Aronson's article itself is an elegant example of a "through/at" text which shows, within its own text and through its links, a library of the visual possibilities of the new space. An "Interview with Mark Bernstein" , who works with Eastgate Systems, publishers of fiction, poetry and nonfiction hypertexts for serious readers, shows Bernstein insisting that one future of text is in hypertext, "interlinked reading and writing." He argues, in part, that the web is not a good technology for the large and complicated hypertext -- with its dynamic links that change depending on who reads them and what s/he has already read.

We include in the issue as well, in "Links," examples of electronic journals that are devoted to composition and computers. There are also examples of students writing in the new rhetorical space from Lesley Smith's New Century College course, Text and Hypertext.

Our issue only opens the discussion of the triumphant and complex return of rhetoric, in its new digital incarnation, to the composition course and to college classrooms generally. The promise of Ted Nelson's dream of an immense hypertext, an electronic Xanadu where "everything is intertwingled," where complex and complicated textual context is always available, is still a good way away. But we can already begin thinking about, and writing for, the new rhetorical space.