Academic journal article College Composition and Communication

Reading Coles Reading Themes: Epideictic Rhetoric and the Teaching of Writing

Academic journal article College Composition and Communication

Reading Coles Reading Themes: Epideictic Rhetoric and the Teaching of Writing

Article excerpt

The average freshman in college, quite understandably, wants badly to know who he is supposed to be in relation to what he thinks is wanted of him. It is to be expected then, that in the midst of the threatening unfamiliarity of his freshman year, the student will shape whatever he can of his academic environment into patterns that he is familiar with.

William E. Coles Jr.

"Freshman Composition: The Circle of Unbelief"

William E. Coles Jr.'s 1978 The Plural I: The Teaching of Writing is a strange book, seldom read and seldom cited. It began as a 297-page report, "English is a Foreign Language: A report on an experimental Freshman English course taught Fall semester, 1965-66, at Case Institute of Technology." Both the book and the report narrate a semester of Coles teaching Humanities 1, a required first-year composition course. The report seeks to determine whether Case should institute a writing curriculum based off the one Coles taught at Amherst from 1960 to 1965 under the direction of Theodore Baird (a). Coles knows his report will not "be read in its entirety by everyone," but he believes, nonetheless, that "everyone connected with that mysterious thing we refer to as the process of education at Case ought to have a copy of it" (b).

It took Coles some ten years to find a publisher for The Plural I} Coles calls it a "teacher's manual" (Composing II 2, 10), but The Plural I is an unusual one: pedagogical theory that relies on narrative while taking the form of a quasi-epistolary novel built around ninety-four pieces of student writing. The book received mixed reviews.2 While Joseph Harris ("Plural"), Bruce Horner, and Geoffrey Sirc each offer careful readings of Coles's work, Jo Keroes says The Plural I "is rather like a rich cake that has fallen in the middle" (n. pag.), and Harris even admits the book "seems a little clunky and aggressive" ("Comment"). Horner notes that Coles's work (along with that of Coles's later colleague at the University of Pittsburgh David Bartholomae) has been "unusually liable to mixed, sometimes contradictory interpretations" (193). Coles is linked to "hard rhetoric" and "'manly' plain-spokenness" (Dillon 64, qtd. in Horner 193; see also Catano and Coles's "Comment" in response to him), yet also to the Expressivists who value the student-centered, therapeutic classroom where writers find and free the self (Berlin 771-73; see Horner [193-94] and Harris ["Plural" 162] for critiques of Berlin's reading of Coles). Horner suggests such competing readings come from Coles's "resistance . . . to ready commodification" (193). Coles pushes against the dominant traditions and pedagogies shaping composition and consequently is hard to read, hard to place, hard to value.

This sense of resistance is key to understanding Coles's teaching, and in what follows, I offer a portrait of a teacher, a classroom, and a pedagogy- an effort to recover, and find value in, a teacher on the margins of composition. Though his teaching does read as both "manly" and "expressivist," problematic as those terms are, I claim Coles teaches first and foremost a course in practical criticism, a course in praise and blame, a course in- though he never uses the term-epideictic rhetoric. Coles's rhetoric of praise and blame transforms (or, at least, attempts to transform) a community of learners, and in response to Joseph Harris, who laments that composition "seldom revisit[s] student texts quoted by others" ("Using" 669), I revisit the writing of Coles's students to observe that transformation. Their writing shows forth a classroom built upon praise and blame, yes, but more so their work points to the importance of epideictic rhetoric for the teacher of writing. An epideictic pedagogy asks that composition acknowledge our posture toward student writing-how we read it, how we respond to it, how we value it, what we do with it-and it asks, too, that the focal point of a classroom no longer be persuasion but a showing forth both situated and cultivated within and against a community. …

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