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Organizing Discourse: Reading and Writing Institutional Histories of Rhetoric

Workshop Leaders:

David Fleming, University of Massachusetts Amherst
Amy Wan, Queens College, CUNY

For much of the twentieth century, histories of rhetoric by scholars in Communication, English, and other fields were either histories of specific orators and oratorical events, usually approached via methods of biographical or textual criticism, or histories of rhetorical theory and pedagogy themselves, often cast as grand narratives of progress or decline. These projects had their uses for intellectual disciplines still finding their way in the modern academy, but they often, ironically, abstracted rhetorical phenomena out of history, shortchanging both history and rhetoric in the process.

Today, our histories of rhetoric are more often than not deeply embedded inquiries, in which speaking and writing, the teaching of speaking and writing, and speakers and writers themselves are situated inextricably in the cultural, material, and ideological contexts that surround and constitute them, constrain and enable them, sponsor and inhibit them. This has meant a welcome turn, in the history of rhetorical practices, theories, and pedagogies, to the everyday, to the archives, to the margins – and all the richness, surprise, and insight that those turns bring. The challenge now is to keep our focus on local sites of ordinary discourse, and discourse cultivation, while still attending to the larger social and economic forces that both produce and are produced by them.

The double responsibility of attending to both small and large, specific and general, particular and abstract, is nowhere more pressing than in research on institutional histories of rhetoric, which we might define as histories of those religious, educational, social, economic, labor, civic, cultural, political, recreational, and other organizations where “writing” and “speaking,” broadly construed, are practiced, sponsored, developed – and also, of course, controlled. Understanding the history of rhetoric, especially in the modern era, requires that we understand these settings. And understanding those settings requires that we investigate their histories.

This workshop is meant to help researchers assess the current state of institutional histories of rhetoric, discuss together prospects and challenges for conducting such research, and share works-in-progress. We’ll combine reading and discussion of a few exemplary texts with workshopping of participants’ own projects. Each participant will submit, a week before the workshop, a brief text identifying his or her project-in-process, including, perhaps, motivation for the project, notable features, problems and opportunities, and progress so far.

Questions should be directed to David Fleming, dfleming@english.umass.edu


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