So I told my sister I was writing again, and gave her the address of the blog. She texted back and said, “What’s that?” Seeing as how my sister is definitely smart enough to know about the second part of the title, I figured she must be asking about the first: Rhetorica.
So I decided to dedicate a little bit of time – finally – to writing about this scary, sad, ultimately wonderful elephant in my room: rhetoric. I love writing, and I love reading, and I love thinking about how each of those activities are done, and what they bring to our lives, and…well, everything about them. So it was no real surprise when I went off to college (later in life, yes) and wound up (sort of by accident) in a program centered around rhetoric. I had never heard of rhetoric, other than when we talk about the rhetoric of politicians, and their lofty cries for us to “cut through the rhetoric and talk about the issues!” Well, rhetoric IS an issue, and it IS a legitimate field of study, not just a bunch of pontificating wind bags yelling about whatever social cause best raises votes for them.
When I say rhetoric, I’m thinking somewhat of those things and actions, but more I am thinking about why we write the way we do, and how we teach students to write the way we do, and what writing does for us as humans. I’m thinking about the reasons we put this word in front of that one, and what actions that brings about. It’s a study of the philosophy of communication, essentially (put very simply) and it’s an area that I came to late in life. Nonetheless, I love it.
In college, I wound up studying rhetoric sort of by accident. I attended school in an area where there were multiple colleges around, and since the school I was not attending offered an English program, the college I was attending did not. It did, however, offer a program in Rhetoric. Since I had already tried out the college WITH a lit program, I most certainly had no plans to return – that college and I had come to blows. I found, instead, a college that (oddly enough, given how much I hated the state I was living in) was home. It fed me intellectually, and I even made some friends. Suddenly realizing you are exactly where you are supposed to be, doing just what you should be doing is a really strange sensation when the rest of your life has been mired in questionable choices and even more questionable consequences.
But that’s where I met rhetoric – if I was going to study language and writing, it would have to be from the standpoint of rhetoric – the philosophy of writing, essentially – and not what I thought I wanted: literature. I wanted to learn how to parse a poem, how to pull apart the threads of Crime and Punishment and The Yellow Wallpaper. Instead, I stumbled into my real love: Women’s Studies. That’s where I wound up, and returned for my terminal degree in rhetoric later.
Rhetoric and women’s studies are a synergistic fit, if you will pardon my dip into business buzzwords. Women have typically been understood not to have had any place in speaking or in creating texts, and have systematically been placed in situations and given “choices” that keep them from speaking from a place of authority, or even speaking at all. So I began by studying those things – societal things – that prevent women from being taken seriously as speakers, creators and conveyors of knowledge, and instead focus on the thoughts and communications of men.
Of course, just like with so many other things we try to prevent people from doing, we can try to prevent all we want, but human nature being what it is, if someone wants something badly enough, it’s going to happen. Women, even while being constrained to the home, the parlor, the menial serving job (usually women of color), went on and created and spoke, even as they were limited in so many other ways. Those speaking women who ultimately were successful, though, gained that success by working within the bounds around them, and stretching them just enough to wiggle a bit but not enough to raise (many) alarms. Next thing you know, Nellie Bly is doing the Journalist’s Sidestep and then women are wearing pants and dogs and cats are living together.
So I developed somewhat of a love affair with not just rhetoric, but with Rhetorica. Rhetorica is the female embodiment of rhetoric, and it was Andrea Lunsford’s book I saw, constantly, in my head, as I tossed around names for the blog. Of course I knew I would pull out Reclaiming Rhetorica from my shelf and revisit it as I was working on various pieces for this blog. But as I thought about names, I couldn’t get the concept of Rhetorica out of my head. Rhetorica represents, in female form, the purposes and canon of rhetoric.
When Andrea Lunsford published her compilation of essays about women in rhetoric, Reclaiming Rhetorica, she pulled together writings by some of the big names in our field: Jacqueline Jones Royster, Jan Swearingen, Cheryl Glenn, all women writing about other women writers – important writers, not just to the study of rhetoric, but to the study of the country and our history. Ida B. Wells, Margery Kemp, Aspasia, Sojourner Truth are all included in the thinking and writing done for Reclaiming Rhetorica. Women writing about ignored and forgotten other women, doing something that classical rhetorical studies says doesn’t and didn’t happen.
We teach our students that women didn’t write, communicate, create, due to their standing in the world as the softer gender, but that’s a fallacy. We wrote, and we wrote a lot. We communicated, conveyed our thoughts and our fears, we taught and educated ourselves and each other. We didn’t limit ourselves to the standard, classical, masculine idea of communication and rhetoric, but instead we blurred the lines and definitions surrounding rhetoric, and we began to slip some spies behind the lines. But they weren’t bringing information back to us – they were digging in in the trenches, and taking information inside, sort of like Jeff Goldblum smuggling the virus into the aliens’ space ship in Independence Day.
I couldn’t shake the image of Rhetorica, holding her enormous sword, bound in her robes and barefoot, with horn blowing cherubs on each side of her, and I knew I would have to revisit this text. I sort of dreaded it and looked forward to it, honestly. I dreaded it because it was on my exam list when I studied for my terminal degree (a very apt name, I think, for this state and stage of education). But I also looked forward to it because I wanted to see if I could understand it better than I did the first few times I read it.
Because it was important to my Master’s thesis I wrote, I did spend a lot of time with it. But it was also important to the Ph.D. exams I sat, not once but twice, and failed both times.
Yeah, that was fun. Fun times for sure. Nobody was more shocked than I was when I bombed the exams the first time, but there had always been this knowledge in me that I wouldn’t finish school as I intended: with a Dr. before my name, on a train called Tenure, running along its own set of tracks. Nope, I knew that wouldn’t happen. Everyone around me acted like it was a given, I would move through all the requirements of school without problem, but I knew I was going to go to school until they told me I had to stop. I knew that it wouldn’t be “Please stop now, you’ve crossed the graduation stage, you can stop dissertating,” but instead it would be a “Please stop now, you’re out of mental quarters for the machine.” I knew when I went off to school that I wouldn’t be able to finish, but I was surprised that I managed as much as I did. But at the same time, when I sat the exams the first time, I didn’t expect to fail. How’s that for some cognitive dissonance? I didn’t expect to finish my Ph.D., but I was shocked when I didn’t pass my exams – that makes no sense. But there it is.
And don’t for one second think that I sabotaged myself – I tried as hard as I could, and worked as much and as hard as I could, with the tools and abilities that I had, but I was just in over my head.
I don’t really cry about it anymore, but I did for a while. When I got the call from my mentor asking me to come in to see her after I sat my exams the second time, I knew it was bad. I had, after all, failed once before, but that time I got an email from her, explaining what was to be done. So I waited all that long weekend – my mentor and the others on my committee had waited to let me know if I passed or failed until the very last day they had, which was a Friday. So we made arrangements to meet that Monday, and I lived through that long, long weekend, when I imagined all sorts of horror shows. Did I accidentally plagiarise? Was some of my work actually something I took from somehwere else and lazily didn’t mark it as such? I was horrified at this possibility, and it grew in size as I worried and fretted all that long, long weekend. I don’t think they did this on purpose – I never will be convinced to assign any malice to the women who sat on my committee. The fault lay in me and my own shortcomings, my own inabilities to want hard enough this thing that was ephemeral and that demonstrated itself through some letters after my name.
Ultimately these ladies were kind enough to let me revise my life plan to be a second Master’s degree in rhetoric and composition, and I wrote another thesis based on the one single set of exams I had passed: radical pedagogy. Again my love of activism and striving to right massive wrongs bailed me out, just as it had when I was so unhappy at Big Uni #1 and moved on to Small Uni #2 and transferred to study women’s studies. So I revised my exam (drastically) and turned it into a pretty spiffy thesis, and suddenly was graduating, a happy turn of events that grew from a sad failure.
I sat in front of Dr. Mentor’s desk, with Dr. SecondMentor beside her, both across from me, and was probably the least surprised person in the room when Dr. Mentor said, “Because you didn’t pass the exams, you’ll have to leave the program.” I actually was surprised, honestly, but not at what they said, but at how unsurprised I was. I knew this had been coming, but it never occurred to me that there was an official song and dance that had to be performed. Sort of like turn in a circle three times, say “I divorce thee” each time, then spit, and your marriage is dissolved. At one point, Dr. Mentor2 commended me for taking things so well – I don’t think either of them had ever recognized how fully I expected someone to pop out from behind a potted plant in the library and yell, “IMPOSTER!” I know that this sounds like I was suffering from a good dose of Imposter’s Syndrome, but I wasn’t. This wasn’t “I’m afraid I can’t do this,” but a knowledge. And it came and went in terms of strength – I knew after I had been in school a while that my Master’s (the first one) wouldn’t be a problem, so much, and when my graduation was put off because I hadn’t quite finished dotting the I’s and crossing the T’s on my thesis, I really DID have a crying jag and fit, one more suited probably to the later polite dis-invitation to study at Really Great Purple U, sitting at the desk of Dr. Mentor.
So it really stands to reason, I guess, that I chose a picture that’s on the cover of Reclaiming Rhetorica, to go with my love of running and of rhetoric, to be the central image of my blog. We’ve been through so much together, after all.