Texts for a first-year rhetoric or composition course

Inspired by a discussion at the Blogora on dream curricula and by Kieran Healy's nod toward an interesting-sounding essay by Harry Frankfurt released as a book*, I'm wondering what books (or films, music, etc.) you'd assign in a first-year rhetoric or composition course, assuming you have total freedom to choose. I say a composition or rhetoric approach because I do think there's some difference between the two in that they're not completely interchangeable (not that you can't do both in the same course, though), a difference that the latest issue of Enculturation explores. Especially provocative is Sharon Crowley's Composition Is Not Rhetoric, which you should read if you haven't yet. Consider this claim:

The fact is that the situation of the first-year composition course, inside a universal requirement, staffed by a scandalously low-paid and contingently-hired faculty (no matter how capable and well qualified), renders intellectual sophistication a luxury. Furthermore, intellectual sophistication that immerses students and teachers in political and social critique, as a full-blown course in rhetoric would do, is dangerous for contingently-employed teachers, particularly in times like the present, when the prevailing regime of truth carefully monitors teachers to insure their intellectual conformity.

But back to my question: What texts would you assign in a first-year rhetoric and/or composition course? I'm thinking maybe A Small Place by Jamaica Kincaid, which I've assigned several times before, George Lakoff's Don't Think of an Elephant! along with several of the articles that criticize Lakoff's argument, and if applicable, perhaps Frankfurt's book.

* I realize the essay isn't new, but I hadn't heard of it before and am now curious.


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In another Blogora post...

Jim writes:

One beef I have with many rhetoric texts, especially argumentation textbooks, is their "formalism." That is, they provide checklists for tests of evidence, fallacies, argument patterns, and so on, but do not start with naturally occurring public argument.

I sympathize with the point Jim's making, but I'm also trying to figure out the reasoning behind the "formalist" approach. I wonder if it's some kind of preventive measure against too much modeling and imitation ("listen to this political speech, then go and write something like it.")?


I do have total freedom to choose books (thanks UNH!), and I use The Subject Is Writing ed. Wendy Bishop. It's mostly a book asking students to consider and reflect on themselves as writers within the restraints of a university setting. But their main source "text" for paper topics is American culture in general (which I require them to "read" avidly, whether that means checking out some website, doing daily readings of the local newspaper or writing a group ethnography on the local mall). It's probably not the most methodologically robust course in the world, but it gets the critical thinking juices flowing.

I'm a Now Person, I guess, so I tend not to have much use for books. Textbooks can't "effectively engage public argument," IMHO, because between the time they're written and the time they're published, different public arguments take center stage. Most textbooks try to negotiate this difficulty by sticking to lingering, here-but-not-here projects (i.e. the ever-so-common REGURGITATE THESE ASSORTED READINGS ON ______ POLITICAL ISSUE assignment). The coolest FYC reader in the world won't give readers resources on Ward Churchill, or the SE Asia tsunami, or the Pistons/Pacers brawl.

But ENGL 401 at UNH is clearly a composition course, with — how shall we say — "functional rhetoric" as its content. Jim also seems to prefer bleeding-edge reading material, but he seems more immersed in political-rhetorical theory than I could be, given the size of my brain.

text taxonomies

Clancy, I'm interested in your question for several reasons: first, I'm again on the editorial committee for the second edition of my school's textbook, a textbook that's actually bringing money into our Writing Program from other schools that are using it -- but the textbook's first edition was actually only published for use with one assignment. Second, I believe that in first-year writing courses, the direct method of instruction -- i.e., learning to write by writing, rather than reading -- is probably best, so I'm not terribly interested in asking students to do a lot of reading. Yes, those two positions are rather contradictory, but it gets better: third, I'm very convinced by the arguments Mariolina Salvatori has made in College English and elsewhere (she's currently co-editor of the journal Reader) for the value of reading in the composition classroom, especially in her contention that the act of reading is just as much an act of meaning-making as is the act of writing. So, from a multiply inconsistent position, allow me to point out one thing that's implied in your response to Jim, but that might be worth making explicit to help sort out the issues in your post: namely, there are multiple types of composition texts. Bishop's book is a hybrid of a reader and a rhetoric, but Clancy, it sounds more like you're talking more about a straight reader, something like Ways of Reading, and Jim is clearly talking about a rhetoric like the Classical Rhetoric for the Modern Student of Corbett and Connors or any of Joseph Williams's various editions of his Style textbook -- and, beyond those two types of first-year writing texts, there's also the handbook, whether you use Hacker's A Writer's Reference, Lunsford's Everyday Writer, or something else. But I don't think your post's asking about handbooks -- is it?

This curriculum is no dream

Some great links here, Clancy. In reading some of the articles on the "rhet" and "comp" connection, I found myself agreeing a lot with Crowley and Farris and others. And I was also struck about how self-referential a lot of this discussion is: Ed Corbett reinvented rhetoric in the 20th century at Ohio State and his followers carried the torch hither and yon. Now Ed had enormous impact--as has Andrea Lunsford and others from that program. But when I see proposals for "dream" curriculum that seem to already exist at my community college, I wonder why we don't cast our net wider in exploring these questions. So specifically to your query:

Currently at De Anza, First Year Composition consists of a three-quarter sequence: 1A, 1B and 1C (5 units each). Many students meet another Gen Ed requirement with English 2 (5 units), a course combining composition and critical thinking, usually emphasizing formal argumentation. In addition, students are required to take Public Speaking (4 units) in the Speech department, a course that emphasizes presentation techniques as well as some attention to rhetorical elements. This curriculum has been in place for about 15 years now. Many of my students earn all 24 units in their two years here before transferring. (And, yes, we have large numbers of students not focused on transferring who do not take all these courses.)

As for texts, I don't like textbooks for FYC either. Again, this list is real, not a dream:

Course 1 (1A) -- bell hooks, Bone Black; Jon Krakauer, Into the Wild; The 9/11 Commission Report; and Strunk and White, Elements of Style.

Course 2 (1B) -- Ernest Hemingway, In Our Time; Adam Haslett, You Are Not a Stranger Here; Sandra Cisneros, Woman Hollering Creek; 100 Poems; Shakespeare, Much Ado About Nothing.

Course 3 (1C) -- Homer, The Odyssey (Fagles translation); Dave Eggers, A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius; Art Spiegelman, Maus; Lynda Barry's graphic memoir; Al Young, Heaven (collected poems); Shakespeare, Midsummer Night's Dream; and a play being performed locally that term.

Where's the rhetoric? Well, it's partly in the selection and juxtaposition of the readings. But it's mostly in the design of writing assignments and sequences. Each course has at least 5 formal papers, culminating in the third course in a 10 page + formal essay that constitutes a personal intellectual history. I agree that the heart of rhetoric lies in invention, and so much of my courses has been designed to encourage students to find what they have to say before we work on how best to say it.

Finally, I'll beg the question of whether we call it rhetoric or composition. I see myself teaching writing, trying to create a writerly sense in students. Rhetoric and comp theory contribute to that process, but so does literature, linguistics, psychology, sociology, anthropology.

John L

Rhetorics & Readers

Nah, not handbooks. I haven't had very good luck in getting students to use handbooks, but part of that probably comes from my lack of enthusiasm about them. I'm talking about rhetorics and readers, I suppose, but maybe there's a third category? There are rhetorics, like Good Reasons, Classical Rhetoric for the Modern Student, or, if you want to kick it ole school, Rhetorica Ad Herennium. Hey, that might be a good one, actually. :-) Those teach students about principles and techniques in the art of rhetoric, but then Don't Think of an Elephant! is an interrogation of public discourse, an examination of strategies that work and what makes them work. I'm interested in that kind of approach, which seems in keeping with Jim's preference to "start with naturally occurring public argument." It's a kind of rhetoric too, in that it parses arguments and their underlying assumptions. Frankfurt's On Bullshit seems to do something similar, and I think it's a good idea to study bullshit, as it abounds in conversation, mass media, the web, etc. Those two books aren't rhetorics as our field thinks of them, though.

Another idea I've tossed around recently is assigning the most recent edition of Best American Essays. Reading some of those could really open up the idea of what an essay is and what it does, and the various ways one could go about writing a good essay. Hey, I guess nothing's stopping me from selecting a few and putting them in a course pack.

Finally -- sorry for the barely-connected thoughts here -- I own a reader from 1965 titled Reading for Rhetoric, edited by Caroline Shrodes, Clifford Josephson, and James R. Wilson, and when I look at it, I'm always amazed at how much more sophisticated the readings are than what we often find in more recent FYC readers, many of which (not all! but I'd argue many) contain essays that are about on the level of Time, Newsweek, or New York Times op-eds. So many of the readings are sensationalistic, polarized, oversimplified, or just not all that interesting. A sampling of the selections in Reading for Rhetoric includes:

Frederick Lewis Allen: "The Credo of the Intellectuals"

Virginia Woolf: "The Patron and the Crocus"

Jean-Paul Sartre: "The Republic of Silence"

Van Wyck Brooks: "The Silent Generation"

What happened? Maybe Reading for Rhetoric wasn't intended for first-year composition, but having reading the foreword, I believe it was. I don't mean to sound elitist, but I can't ignore the differences I see between the textbooks we use now and older ones. My mom buys me old rhetoric and technical communication textbooks at yard sales when she finds them, so I've read several. I even notice a difference between many current textbooks and the ones I read when I took first-year composition, like Current Issues and Enduring Questions, which I liked a lot when I was in college, especially the selections on enduring questions.


I don't have anything to add on what books you should use, but I'm curious as to what articles criticizing Lakoff you might use (citations? links?). I run primarily in leftie political circles, and, other than some polite jabbing, I just don't hear criticism; it's almost like we're not supposed to do it.

Here are two

Lakoff again

Thanks for those links. I thought the Baer piece was particularly thoughful and compelling.

Wayne Booth

I almost forgot -- I was talking to a super-smart rhet/comp scholar a while ago (who I hope might participate in the 'carnival' you and Collin proposed) who suggested that Wayne Booth's The Rhetoric of Rhetoric would make a dandy first-year writing text.

What Are We Reading in Comp these Days

Clancy, I was struck by your observation that the first -year comp text from the sixties seemed so much more sophisticated than the ones we use now--that is, in terms of readings. I wonder though, if complete novels or nonfiction texts were used back then as much as they are now. Having never studied the history of American textbooks, I just don't know. . .

Mike the First, I agree with you about the nature of public argument versus what's in the reader. By the time an issue/essay is edited into the reader, it has become an artifact, even if the original issue is still being discussed by the public. On the one hand, that gives us the chance to teach from an historical perspective. On the other hand, these essays seem to appear in every rhetoric or textbook and can strike the instructor as stale. If we had a whole 'nother batch of essays in these anthologies, then perhaps it wouldn't be so frustrating. The formalism in these books perhaps undercuts (unintentionally perhaps)the vitality that comes with argument, written or spoken.
I am more and more leaning towards using American historical documents as part of my FYC courses (we have two) and then putting them next to what's happening in our country today (via various media, including blogs). --what are we saying (as a nation) and how are we saying it?
My ideas segue into what Katherine has been writing (and Mike the Second, I believe, has been responding to)over at Rhetoric and Democracy about moving students away from binary thinking. And I must segue to work.


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