Rhetorical-Ecological Links in Composition History

Nathan Shepley, University of Houston

Enculturation: http://enculturation.net/rhetorical-ecological-links
(Published: February 28, 2013)


As local histories of written rhetoric at American higher education institutions have proliferated, researchers face the question of what to do with these histories, whether and how to apply the historical insights gained to other locales. We know that the history of writing and writing instruction at American colleges and universities involves sites of conformity as well as sties of resistance to education norms (Enoch). We know that what we think of today as activist education has predecessors from earlier and generally more conservative times (Kates; Garbus). We know that differences in institutional missions and student populations have affected how closely instructors and administrators followed Harvard’s Adams Sherman Hill and others toward a rhetoric of correctness in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries (Hobbs). Enough local histories, or histories focusing on a single higher education institution or a single kind of higher education institution, reveal as much.

Given this emphasis on the local, an emphasis which I too support, those of us researching the history of written rhetoric in American higher education have been reluctant to push local findings toward generalizable statements. After all, so much of what we have discovered in the past fifteen years is that grand conceptions of rhetoric’s past in America do not hold everywhere, and have been subjected to nuanced revision or, in some cases, outright rejection. As Gretchen Flesher Moon puts it, “[Local histories of college writing] challenge the dominant narrative of composition history, located in primarily elite research institutions, disrupting its apparent simplicity as the myth of origin and proposing alongside it a complicated and discontinuous array of alternative histories” (12). Much research still underway surfaces valuable points where broad, straightforward explanations of writing’s past uses break down in light of the discovery—or recovery—of alternative rhetorical goals and practices. It is here, in the milieu of recognizing the diversity of our historical attitudes and practices, where I want to step in, for I propose that studying historical links between local sites of rhetorical education does not have to reinforce dominant historical narratives that we have worked hard to complicate. In fact, I propose that historical writing from college students may be studied across institutional sites to reveal hitherto undervalued patterns in the writings’ uses and effects—what I call the writings’ rhetorical work. Of course, our ability to see this depends on our analytical stance. So in the space the remains, I unpack and illustrate one way that histories of written rhetoric at different institutional sites can inform each other, can highlight telling similarities and differences across sites even as the histories retain their local richness. It is important that both this kind of analysis and its findings be understood lest we diminish the potential of local histories to shape rhetorical knowledge beyond local confines. And it is important to see how research across institutions can contribute to the larger effort to pluralize the history of written rhetoric.

Undergirding my research is a textual orientation that prioritizes relationships of texts to circulating people and interests, an orientation that I trace to composition’s ecological emphasis. Following the 1980s-90s social turn in rhetoric and composition and subsequent attention given to postprocess theories of writing, the term ecology and its variants gained traction, as in ecological models of writing (Cooper), ecocomposition (Dobrin and Weisser, Ecocomposition), and rhetorical ecologies (Edbauer Rice). An ecological model of writing views writing as “an activity through which a person is continually engaged with a variety of socially constituted systems” (Cooper 367). Ecocomposition, for Christian R. Weisser and Sidney I. Dobrin, concerns “the coconstitutive existence of writing and environment; it is about physical environment and constructed environment; it is about the production of written discourse and the relationship of that discourse to the places it encounters” (“Breaking” 2, my emphasis). And rhetorical ecology, according to Jenny Edbauer Rice, heads a similar route but emphasizes “history and movement” as well as the roles of circulation and desire in rhetorical exchanges (9) (more on this below). Stemming from longstanding interests in communication contexts, these concepts support sophisticated studies of factors that interrelate to shape the production, reception, or dissemination of texts.

To skeptics, the turn to ecological factors might seem unoriginal, as we already have Stephen Toulmin’s situations of argument (Olson); Lloyd Bitzer’s famous rhetorical situation and its critics (e.g., Vatz); and years of scholarship rehabilitating First Sophistic interests in kairos, or the opportune time, and by extension place, for a message. What the turn to ecology does that is nonetheless important, particularly for those of us working in archives of college writing, is frame texts not as a single moment of action from a writer-rhetor but as sites of a series of diachronic interactions between people and ideologies. From an ecological starting point, a student essay found in an archive of a higher education institution becomes an occasion for investigating many layers of influence on the essay as well as many social exchanges that have highlighted and circulated the essay since its production. Beyond calling the student essay a social product or referring broadly to its context, beyond also describing a single “rhetorical situation” that we can say prompted the writing of that essay, we develop a rhetorically rich conception of the work that archived texts have done and still do once we view the texts ecologically. If we have the fortune to work in archives that offer an array of source types about past student writing (e.g., syllabi, assignments, department notes, students’ rough drafts), we may adopt an ethnographic sensibility and try to reconstruct a particular class or assignment’s goals and outcomes. But, for many of us working in small or eclectically stocked archives, we find that to make knowledge from historical texts, we have to do more with fewer sources and source types.

To illustrate an ecological framework’s usefulness for local histories, I examine early-mid twentieth century student writing archived at seemingly opposite higher education institutions, the University of Houston (UH) in Houston, TX, and Ohio University (OHIO) in Athens, OH, sites whose archives I was working in when I began exploring the value of ecological ideas for historical research. Initially, these two institutions appear to have had nothing in common in the early-mid 1900s: the institutions served different kinds of student populations, they followed different missions, and, most obviously, they lay in vastly different parts of the country. If I were to adhere to commonsensical beliefs about each institutional site’s particularity, each site’s inability to inform research at other institutional sites, I would at most consider research from UH in terms of other Houston universities or in terms of other urban Sunbelt commuter universities; I would consider research from OHIO in terms of other Ohio universities or other rural Northern Appalachian universities. That is, I would consider my findings from each university on their own terms or in terms of other universities of a single kind. While there is value in doing this, an ecological approach can reveal other dimensions of student texts retained in the archives of very different universities. In the cases of UH and OHIO, an ecological analysis puts into conversation texts from different geographic locations and different kinds of institutions so as to spotlight comparable influences on, and effects of, the texts held at each institution, similar relationships between the student texts and their social and ideological surroundings. What results is a comparison that can inform historical research at these and other sites, a comparison that can offer guidance for future local research.

The texts I studied are, in the case of the University of Houston, the student-written anthology The Harvest (1936-1950) and, in the case of Ohio University, three student-written volumes from 1950: Ohio University in the 1920s: A Social History and volumes one and two of Ohio University in the Twentieth Century: A Fifty-Year History. I chose these texts because they give historians our only detailed examples of student writing completed for coursework at the universities in question between 1935 and 1950, a time period whose college writing classes are traditionally associated with some combination of Deweyan pragmatism, the general education movement, handbook-supported error correction, the rise of expository writing, and the seeds of thesis-driven essays (Connors; see also Berlin). The student compositions in each volume I studied average a few pages in length, and often the writings describe or explain local phenomena. But as tempting as it is to analyze the texts formally, by coding and comparing features of their organization, syntax, diction, and subject matter, we can focus on commonly missed points of comparison by using a rhetorical-ecological lens. For my analysis, I examined signs of influence from faculty members, administrators, and campus historians, people whose work to shape the student writing surfaces saliently once we follow the writing’s changes as it was produced and disseminated. More specifically, I focused on the front matter of the volumes, looking at who applied meaning to the writing and how this process changed after the first volume of writing was produced. I supplemented this focus with attention to student essays themselves when I noticed changes in the essays’ relationship to faculty or administrators across volumes. Then, to gauge institutional historians’ influence on the writings, I used information acquired from an IRB-approved questionnaire sent to a current archivist at UH and a current archivist at OHIO, both of whom have worked for over ten years at their current institution. As I will show, this multipronged attempt to track movements in the student writings’ meanings and uses complicates consideration of a rhetorical situation (Bitzer) and traditional consideration of a writer’s agency (Vatz). My analysis shows how the texts in question can be conceived as the province of students as well as the province of several people and ideas.

The Difference a Rhetorical Ecology Makes

Familiar in rhetoric and composition circles since at least the 1980s, the ecology metaphor gained steam after 2000 when it was used to accentuate relationships of writers and writing to social and material forces. But the term served as more than a label. As noted above, Marilyn M. Cooper calls the “fundamental tenet” of “an ecological model of writing” its view that “writing is an activity through which a person is continually engaged with a variety of socially constituted systems” (367). Such engagement—ongoing, social, multifaceted—frames the notion of context as a process rather than as a mere backdrop for writing. In Cooper’s model, writing operates as a site of unending interaction between a text and a writer and between the text, the writer, and a chain of extra-textual factors, to the point that the writer and her text “determine and are determined by” surrounding people and ideas (368). From this perspective, questions that were once posed about the writer’s motivation to produce a text evolve into questions about signs of influence on the text from wave after wave of people and interests. By starting with Cooper’s explanation, we may ask in cases of archived writing: what clues can we locate about people and purposes that, in their interaction with the student or text, shaped the text(s) under inspection? Who, in addition to the students whose names appears on the writing itself, left their fingerprints on the writing, and with what results? To examine such factors, we look for signs of influence over time, during and after the writing of the texts, and we treat the student writer and his or her writing as susceptible to change. For Cooper and other scholars explain that thinking ecologically means seeing various factors as continually dynamic, as themselves changed by their interaction with other people, texts, and ideas. A writer, then, is transformed by her incorporation of readers’ suggestions on a draft; a text acquires new uses and meanings once it encounters multiple sources of scrutiny or elaboration.

Performing in accordance with its definition, this ecological model evolved in the early 2000s in the hands of other theorists who gravitated toward ecocomposition. But for my purposes I draw most heavily from Jenny Edbauer Rice’s study of rhetorical ecology. Helpfully, Edbuaer Rice unpacks differences between rhetorical ecologies and Lloyd Bitzer’s rhetorical situations; also, she applies rhetorical-ecological thinking to a specific text that appeared, reappeared, and changed forms and meanings over time and in a particular city. Her work to contrast and to illustrate deserves close attention.

On the point of rhetorical ecologies versus rhetorical situations, Edbauer Rice situates the former as an important extension of the latter. She follows Barbara Biesecker’s critique of Bitzer’s rhetorical situation by discussing the rhetorical situation’s “discrete elements: audience, rhetor, exigence, constraints, and text” (Edbauer Rice 7). Even if we describe an act of communication through the components of exigence, audience, constraints, and so on, Edbauer Rice explains, each of those components does not exist apart and independent from still other components. For example, what we call an exigence results from “an amalgamation of processes and encounters” and thus is “more like a shorthand way of describing a series of events” (Edbauer Rice 8). Instead of attempting to freeze rhetorical factors by placing them into a clearly defined rhetorical situation, she views any factors connected to that situation as signs of “an ongoing social flux” (Edbauer Rice 9). In an especially memorable passage, she explains, “Situation bleeds into the concatenation of public interaction. Public interactions bleed into wider social processes. The elements of rhetorical situation simply bleed” (9). While we may observe details surrounding a message by using Bitzer’s rhetorical situation, we would, if content with his model, undervalue how factors surrounding a piece of communication interact, or relate. Those relations must be analyzed to make sense of many levels at which the message operates.

Lest the significance of the point be lost, Edbauer Rice unpacks some of the rhetorical ecology of one short text, the slogan “Keep Austin Weird,” in a particular city, Austin, Texas. Evidently, the slogan appeared during a years-long technology-driven expansion of corporations in the college city that had until then been known for its contributions to music and other arts. First, the slogan was put onto 5,000 bumper stickers ordered by owners of two local bookstores (an action that, granted, could be studied with Bitzer’s rhetorical situation). But beyond this one response to a perceived problem, the slogan then appeared in over 50,000 bumper stickers, then on t-shirts sold by other local businesses; and then, with radio shows chiming in to support the cause, “[t]he phrase ‘Keep Austin Weird’ quickly passed into the city’s cultural circulation, taking on the importance of a quasi-civic duty” (16). The slogan received acknowledgment by the Austin City Council, and by this point the slogan “expanded in the course of new calls, which adopt[ed] the phrase and transform[ed] it to fit other purposes” (17). Edbauer Rice shares the example of the University of Texas – Austin giving away t-shirts bearing the phrase “Keep Austin Liberal Arts” (17), the Austin Public Library distributing bumper stickers reading “Keep Austin Reading” (17-18), and old as well as new businesses in the city appropriating some version of the slogan. Most remarkably, “[e]ven the corporate giant Cingular Wireless…created an advertisement in local publications that prominently features the phrase ‘Keep Austin Weird’ beside their corporate logo” (18). Each one of these organization’s uses of the slogan eyed different audiences and responded to different exigences, she notes, and she highlights the fact that the slogan spurred counter-rhetorics parodying the original slogan’s popularity (19). Thus, the text “circulate[d] in a wide ecology of rhetorics” (19-20). It spread “trans-situationally” (20).

Although Edbauer Rice engages minimally with Richard Vatz’s critique of the rhetorical situation, her use of rhetorical ecologies extends Vatz’s interest in the individual rhetor’s agency. Rather than look at one individual’s choice to speak or write, her study of changes in a message’s rhetorical work prompts us to consider: who made each of those changes? Who benefited from each change? Thus, room exists in which to see rhetorical ecologies as a more social, dynamic version of the rhetorical activity that Vatz alludes to when he writes, “[T]he rhetor is responsible for what he [sic] chooses to make salient” (158). Edbauer Rice might update Vatz’s position by saying: the rhetor or several rhetors are responsible for what they choose to contribute to a text’s meanings and effects. I dwell on Edbauer Rice’s illustration of rhetorical ecologies because I think it is through application that this concept most clearly reveals its usefulness as an analytical lens for different studies. In 2011, the concept was applied to cultural identity creation among African American Appalachians (Taylor) and to an array of texts that two first-year composition classes produced to alter public rhetoric (Rivers and Weber). In these studies, the writing or other symbolic communication was shown to have warranted an ecological frame. The concepts of context and situation give us places to start, but rhetorical ecologies, which accentuate the social layer in the text’s connection to other factors, centralize the evolution of a text’s work and meaning.

Relations and Movements of Student Writing in Institutional Archives

Seeing student texts from 1936 to 1950 as in motion, as connected to an array of factors beyond student-identified authors themselves, presents challenges unaccounted for in the studies cited previously. Namely, whatever or whoever had a hand in shaping that writing may not be clear at first. But even so, we can detect traces of others’ influence, traces of the circulation of ideas that would become the student texts as they are viewed today. The most prominent of these traces in student writing at UH and at OHIO come from faculty, administrators, and institutional historians, people connected to the texts with varying degrees of conspicuousness over time. These three groups offer vivid starting points from which to unpack some of the rhetorical ecologies of the archived texts.

But first, a summary will assist readers unfamiliar with these texts. At UH, the 1936-1950 volumes of The Harvest, an anthology of student writing that originally came from one professor’s creative writing class and first-year composition class, cover topics from the concrete to the abstract and in genres ranging from descriptions to narrations, poems, reviews, and satirical sketches, though the term essay fits most of the writing. Often, the writings focus on fictional or nonfictional events at nearby Texas locations, from museum exhibits to floods and occupation descriptions. During World War II, the writings took a decidedly creative turn toward play with language and attention to artistic effect. At OHIO, the three volumes from 1950 offer writing about this university, descriptions or explanations chronicling historical customs and events associated with university life. These OHIO writings, all from an honors first-year composition course, are more homogenous in content and genre than the UH writings, but otherwise appear similar.

Stepping away now from the texts’ formal similarities, we can notice and compare signs of the writings’ evolution as we look for their influences from and on faculty members, people near but other than the immediately apparent students. In the case of UH, a faculty member whose name appears repeatedly across volumes of The Harvest is English Professor Ruth Pennybacker, faculty sponsor of the publication. Beyond noting the frequency of her name in introductory sections of The Harvest, we can follow how she positioned herself in relation to this publication, tracking a connection that evolved over time with the magazine’s development. In early volumes, Pennybacker wrote the publication’s introduction, and in the introduction to volume one (1936) she positions herself as The Harvest’s initiator. She says she “encouraged several young people” to write “dramatic and literary reviews” because of students’ inability to criticize (“Part I,” 1: iv). She also contradicts this statement somewhat when she says, “[M]embers [of her class] write what interests them most” (ibid). Whether she determined what her students wrote or merely assisted them with writing that they wanted to produce, her influence is noticeable, and the influence assumes different forms in subsequent volumes. Most strikingly, in 1942 she stopped editing The Harvest to go on a sabbatical, and at this point her students began writing the magazine’s introduction. Evoking their absent instructor, the students introduce the 1942 volume with the comment, “Miss Pennybacker has in the past six years set a standard of excellence for The Harvest which this year’s student board has worked to maintain” (Hicks et al., their emphasis). Other changes at this time include the formation of a “student editorial board” that would be “assisted by a faculty advisory committee” of three people (ibid)—where there was once one named faculty advisor, there were now three. Another change made in 1942 was technological, the transition from an “off-set printing process” to work that “has been printed from type” (ibid). Additionally, there appeared the above-mentioned shift from modal writing to creative, aesthetically rich writing. At this point the students use their writing to tout “the emotional, intellectual and spiritual aspects of life” and expression (ibid), a preference that went unarticulated if it was present earlier, and the students justify their turn to aesthetics by claiming that without this sensibility one is left with “conflict, chaos, and destruction” (ibid). What I want to stress is the fact that all of these changes, in form, focus, and advising, occurred in the wake of Pennybacker’s sabbatical.

At a glance, post-1942 signs suggest that students gained control over their writing. For one thing, in 1944 UH students elected all the members The Harvest’s staff for the first time (“Preface,” 9: 2). For another thing, the students announce in the 1945 volume that The Harvest is now “a product of the Writers’ Club” (“Preface,” 10: 4), a far cry from the anthology’s work as a showcase of writing from Pennybacker’s creative writing and first-year composition classes. However, in the volumes’ front matter, references to university faculty point to increasingly complicated and subtle forms of oversight. Beginning in 1942 there was the listing of three faculty advisors and a faculty sponsor. Also, instead of faculty members writing The Harvest’s introductions, we find, in 1946, faculty members forming panels of judges who determine the writing to be published (“Preface,” 11: 4). Then, in 1947, Ruth Pennybacker returned to sponsor the anthology and join other faculty in judging submissions (“Preface,” 12: n.p.). So changes in faculty involvement appear to head in at least two directions: toward allowing increased student governance of the anthology but also toward more elaborate surveillance of the anthology.

At OHIO, the volumes of student writing had their own version of a Ruth Pennybacker in the form of English Professor Paul Kendall, whose honors first-year composition students completed the writing that appeared in the three 1950 volumes on their university’s twentieth century history. Here, as at UH, the involvement of faculty (Kendall and others) grows in complexity after the first volume, and at OHIO that complexity is conveyed in references within the student essays. The first volume, Ohio University in the 1920s, includes just a few citations from faculty, and this information never constitutes an essay’s main content; more common sources cited are early student newspapers. However, after the first volume and its apparent success (see Baker), faculty are acknowledged in the essays for contributing information, and the information that the faculty provide is presented without any expression of doubt about its veracity. By the second volume (i.e., volume one of Ohio University in the Twentieth Century), we find history professor Clement L. Martzolff, author of an early local history book, quoted as saying that one early 1900s OHIO president “ushered in the Greater Ohio University” (Morris). In a nearby piece about student clubs, English professor Hiram R. Wilson is recognized for providing information about the founding of a student organization called the Booklover’s Club. Later in this piece, English professor Clinton N. MacKinnon’s work to organize an honorary fraternity is acknowledged both in the student’s paragraph proper and in a footnote (Scott). And of course Professor Paul Kendall himself appears, acknowledged once for his role in a performance by the Ohio University Theatre (Anderson).

Beyond appearing more frequently in the writing after volume one, OHIO faculty began offering comments that interpreted historical information, and the line between these interpretations and students’ interpretations is strikingly murky. Repeatedly in volume two, footnotes are linked to the end of body paragraphs, footnotes attributing either some or all of the paragraph’s information to a faculty member. Sometimes in such paragraphs, students reveal remarkable insight into the attitudes—the very mindsets—of earlier faculty and administrators. A vivid example comes from student Jean Davidson, who writes about an early 1900s celebration OHIO held in the surrounding community for university members. In addition to describing the events, which include a parade, Davidson makes bold comments about what the celebration meant to different university insiders, and she ends one such section with a footnote that reads, simply, “Professor Clinton C MacKinnon, Professor of English.” The paragraph in question ends as follows:

Such a parade, as might be expected, was quite a spectacle for not only did it stretch endlessly around the town, but also its participants—bored college students and begrudging professors, sprinkled here and there with a few who enjoyed the celebration to the extent of wearing fancy dress in it—added to its hilarity. Certainly this parade did not suggest the scholarly achievement befitting a university. Its death with the change of university presidents was no doubt a relief to all concerned. (Davidson, my emphasis)

Here, as in other passages, faculty names appear at the bottom of the page while information that the faculty are associated with conveys nuanced sentiments that most student writers from 1949-50 could not have felt firsthand.

Such moments of ambiguous faculty contributions scarcely appear in the first of the three volumes of OHIO student writing. By the second and third volumes, which broaden from a 1920s focus to a 1900-1950 focus, the students write longer pieces and faculty knowledge takes more central roles. Something of a push-pull surfaces here as it did at UH, then, between students who write more as the volumes progress and faculty members who demonstrate more ways to shape the volumes as a whole. But a difference between the involvement of faculty at UH and the faculty at OHIO is that at OHIO the evolution of faculty influence was not offset by documented moves from the students to control their writing. This may be due to a number of factors, including the more limited timeframe of the OHIO writings (one academic year) and the more limited subject matter of the OHIO writings (all pertained to the institution itself).

Lest we dismiss the UH and OHIO writings as dependent on faculty for changes in the writings’ meanings and uses, we should heed interactions between the writings and university administrators. This kind of influence points to another set of contributors that altered the writings’ significance. At UH, students’ acknowledgment of administrator assistance comprises a staple of The Harvest’s volumes across the years, but the late 1940s bring a telling change in the context of these acknowledgments. In 1942, as in years before this, administrators such as a dean receive acknowledgement for “financial arrangements and other assistance” (Hicks et al.). However, in 1948, the UH student editors thank the university president’s assistant after the students share new information, an announcement of an ambitious “vision” for their publication efforts “to make the University the hub of the literary and intellectual wheel of the Southwest” (“Preface,” 13: 3). This comment in turn follows a statement about the students’ focus on poetry that year, with the stated justification, “We believe it our duty to call attention to the growing excellence in writing at the school” (ibid). If the placement of the students’ gratitude to the president’s assistant is any indication, the students view, or wish to be understood as viewing, their writing in relation to elevated institutional prestige.

We should read these 1948 comments against an awareness of another shift at UH in the 1930s-40s: Ruth Pennybacker’s transformation from a faculty member associated with composition and creative writing to, in 1941, “Chairman [sic] of the English Department” (Pennybacker, “Introductory,” 6: iii). As the anthology’s first editor and most visible early leader, she would have exerted influence on individual volumes of The Harvest. But her change to administrator makes her 1947 return to The Harvest all the more impactful as it brings an administrative presence directly to the supervision of the students’ new Writers’ Club.

At OHIO, administrators, like the faculty, came to serve as regular sources for the students’ essays after publication of the first volume on the university’s history. Another new feature after volume one is that former OHIO President John C. Baker wrote the introduction to the second and third volumes. So whereas the first volume relies heavily on student newspapers, the second volume is framed by an administrator and supported, even shaped, by administrators’ contributions. In the students’ writings themselves, we find in volume two Dean Emeritus Edwin Watts Chubb quoted on faculty-student relations: “A great deal of the success of a university depends on the harmony between faculty members, between students, and between the faculty and students” (Morris). Results of interviews with him and with and the Dean of Women are alluded to in other pieces. In one of the longest writings, “Campus Politics,” by Shannon Meeker, interview data from an assistant dean, a former dean, a current dean, and an English professor comprise the majority of the information given—in contrast to a shorter version of this essay which appeared in volume one and which lacked interview-based support. In Meeker’s interviews, administrators provide concluding, analytical comments about what campus politics means as well as prescriptions about what it should mean for students in 1950. These are among many examples that suggest a pattern, in volume two, of students relying on administrators and faculty members in addition to published sources, with administrators playing major roles.

Furthermore, the presence of the OHIO administration is observable in OHIO President John C. Baker’s introduction to the second and third volumes. Baker writes:

Many favorable comments were made about the first manuscript [Ohio University in the 1920s], and it is believed this second document will have even wider appeal. These studies are excellent examples of the latent ability in student groups if their efforts are properly directed and stimulated. Both Professor Kendall and his students deserve the thanks of the University for the tremendous amount of work they devoted to this project and the scholarly and effective way in which they presented their material. (1: n.p.)

The President’s evocation of consensus—“Many favorable comments were made,” “it is believed” (my emphasis)—does not clarify the individuals who championed the student writing and neglects to specify what about the writing elicited favorable reactions. What it does instead is convey an idea of all-encompassing support; it ties him and OHIO as a whole to the writings. Baker also reveals a connection between the student writing and someone else’s standards when he says, “if [the students’] efforts are properly directed and stimulated” and “the scholarly and effective way in which [the students] presented their material.” If the students’ abilities were “properly directed,” as President Baker claims, and if the students’ writing was indeed “scholarly,” then he presents the goal of effective student preparation as enabling students to write like scholars, a goal that his university could then be seen as achieving. If the student writing in these volumes was ever intended just to fulfill course requirements, it had now become something more. At OHIO, as at UH, an alignment of student writing with institutional work endowed the writing with a larger symbolic function.

Finally, beyond faculty and administrators and beyond 1936-1950, the student writings from UH and at OHIO evolved—which is to say the rhetorical work of the writings developed as the writings reached additional readers and took on a new role in the absence of other records of early-mid twentieth century student writing. One UH archivist noted that, to her knowledge, The Harvest comprises the only pre-1950 undergraduate student writing retained by her university. She speculated that the person who contributed it to the archives could have been Ruth Pennybacker herself, or the archives’ volumes could be duplicates of “the full run of The Harvest,” which was once held in the university library’s general collection. But this point of uncertainty aside, she believed, “[T]he archival value of the university’s first literary magazine would always outweigh any issues of space or staff constraints.” In other words, The Harvest’s status as a university first as well as a lone sample of early-mid twentieth century student writing at this site likely increased its value. Another level of interest in this source’s preservation and accessibility comes from creative writing. The UH archivist shared, “I became aware of [UH’s holding of The Harvest] in 1999 when I processed the papers of poet Vassar Miller, who had attended the University of Houston and had work published in The Harvest.” She added that both Vassar Miller and Donald Barthelme, past undergraduates at UH, wrote pieces that appeared in The Harvest, and that the 1952 volume has attracted widespread attention because it features a poem written by Barthelme, a poem that appeared in a 2005 Donald Barthelme exhibit at the university. Thus, we find signs that The Harvest’s status rose after 1950 given its eventual association with famous alumni and with an increasingly prominent creative writing program.

The case of the three volumes of student writing at OHIO overlaps some of the conditions at UH. The OHIO archivist wrote, “the University archives is a living and growing organism” in the sense that materials come in, undergo processing, and change places, and sometimes the processing fails to keep pace with the influx of new items. He encountered the three-volume history of Ohio University penned by 1950 students when, as he put it, “my boss bought them to my attention. They were in his office under a pile of several unrelated things and he handed them over to me. I quickly rescued them and placed them on a shelf in my office.” This information reflects themes of technology and staff support that, for this archivist, explain many of the developments that occur at this site. Whereas at UH, the student writing’s association with creative writers prompted more readers and public exposure for the The Harvest, at OHIO a general push for archival support has led to a higher likelihood of the three 1950 student volumes finding regular readers. The OHIO archivist shared that when he joined the university, “not only did the [library] staff rely on institutional memory to know IF we had something, they relied on the same memory to find WHERE it was.” However, recently OHIO hired someone funded by a grant to “encode archival collections in such a way that the materials will be more accessible through a simple [G]oogle search,” among other changes. Moreover, the archivist explained, “[a recently hired supervisor] is determined to reach out to the academic community to help us to attract more professors and their graduate and undergraduate classes to using the materials in the archives for primary evidence research. The numbers of classes that I teach related to this has nearly tripled in the last year.” The work now underway to expose the university community to the archives’ holdings has enhanced possibilities for the three student-written histories of Ohio University to reach more numbers and kinds of researchers.

So at OHIO it is historical student writing that found its way to the university archives ambiguously, but that has since been placed en route to widespread visibility. While the archival journeys of the UH and OHIO student writings are not identical, a noteworthy parallel surfaces in the archivists’ hope for the historical student writing to attract interest as it circulates. In the case of each university, new readers of the historical writings are appearing, and the work of these writings is expanding to include more public effects than the students associated with the historical writings could have anticipated.

Lessons from the Rhetorical Ecologies of Archived Student Writing

Expanding our analytical frame from situation to ecology—that is, to a series of engagements that the student writing underwent during and after its construction, engagements that altered the writing’s meaning—can allow contributions on multiple levels to historical studies of college writing. First, the new frame challenges the notion that history consists of that which happened long ago. Historical texts become identifiable as texts that affected audiences and that now affect new audiences. Second, the frame shifts attention from the immediate purpose of a piece of writing (what did its writer intend to accomplish?) to the rhetorical work of a piece of writing (in the service of whose goals has the writing been used?), work that is done whenever someone sees fit to support and make visible the writing in question. The latter emphasis directs attention to the cooptation and recirculation of student writing, moves that raise important questions: what does it mean that institutional stakeholders kept this writing as opposed to other writing? What does it mean that certain English faculty members put their energy behind these pedagogical projects as opposed to other pedagogical possibilities? What does it mean that not only faculty but also administrators expressed support for this particular writing, and that students (and doubtlessly others) shared this show of support when introducing the writing? By thinking along these lines, we surface opportunities to interrogate the shared ownership of the writing and to see multiple levels on which the writing has operated. We might go as far as throwing into question the degree to which we can call the texts student writing at all. Much as Edbauer Rice’s study of “Keep Austin Weird” exposed points at which this slogan became the province of new interests, my study of historical student writing supports the contention that the “student” writing in question changed hands, served some interests more directly than other interests as it was written, distributed, and then retained.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, studying the rhetorical ecology of historical student writing opens up possibilities to compare historical evidence across institutional sites. Obviously, Ohio University and the University of Houston have little in common, geographically and demographically; my work in the archives of each institution began as chance occurrences. My purpose in comparing them is to show that even institutions this dissimilar can, from a rhetorical-ecological angle, exhibit parallels on the basis of their members’ handling of past student writing, and the resulting points of similarity and difference are instructive for historians and writing instructors across sites. In the case of my study, the evidence demonstrates the difficulty of categorizing writing from this time period as belonging to the general education movement, Deweyan pragmatism, current-traditional rhetoric, or the like. Moreover, this cross-site evidence shows similar, albeit not identical, shifts in the rhetorical work of student writing of this time period. Tracking faculty influence on the texts supports the contention that socially aware student writing at UH drifted toward expressionist writing under an evolving system of faculty supervision, and that socially aware writing at OHIO drifted toward the function of preserving faculty knowledge. In both cases, we see moves that diminished the writing’s potential to prompt re-seeing of social relations. Tracking administrator influence supports the possibility that the function of writing at UH and OHIO evolved to buttress increasingly public demonstrations of institutional achievement. And tracking influences from institutional historians shows movement in the student writings’ uses at both universities toward campaigns to educate post-1950 audiences about institutional or programmatic identities. These patterns can be fleshed out by studies of changes in the rhetorical work of other student writing from this time period.

Such findings, which are not restricted to a single institution or kind of institution, prompt researchers and instructors to consider: if student writing circulates in an ecology of desires and interests and if the writing’s appearance or effect changes in response to that circulation, when and to what extent does student writing leave behind the student? If we are concerned about students’ agency as writers, how might we increase opportunities for students to maintain influence over their writing even as their writing evolves due to its encounters with other people and interests? Without giving easy answers, this research allows us to begin exploring methods by which students can keep in touch with their writing: oversight on introductory and concluding sections in volumes that contain the writing? Opportunities to supplement non-students’ comments about their writing? Consultations with archivists about the historical preservation of their writing? This last point could give students a say in the construction of finding aids, search terms, and other means by which archived documents become retrievable. Or, given the seeming inevitability of writing to circulate in the hands of other people and interests, should students be prepared to see their writing as a site of multiple interests? If so, that preparation could entail an ethical discussion about the collaborative work of writing and the complex ownership of writing if students make their writing public or donate their writing to their institution.

To return to history, we need more ecological studies of historical student writing because this frees us from constraints of comparisons based on geography or institutional mission. My analysis shows that rhetorical-ecological analyses can unfix long-archived texts that would otherwise appear frozen in a particular time period, as if a response to a specific exigence for a specific audience and constrained by a single set of factors. Rhetorical ecologies show points where we can discern movement in the texts’ uses and meanings, and these movements can comprise new bases for comparing evidence across sites. As the local emphasis in rhetoric and composition matures, we need to consider social effects on and from writing, the effects occurring from the time one searches for a writing topic to long after one’s writing reaches its first audience. In this respect, I see the application of rhetorical-ecologies to archival research as a way to counter Sidney I. Dobrin’s claim that the combination of composition and ecological models (ecocomposition) has “failed as an intellectual enterprise” because, among other reasons, it has “never established a methodology for understanding writing,” it has lost sight of writing, and it has gained few followers in the area of research (125-126). I would point out that we need more applications of rhetorical ecologies to different research projects before making any such claims, and that studies of historical student writing give us a way to keep writing central to ecological frameworks. Furthermore, applying ecological frameworks to historical student writing gives us ways to see historical writing as also writing of the twenty-first century, a point worth remembering as scholars begin conceptualizing writing in ever-vaster networks of meaning.


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