Jumping Into Epistemic Rhetoric

I've now taught Barry Brummett's 1979 conference talk "Three Meanings of Epistemic Rhetoric" to 10 sections of undergraduate students—either in professional writing or my introduction to digital literacies course.

I teach the piece for several reasons: it's fairly brief (at about 7 pages); it's incredibly complex; it offers breadth in perspective; it suggests important implications for the study of rhetoric; and it deals with fundamental human problems concerning the relationships among truth, reality, and language.

I realize the piece is difficult for students who are overwhelmingly unfamiliar with the insider discourse that permeates Brummett's argument.

But what continually amazes me is how much students actually get out of the article. Literally every time I've taught it, regardless of the institution or course, I've been shocked by how many students "get it."

My dissertation director, Helen Foster, once suggested to me that undergraduate students were often able to deal with the really big problems in rhetoric better than graduate students—that they might perhaps be more willing to weigh contradictory ideas simultaneously. Though it's anecdotal, I've found that, despite the difficulties of the article, my undergraduate students consistently display a willingness to explore what it means to be, how we come to know, and how language plays a significant role in both.

One of the key components of Brummett's article is his discussion of the implications for rhetoric associated with each of the three meanings he details. So, for example, if we subscribe the methodological perspective that he lays out, our notions of a posteriori knowledge are seriously limited, and rhetoric's role in the shaping of truth and knowledge is virtually nil. In this view, rhetoric is simply a means of communicating an a priori reality and has no significant role in shaping that reality. It's a conduit, a dumb pipe.

But the implications of studying rhetoric and literacy change drastically when we consider the other two meanings he details. And once students begin to thoughtfully consider how human knowledge gets made and communicated, and what rhetoric's role is in doing so, the importance of studying rhetoric—regardless of one's discipline or professional domain—becomes not just significant, but crucial.

I typically provide a little bit of background before they jump in to the article, letting students know that he's not arguing for all three perspectives, that he's doing some lit review in each instance, and that he's using a very specific disciplinary discourse. By the time they encounter it, they've also had a basic primer on terms like epistemology, ontology, rhetoric, and discourse.

But other than that, I don't provide much detail. I encourage them to simply dive in and work hard to make sense of the ideas.

It's continually amazing to see what they generate.


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