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Composition Forum 17, Fall 2007

Yancey, Kathleen Blake, ed. Delivering College Composition: The Fifth Canon. Portsmouth, NH: Boynton/Cook, 2006: 224pp.

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Matt Snyder

Rhetoric, if one is in the mood for oversimplification, can be broken down into a basic dichotomy. In any rhetorical situation, only two things matter: what you say, and how you say it. But which is more important, content or form? A quick glance down Aristotle’s list of the five rhetorical canons reveals that the first three, Invention, Arrangement, and Style, all (arguably) relate to content. Effective rhetoric should be fresh and original, should exhibit a strong logical flow, and should be executed with a certain degree of verbal flair. Even Memory, the fourth canon, could be said to be content-oriented; the content is what the rhetor memorizes in order to effect rhetoric (and anyone who has ever gone suddenly, hopelessly blank in front of a crowd knows how important this canon really is). The only canon to truly address rhetorical form, Delivery, is the redheaded Aristotelian stepchild of rhetoric and composition. While comp scholars warmly adopted Invention, Arrangement, and Style some time ago, Delivery and Memory have been shunted off and subsumed under the discipline of speech communication, seemingly never to be heard from (or bothered with) again by compositionists—that is, until now.

Delivering College Composition: The Fifth Canon, a new collection of essays edited by Kathleen Blake Yancey, sets out to reclaim Delivery for composition studies . . . sort of. The collection purports to employ “the most overlooked and most frequently undertheorized” of the five rhetorical canons as “a lens into the ways composition curricula are designed; into the kinds of writing expected from students; and into the new electronic, physical, and curricular spaces created for composing” (back cover). The book is mostly successful in this endeavor; its fifteen essays examine an impressive array of ways in which composition is delivered to students in a wide variety of learning environments, including research universities, private liberal arts colleges, historically black colleges and universities, online classrooms, high-school dual credit programs, and even AP English exams. Some of the collection’s essays focus on the head of the class, examining the composition instructor’s role as an agent of delivery; others address delivery methods and concerns within the frameworks of whole writing programs, with the occasional plug for a particular model thrown in (see Joseph Harris’s and Rebecca Rickly’s essays). However, whileDelivering College Composition accomplishes the goal it sets for itself—namely, rescuing Aristotle’s fifth canon from obscurity—the collection, to stay with the metaphor of the lens, could probably be a bit more sharply focused. At times, the book feels like it doesn’t quite know what it wants to be or to whom it needs to speak—is it a practical-application book for comp instructors? an intriguing entry into the arena of composition theory? a how-to-revamp-your-program guide for WPAs?—and as such, it assumes the mantle of the jack of all trades, a problem endemic to essay collections in general. Still, this is a relatively minor complaint, and it shouldn’t keep Delivering College Composition off compositionists’ bookshelves.

Editor Yancey contributes a pair of bookend pieces to the collection herself. The leadoff essay, “Delivering College Composition: A Vocabulary for Discussion,” sets the tone for the scholarship to follow. Within it, Yancey gives capsule histories of the terms “composition” and “delivery,” then proposes a series of provocative questions motivated by the myriad changes to the site of college composition in the last 100 years. Given these changes, Yancey wants to know: is college composition merely an anachronism (4)? She asks the reader to consider what the effects of vastly different curricular, physical, and virtual places and spaces of composition have on the relationships between teachers, students, materials, learning, and composing; and finally, there is the “so what?” question that drives the remainder of the collection: “how/does the delivery of college composition matter” (14)?

In the collection’s second essay, “The Canon of Delivery in Rhetorical Theory: Selections, Commentary, and Advice,” Clemson’s Martin Jacobi expands Yancey’s capsule history of delivery and reminds us of the importance of delivery to the rhetors of antiquity. The essay, therefore, serves as the obligatory (given the theme of the collection) anchor to classical Aristotelian rhetoric. Jacobi highlights what he calls “the ethics implied and implicated in the way delivery is understood and used,” and notes that an implicit connection Quintilian makes “between truth, rhetoric, and delivery” deserves more thorough study (22-23). Particularly intriguing is his argument that through a sort of false delivery—or “acting one way when one believes another way”—one might become more ethical rather than less (23). For example, the unethical agent of delivery could experience this change simply by acting in a “natural, trustworthy, reasonable, and cooperative manner,” producing a zen-like become-who-you-are effect (23). From here, Jacobi moves to contemporary sites of rhetorical delivery—colleges and universities—to ask: “What is to be done to improve delivery in particular, rhetoric in general, and virtue in rhetoricians” (25)? The answer, he suspects, is to broaden and deepen the roles that speech communication and acting programs have in today’s general-education curricula. While his assertion strays somewhat from the topic of composition, Jacobi should be excused, as he first warns the reader that he intends to “slip the constraints of this essay’s charge” (25). It’s a brash but refreshing move, reminding us that even though composition studies may attempt to lay claim to Delivery, the fifth canon still falls within the legitimate purview of other disciplines such as speech and drama.

It’s not the delivery of composition by such disciplines as speech and drama, but the drama of delivery surrounding undisciplined speech (or, more accurately, writing) with which Teresa Redd engages in her essay “Keepin’ It Real: Delivering College Composition at an HBCU.” Certainly scholars before Redd have entered the debate over whether to recognize what she refers to as AAE, or African American English, as an acceptable academic discourse, and indeed, Redd is careful to acknowledge an extensive list of predecessors. What makes her essay unique, however, is its focus on the historically black college and university as site of composition delivery and the seeming hypocrisy that Redd finds in many HBCUs’ writing programs. While departmental college comp syllabi at institutions such as Howard (with which Redd is affiliated), Spelman, Jarvis Christian College, and South Carolina State all reflect a “spirit of empowerment” in their stress on writing’s importance to both historical and contemporary African American culture, Redd notes that these programs still tend to employ predominantly whitewashed texts (74). Of all the essays to appear in the current edition of The Norton Reader, Shorter Edition, an anthology aimed at FYC courses and popular at HBCUs, Redd claims that only 9% are written by black writers; “the editors still restrict the number of African American selections,” she wryly notes, “as if the book (like a neighborhood) might become too black” (75). Her essay calls for HBCU composition programs to insist on first-year texts that more richly represent the vibrant African American essay tradition, because “African American texts invite African American students to see themselves as writers, as heirs to a tradition of intellectual and rhetorical force” (77). Redd also wonders why HBCUs tend to stick so closely to Western rhetorical convention in their delivery of composition instruction and why, consequently, they have remained generally closed to the idea of allowing students to even experiment with AAE in composition classes. While “Keepin’ It Real” broaches these issues with a particularly engaging sense of their importance, Redd’s even-keeled style allows her to avoid coming off as preachy, and she gives the collection one of its strongest pieces in the bargain.

Joseph Harris’s contribution, “Undisciplined Writing,” details an idea whose time may have come, even if the funding for it hasn’t. Harris, director of the writing program at Duke, recounts their success in eliminating composition instruction by graduate student TAs in favor of post-doctoral fellows to whom Duke offers non-tenure-track contracts of up to five years. Here’s the twist: the program accepts applications for the fellowship positions from newly-minted Ph.D.s in just about every field imaginable, including some—such as forestry, epidemiology, and human environments—that might elicit a raised eyebrow from the average WPA (although Harris notes that fellows have come from the more traditional disciplines of rhetoric and composition, English, and linguistics as well). The flaw in the idea is one that Harris himself pragmatically notes—paying all those new Ph.D.s competitive salaries is rather expensive, and Duke has access to resources that far outstrip those available to most college composition programs. Although Harris argues eloquently for a change in the paradigm of graduate student-delivered composition instruction by offering Duke’s success with postdocs as an example, his recognition that his program’s experiment is beyond the means of many, if not most, WPAs who might like to consider it has the unfortunate effect of deflating his argument and turning his essay into a curiosity piece.

Harris’s essay, even as oddly disconnected as it seems to be from the situation at the majority of current FYC programs, has a place in Delivering College Composition because the concept of Delivery is the collection’s only real unifying thread. There’s a little something, or a few little somethings, here for just about everyone connected to composition. WPAs, in particular, will probably be able to mine the most gold, as the greater percentage the book’s essays address administrative issues of composition delivery. Some essays focus on the advantages and challenges of delivering composition via different sites, such as liberal arts colleges, dual-credit programs, and the cyberclassroom. Others look critically at agents of delivery, like distributed instruction and the AP English exam. There’s even a little humor to liven things up, most notably in Todd Taylor’s “Design, Delivery, and Narcolepsy,” which is very funny. Yancey notes in the book’s final essay, “Delivering College Composition into the Future,” that her contributors have gone a long way toward providing answers to her introductory questions. Yes, the collection’s focus is a bit fuzzy, and some readers will probably get more out of it than others; but even so, Delivering College Composition: The Fifth Canon still manages to present a worthwhile new take on the long-neglected rhetorical canon of Delivery.

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