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Composition Forum 33, Spring 2016

An Advocate for Rhetoric and Writing at the University: An Interview with James Porter

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Laurie Gries

Abstract: In this interview, James Porter talks about his professional career and what he sees as the contemporary challenges for the field of rhetoric and composition/writing studies. Throughout the exchange, Porter discusses his administrative concerns with the state of rhetoric in the field, the ongoing struggles with graduate education, the complexities of online writing instruction, and the potentials of programmatic collaboration. The interview concludes on a personal note about Porter’s scholarly trajectory, his collaborations, the fruits of his labor, and his advice for emergent scholars in the field.

Jim Porter is currently a Professor with a joint appointment in the Department of English and the Armstrong Institute for Interactive Media Studies at Miami University, Ohio, where he teaches courses in rhetoric theory and history, digital media ethics, business communication, data visualization, and professional writing. For over 30 years, he has directed and, at times, co-developed writing and communication programs at several different universities, including Purdue University, Case Western Reserve University, and Michigan State University. At MSU, Porter served as co-director of MSU’s WIDE Research Center (Writing in Digital Environments) and as Director of Rhetoric & Writing in the College of Arts & Letters. At Miami University Porter served as Director of Composition from 2009 to 2012, and as Director of American Culture and English (Miami’s English-language program for international students) from 2012 to 2015.

Laurie Gries (PhD, Syracuse University) is an assistant professor with a joint appointment in the Program for Writing and Rhetoric and the Department of Communication at the University of Colorado-Boulder. Her research is invested in visual rhetoric, circulation studies, research methodologies, and the digital humanities. She is particularly interested in how images circulate, transform, and contribute to collective life and is currently developing digital research methods and data visualization techniques to support such research. Her recently published book, Still Life with Rhetoric: A New Materialist Approach for Visual Rhetorics (2015), recently won the 2016 CCCC Advancement of Knowledge Award and the 2016 CCCC Research Impact Award for producing empirical studies published in the last two years that advances the studies of rhetoric and writing as well as CCCC's organizational mission. Her work has appeared in journals such as Computers and Composition, JAC, and Composition Studies, as well as many edited collections.

In his scholarship and teaching, Porter specializes in rhetoric history and theory (particularly digital rhetoric), technical and business communication, the ethics of methodology for Internet research, and the rhetoric and ethics of interaction. In addition to a slew of articles, Porter has published five scholarly books. While he most recently collaborated with Heidi McKee to produce The Ethics of Internet Research (2009), Porter has collaborated with Patricia Sullivan on two notable books: Professional Writing Online (3rd ed., 2008)—one of the first fully online technical communication textbooks—and Opening Spaces: Writing Technologies and Critical Research Practices—which won the 1998 NCTE award for Excellence in Technical and Scientific Communication, “Best Book.” His 2000 co-authored article on Institutional Critique: A Rhetorical Methodology for Change won the Richard Braddock award for best article in College Composition and Communication. His single-authored work has also received accolades. His book Rhetorical Ethics and Internetworked Writing won the 1998 Computers and Writing Award for Distinguished Book, while a more recent article, Recovering Delivery for Digital Rhetoric, won the 2010 Ellen Nold Award for best article in the journal Computers & Composition. His current research focuses mainly on the design of online writing/communication courses and on the economics of rhetoric.

Laurie Gries (LG): Many Composition Forum interviews begin by asking about a scholars’ introduction to the field of rhetoric and composition/writing studies. So let’s just begin there. How did you get into the field?

Jim Porter (JP): Like many of my generation, I came into the field by accident—and by an incredible stroke of luck. I did an MA in literature at the University of Michigan, which was a great learning experience; I had some great teachers. But there was no program or curriculum there even remotely conscious of rhetoric/composition. I was not accepted in the PhD program at Michigan, and that was fortunate because I certainly would have gone there. And if I had, I certainly wouldn’t be in rhetoric, and I might not be a college professor today.

My uncle—Thomas Porter, an English professor in Shakespeare and modern drama, and at the time a Jesuit priest—was Dean of Arts & Sciences at the University of Detroit. In 1976, at the conclusion of my MA program, he said to me, “Why don't you apply for our PhD program in English? We have a great composition program and the top scholar in the country in rhetoric and composition—Janice Lauer.” So I applied. My choice eventually came down to Indiana University, which didn't have rhetoric, and the University of Detroit, which did. I ended up at Detroit, a Jesuit institution with a very strong (though not particularly prestigious) doctoral program in English. Thank the gods, what a lucky choice, as I really had no idea what I was doing. Just operating on instinct, and trusting my uncle.

Detroit was the best possible graduate program for me–not only because of rhetoric/composition but because the entire English Department had a strong teaching mission. Also, when I was there, the English graduate program went through an extensive curriculum revision, in which I was deeply involved as the graduate student representative. That experience taught me a lot about program development, about interdisciplinarity, about curriculum and institutional politics, and all that proved very useful to me later on. Having an uncle as the dean was also extraordinarily valuable. He and I talked a lot about academic and institutional mission, goals, structure, and politics—he basically gave me an ongoing graduate seminar in academic administration and the humanities. What an amazing (and rare) opportunity.

And I worked with Janice Lauer, one of the best teachers and scholars I’ve ever worked with, and a pioneer in promoting rhetoric and in developing the field of rhetoric/composition. She taught the composition orientation program for new TAs at the University of Detroit, a 1-week intensive crash course in how to teach composition, followed by weekly meetings during that first semester of teaching. That is how I first learned to teach composition, using Janice’s approach, which very strongly emphasized context, invention and heuristics, purpose and audience. It was the New Rhetoric applied pragmatically and pedagogically to composition. And then I took her graduate seminar in rhetoric my second semester in the PhD program. At that time, 1976-1977, hardly anybody’s graduate program had more than one course in rhetoric, if that.

That was a remarkable first doctoral year for me, and it basically helped form my career identity: I was going to be in rhetoric/composition. For two years I served as Associate Director for the two-week summer seminar in rhetoric/composition that Janice offered. And then later I asked Janice to be my dissertation director, and she agreed. I ended up writing my dissertation on James Kinneavy’s theory of discourse as applied to literary criticism, a remarkably unremarkable study (I never published one word of it), except that it helped me learn how to do rhetoric theory. The model for my dissertation was the one other rhetoric/composition theory dissertation that I knew about—written by Louise Phelps.

LG: Were you nervous about that choice? I’m sure few students at that time were focusing on rhetoric/composition, and I imagine job prospects were so different than today when so many of the jobs for English PhDs are in rhet/comp.

Portrait of James Porter

JP: About switching to rhetoric? Not nervous, no. I was more nervous about unemployment. The move from literature to rhetoric/composition made sense for me, and was actually very easy because I was never “in love with literature.” I was far more interested in how language works, in interpretive method, and in texts (not necessarily literary texts). I eventually figured out that what I loved was writing and teaching writing, not literature. And so the field of rhetoric/composition exerted a lot of gravitational pull on me. It was looking at things in a way that made sense. Its strong emphasis on teaching was also important to me. I liked that its teaching emphasis was directed at an educational outcome that was an important social outcome: helping students become stronger, more effective writers, with the ultimate aim of helping them become better professionals and citizens. That struck me, still strikes me, as critically important transformational work. As I grow older in this field—and I've been it now for 35 years full-time—that seems more and more important.

LG: I’m sure it’s wild for you to think about how graduate education in rhetoric/composition has changed. We now have almost 100 programs that offer PhDs in rhetoric/composition and an increasing amount of stand-alone writing programs. These programs are all different, of course, but today in programs such as CCR at Syracuse University and the Writing, Rhetoric and American Cultures at MSU, students can take all their credits in courses that specifically focus on rhet/comp, not to mention gain experience working in research centers such as WIDE, writing centers, and the Digital Writing Labs. What do you think we are doing well with in graduate education and what still do we need to do better?

JP: When I was going to graduate school in the late 1970s, “having rhetoric/composition” didn't mean having a program in it. With a few exceptions it meant having maybe one graduate course plus some kind of composition training program for teaching assistants. I took the one doctoral graduate course available to me at Detroit, but that was it. It was a great course, but I had a lot of gaps to fill. I taught myself the history of rhetoric by teaching a graduate course in it at Indiana University-Purdue University at Fort Wayne (IPFW), nearly killing myself and the poor MA students in the process. I made myself, and them, read everything. And then in 1986 I got into Ed Corbett's NEH Summer Seminar on rhetoric history at Ohio State University, an incredible experience that helped me immensely in writing Audience and Rhetoric. When I arrived at Purdue University in 1988, the first thing I did was sit in on two of Pat Sullivan's research methodology courses—empirical research and qualitative methodology—because I never had the chance to take those courses, and I desperately needed that basic foundational work in methodology and empirical research. What great courses. So I did most of my graduate coursework in rhetoric after I got my PhD. That’s not typical, is it?

In terms of current graduate education, like most people my outlook is very much informed (and biased) by my own upbringing and locations. I’ve been at several large state institutions, land-grant institutions, and I have a certain fondness for and bias in favor of the land-grant focus and mission. So my outlook, my sense of scope and mission, my sense of what should be done, of what is possible and not possible, is very much influenced by IPFW, by Purdue, by Michigan State mainly.

I think there are certain buckets that all rhetoric/composition graduate programs ought to have, though I think that there are a variety of ways that these buckets can be offered and configured. These are the essential buckets:

  • composition research and pedagogy
  • rhetoric theory, including cultural rhetoric and feminist theory/rhetoric
  • rhetoric history (and historical method)
  • empirical research, both quantitative and qualitative

What are we doing well in graduate education? I think that most of our doctoral programs do a wonderful job of preparing students to become faculty members in composition. Some programs don’t emphasize rhetoric enough—meaning rhetoric theory and history. I worry that the field of rhetoric/composition is becoming writing studies or composition only and losing that rhetoric connection. (More on that momentarily.) I also think that some programs slide into emphasizing faculty interests and specializations too much and perhaps neglect or forget the foundational base. Some programs—and they know who they are—are overproducing PhDs, and that is always a bad idea for the health of any field.

I also think that the continued affiliation with the Department of English holds us back, both in terms of graduate education and in terms of development of undergraduate writing programs. I’m glad to see more and more programs becoming independent writing programs, or at least developing some kind of programmatic autonomy. That just makes good sense, historically, conceptually, organizationally. The first priority of the English Department is literature, and all other areas and priorities are secondary. That has been the case my whole career, and at every institution I’ve been at, without exception. I haven’t seen much change on that score over time. Now I don’t blame the Department of English for that at all, or think it cruel or unusual, surprising or unjust. It makes sense given the history of that department. However, writing deserves better support at the university; it can do better.

I was in English departments for 22 years, then spent 8 years in an independent writing program that I helped to develop (at Michigan State University), and have now returned to a Department of English, where I have been for the past 5 years. All in all life is better in an independent writing program. Not that you don’t run into tensions and disciplinary differences—oh, you certainly do—but the arguments are on a different plane. The key difference is that you don’t have to argue about basic priorities and assumptions (e.g., the value of writing instruction; the need for faculty hires in writing; the value, even superiority, of collaborative research). Of course, I’ve been in mostly larger state universities with mostly larger faculties, meaning that there were enough faculty members to justify having a separate department or program in writing. For smaller programs, and for departments with a small number of writing faculty, separation from English is a much more difficult proposition, I recognize.

LG: Yes, it’s a lot of work and typically such faculty have to wear a lot of hats to get the program not only up and running but also functionally smoothly. Speaking of hats, you have worn and continue to wear quite an impressive number of scholarly hats yourself. You have been involved in program development for first-year writing programs, Intensive English Programs for International students, and digital media studies. You have also, not to mention other things, co-founded and directed the WIDE Research Center at Michigan State University. Can you speak to some of the institutional structures and politics that you have faced and how they put pressure not only you as a scholar and administrator?

JP: I’ve just been around a long time, and moved around a fair amount. By virtue of years in harness you get to wear a lot of different hats or, to stick with the metaphor, pull a lot of different wagons. I’ve taught full time at six different universities in 35 years (5 public state universities, 1 private university). I’ve always been interested in program development, in building things—meaning programs, departments, curriculums that would do a better job of helping students’ writing.

I think that making institutions better is important—we could call it “institutional critique” (Porter et al., 2000; Grabill et al., 2003)—and over the years I feel like I’ve had some modest success with it. I’ve also had some epic failures … where I was brought in to lead institutional change, but the plans were thwarted and nothing ultimately resulted. You don’t report failures on your CV. Like for instance: When I was hired by Case Western Reserve University in 1999, the Dean and the Department Chair wanted me to help the English Department develop a much stronger programmatic emphasis on writing and rhetoric, develop a new digital media emphasis, and perhaps even merge with the speech department. Big plans for curricular realignment. I was excited, especially excited when the English Department started out the year by having a faculty retreat to contemplate its identity and mission and to begin discussing curricular change. Well, we spent most of the retreat editing the MA thesis exam. Talk about rearranging deck chairs. One year later the Department Chair and the Dean had both left the university, and a year after that I was gone, having stayed only two years. But I learned something important that I took to my next gig, at Michigan State University. What I did going into MSU was develop a much clearer and stronger memo of understanding about what was to happen, about what programs would be built, about what the commitments and priorities would be—so everybody was on the same page and the result was much happier: MSU followed through on every one of its promises, thanks to some capable and committed upper administrators who truly had vision and whose primary goal was educational excellence—like Pat McConeghy, the Associate Dean of my college, and Lou Anna Simon, the Provost (now President). I have worked with some great administrators in my career—writing program directors, department chairs, upper administrators … I’ve been very fortunate in that respect.

LG: In light of the theme for CCCC 2015—Risk and Reward—it is interesting to hear you speak about some of your administrative risks, failures, and successes. Sticking to that theme, I recently noticed that at the Conference for the Association for Teachers of Technical Writing (AATW), you gave a talk about ethics, data control, and MOOC development. For those of us who missed your talk, can you share your thoughts about the risks and rewards of what you call the “disruptive innovation” of MOOC development and the role that technical communication ought play in this development?

JP: I’ve written a number of reflective pieces about MOOCs (see Works Cited.) MOOCs are not really the issue of course. The really important issue is online delivery of education and specifically, for our field, the question of whether writing instruction can be delivered responsibly and effectively online (whether via MOOC or not). I think that it certainly can. Depending on how it is designed and delivered. The all-important how.

And then there’s the macroeconomic issue for higher education: How are we going to pay for this going forward? Notice I said “we,” not students—as in all of us as a society. The danger of MOOCs is that they seem to offer a quick fix for the economics problem all universities are facing—and the gods know our upper administrators and state legislators are easily tempted by cheap and easy fixes. Moths to a flame. I’ve become interested in the question of the economics of rhetoric (as opposed to the rhetoric of economics, a different thing), which is to say this: How are economic issues of value related to, interconnected with questions of rhetoric and written production? They are, and in some future work I plan to explore this connection.

But back to MOOCs. Here’s the thesis statement from my ATTW talk: “Traditionally, at least informally, universities have operated according to a commons model (at least as pertains to courses and instruction), a de facto open-source ethic that encourages the sharing of teaching and research assets. MOOCs represent the first wave of a new economic model that will significantly change how, where, and by whom instruction will happen at the university—not only for MOOCs, not only for online courses, but for all instruction.” We in composition have to be prepared for this: Not “this” meaning MOOCs necessarily, but rather (1) how online writing instruction can be offered in a way that is effective, responsible, and cost effective; and (2) how the coming new economic models for funding and delivering higher education, in general, are going to affect our teaching of writing at the university. We used to think that, Oh, composition instruction is cheap, we’re a cash cow—but those days are gone.

So the question I am pursuing right now is can online writing instruction be done well and responsibly—and how? I’ve taught online writing courses before (hybrid and fully online), but I want to pursue the question more vigorously in the next year or two and figure out how to do it well, and also tie it into the economics question. I think it’s really important that the field of rhetoric/composition pursue this question more vigorously than it has. If we don’t, others will do it for us, and that will end up hurting the quality of writing instruction.

LG: Yes, let’s talk more about that. I think we especially need to be aware of how online public education is being monopolized by private educational corporations. What are our best chances for playing a leading role in curricular development, at least at public universities? What specifically do you think we ought be doing? I’m thinking back to Charles Bazerman’s 2009 address about disciplinary responsibility, about the need to make more impact in the public sphere, especially perhaps in the sphere of education and politics. Is online writing instruction, in your eyes, a disciplinary responsibility?

JP: I very much agree with Chuck’s call for action. For a while, when I was Chair of the Intellectual Property Caucus, Andrea Lunsford, Patti Stock, and I were doing some lobbying work in DC, trying to get Congress not to pass the Electronic Copyright Act of 1995 (or something like that). As I remember, we drafted policy statements, worked to get them approved by CCCC and NCTE, coordinated the effort with some public policy groups like the Digital Futures Coalition, and then sent letters forward to members of the Senate Judiciary Committee. The broad overall effort worked—the bill wasn’t passed. Of course, other, more horrible legislation came down the pike later, and was passed. But at the time we felt like we had done some good work to achieve some worthy political goals.

In regards to online writing instruction, I’m certainly for it — depending on what “it” comes to mean exactly. Is it possible to teach writing well, responsibly and ethically, online? Absolutely, sure. But I’m very suspicious of the one-size-fits-all approach to curriculum development. I’m very suspicious of the models of online course development that disconnect faculty from courses; or that treat the course as a formal object, like a textbook, existing apart from its delivery, its context, its audience, and its institutional location and cultural moment (Porter, 2013; Porter, 2014). The formalist fallacy arises in all sorts of ways, all over the place. I’m suspicious of models that are motivated primarily by financial considerations (can we do it cheaper?) rather than by outcomes (does it help students become better writers?). As writing teachers we need to be ready to embrace change, to answer questions related to online instruction, and to be ready to argue, as we have forever (as I have since, oh, 1981), that writing can’t be responsibly taught in huge classes. There are lots of different delivery models we can develop, but we must have the time, space, and class size that allow a qualified instructor of writing to engage students’ writing on a personal, detailed level. That can’t happen in a MOOC.

LG: So I am just curious, if you were asked to be the CCCC Program Chair, would it relate to online writing instruction somehow? Or is there another theme you would choose and why?

JP: Rhetoric as Action in the World. I worry that the CCCC is losing its connection to rhetoric, as I see signs that rhetoric history and theory are fading from the CCCC program. So I would want to emphasize rhetoric and bring rhetoric more strongly to the forefront of the conference. At the same time I want to emphasize ends rather than means: What kind of productive action is possible via rhetoric? How can rhetoric do good work in the world? The other angle I’d like to promote is rhetoric and writing beyond and outside the first-year composition classroom, beyond the university into the workplace, into the public sphere, and even into the global public sphere (aka, world). I would like to bring back the technical and professional writing folks, who have become disconnected from the conference. I would like to reach out to the communication people, especially those doing work on the public sphere and on intercultural communication, as they are an important (and neglected) constituency. (Has anybody else noticed that though the conference is titled College Composition and Communication, communication is largely absent from the conference?)

I would also like to reach out globally to people who are doing important work on global and intercultural literacy, on intercultural communications, but who have no idea the CCCC even exists, or that there is even a field called rhetoric/composition. Our field is much too first-year comp centric, too English Department centric, too US-centric, and still much, much too white. We need to do much more about diversity, but not just US-based diversity, but global diversity as well. For this last reason second-language writing is a hugely important specialty for our field. In my current administrative position, Director of the English Language Program for international students at Miami, I’ve come to appreciate this much, much more. Probably that’s too many agendas to cram into one conference theme, but those are some of the issues I would try to address.

LG: Well, in addition to the International Society for the History of Rhetoric (ISHR), we are beginning to see the emergence of International Writing and Rhetoric Societies that host conferences such as WRAB. Are such organizations moving in the right direction to help address global diversity or do you have other visions for how the field of rhet/comp/writing studies can move beyond being too U.S. centric and too “white”? Institution-wise, I guess I am wondering what you might have specifically in mind. And is such a vision a matter of developing more course offerings, research opportunities, cross-cultural collaborations?

JP: I knew that you would think of all the exceptions to the point! ☺ Yes, agreed, there are some promising developments out there—but I haven’t seen very much presence at the CCCC from the groups you mention. Your comment inspired me to look up the CFP for the Writing Across Research Boundaries (WRAB) 2014 conference in Paris, and to look at the conference program. It’s a great conference, don’t get me wrong, but I don’t see much rhetoric evident there. Yes, there are a few papers on the program with rhetoric in the title. But the predominant focus is writing, writing studies, writing research, discourse studies, and academic writing—not rhetoric, not composition. That may reflect the European approach versus a US approach, but Europe does rhetoric, too. I am very much in favor of more focus on writing research—absolutely, we need more of it—but I’d like to see more of it at the CCCC. Are we now embarrassed by rhetoric, by the term, by its troubling past, by its sins of commission and omission? I hope not.

Again, an impression: I’m not seeing the same number or frequency of panels and presentations on rhetoric and history that I remember from, say, the 1980s, when the CCCC always had large featured panels on rhetoric theory, history, historiography. But that might be imperfect memory, I haven’t actually counted.

LG: What do you mean exactly when you say this “embarrassment about rhetoric?” I think a lot of people simply think we are in the business of researching and teaching writing, and rhetoric is just one theoretical toolkit to help us do this work. Do you think that the disconnection to rhetoric that you see happening is simply a matter of expansion and diversification as scholars turn toward other theories and methods to study writing? Also, I think some such as Sid Dobrin might say that rhetorical theory is just not equipped to help us understand the complexity of writing as it circulates in distributed systems. I am wondering how you might respond to such claims and why rhetoric is so important for us to hold onto in your eyes? What’s at stake here?

JP: No, see this is the problem: rhetoric is not “just one theoretical toolkit,” it is the primary one.

Our field has certainly become more diverse and developed more areas of specialization—and that is a good thing, as long as branching out doesn’t cause us to lose our focus. There are some useful, ongoing disciplinary tensions in the field—for example, between the term “rhetoric” (which emphasizes the humanities orientation) and the term “writing studies” (which presupposes, I think, an embarrassment about rhetoric and an effort to emphasize empirical research as our foundation for knowledge). A little friendly dissonance is a good thing. But I worry sometimes when I look at the program for the CCCC or when I recall the history of the field of speech communication, which first went to war with, and separated from, English in 1914, and then later had another civil war with itself. The result is, I am afraid, that in developing itself so emphatically as a research field (Communication Studies), Communication lost touch with, abandoned a fundamentally important teaching mission (Speech). Rhetoric got kicked out of the Speech Department in the process, and the Speech Department became Communication Studies. The pedagogical result of all of this is that speech doesn’t get taught broadly enough at the college level—and that’s a loss. Same thing could happen to our field if we’re not careful, meaning that in shifting to “Writing Studies” we could lose our connection to rhetoric and to production. Rhetoric is not only about “studies” or studying things, it is also about teaching people to make things. Techne.

But which rhetoric theory are we talking about anyway? If we’re talking about Aristotle, Cicero, or Chaim Perelman, I would agree. But rhetoric is not just “that old white guy stuff.” It needs to be ongoing new stuff that addresses new circumstances, media, writing and communicating practices, writing technologies, intercultural exchanges, etc. A lot of scholars in Computers and Writing have been working a long time now to develop an overall theory of digital rhetoric that very much does address how writing circulates in distributed systems. They don’t always invoke or emphasize the term “rhetoric,” but that is what it is. In my own work in rhetoric theory, I’ve always tried to point to the influences, assets, and affordances of past theories while at the same time moving the discussion into the present, figuring out how those past theories have to be remediated for new contexts. I tried to do that with the term “audience” (in Audience and Rhetoric, 1992); with the term “ethics” (in Rhetorical Ethics and Internetworked Writing, 1998); and with the term “delivery” (in my 2009 article in Computers and Composition). Rhetoric theory is not a static thing; it always has to be revised, reconstituted, rebuilt for the here and now.

Does anybody read the New Rhetoricians any more—that is, from the 1950s-1960s? They should. That was a critical point in the field where an old and outdated model of rhetoric, a reductive formalist rhetoric focused on style, was critiqued, and where a broader notion of rhetoric was recovered and rebuilt by a group of forward-thinking rhetoric theorists like Kenneth Burke, Chaim Perelman and Lucie Olbrechts-Tyteca, Stephen Toulmin, Walter Ong, Lloyd Bitzer, Jim Kinneavy, Richard Young, Janice Lauer, and others. The New Rhetoricians recovered the focus on context, the focus on audience, the focus on invention, the connection between rhetoric and ethics — all of which had been lost. New Rhetoric theory per se is maybe not directly or obviously applicable to digital writing of course, but their method of refocusing, recovering, and rebuilding rhetoric theory—how they did it for their time—is certainly important methodologically to understanding what needs to be done now.

Anyway my point is a simple one: Analogously to how the New Rhetoricians did it, we need to continue to be making new rhetoric theory that applies now, with an awareness and appreciation for how the past can contribute positively to that effort.

LG: In hearing you speak about the fear of loss of rhetoric, I can’t help but think about the constant buzz of fear that circulates about the loss of support for the humanities and the role that the digital humanities can play in “resurrecting” the humanities from its diminished status. I am wondering what you think about the role of rhetoric in the humanities as well as your thoughts about the digital humanities and its relation to rhetoric. Should we be forming strong alliances between rhetoric and the digital humanities?

JP: Isn’t rhetoric the core of the humanities? Well, historically it used to be, should be still. But in many discussions of the humanities, rhetoric/composition is excluded. (Some might acknowledge that rhetoric belongs there, but certainly not composition.) I go back and forth on this question: Should we fight to include ourselves in the humanities? Or are the humanities a Titanic voyage better to be avoided?

Frankly, I’m not impressed with most apologists for the humanities. They too often define the humanities as apart from the working world and from popular culture, if not explicitly opposed to it—and then they are surprised and outraged when the world doesn’t recognize their brilliance and relevance. I see the humanities very differently: as a fundamental set of methods, inquiries, and questions that have intense relevance to our being in the practical world—ethical inquiry, for instance, or gender critique, or rhetorical analysis. I’m not convinced that how the humanities are typically approached and taught is all that useful to students because the humanities are taught as topics apart from the world rather than as methods for inquiry essential for the world.

Maybe the problem is the noun “humanities”—which foregrounds disciplines and topics. Let’s scrap “humanities” and try the adjective form: “humanistic”— which emphasizes approach, method, perspective (rather than department or discipline). What does it mean to develop and apply humanistic methods of inquiry? To me, that’s an extraordinarily important question applicable to all disciplines and fields and professional endeavors. It should certainly be the sine qua non of the educated professional and citizen who graduates from the university. Ironically, and sadly, I’m not sure that most humanities instruction achieves this outcome, or even articulates it.

As for digital humanities, I have the same ambivalence. Is it worth our effort to influence the direction of the digital humanities, to insist that rhetoric be in the mix? I know many members of our field are making that commitment. More power to them, I respect their effort. I certainly think our field needs to embrace and engage digital technology more than it does. However I’m not fully convinced that the digital humanities is a promising avenue for the field. We have so much to do, and so little time, we have to focus our energies on the questions, problems, and issues that have the most promise. I’m just not that interested in convincing humanists that rhetoric should on the bus, especially not when it looks to me like so many of them are intent on driving the bus off a cliff. Wouldn’t it be better, potentially more productive to collaborate with our colleagues in business, engineering, digital media, art and design, computer science, etc.? I guess the answer to that question is going to vary depending on where you live and what you want to do. I just see more promise and potential in other directions.

LG: At UF where I teach, I don’t find such holding back going on. Our students and faculty are forging connections, for instance, with the Digital Worlds Institute and the Art and Technology program in the Fine Arts. In addition, the Digital Humanities push is not happening within the English department but rather from an interdisciplinary working group that is strongly supported by the Center for the Humanities and the Public Sphere and the George A. Smathers Libraries. Perhaps, what is most important is the interdisciplinarity at work between departments?

JP: Your department sounds like a very promising exception to what I’m saying. Do you see this going on elsewhere? I don’t, at least not in any comprehensive or systematic way. I do see humanities disciplines forming connections, and I do see promising interdisciplinary connections happening around the digital humanities. But for the most part, I haven’t seen rhetoric invited to that table.

At Miami I am fortunate to have a joint appointment in English and in the Armstrong Institute for Interactive Media Studies (AIMS), and that joint appointment is proving very interesting. It’s my first real, on-the-ground experience working inside an interdisciplinary structure. AIMS consists entirely of faculty with joint appointments, and it occupies a very interesting space at Miami. Talk about postmodern space, AIMS is building a location within and between the existing departmental and college structures in order to create a new kind of space that can be truly interdisciplinary. It’s a hugely exciting structural experiment, and I’m glad to be involved in it. Can it work? I think it has immense promise, but it’s a model still under development. Check back in five years, and I’ll let you know.

But I think the kind of interdivisional structures involved here have promise for writing programs, which really shouldn’t be located where most of them are located (e.g. in the Department of English, in Colleges of Liberal Arts or Arts and Sciences). That is an administrative research question I have been chewing on: Where in the university, and in what kind of structural model, should writing programs be located? I’m becoming convinced that departments are horrible structures for achieving our educational mission … that the best structural improvement we could implement to improve educational outcomes is to radically restructure all departments, which over time have become confused with disciplines, with majors, with areas of study. The silo problem. Departments are organizational units, but they have become deeply self-identified as disciplines. And it is that false equation of frames—department = discipline — that is at the heart of many of our institutional political problems.

LG: Jim, I wish we had more time to keep pushing on this issue, especially because I think such reconfiguration is promising. But as we come to the end of our interview, let’s shift directions back to scholarly production and perhaps get a bit more personal. As an emergent scholar, I’m always interested to hear about the experiences of our veteran scholars (I hope you don’t mind that label) and learn from any advice they might offer to those just coming into the field. In light of this interest, I have four questions for you.

First, in looking back on your career, can you see a coherent map or trajectory from where you began to where you are now? What interests have remained in focus throughout your work?

JP: I guess what has been most consistent about my focus over time has been the emphasis on rhetoric and its continuing relevance to writing. Rhetoric meant as both a field of study and a set of principles that provides a powerful lens for understanding human interactions. And writing viewed as an essential tool and skill, a technology in the broad sense that is vital for human progress. Rhetoric helps writing by giving the action of writing a broad critical frame focused on audience, purpose, action, change in the world. To me that focus is of central importance. I’ve spent a lot of time in my career trying to convince others of the importance of that focus—including, sometimes, others in our own field who have forgotten it.

What has changed from year to year, from institution to institution, is my particular programmatic focus: I started out at IPFW (in 1981) focusing mainly on first-year writing. I worked with Rick Ramsey and others to develop a coherent first-year composition curriculum and then to convince the university to hire more faculty to help out with the effort. Then I was hired at Purdue University as Director of Business Writing, so there I spent more time on developing the business writing curriculum and, with Pat Sullivan, the professional writing major at Purdue. When I went to Case Western Reserve University (in 1999), I worked more with the engineering faculty to develop the technical communication curriculum. So for a while I was working in writing-across-the-curriculum, or at least professional writing-across-the-curriculum. Then at Michigan State University, I led the effort to develop a new writing department and an entirely new vertical curriculum: a BA in Professional Writing, an MA in Digital Rhetoric and Professional Writing, a PhD in rhetoric and writing, a research center (the WIDE Research Center). When I moved to Miami University in 2009, I was back working on the first-year writing curriculum again, leading the effort to revamp the curriculum here. Now at Miami I am working on two other curricular/programmatic projects that also involve changing the institution: working in Interactive Media Studies on a new, mostly online graduate program (and trying to help Miami move in the direction of responsible, effective, high-quality online instruction); and directing the American Culture & English program, which is focused on English language instruction for international students, but trying to do that in a larger cultural and rhetorical context: one that involves making everybody at the university more aware of culture, race, ethnicity, and how “cultural knowledge” is essential writing and communication. I guess in every case I’ve been working on building curriculum, developing writing programs, and getting institutions to pay more attention to writing and writing instruction because it’s important to our students that universities do that more effectively.

LG: It’s interesting. I think we tend to spend a lot of time and energy exploring what and how we can contribute to the field and not enough time talking about what we, on a personal and intellectual level, get from the field. How has your continued work with rhetoric, curricular and programmatic development, and the administrative fight to privilege writing instruction shaped your own life? What have been the personal rewards for you in doing such work? What has fulfilled you about being in this field for so long, I suppose, is another way to ask this question.

JP: I have enjoyed doing this work and am very glad to have chosen this career and path. (For the most part—there have been a few grueling, painful, frustrating times. But not that many overall.) Why did I do it? Well, because I thought I could be reasonably good at it, and I thought that maybe I could do some good at it. Was it my niche? It was clear early on to me that I wasn’t going to be an NFL offensive lineman (8th grade), a brain surgeon (high school), a guitarist (early in college), or a journalist (later in college). All of those were fields I considered at some point or other; all were determined to be unfruitful lines for various reasons related to aptitude, skill, inclination, talent, discipline (lack thereof), coordination, body mass. I liked to read and write (from an early age), I found that I enjoyed teaching, I liked doing scholarship, I liked deep intellectual reflection, I liked doing program administration (for the most part). It sort of added up to being a college professor, teaching rhetoric and writing, doing rhetoric scholarship.

There are other elements to this story, from my past and even my distant generational past. The Irish immigrants who came to the United States in the 19th century often ended up in teaching positions because the immigrant populations desperately needed English instruction and the Irish knew English. Same thing related to working in the public administration sector: Irish immigrants often went into city services, city government, fire, police. My grandfather on my father’s side was a fireman, my grandmother was a teacher—because those were the professional options most readily open to them, as the children of Irish immigrants. One wonders, in some way do these professional inclinations and choices come from our pasts? Well, of course they do. What comes down is not directives—Be a fireman! Be a teacher!—but rather what comes down the line are values, inclinations, attitudes, maybe even barely conscious ones, as you grow up in and into your family, your place, your culture. Your upbringing instills values, tells you what is possible (or not), what is desirable, what your purpose should be.

That’s why it is so incredibly important to read, recover, understand the past—that is to say, for our field, our rhetoric history. These things aren’t gone; they are still very much there influencing how we think, act, write, speak, teach. As I tell the students in my rhetoric history class, who think that reading misogynist Aristotle is wrong or at best antiquated and irrelevant: Hey, I say, Aristotle lives in the bricks here, he’s walking down the quad, he lives in the office across the hall. In fact, he’s even in your classroom talking to your students and handing out assignments to them and telling them how to write. That is, Aristotle lives deep in your DNA—whether you know it or not, whether you like it or not. You better get to know him.

LG: You are a prolific writer, and considering how much heavy administration you have been involved with, it’s amazing how you get any scholarly research and writing done. One of the things that interests me about your work is how collaborative you are. You especially have done lots of collaborative work with very smart women, among others Heidi McKee, Dànielle Nicole DeVoss, and Patricia Sullivan. I wonder if you might talk about the importance of collaboration in your scholarly life, especially your working relations with these female scholars?

JP: I like to do collaborative writing, research, scholarship, and curriculum development. It makes me smarter and makes me a better teacher. Sometimes I need to work things out for myself, but collaboration with smart people has always been important to me. We have a great field in that respect—that is to say, a propensity toward collaboration and sharing, in terms of both research and curriculum development, and toward practical institutional work. But, unlike some areas, I think that in our field there are also more than the typical number of people willing to put their egos aside in the interest of some larger good: making our higher ed institutions live up to the promise of their marketing, building a better writing program, creating a writing center, strengthening the English language program, whatever it is for the purpose of helping students become better writers. I’ve been fortunate to have had smart, energetic, talented colleagues to work with over the years.

LG: Lastly, I have a particular question for all my fellow budding scholars out there. I don’t know if you have seen it, but one of my favorite movies is Almost Famous, Cameron Crowe's autobiographical account of his adventures as a boy rock-journalist in the early 1970s. In the movie, Philip Seymour Hoffman plays Lester Bangs, the mentor of Crowe, whose character in the movie is called William. There's a great scene in the movie where Bangs offers the 15-year old William advice for future success in the field of rock-journalism. “You have to make your reputation on being honest and unmerciful,” Bangs tells the aspiring young writer. In one line, what advice would you have for emerging scholars in our field? And why do you think that advice is so important?

JP: Agitate, agitate, agitate.—no, that’s Frederick Douglass. Philosophers only want to describe the world, the point is to change it.—Karl Marx. Do good work.—Garrison Keillor? I’m afraid that the best advice I have to offer would only echo others’ wisdom. But here’s one idea: See what needs to be done to make things better, and then figure out how you can help make it happen. The idealists and critics in our midst are very good at the first part: critiquing the status quo, seeing how things could be better, they write wonderful books and articles telling us what is wrong with the status quo. You can make a good academic career just doing that. But the second part, the harder part, is making it happen, and that takes prudential wisdom, some administrative and political sense, institutional knowledge, negotiation, compromise, collaboration, and a lot of energy and hard work. Here is where work has to happen in the curricular, administrative, and institutional trenches. It’s not always successful. Sometimes the results are not so great. Perfect is not the goal. Make it better.

I’d also say: Figure out what you do well and can be successful with. Find your strengths and find your niche. Figure out what is possible, and don’t spend an inordinate effort on what is clearly not feasible. You can’t fix everything, but figure out one thing or a couple of things that you can make better, and then just do it. (Just do it.—Nike.) The other side of this advice, though, is to realize what can’t be done, to recognize what efforts and battles are not going to result in positive outcomes, despite your best intentions, your energy and commitment, your hopefulness. I know a lot of colleagues who have spent considerable time and energy trying to reform, rehabilitate, reconfigure the English Department, to transform English from a literature department into a broad English Studies department that recognizes the centrality of writing and literacy instruction. Has that effort succeeded? Well, I see rhetoric and writing programs that have succeeded, many of them inside English Departments; I see some incremental progress here and there. But I don’t see that English has changed very much in my time. That effort strikes me as banging your head against a wall.

And a third thing: Find good people to work with. You can’t do it alone. You have to find (or hire) committed colleagues to work with. Sometimes the starting point for change at an institution requires that you hire a colleague in X area to bring in an expertise that you yourself don’t have. I’ve always been very lucky in my career to have found and often, hired, wonderful colleagues to work with--committed and smart people who were also willing to roll up their sleeves to do the hard work to realign and redesign the institution.

We are here to make the place better—that’s a theological conviction, one that, you eventually come to realize, not everybody shares. I have most admired the people in our field—like my uncle, Janice Lauer, Rick Ramsey, Jim Berlin, Pat Sullivan, Patti Stock, Cindy and Dickie Selfe, Gail Hawisher, Martha Woodmansee, Bud Weiser, and other, newer scholars with incredible energy and commitment, like Dànielle DeVoss and Heidi McKee—who have worked to change the place we live and work in, the university system, so that it does a better job of living up to its stated mission: to broaden and diversify its mission to meet the needs of underrepresented groups, to understand literacy in broader and more inclusive ways, to help as many students as possible become better, stronger writers and thinkers, so that they become better, stronger professionals and citizens, so that they do good things in their lives, not dumb and hurtful and violent things, so that we are all the better for it. That is really the point, I think. We don’t necessarily have to go out into the public sphere to do this work. We can do it at home, at the university. Well, in fact, Isn’t the university part of the public sphere? I always thought so.

Works Cited

Bazerman, Charles. 2009 CCCC Chair’s Address: The Wonder of Writing. College Composition and Communication 61 (2010): 571-580. Print.

Carter, Joyce. Risk and Reward. Call for Program Proposals for 2015 Conference on College Composition and Communication. Spring 2014. <>.

Grabill, Jeffrey, James E. Porter, Stuart Blythe, and Libby Miles. Institutional Critique Revisited. Works & Days 41/42 (2003): 218-237. Print.

McKee, Heidi A., and James E. Porter. The Ethics of Internet Research: A Rhetorical, Case-based Process. New York: Peter Lang, 2009. Print.

Porter, James E. Audience and Rhetoric: An Archaeological Composition of the Discourse Community. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall/Studies in Writing and Culture, 1992. Print.

---. Framing Questions about MOOCs and Writing Courses. Invasion of the MOOCs: The Promise and Perils of Massive Open Online Courses. Ed. Steven D. Krause and Charles Lowe. Anderson, SC: Parlor Press, 2014. 14-28. Print.

---. MOOCs, ‘Courses,’ and the Question of Faculty and Student Copyrights. The CCCC-IP Annual: Top Intellectual Property Developments of 2012. Ed. Clancy Ratliff. The Intellectual Property Caucus of the CCCC, 2013. 2-18. Print.

---. Recovering Delivery for Digital Rhetoric. Computers & Composition 26 (2009): 207-224. Print.

---. Rhetorical Ethics and Internetworked Writing. Greenwich, CT: Ablex and Computers and Composition/New Directions in Computers and Composition Studies,1998. Print.

Porter, James E., Patricia Sullivan, Stuart Blythe, Jeffrey T. Grabill, and Libby Miles. Institutional Critique: A Rhetorical Methodology for Change. College Composition and Communication 51 (2000): 610-642. Print.

Sullivan, Patricia, and James E. Porter. Opening Spaces: Writing Technologies and Critical Research Practices. Greenwich, CT: Ablex and Computers and Composition/New Directions in Computers and Composition Studies, 1997. Print.

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