Introduction to Composition & Rhetoric

There has been a long-standing and contentious debate in rhetoric about whether the speaker should be seen as possessing good character or if the speaker should actually be good of character. Though its recurrence suggests that the question has not yet been answered satisfactorily, it also suggests that the question has mattered more than any particular answer. To put this in a different way, if we are looking for an answer as to why humans are often persuaded by “bad” characters, then we need look no further than Burke’s concept of identification — it is in identification, not is “right speeches,” that persuasion happens. That answer doesn’t make the question any less pressing, though, especially given the polarization of public discourse and the seduction of what some are calling “modern tribalism.”

In this course, we will explore the roots of the question of whether it matters that the good person speaking well actually is “good.” We will read Plato and Aristotle, who took great pains to explore the concept of good, as well as what it might mean to be a good person speaking well. We’ll read Cicero and Quintilian, their Roman brothers in this effort, and we will trace a genealogy of the concept of good from the Ancient Western world to the (“poststructuralist”) works of Nietzsche and Foucault and into the works of pedagogues who worry a great deal about the kinds of citizens we are producing in our college-level rhetoric and writing courses (e.g., Patricia Bizzell, Henri Giroux, Richard Scott Lyons, bell hooks, Krista Ratcliffe, and Sharon Crowley). This course should make clear to students that the question of what constitutes the “good citizen” never ceases to dog us—too, the questions of whether and how we should cultivate such a person.


  1. To introduce students to one way of thinking about the history of the field and to give them the opportunity to investigate the lines and intersections and departures in that history;
  2. To provide current and future teachers of composition with an introduction to the values and practices that are central to the field of rhetoric and composition so that their teaching might be informed by disciplinary expertise;
  3. To provide students with the opportunity to explore connections between their disciplinary and teacherly interests within the context of the field of rhetoric and composition;
  4. To provide students with the training necessary to create “a conversation” that emerges out of scholarly discourse in rhetoric and composition and to enter into that conversation in compelling ways in their research-based writings.

Salient questions:

  1. What worries, values, and conditions enabled the emergence of rhetoric in Ancient Greece? How do the worries, values, and conditions of the political climate in the US, and in HI, today shape what we might call “contemporary rhetorics”?
  2. Why does composition emerge out of rhetoric, and how are the two deeply intertwined?
  3. Why did rhetoric, and then composition, take on the responsibility of training “the good citizen”?
  4. How has that (rhetorical) training, as well as what counts as “the good citizen,” changed across historical, cultural, and institutional contexts?

Possible Assignments:

Students will share reading responses with me throughout much of the semester so that I can help them navigate the denser readings and help them explore and identify a topic for their final projects.

They will build and deliver presentations, according to the 625 theme, at a colloquium. This year the theme is Genealogies. 

They will work in pairs and small groups to offer presentations on assigned readings, framed within larger questions/issues, so that they will be encouraged to take more ownership of the course content and work.

They will be required to share an annotated bibliography and proposal in the last half of the semester and to share drafts of their final projects toward the end of the semester.

The final project will be a scholarly paper that could be revised for publication.

Tentative Course Calendar:

Week 1: Gorgias, Encomium of Helen + Intros on Gorgias and on Classical Rhetoric from Bizzell and Herzberg’s Rhetorical Tradition

Week 2: Plato, Phaedrus

Weeks 3-5: Aristotle, On Rhetoric and Nichomachean Ethics

Weeks 6-7: Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil

Week 8: Burke, A Rhetoric of Motives

Week 9: Foucault, excerpts from The Order of Discourse + “What is an Author?”

Week 10: Bizzell

Week 11: Faigley, Ratcliffe

Week 12: Richard Scott Lyons, X-Marks

Week 13: bell hooks, Talking Back

Week 14: Crowley, Toward a Civil Discourse

Weeks 15: Conferences

Week 16: Peer review