Method, Manifesto, Argument: An Intergenerational Response
Oregon State University
Montclair State University
This piece is an exercise in genre-blurring, a meditation on the complexity of relationship, and an exploration into how we move each other through—intellectually and spiritually—the work of growth and change. As we consider the resonance of Sally Miller Gearhart’s “The Womanization of Rhetoric,” now forty years later, we realize that we are ultimately writing about method. Method—how we do—can be as much about what we do “out there,” beyond the scope of our immediate lives, as it is about what we do in here, in the relational spaces we hold between us. Writing this piece together has occasioned a precious and powerful moment for us to reflect on the methodology of our own ongoing dialogue, a communicative thread that has continued for the past twelve years now, a steady, shared rhetoric of growth, change, loss, and much joy.
The work of putting our method of talk alongside Gearhart’s call that we resist “the conquest/conversion model of the speechmaker” exposes an important paradox: the presence of anger as something we can hold, share, and even deploy. Sally Miller Gearhart’s anger at both the state of the world and the state of the discipline of rhetoric as she experienced them in the 1970s comes through in her iconic essay. And yet as Gearhart makes clear, there is love as well: her love for the earth and recognition of the need to care for it, as well as her love for and valuing of women’s experience. We have our own anger and our own sense of gendered violences. But as we look at the dialogue that has sustained our connection for years now, we find a space that holds and mobilizes us, one that shares with Gearhart a capacity to love through (despite) hardship and struggle.
This is a complicated mix: love and anger; collaboration and persuasion; movement and resistance. When we each first read Gearhart’s essay, we were struck by the strength and aggressiveness of her first sentence: “My indictment of our discipline of rhetoric springs from my belief that any intent to persuade is an act of violence” (195). Lisa admits that when she read that first sentence she did an intellectual pounce, as it were. Ah ha! Caught you in a contradiction: an argument not just against rhetoric but also against any form of argument at all—and it takes the form of an argument! While our initial response here might be a bit reductive, it also urges caution: Gearhart’s essay, when read today, demands work from us as it threatens at times to slip into its own binaries, essentialisms, and blindnesses. Considering the impact of this piece forty years later asks us to examine our own positionality, what have we learned over time and what might we contribute today to our understanding of method, stance, movement, and textual production.
And so: What do we want to do in this essay?
Our intention is to write a collage essay that pastes together (perhaps even overlays) our shared history, one that stretches from the personal to the disciplinary, with snapshots from Gearhart’s piece. Our goal is to work back and forth, moving from Gearhart’s vision for rhetoric to our own shared dialogue with self-reflection and an eye towards possibility. In our efforts to consider the influence of Gearhart’s essay these last months, we have had to hold ourselves continuously accountable. At times we have reminded each other of (surprisingly) each other (remember your work on x or y). At other times we pointed each other in various directions (this reminds me of and you should check out), and at still other times we have shared new stories with each other (have I ever told you?). We have ranged from the personal to the professional and back again, needing to look again and feel again our own—each of us, different as we are—limits and boundary lines and abilities to reach. We have not been comprehensive but rather selective, deliberate. In every instance we have been, as we always are, in concert with each other, friends across generations who help each other into new spaces of understanding and connection.
A further word about our relationship: Our personal relationship began when Jess reached out to Lisa to share a draft of an essay she was working on that drew on Lisa’s work.1 Much to Jess’s initial surprise, Lisa read the essay and wrote Jess with thoughtful feedback. And so began an ongoing, rolling, written dialogue that has been continuous over these last dozen years, one that has built us into a loving intergenerational friendship. (About our generational differences: When Gearhart published her essay Lisa was several years into her first teaching position at SUNY Brockport; that same year Jess was three years old.)
Relationships can grow in times of challenge and struggle, and ours expanded in essential ways when Jess was journeying through the loss of her friend, Susan Lundy Maute, to breast cancer. Jess and Sue worked for the last two years of Sue’s life on an ethnography of sorts—interviews, reflective writing—that carried them both into Sue’s last hours. Lisa was, during this period, a fundamental support system for Jess as her friend became increasingly ill, and a comforting presence as she grieved Sue’s death. Lisa also was a source of confidence and intellectual inspiration as Jess later returned to the ethnography work, now without her friend and collaborator, and wrote the book, Surrender: Feminist Rhetoric and Ethics in Love and Illness (SIU Press 2019). The very roots of this book—that Jess could write it at all—were nourished in our intergenerational friendship. Jess endured a major loss and Lisa not only supported her through it, she helped her to see how to build from it in personal and intellectual ways. We accumulated many email threads throughout this transitional time and Jess draws on some of this written dialogue in the book.
As you can probably guess, Jess wrote the first draft of the preceding paragraph. What readers can’t know because Lisa has never written about it publicly before, is that Lisa has her own history with cancer: ovarian cancer at 16, Ewing’s sarcoma (cancer of the bone) at 18, cervical cancer at 45. Lisa found something powerful and liberating in Jess and Sue’s story and, especially, in their collaboration—something that took us in important ways outside of ourselves and encouraged us to take risks in responding to each other. Lisa is grateful that Jess feels she played a role in her ability to write Surrender, but Lisa mainly remembers simply saying in effect “You go girl!” But she also remembers how powerful it was to connect over what literally were and are matters of life and death. In our emails, phone conversations, and time together, we tried to face and name what we were experiencing. In Lisa’s mind, she was studying bravery and honesty with Jess.
We don’t want to overemphasize the personal nature of our interactions, important as that has been to us. What we do want to call attention to is the ways that the personal for us extends into the intellectual. While the focus of our written dialogue tends to shift from topic to topic, these forces remain inseparable. Lisa’s reading of Surrender in its final form will always be among Jess’s most treasured, deeply interwoven communications in their friendship. Lisa decided to write Jess little emails as she read, and so Jess was the recipient of a series of emails with subject lines that marked Lisa’s progress (i.e. “Page 97”). Jess created a running document of all these little notes that she titled “Lisa Reading.” Most poignant about Lisa’s reading of the book for Jess was her deep reflexivity on her own positionality as a reader, how and why she came to a work where the roots were ones she had known so intimately. What Lisa modeled in her reading of Surrender not only perfectly captures—for Jess—the core meaning of the work itself (what a gift to have one’s intellectual and spiritual efforts reflected back so insightfully) as well as the depth of their shared connection, but it also epitomizes what Lisa has consistently taught Jess about being a critically engaged, reflexive reader. In the passage below, Lisa examines her own approach to Jess’s book, offering deep insights into both her own humanity and the central argument of Surrender:
. . . I felt I somehow needed to become your ideal reader. So I couldn’t read Surrender in the way I’ve been doing everything in the last year—in bits and pieces. I felt that I needed to read it perfectly, because I feel so in tune with you. And that made me think I needed to stop everything and do just that.
Well, fortunately I have now read the first 66 pages of Surrender—rereading some of the first 20 pages or so—and I am grateful to see that even this early on you address part of what was constraining me: the sense that somehow I had to be perfect, had to have a method, had to do it right . . .Today I was finally able to say ‘just read!’ I am still reading Surrender, but I think that part of what you are saying there in your heart of hearts is ‘just live’—in all its complexity. (Ede to Restaino March 2018)
By examining her own positionality as a reader, mining her experience for a connection to Jess’s text, and—perhaps most importantly of all—sharing her personal reflection with Jess, Lisa models a resistance to binary thinking and argument, the very sort that Gearhart hopes we can all learn to resist. Lisa is at once reader and teacher for Jess in this moment, and she is also a thoughtful, rigorous student of herself, as Jess had been for her in sharing her own experiences and insights amid the loss of her friend.
We don’t want to represent ourselves as models of anything except friendship and a willingness to take risks: We are fortunate to know many colleagues who do the same. We do want to emphasize that our intergenerational differences and the particular circumstances that brought us together have enriched both our experiences and our understandings, and the ways we have moved and changed each other in words.
To the extent that the depth of our connection to each other lives somewhere in the wide space that encompasses our differences, especially intergenerationally, as well as our shared circumstances (lives touched by cancer, for example), we must commit to holding all the tensions of this space at once. This means, in an effort to understand the impact of Gearhart’s essay, that we also must examine the far-reaching possibilities for the claims she makes, the language she uses, the ways in which her work is located in space and time. It becomes our work to relocate Gearhart, to examine her impact and value here and now, and that includes framing some new questions that press on this iconic essay, that hold it to account and ask us all to continue our work. Accordingly we offer five points about “The Womanization of Rhetoric” that we attempt to briefly situate, forward, and perhaps even unsettle:
1. Gearhart’s “The Womanization of Rhetoric” has potential for the radical and the visionary, but only to the extent that we are able to notice its absences.
In her call for a reconceptualization of argument, how it happens, and how we celebrate it, Gearhart makes room for reimagining and transforming discourse, and for a radical restructuring of the dearest values of the white, patriarchal academy. However, her own language not only echoes discourses of power in form and style, the content itself does not make visible a diversity of identities—racial, ethnic, linguistic, dis/abled, or non-binary sexual or gendered identities—that might upend language and argument in real time. In her essential 2013 work Vernacular Insurrections: Race, Black Protest, and the New Century in Composition-Literacy Studies, Carmen Kynard recounts first efforts in a graduate practicum to prepare her to teach composition, which included Shaughnessy’s Errors and Expectations as “a teaching tool and method to understand student writing”:
For all the talk that we do about crafting work for multiple audiences, I was, perhaps naively, shocked that so many folk had not imagined that a working-class woman of color with a ‘radical black subjectivity’ would be the audience because clearly these folk did not have me in mind when assigning this book as my history or teaching guide. (190)
Looping “womanhood” to the presence of “the womb,” and noting women’s participation and also resistance in what can read like a biological, behavioral destiny of sorts, Gearhart writes “It will be hard for women in our field to think of changing because though we have been environments, we’ve spent most of our professional careers trying not to be so, trying not to be women, trying instead to scale ourselves to the conquest/conversion model of the speechmaker, the speech teacher” (201). While she pushes for radicalization, for change, for disrupting expected behaviors in one context, Gearheart stands to re-inscribe expectations in a kind of binary “other”. To put it (perhaps too) simply and dangerously: it’s time for us women to finally claim the roles destined for us via both the metaphorical and the physical womb. In doing so we upend patriarchal forms of argument in exchange for another, but we must be wary of the capacity for (yet another) form to imprison us. Indeed we are reminded here of Audre Lorde’s timeless warning: “For the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house” (111). Lorde’s warning resonates for us in Kynard’s disappointment, years later, regarding the tools offered her in preparation to teach composition. There is failure of audience, of “imagination,” and of expectations; these failures limit what is possible for all of us. The gender binary, the threading of a gendered identity through biologic sex, and the weaving of expectations for behavior through all of these are a cautionary, constraining tale in Gearhart’s piece even as her moves exist at a moment when far fewer voices were available to her in surrounding professional venues.
2. Gearhart offers important insights about the capacity for violence in education, lamenting the dangers of a lack of critical consciousness in the classroom:
In fact, our teaching, even if it were not the teaching of persuasion, is in itself an insidious form of violence. The ‘chicken soup’ attitude or the ‘let me help you, let me enlighten you, let me show you the way’ approach which is at the heart of most pedagogy is condescending and acutely expressive of the holier-than-thou mindset. Void of openness and respect, it makes even the most informative lecture into an oppressive act. (195)
We hear her concerns echoed clearly forty years later in Asao Inoue’s 2019 Chair’s Address at the Conference on College Composition and Communication:
Yes, the ways we judge language form some of the steel bars around our students and ourselves—we too maintain White supremacy, even as we fight against it in other ways. We ain’t just internally colonized, we’re internally jailed. As Alexander reminds us, and we likely feel each day, the overdetermined nature of racism explains why we can change or eliminate one unfair thing in a system, or school, or classroom—like our curriculum or our bodies’ presence—yet still find that our students of color struggle and fail—even when we are there to help them, showing them that others like them have made it. We hold up the flag of opportunity and say, ‘please don’t give up. Follow me!’ (3)
While Inoue’s words hone our focus on the power of language to advance White supremacy, the echoing here of Gearhart’s earlier warnings only reaffirms that we have not traveled nearly as far as we might hope in forty years. Indeed a lack of “openness and respect” exists in “the ways we judge language” still, and certainly the ensuing constrictions and colonizations include all of us, “our students and ourselves,” as Inoue reminds us.
3. Gearhart at once circles dangerously around essentialist and material notions of womanhood while ultimately pushing us to consider the ways in which this conceptual history has done its own “violence.” She writes:
It is important to the field of communication that biologically and historically we women have been thought of and think of ourselves as receptacles, as listeners, as hearers, as holders, nurturers, as matrices, as environments and creators of environments. It is important to the field of communication that, though we women now begin to discover what the suppression of our violence has meant to us, violence has been associated almost exclusively with men in our culture. The change in the discipline from the concentration on speaker/conquerer to an interest in atmosphere, in listening, in receiving, in a collective rather than in a competitive mode—that change suggests the womanization of that discipline. (200)
Gearhart’s language, particularly “we women,” does its own violence as she inevitably—while resisting a binary (conquer/conquest) model—imposes her own binary, the movement into “womanization” as an opposing “interest in atmosphere, in listening, in receiving.” We ask: Who are “we women” and how might the use of such a phrase do a kind of violence? Given Gearhart’s claim that what “our violence” has “meant to us” has been suppressed (by patriarchal structures)—we wonder what sorts of violences Gearhart imagines “we women” to hold? What might happen should such fury be released? And in what ways might our capacity for violence inform, perhaps even destabilize, our investment “in listening, in receiving, in a collective rather than in a competitive mode”?
We are—forty years later—inspired by work in trans studies that invites us to destabilize gendered bodies in ways we find hopefully resistant to the potential for an either/or that Gearhart establishes in her efforts to resist the conquer/conquest model. Such destabilization stretches for us across categories—gender; sex; race; dis/ability—inviting us to imagine the value of our own fractures and unpredictabilities. Jack Halberstam writes hopefully towards the end of Trans: A Quick and Quirky Account of Gender Variability:
Trans* bodies, in their fragments, unfinished, broken-beyond-repair forms, remind all of us that the body is always under construction. Whether trans* bodies are policed in bathrooms or seen as killers and loners, as thwarted, lonely, violent, or tormented, they are also a site for invention, imagination, fabulous projection. Trans* bodies represent the art of becoming, the necessity of imagining, and the fleshly insistence of transitivity. (135)
In the relationship we have sustained with each other over these years we experience ourselves—in text, intellectually, as we age and change—indeed “under construction” in ways resonant with Halberstam’s claims here. We find this sense of ourselves as not only in process but also fragmentary and imperfect a hopeful one, instructive for the most honest kinds of living-in-bodies and coming to know ourselves across identities. That these experiences of identity happen relationally, in our conversations with each other, suggest a vision for becoming that offers perhaps a helpful extension or revision to Gearhart’s search for an alternative to the conquest/conversion model. Sometimes we are listeners, sometimes we are storytellers, always we are moving from “here to there” dialogically (and in fact perhaps never quite arriving in any definitive way), in concert with each other.
4. Gearhart works with metaphor in ways that invite us to imagine the dangers of predictive form and also the potential for more radical re-castings.
Citing Mao Tse Tung’s metaphor of “the egg and the chicken,” Gearhart explains: “No one can change an egg into a chicken. If, however, there is the potential in the egg to be a chicken—what Mao called the ‘internal basis for change’—then there is the likelihood that in the right environment…the egg will hatch” (198). A stone, obviously and comparatively, lacks this “internal basis for change” and, Gearhart explains, will never become a chicken. Gearhart moves next to characterize communication as “a deliberate creation…of an atmosphere in which people or things, if and only if they have the internal basis for change, may change themselves” (198). We find ourselves here reminiscent of the dangers of our colonizing environments, the linguistic prisons that we create, as Inoue reminds us, as well as Kynard’s reflection on her first encounter with Shaughnessy’s Errors and Expectations as a teacher training text. It seems to us that any notions of creating “the right environment” necessitates a deep study of audience(s) as well as some relinquishing of power around notions of “right,” of “potential,” and of our end goals (in fact is it chickens we’re even hoping for?).
At the end of the day, how are we engaging a diversity of voices to not only create but also destabilize our communicative environments? And to what extent can these efforts also help us reimagine our goals? How might we re-envision activism, agency, and our (mis)perceptions of the fertility of any given environment?
5. Gearhart is attuned to the climate crisis in which we currently find ourselves, forty years later. She writes:
Somewhere in a dark corner of human history we made a serious evolutionary blunder. We altered ourselves from a species in tune with the Earth, with our home, into a species that began ruthlessly to control and convert its environment. At that point, when we began to seek to change any other entity, we violated the integrity of that person or thing and our own integrity as well. (197)
As we finalize this piece in 2019, climate crisis is at the fore of our minds, a daily urgency. Gearhart is, at this last point, as attuned as ever to the dangers of conquest as she observes a planet “ruthlessly control[led] and convert[ed].” In this last space perhaps there is only room for a binary, for a decisive, oppositional response to the exploitation of resources, the murderous consumption of fossil fuels, and the primacy of capitalist greed above all scientific evidence of environmental damages. The many other potentialities, the opportunities for widening our identities and our modes of communication, fall desperately dependent upon our ability to respond in this moment. May we create, at least this once, the right environment so that our chances at “hatching” a diversity of identities, languages, and means of communicating may grow free.
We are struck by how quickly rhetoricians dismissed—and how quickly rhetorical history forgot about—Sally Miller Gearhart. As we review our efforts to engage Gearhart’s piece forty years after its first publication, we find ourselves with more questions than answers. What counts as a radical intervention in our field? To what extent must we understand Gearhart as at once constrained and contained by her moment in time and yet also radically disruptive when examined contextually? In some ways might the distances traveled over these four decades encourage such a forgetting? What might we hold onto and sustain in Gearhart’s iconic piece? We have tried in this response to represent our intergenerational friendship as an active, dialogic alternative to the conquest/conversion model Gearhart so rightly resists. But perhaps most importantly we have searched for some contemporary threads that might point at how far we have traveled and how much farther we have yet to go.
1. This piece was published several years after that first contact as “Writing Together: An Arendtian Framework for Collaboration” in Composition Forum 40 (2014).
About the Authors
Lisa Ede is Professor of English, Emerita at Oregon State University, where for thirty years she directed the Center for Writing and Learning. Ede is the author, coauthor, editor, or coeditor of nine books. Her most recent studies include Writing Together: Collaboration in Theory and Practice (2012), coedited with her frequent collaborator Andrea Lunsford, The Academic Writer: A Brief Guide (2008, 2011, 2014, 2017), and Everyone’s An Author, coauthored with Andrea Lunsford, Michal Brody, Beverly Moss, Carole Clark Papper, and Keith Walters (2013, 2016). Ede’s single and collaboratively authored scholarly work has been recognized by awards from the Modern Language Association, the Conference on College Composition and Communication, and the International Writing Center Association.
Jessica Restaino is Professor of Writing Studies and Director of the Gender, Sexuality, and Women’s Studies program at Montclair State University. In addition to a number of essays or book chapters, she is the author of First Semester: Graduate Students, Teaching Writing, and the Challenge of Middle Ground (2012); Surrender: Feminist Rhetoric and Ethics in Love and Illness (2019); and coeditor, with Laurie Cella, of Unsustainable: Re-imagining Community Literacy, Public Writing, Service-Learning, and the University (2012).
Ede, Lisa. “Thank you—and an explanation for why I’m only just now writing about Surrender.” Recieved by Jessica Restaino, 5 March 2018.
Gearhart, Sally Miller. “The Womanization of Rhetoric.” Women’s Studies Quarterly, vol. 2, no. 2, 1979, pp.195-201.
Halberstam, Jack. Trans*: A Quick and Quirky Account of Gender Variability. University of California Press, 2018.
Inoue, Asao. “2019 CCCC Chair’s Address: How Do We Do Language So People Stop Killing Each Other, Or What Do We Do About White Language Supremacy?” Conference on College Composition and Communication, Pittsburgh, PA. 14 March 2019.
Kynard, Carmen. Vernacular Insurrections: Race, Black Protest, and the New Century in Composition-Literacy Studies. SUNY Press, 2013.
Lorde, Audre. “The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House.” Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches. Crossing Press, 2007, pp. 110-114.
Restaino, Jessica. Surrender: Feminist Rhetoric and Ethics in Love and Illness. Southern Illinois University Press, 2019.