Meghan's Rhetoric Page 


"That's just the nature of democracy. Sometimes pure politics enters into the rhetoric." George W. Bush

   How did I get here? Where am I going? How will I get there? These are a few of the existential questions that plague mankind. Although I have finally achieved my goal of attending graduate school, the existential questions have not been silenced or answered. In fact, over the course of my first semester at Humboldt State University—the first few months, it must be noted, in a town where I don’t know a soul and have abundant time for self-reflection—my existential dilemmas have reached a crescendo of sorts.
     Although I had always planned on returning to school after completing my bachelor's degree, my decision to enroll in the M.A.T.W. program at HSU was not one I made lightly or out of desperation. I was the lucky and rare English major who landed not one but two jobs using her degree: first as a reporter for a weekly paper that I fondly referred to as "birdcage liner," and then as an editorial assistant for a science journal. Even though I discovered, much to my surprise, that I could "make it" in the real world, I still longed to continue my education and exchange office-job tedium for the classroom. However, as I researched the job market for English professors, I quickly became disheartened at my dismal prospects within that field. Additional research yielded a promising compromise--community colleges in California were expected to grow exponentially over the next few years. Community colleges, too, rely heavily on adjunct labor to teach composition classes, but I harbored an optimistic (if not realistic) hope that more students would mean more tenure-track jobs. I also appreciated the idea that community colleges were, to quote the College of the Redwoods folks who visited HSU, "the Ellis Island of higher education." In other words, community colleges seemed like a place where I could find a full-time job and make an actual difference in students' lives.

        Thus, when the time came to apply to graduate schools, I decided to pursue master’s programs in rhetoric and composition instead of literature. I discussed my reasons for attending graduate school at Humboldt State University in a journal entry for English 600 that was creatively titled “Why I am Going to Graduate School, at HSU.” Although the entry dates back to the halcyon days of late August, before English 600 exposed me to practically a full semester’s worth of dire warnings about the English academic job market, the text briefly references a concern about the community college job market, which I dismiss by expressing a belief that obtaining a Ph.D. will make me more marketable.
    My decision to continue on for my doctorate marked a return, of sorts. I had planned to eventually pursue a Ph.D. in literature when I graduated from college, but abandoned that goal due to the dreary prospects of the university job market and a newly discovered interest in rhetoric and composition. With community colleges planning to significantly increase their enrollment, two-year institutions seemed the way to go if I ever wanted to have something even remotely resembling job security. Therefore, a master’s degree seemed better suited to my needs, as well as less time-consuming, and I planned to focus my project on community college composition. However, once I realized that “doing” school is rather like riding a bicycle--and, I should add, something I am far better at doing than riding a bicycle--I decided that I would not be satisfied if I did not at least try to accomplish my original goal of pursuing a Ph.D.
    Although I had never received even the slightest exposure to rhetoric or composition theory as an undergraduate, I soon realized that I could probably spend five to seven years studying it without getting (completely) burned out. This discovery was made relatively early on in my graduate career, when I began conducting research for a paper for my English 615 class. My chosen topic was community college composition curriculum, and, thanks to the emptiness of my social calendar and the nervous over-zealousness that comes with one’s research skills being a little rusty, I immersed myself in rhetcomp theory. Over the course of the semester, I devoured Cross-talk in Comp Theory and Landmark Essays on Basic Writing.
    Along the way, I also banged out a satisfactory, if not superfluous, paper in which I articulated the need for practicality in the community college composition classroom. Knots of uncertainty and insecurity twisted in my stomach as I wrote the first draft, multiplying all the way to my fingertips and slowing my typing. I became depressed and convinced that I was not cut out for graduate school, which further slowed my writing to a glacial pace. The strain under which I labored announced itself in the paper; my argument was weak and wishy-washy, and my own words were overpowered by a surplus of citations. Yet the agonizing first draft yielded a kind of catharsis. My argument needed strengthening, and my organization needed tightening, but the paper was by no means awful. When it was workshopped, no one hurled tomatoes at me or asked me if I got lost on the way to the service industry. The depression and lethargy eased, and I confidently embraced the task of revising my paper. After stripping the paper to its foundation and basically rebuilding it, I was somewhat proud of the final product.
    As I refined the paper into a polished piece of writing, I noticed a theme that I hadn’t meant to incorporate and never explicitly articulated: genre. I had never thought about non-literary genres before, but I was suddenly curious about their use in the classroom. What could different genres of writing teach students, and how could they be used in the classroom? Is there life beyond the standard essay? While I explored these preliminary questions in my paper, I did not really apply any theoretical basis to them. In fact, I had not yet discovered that questions of genre had a theoretical foundation.
    It wasn’t until after I turned in my paper that I stumbled upon genre theory. The discovery happened quite by accident, and not as the result of scholarly research. The completion of my paper left me with some free time, which I used to shop around for Ph.D. programs and dream about where I could go when I could finally break free from the Redwood Curtain. One university that particularly attracted me was University of Washington, whose acceptance I had incidentally declined to attend Humboldt State University. I was intrigued by the Language and Rhetoric program and the prestige of the university. Also, I liked the fact that the school was on the West Coast, which would allow me to remain somewhat close to my family.
    Now, however, I had more than ranking and location in mind. I was looking at faculty members, studying their research, and trying to determine who might be a good fit as a doctoral advisor. While searching University of Washington’s website, I came across a professor named Anis Bawarshi. His homepage listed his research interests and some of his publications, so I found a couple articles on JSTOR. I wasn’t exactly sure what “rhetorical genre theory” was, but it sounded interesting.
    After reading Bawarshi’s “The Genre Function,” I became intrigued by this increasingly popular line of inquiry. For one, genre studies includes non-privileged, “everyday” texts in its purview, especially the writing of students. Also, I am interested in the sociological aspect of genre studies: how genres inform, and are informed by, real-life social interactions.
    I finally committed some of my preliminary musings on genre to paper for an assignment in English 600. In the paper, once again creatively “Response to Bruffee and Bazerman,” I compared and contrasted the two theorists’ ideas about the social nature of writing and genres. Bruffee’s “Collaborative Learning and the Conversation of Mankind” particularly interested me because it articulates the textual and extratextual nature of genre, or what the author calls “normal discourse.” In other words, genres simultaneously structure, and are structured by, the conversations and social relationships that occur within a professional community or discipline. Understanding a community’s genres means understanding that community: how hierarchies are created, how specialized knowledge is preserved and transmitted, and how the community differentiates members from non-members.
    I find genre theory so interesting, in fact, that I plan to incorporate it into my master’s project. As I state in my tentative project proposal, I would like to study how how instructors can employ genre studies in the freshman composition classroom to help students acculturate to—and possibly resist acculturating to—academic writing. Of course, this idea is still very vague and demands further thought and fleshing out. However, I believe that examining freshman composition through the lens of genre studies will be interesting enough to carry me through 50-plus pages of writing. I also not-so-secretly hope that gaining knowledge in these areas will position me to get into a reputable Ph.D. program.
    But, to return to what may be the overarching theme of this essay, plans change. After a semester of graduate study, I think that I want to pursue a Ph.D., and I think my area of interest is genre theory, but I can’t predict the future. When I graduated from college, my five-year plan involved ascending the ranks of journalism, moonlighting at a major daily, and then beginning a Ph.D. in literature at a top-ten research institution. Today, I find myself studying the teaching of writing at a “lowly” state school. Over the next two or three years, my interests may evolve or transform; I may only sustain the intellectual rigor required of graduate study long enough to complete a master’s degree.
I worry about the future, and about finances. Do I want to enter my thirties—a time when most people have established themselves in careers and begun families—laboring in the lowest ranks of my profession and drowning in a sea of debt? Will I be able to carve out a career in rhetoric and composition, or will I be another sad statistic? Should I have just sucked it up in the beginning and become a well-paid, if slightly scummy, public relations flak? I don’t have the answer to these questions, and, sometimes, I am okay with that.