Doxa and Absence in Instructor E-mail Conversation

My artifact is a multispeaker, nonlinear, multithreaded, asynchronous, semipublic listserv discussion that bears only minute similarities to oratory and long persuasive texts; it presents problems for many models of rhetorical criticism—not just how to critique such a text, but even whether there is anything in the text worth critiquing

Critical rhetoric takes an expansive view of the worthy object of criticism and is ideal for this sort of text, especially since many of the other methods and approaches we have examined depend on structures that don’t appear frequently or extensively in the e-mail discussion.

Critical rhetoric begins by looking at texts as they exist, focusing not on ideals, but on what the writers—and thus the power structures that the writers are working out of—know and believe to be true. Among other things, critics look for doxa (McKerrow, 109), the competing truths that rhetoric helps create and empower, as well as for “what is absent” from the picture (112).

Doxa 1: assumption that students—students traditionally unable to participate in pedagogical discussions and factually unable to participate in the WPA-L discussion—need to be helped by teachers.

  • Students have “deficiencies” (message 5), and  are “disempowered, marginalized” (message 8); one writer concludes that faculty and administration are “enabling students in unsuccessful behaviors” (message 4).
  • The discourse of nearly all of the conversants participates in “domination” (McKerrow 96) by assuming these students’ collective and individual lack of agency—even so far as to assume that the students’ failure comes from an outside source.
  • However, the unsettled tone of the conversation itself shows that the student holds a considerable amount of power; the initial post in the conversation comes from students’ refusal to participate in the instructor’s “expectation” (message 1) about a particular means of submitting coursework.
  • Thus the students have the ability to subvert even the “definition of an onsite class” (message 1), even as they are constructed by their teachers as subject to “requiring” (message 1) and “needing to learn” (message 4).
  • In this artifact, students both have power and are assumed to be powerless; speakers in this discussion participate in their discursive disempowerment even as they purport to be facilitators of empowerment

Doxa 2: competing set between whether teaching FYC is about “writing” or “computer skills,” (message 2), whether there is a distinction between the two (message 7), and whether those are even the issues at hand in the discussion (reframing the “how students compose” issue to “how they hand in writing” (message 9)).

  • Even the subject of the argument is in flux—reframing central issues is a way of dominating (by changing the topic, I overpower your entire argument) and freeing (by changing the topic, I subvert your discourse).
  • Thus, my artifact offers a significant critical question: is this unsettled discursive practice evidence of a productive “non-privileging,” (McKerrow 102), or is it instead evidence that nobody—aside from the discourse itself—ever has power in discourse about FYC?

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