Rhetorical Studies in Canada

clip from Cornelius Cort, "Rhetorica"  She presides as a rhetorician teaches his pupil

clip from Cornelius Cort, "Rhetorica." She presides as a rhetorician mentors his pupil

Having just this spring presented papers at the Rhetoric Society of America (RSA) in Seattle and the Canadian Society for the Study of Rhetoric (CSSR) in Vancouver, I was afforded a fresh view of the vibrant field of Rhetorical Studies on both sides of the border.

Scholars, programs, and works in Canada

Although the US/Canada border is relatively irrelevant because each association welcomes international scholars (such as myself and approximately 8-10 other Canadians who attended), the American society boasted over 900 scholars’ attendance, while the Canadian association has fewer than 50 members.

Yet why must Canadians compare themselves with the United States, the country with the highest concentration of rhetorical scholars? Canadian rhetorical studies, if determined by membership of organizations, is still stronger than in many other countries in the world. It is also not accurate to measure Canadian numbers by a single association because rhetoricians are dispersed across many (as described below).

If measured by public attention and the quality of our work, Canadian rhetoricians are doing quite well. CSSR members’ commentary on Canadian society and important social issues has attracted public attention, and we have had several newspaper articles and television and radio appearances. Look up the names of Maurice Charland, Tracy Whalen (link to a National Post article), Jennifer MacLennan (director/founder of the Graham Center at U of Sask), and Christine Sutherland (see her book on Mary Astell) to find just a few who are doing notable work in our field. There are too many to list.

But since it is in the Canadian psyche to continually compare ourselves with the United States, I’ll give some reasons why they outnumber us so greatly.

The major difference between Rhetorical Studies in the US and Canada is the number of academic programs at that provide BA, MA and PhD degrees in Rhetoric. I have tabulated the programs I have found online on my RhetLinks website here.

The United States requires quite a few professors and instructors of rhetoric and writing to teach the numerous “first-year writing / composition” courses most institutions require of all students. But in Canada, we do not have a large first-year writing phenomenon, and many of our rhetoricians are found in departments across the disciplines, mainly in the humanities and social sciences.

In Canada, because we are dispersed across so many institutions and disciplines across a large geographical area, it is difficult to find enough colleagues in one place in order to found a program with a major in rhetorical studies, although a few Canadian programs do exist (see my RhetLinks website). This is why I migrated from the University of Alberta to Ohio State University to complete my PhD studies in rhetoric during 1998-2002. I have never regretted it — I had such a strong mentorship and deep and broad education in rhetorical history, composition studies, and the teaching of rhetoric and writing.

Associations relevant to Canadian rhetorical scholars

We currently have 4 Canadian organizations that strongly appeal to scholars with interests in rhetoric.

  • The most obvious is CSSR (noted above). It hosts a scholarly journal, Rhetor. Here you will find most of the rhetoricians interested in rhetoric and philosophy, popular culture, literature, and the public sphere.
  • Secondly, many of our Canadian rhetoricians who are scholars of writing and of organizational discourse, public discourse, and cross-disciplinary academic discourse identify with the recently-renamed Canadian Association for the Study of Discourse and Writing (CASDW). It hosts a scholarly journal.
  • We also have a third organization where a few rhetoricians find a home, the Canadian Association for the Study of Language and Learning (CASLL), otherwise known as “Inkshed.” Respected rhetoricians such as Andrea Lunsford and Nan Johnson have affiliated themselves with Inkshed and frequently attended its conferences since its inception. “Inkshedders” have hosted a series of book-length publications, an active listserv, a newsletter, and yearly conferences that are broadly about writing in any social forum or discipline. Their tone is far more casual — I think of their group as a social network and scholar’s camp, an academic community that is great for mature scholars mentoring new scholars in the field.
  • A fourth organization that appeals to rhetoricians who teach writing courses or work in writing centers is the Canadian Association of Writing Centers (a listserv, but no web page yet at the time of writing).

In 2009 the International Society for the History of Rhetoric (ISHR) is going to meet in Montreal, Canada, the location of its current president, Diane Desrosiers-Bonin. This will be the second time the ISHR has met in Canada — the first time being in 1997 in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan.

The future of rhetorical studies

I am no prophet, but I can see signs that rhetorical studies will continue to grow in importance and notice across Canada.

I am noticing fewer instances of the “disparagement” of rhetoric in Canadian media — more people are using the word “rhetoric” with a little more respect or at the very least, neutrality.

When I talk with individuals in corporations and civil society organizations, they can instantly see the relevance of rhetoric to what they are trying to accomplish.

And here is the academic perspective … it’s important because it’s where most rhetorical scholars make a living and forge an identity and mentor new scholars —

  • In several departments of English, such as the University of British Columbia and University of Alberta, rhetoric has strong scholars and course offerings.
  • In Communications Studies we are slowly but surely making our relevance and value known in the midst of an overwhelming interest in new media and film and a continuing interest in traditional media.
  • And in the humanities and liberal arts in general, rhetoric is a natural site for an interdisciplinary investigation of important social issues that is being carried along with the wave of cultural studies and critical theory, with whom we have much in common.
  • In Engineering, Business, and some other professional schools rhetoric is slowly becoming known as an important basis for not only written communication but speech, collaborative writing, and technical and professional communication.

I also note that rhetoricians are multi-talented enough to expand our field in many directions at once.

Some of us are very interested in administration and are creators of programs and courses and centers of study, while others seem to focus more on publishing scholarly work.

Some serve community causes, nonacademic organizations, and the public with their rhetorical skills, while others spread their expertise and strengthen our society through teaching hundreds of students every year and publishing textbooks.

Many of us do two or three or more of these things quite well… and I think that we have survived and will thrive despite our relative geographic isolation and disciplinary distances from each other … because rhetoric helps a person think more clearly, speak more powerfully, and act more wisely.

Hopefully we will help more and more leaders and citizens in our society achieve far greater and more beautiful and just things than ourselves.


3 thoughts on “Rhetorical Studies in Canada

  1. I’ve just come across this post as I work on applications for graduate programs in Rhet Comp. As a Canadian, it saddens me to “sell out” to American grad schools, but this makes me feel a little better, and it certainly excites me as I begin my career. Hopefully, I’ll rejoin the Canadian ranks of rhetoricians soon enough.

  2. Cicero went to Greece to study rhetoric… rhetoric is not only interdisciplinary, it’s international, although it does take on the “flavor” of the country where it is studied and the mentors who teach it. I wish you well Stephanie. Please do come back to Canada and enrich rhetorical studies here.

  3. Thank you so much for posting this–I’m currently a Canadian expat working on my PhD in Rhetoric and Composition at Florida State University. It has always been my intention to bring the skills I gain at this amazing university back to Canada, but I’m not always sure how I’ll be able to do so.

    I would like to see Rhetorical Studies develop in Canada in its own right and I’m excited about the possibility of developing Canadian Rhetoric as a distinct field (just as we see differences between our American and European counterparts).

    Some questions I have are:

    How might we define “rhetoric” in a distinctly Canadian environment (based on a distinct history, in distinct spaces (and the distinct way we define Canadian space) etc.)?

    How might we develop rhetorical theory that is distinctly Canadian? Might there be such a thing? How might we incorporate/remix the corpus of American/European/historical rhetorical theory into our own?

    How might we explore Canadian history to develop a body of Canadian historical rhetoric?

    Does “composition” and “first-year writing” belong in a Canadian environment? If we think it does, in what ways can we learn from the American model to develop a system that might help Canadian students (but also avoid the “FYC-as-remedial” stigma that plagues the American system)? How can we foster a culture of “writing as a way of learning” in our Canadian universities?

    How might we begin to develop Rhetorical Studies degrees/programs in Canadian universities that might best help Canadian students and extend rhetorical scholarship? What might these look like?

    And lastly, as we survey the Canadian rhetorical terrain: where do we go from here?

    Again, I appreciate this post–although it is two years old, it appears that I’m not the only one presently thinking about this. This, I think, is a very good thing. Let’s keep this conversation going.

    Josh Mehler

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