As a Canadian member of the CSSR (Canadian Society for the Study of Rhetoric) who did not attend this year’s conference (I’m taking a year off all conferences), I appreciated David Beard’s Blogora article for his flattering and interesting analysis of what the conference was like.
“I’m fairly sure that, if every American rhetorician could experience a CSSR conference, it would change their expectations of what a first-rate rhetoric conference can accomplish.” (CSSR, I)
I know or am acquainted with many of the people he writes about so it was like seeing them all over again through another’s eyes, and I feel proud to know those are my colleagues being written about, several of them coming from my own department’s graduate programs. Many Canadian rhetoricians will appreciate what David has written.
In this post, I take up some of David’s thoughts on the comparison of rhetoric conferences and rhetorical cultures in the US and Canada, and add my own elaboration on several points of comparison:
- Bilingualism and multiculturalism
- Academic community, culture and discourse.
- The rhetorical cultures of the surrounding societies in which we live and work
The Canadian/American rhetoric comparison
I especially find interesting David’s insights as an American into the Canadian / American comparison. I also attended RSA for the first time in 2008 and I have my PhD in Rhetoric & Comp (English) from 4 years at Ohio State U, so I thought about his experience as the reverse direction of my own cross-cultural experience.
David provides a fresh perspective on the rich interdisciplinary context of a conference that has become naturalized to me — “The Congress,” he writes, “provides a dynamic and interdisciplinary context in which the CSSR can meet and offers opportunities for rich interactions.” So true. He noted the interdisciplinary contributions that our presenters made, such as the rhetorical criticism of music, and described the ways that the papers engaged deeply and dialogically around the conference theme of “exceptionality”
As many of you may already be aware, Rhetoric also differs in Canada because English and Communication departments and programs of study are structured differently in relation to rhetoric: no “composition” courses at most universities (see Brooks, 2002), no major emphasis on speech in departments of communication, and a rhetorical tradition more British than American (Johnson, 1988).
If you want to see an explanation of the interdisciplinarity of rhetoric’s tradition, read it from a Canadian colleague, Maurice Charland, who published a good explanation in the journal Philosophy and Rhetoric in 2003.
But I hadn’t yet realized and thought about how its formation is related to the existence of the Canadian national “Congress of the Humanities and Social Sciences.”
The webpage for Congress 2009 claims
The Congress of the Humanities and Social Sciences is the largest multidisciplinary academic gathering in Canada, attracting delegates from every corner of Canada and around the world. Steeped in over 75 years of tradition, Congress is a gathering of researchers, scholars and students in the humanities and social sciences, leading public intellectuals, authors, artists and many more.
The structure of the congress is disciplinarily similar to the way our Federal academic research funding is structured — every young Canadian scholar in the humanities and social sciences is taught to revere and strive to obtain funding from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC, pronounced like “shirk,” which is what the government seems to be doing with it lately as it cuts back its budget). It offers competitive funding to graduate students and scholars in fields other than Natural Sciences and Health.
Accordingly, in our context Rhetoric is situated between and among the social sciences and humanities, has strengths in Professional Communication and Writing Studies (hence the CASDW association that David mentions), and is sprinkled broadly across the disciplines.
I hail from the University of Calgary, from one of those “Communication and Culture” units (York/Ryerson U, U of Calgary) that David remarked on as “worth exploring, incidentally, as another kind of disciplinary formation in Canada.” (however, see also Indiana University, Georgia Tech )
The interdisciplinary structure of the congress and the SSHRC is also now very similar to the academic structures I have seen growing in the Faculties (colleges) of Arts at the University of Alberta and University of Calgary (also in Alberta). Interestingly enough, at my university this year the amalgamation of 4 faculties (Fine Arts, Communication and Culture, Social Sciences and Humanities) recombined and reorganized disciplines and interdisciplinary areas in ways that may be influenced by organizations like the Congress. Studying rhetoric in a Canadian university context where your home program and department is interdisciplinary forces you to make connections with many other disciplines whenever you go to a program, department or faculty-level meeting or event, not just whenever you go to the Congress.
Bilingualism and Multiculturalism
I was also reminded by David Beard that it is remarkable that ours is a bilingual society, and that we gather scholars from Canada, the US, and beyond.
Bbilingualism is something as natural to me as reading French on the cereal box every morning. A Western Canadian like me experiences bilingualism a little more thinly than those east of Manitoba, since I encounter French mainly through our product labeling and federal government communications.
The international flavour (flavor) of our congress (conference) in Canada is also part of everyday life. Being multicultural and international does not make Canadian academia exceptional or that different from the US, since most large university campuses and large cities are also culturally diverse and often welcome visitors. But the cultural context of academia makes a difference in how diversity is interpreted and where one places the boundary between self and other.
Growing up in Canada, our diverse ancestry and cultures of our classmates and neighbors are frequently celebrated in schools and festivals, like Edmonton’s Heritage Festival, where seventy or eighty global cultures have booths — it is the heritage of the world and the local population that is celebrated. The question “what countries did your ancestors come from?” is not too uncomfortable to ask or answer in friendly conversation. “My father’s from Finland and my mother’s from the U.S.,” I would proudly answer. Canada’s Governor General Michaëlle Jean is a woman from Haiti (the governor general is the representative of the Queen and plays an important role in our constitution) . Everyone other than First Nations aboriginals is assumed to have come from somewhere else in the world, whether in one’s own lifetime or some generations ago. I would not be a Canadian if it were not for this country welcoming my parents as citizens.
Because of this everyday life experience of Canadian residents, maybe we’re just a little more welcoming of people from various (not seen as “other”) cultures and a little more interested in how differently their rhetorics function — NOT because we are more virtuous, but because the fact of diversity makes civic tolerance (at least on the surface) a necessity if we want to live together in harmony. And it is presumed (so generously, and at times naively) that we and others do want to live in harmony.
Academic community, culture and discourse
After giving thoughts on several presentations ending with Stephen Pender’s on rhetoric and ethics, a section near David Beard”s conclusion is well worth pondering further in the way that it represents community and academic discourse, and academic motives for conference attendance:
… at the end of every paper, if there was a pause before the question and answer session, Pender was poised with comments of two varieties: questions of clarification that helped refine the argument (or the evidence for the argument) in any and every paper, and/or suggested reading that would not only improve the argument, but demonstrate the scholarly community that would be interested in this work.
And that, to me begins to demonstrate the value of CSSR over other conferences — though admittedly, one day in, after a whirlwind of conferences (the UM preconference I organized and the RSA conference), I had yet to fully recognize. Pender’s participation demonstrated that the value of presenting at CSSR was not the “vita hit” (so commonly the reason to present at larger conferences like NCA, CCCC, and RSA), but the quality of the feedback. The feedback was neither agonistic (as so many conference Q&A become competitions between audience and speaker) nor was it skew (as so many conference panel Q&A become about “the paper I wish you’d written instead”).
Feedback, from Pender especially but from every regular CSSR member, was about refinement: about clarifying claims, defining terms, and locating research within a body of texts — in short, about improving the work. The ethos of CSSR as an association, among its longstanding members, at least, is that improvement of the work of the individual improves the community.
What else I hadn’t parsed, by the first day, was what it meant to “improve the community” when the association functioned as a genuine community. To improve the work of rhetoric at RSA, NCA, and 4Cs means, within the US context, to improve the disciplinary and intellectual status of rhetoric, or to improve the disciplinary or intellectual status of individual scholars in rhetoric. CSSR is not that kind of community.
I agree that from such a small group as CSSR you get quite a diverse and deep exploration of rhetorical scholarship — philosophical, theoretical, historical/literary, linguistic, interdisciplinary, international, intercultural. Within our fairly small gatherings one can also experience respectful listening and encouraging dialogue, a gracious welcome of to visitors and new people, and long-term collegial relationships. I’m so glad it had such a positive impact.
However, the “vita hit” is still of value to presenters, and collegiality is not just altruistic. It is practical based on the size of the community and the vastness of the country. When there are not very many of you in a community and you are dispersed over a long distance, you want to make the best of your time together and you want your membership to grow. You don’t want to rub each other the wrong way. Like any other academic community, we do blind review of journal articles for one another, serve as examiners for tenure and promotion applications, send students to one another for graduate study or to apply for jobs, we refer to each other’s books, etc. And we do want our fellow rhetoricians to argue well for the sake of the study of rhetoric — we do have disciplinary motives.
The Rhetoric Society of America (RSA) (which I have attended only once so far, in 2008) complements us with more of an emphasis on recent political and public rhetoric, although it does tend to be more narrowly focused on analyzing American rhetorical life. Most presenters seem to speak to a rather insular American audience using the ideas of many American theorists and scholars.
On the other hand, American rhetoric draws on classical and international scholarship and engages with international contexts and common social themes. American society is complex and fascinating and diverse in itself, and is the home of the majority of the world’s rhetoricians and some of the best of the best, and that is why I became an international student and earned my PhD there.
I found the RSA conference quite invigorating and exciting in terms of many scholars’ engagement with social, cultural, and political change. These are elements of American rhetorical study that I admire and wish Canadians could emulate more.
I seem to be among the more “American” of my Canadian counterparts since even as a scholar I tend to want to persuade and have an impact on how things are actually done, not just to inform how people think, and I do care about the status of rhetoric as academic discipline and field of study.
Like many RSA folks, I believe scholars should survive and thrive based on academic rhetoric, their ability to argue well, regardless of who they are and how young they are. But in Canada academic ethos seems to be more about your place in the academic hierarchy and your seniority. As a graduate student in Canada, even at the PhD level there was more of a hierarchy between me and the faculty, and it was very hard to feel like I was ever good enough to publish or present among the academic stars. In contrast, after I left my Canadian PhD to start a new PhD in the US, it was assumed I would present on panels alongside leading scholars, and could copyedit and comment on their drafts.
In contrast to both of our “national” associations is a rhetoric association with an international and historical focus, the International Society for the History of Rhetoric (ISHR), in which I regularly participate. ISHR is more intellectual and necessarily more distant from present-day rhetorical implications, but far richer than both the CSSR and RSA in scope and depth of intercultural and philosophical engagement. When I go to ISHR it’s like 10 CSSRs put together, in terms of numbers. When I hear a scholar from Germany or South Africa present on a historical rhetorician, I feel like a rhetorical global citizen with a long and illustrious intellectual ancestry. And the bonus for me is that it only takes a little creative imagination to understand how it’s relevant to contemporary life. Last year at ISHR I learned new angles on Isocrates that helped me better understand the role of rhetoric in political and social change in other eras and my own culture.
Scholarly Works Cited
Brooks, K. (2002). National Culture and the First-Year English Curriculum: A Historical Study of “Composition” in Canadian Universities
American Review of Canadian Studies 32.
Charland, M. R. (2003). The Constitution of Rhetoric’s Tradition. Philosophy and Rhetoric 36 (2), 119-134.
Johnson, N. (1988). Rhetoric and Belles Lettres in the Canadian Academy: An Historical Analysis. College English, 50(8), 861-873.