CCR 611: Comp Histories/Theories · Rhetoric

“Rhetoric and Ideology in the Classroom” Reading Notes

Berlin begins by identifying three rhetorics: cognitive psychology, expressionism, and social epistemic. He distinguishes them as such:

  • “From the perspective offered here, the rhetoric of cognitive psychology refuses the ideological question altogether, claiming for itself the transcendent neutrality of science.”
  • “Expressionistic rhetoric, on the other hand, has always openly admitted its ideological predilections, opposing itself in no uncertain terms to the scientism of current-traditional rhetoric and the ideology it encourages.”
  • “Social-epistemic rhetoric is an alternative that is self-consciously aware of its ideological stand, making the very question of ideology the center of classroom activities, and in so doing providing itself a defense against preemption and a strategy for self-criticism and self-correction” (668).
Drawing of Berlin's Three Rhetorics
Photo by lemusgro.

Berlin relies on the ideological definitions of Marxist sociologist Göran Therborn who argues that “Choices in the economic, social, political, and cultural are thus always based on discursive practices that are interpretations, not mere transcriptions of some external, verifiable certainty” (668). Berlin also uses Therborn’s ideas that power is something that can and should be identified and resisted, and that ideology is inextricably tied up in language practices (668).

Of the three rhetorics identified initially, Berlin wants to focus on the advantages of social-epistemic rhetoric. He believes that the other two don’t appropriately discuss the relationship between ideology and rhetoric. Cognitive psychology, in its attempts to deny ideology, is appropriated to “a stance consistent with the modern college’s commitment to preparing students for the world of corporate capitalism” (672). Expressionist rhetoric, however, denounces ideological pressures to conform to “corporate-sponsored thought, feeling, and behavior” (676), yet simultaneously reinforces capitalistic notions of the individual.

Berlin defines social-epistemic rhetoric as a “political act involving a dialectical interaction engaging the material, the social, and the individual writer, with language as the agency of mediation” (678). Because of this dialectic collaboration, these different elements–the material, the social, and the individual writer–are part of a reciprocal relationship with ideology; they at once produce and are products of ideology (679). With its focus on political action and agency, the social-epistemic classroom lends itself to liberatory pedagogy, wherein both teacher and students work to create the form and content of the classroom, co-creating what is studied. This style allows students to “become agents of social change rather than victims” (681).

The article concludes with Berlin’s final points that 1) teaching is not innocent and free from ideology and 2) that social-epistemic rhetoric is the best approach for directly addressing the relationship between rhetoric and ideology. He writes, “Social-epistemic rhetoric attempts to place the question of ideology at the center of the teaching of writing. It offers both a detailed analysis of dehumanizing social experience and a self-critical and overtly historicized alternative based on democratic practices in the economic, social, political, and cultural spheres” (682).

Berlin, James. “Rhetoric and Ideology in the Writing Class.” The Norton Book of Composition Studies. Ed. Susan Miller. New York, NY: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2009. 667-684.


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