CCR 611: Comp Histories/Theories

Rhetoric at the Margins: Revising the History of Writing Instruction in American Colleges, 1873-1947

In the preface to his book, Gold offers some context for his site selection and the arguments he plans to develop. The purpose of his book is to examine rhetorical education at three historically neglected institutions: Wiley College (a private HBCU), Texas Woman’s University (a public all-women’s college), and East Texas Normal school (an independent teacher-training school). His goals are three-fold:

  1. “to recover important histories that would otherwise be lost and give voice to the experiences of students and educators of a diverse past;
  2. “to complicate and challenge the master narratives of rhetoric and composition history and the ideological assumptions that underlie them; and
  3. “to demonstrate persistent connections between the past and the present in order to help develop richer pedagogies for diverse bodies of students.” (x-xi)

His project is at once historical, theoretical, and pedagogical, and his overarching argument is one of challenge. That is, recovering and analyzing the rhetorical education at each of these three institutions, Gold argues that these schools valued intellectual and pedagogical traditions that challenge the dominant Eastern liberal arts model (xi). Importantly, Gold challenges the taxonomies that have structured our understanding of composition history:

These histories also remind us that the history of writing instruction cannot be reduced to simple binary oppositions and epistemological classifications, nor can any given historical period be treated monolithically, nor can any one college—or type of college—serve metaphorically for all. By looking to the margins of rhetorical history, we may find a new center. (xi)

In the introduction, Gold attempts to flesh out this critique of composition historiography. He notes that historical inquiry is frequently driven by attempts to disassociate ourselves from what we see as our pedagogical mistakes (eg. current-traditional rhetoric) and that we too easily draw connections between ideology and pedagogy (1). Specifically, he argues that we often position students as victims of ideology, which leads to a misreading (or worse, a complete dismissal) of pedagogical practices that don’t fit within the pedagogies that we now value: critical, liberatory, student-centered practices (2). The late 19th century saw an increase in industrialization, in a new student population, and the birth of both composition and current-traditional rhetoric. Gold argues that at black colleges, women’s colleges, engineering schools, and normal schools, curricula were developed to meet the local needs of students (4). Through his three chosen institutions, he aims to show both the diversity and complexity of rhetorical education in the late 19th and early 20th centuries in sites of “competing and complementary rhetorical traditions” (5).

Gold makes two assumptions about historiography that drive his own history:

  1. “We cannot make broad claims about the development of rhetorical education without examining the diverse range of student bodies and institutions that participated in such education, including those previously underrepresented or neglected by earlier scholarship.
  2. “We must also continue to complement broadly drawn, comprehensive master narratives with finely-grained local and institutional microhistories.” (7)

Essentially, he’s arguing that we need to be careful to ground our arguments within local contexts and to value those local complexities without reducing them to fit within a grand narrative. Related, he rejects the often-immediate idea that we, as composition instructors, need to liberate our students from ideologies that we see as problematic when (as he plans to show with his three chosen sites) these may practices may actually empower students by giving them confidence to write within contemporary rhetorical norms (8).

In describing his method, Gold notes that his archival material comes from catalogues, course descriptions, student and faculty notes and essays, newspaper articles and governmental reports, letters, and oral histories (11). He also looked at relevant classes beyond English (eg. oratory, public writing) and at extracurricular activities. I really enjoy this book and Gold’s work, but one thing that has always struck me as peculiar is how Gold establishes his ethos. He very explicitly states his goals, purposes, and positionality as a historiographer; has a clear statement about research methods and texts; and values letting history speak on its own terms. However, he doesn’t address his process of selecting (vs. collecting) documents, and interestingly he hopes “to extract lessons from the past that will assist in developing more effective pedagogies that aid rhetorical instruction today (12), a practice he simultaneously criticizes. He includes a statement about his biases, but it’s kind of unclear, reading much more like an explanation of his study’s exigence and a list of research questions:

I am interested in the institutions in this study because I am convinced they have something to teach us, something that broad, general curricular histories have missed. Now, as in the progressive era, access to and diversity in education remain important questions. Can we recover the sense of community and community building that black, women’s, and normal colleges fostered without reverting to institutional segregation and separatism? Can we join the study of the liberal arts with professional training? Can we foster civic values and participation in social discourse through rhetorical education? Can we instruct students in dominant discourse norms while still respecting the voices and experiences they bring to our classrooms? (12)

Three Institutions. 

Cover of Rhetoric at the MarginsChapter 1, “Integrating Traditions at a Private Black College,” looks first at Wiley College, a small African American liberal arts school in Marshall, Texas. Offering some context for HBCUs as institutions, Gold describes them as hierarchical and authoritarian, grounded in Christian ethics, intended to serve the civic purposes of promoting citizenship and building community, and often relied on prescriptive (current-traditional) instruction (15-16). In this chapter, Gold focuses on Melvin Tolson—a professor who embodied an epistemic, activist rhetoric and also relied on very prescriptive and disciplinary practices—thus serving as an ideal example of the limitations of traditional taxonomies. Simply put, “He combined elements of classical, current-traditional, liberal, social-epistemic, and African American rhetoric as he saw fit” (17).

Part of Gold’s focus  is to show how African American rhetorical practices highly influenced the pedagogies that Tolson combined and performed. For example, he notes that HBCUs privileged oratory long after white institutions had dismissed it and moved to written instruction because oratory was important to religious leaders in the community (20). Tolson’s rhetorical instruction (which was an embodiment of Wiley’s mission statement itself) was grounded in both the classical liberal arts tradition and also African American religious oratory (32). I think this continued emphasis of Tolson’s embodied pedagogy is important because, as we know, embodied pedagogies value complexities, and Gold describes Tolson’s classroom as a performance (34). Tolson viewed the classroom as both empowering and liberatory (social-epistemic) and as prescriptive. Importantly, though, prescription was always “in the service of a higher good” (36).

We get a glimpse here of Gold’s focus on rhetorical education beyond the classroom, focusing on Tolson’s practices as a debate coach, where “he blurred the line between classroom, extracurricular, and recreational activity as he encouraged his students to apply their rhetorical training in a public sphere” (43). Debate is a practical example of the importance of oratory but also became a space where Tolson could impart the value of kairos and audience awareness (48). Though we can perhaps trouble Tolson’s insistence on teaching correct English (forcing students to assimilate into a standard instead of challenging it), it’s silly to do so because he was trying to prepare his students for success in a world where “correct English” was the norm, giving students the tools they needed in order “to engage the world, not retreat from it” (59). Gold gives us two major takeaways from Tolson: one is the acknowledgment that he taught his students dominant discourse norms and taught them to believe that these were part of their cultural heritage (something it seems students of color are frequently denied), and the other is the acknowledgment that we can be both nurturing and rigorous in the classroom (61).

Chapter 2, “Balancing Tensions at a Public Women’s University,” focuses on Texas Women’s University, a vocational college established in the early 20th century that encouraged its students to create political ties with local women’s organizations. Gold views this site as a particularly useful contribution to scholarship because though others have focused on women’s schools, the focus has frequently been on elite, Eastern, and private institutions (65). In this chapter, Gold contrasts the history and educational philosophy of TWU with the then-current context of women’s education in that region (67), focusing specifically on how student-run literary societies and publications (e.g. the Daedalian) influenced rhetorical education. Because there was little in-class archival material, Gold focuses predominantly on official publications, faculty scholarship, and student publications and responses (68).

TWU was the only opportunity for higher education and economic mobility for many first-generation young women (73). Members of women’s organizations both helped to fund TWU and also encouraged students to engage in public issues, combining conservative and progressive politics (and illustrating Gold’s point to pay attention to local institutional contexts) (76). He points out that women’s clubs in Texas (eg. Texas Federation of Women’s Clubs) were strongly political—organizing educational and feminist campaigns. Gold draws attention to Nancy F. Cott’s distinction between “female consciousness” (awareness of gender differences that can be conservative or radical) and “feminist consciousness” (a radical challenge of male hegemony) (80) in order to argue that—because of the conservative, traditional nature of many women’s organizations—we might not initially view them as feminist. Importantly, thought, he argues that they saw themselves as feminists, “part of a complex web of female, Southern, white, and Texan identity” (81). And TWU women went to school in a time (and region influenced by antebellum propriety) where they were expected to be homemakers, even after graduating, although they attended TWU in order to learn practical skills and improve their class standing (83). These expectations show the complexities of femininity/feminism at the time and the danger of reading these women as occupying either/or positions, reflected in TWU’s institutional goals, as well:

The school’s goal, as stated in the 1913-14 board of regents’ report, was “to send out well-rounded young women. And it will never send them out until it sends out a girl who can write as well as she can cook, who can interpret great minds as well as she can sew, and who can talk and assimilate the ideals of others as well as she can furnish a house” (TWU 11). (88)

Literary societies also played a large role in women’s rhetorical education, and women had many opportunities to publish their own writing in yearbooks, literary magazines, and campus newspapers (96). Gold argues that the number of publications indicates a supportive campus culture, and the confidence and competence of the writing demonstrated rhetorical skill (103). Something about this part of the chapter rings true to me as a graduate of a women’s college. In part, Gold contributes the optimism and confidence of the student writers to the spirit of the college itself, a “grand experiment” to which both students and founders “remained fiercely loyal” (109). Importantly, Gold notes here that these women did not view themselves as marginal or powerless and did not view themselves as writing against dominant modes of expression (110), which also makes a lot of sense to me when your critical thinking and writing is cultivated in an empowering environment (sometimes even despite what’s occurring in the world around you). From this, Gold argues that TWU is an example of how competing pedagogies exist and how binary oppositions (conservative/progressive, feminine/feminist) limit the complexities of both institutional ideologies and the multidimensional lives of students themselves (112).

Chapter 4, “Challenging Orthodoxies at a Rural Normal College,” focuses on East Texas Normal College and specifically President Mayo—who founded the school and “combined elements of rugged individualism, populist politics, progressive educational ideals, Methodist discipline, and a late-Victorian faith in self-improvement” (114). Similar to Tolson, Mayo brought a civic focus to his classroom, giving students the tools they needed to succeed in mainstream academic culture while simultaneously trying to change that landscape (116). In this chapter, Gold examines the rhetorical education at ETNC against the context of Mayo, early 20th century Texas, and the normal school movement. He identifies four key features of Mayo’s teaching: 1) attention to the needs of the local community, 2) an emphasis on oral production in teacher training, 3) “learning by doing,” and 4) his obsession with prescriptive grammar (116).

Normal schools were founded with the intentions of fostering democracy through widespread education, engaging student interest, and developing interactive approaches to learning (120)—pedagogical practices that are perhaps not surprising for institutions intended to train teachers. Mayo himself viewed textbooks as peripheral materials and privileged culturally and politically relevant orations, which constrasts with the widely held belief that textbooks have been foundational to composition pedagogy  (138). This is one example of the normal school’s focus on moving away from traditional forms of learning, stressing invention over correctness (141).

Mayo did focus on correctness, though, and demanded that students take responsibility for their own learning—even in the realm of grammar. Gold notes, though, that even if these rural students believed their language to be lacking (or even if they were told they were “ungrammatical,”) “they did not get the message that they were lacking themselves” (147). That is, they were not deemed unteachable. Interestingly, Gold describes the history of normal schools as a neglected one because of its success:

The radical changes they initiated in American education—linking democratic action with education, developing student-centered classrooms and curricula, responding to community needs, opening educational and professional opportunities to students without regard for sex or class—have become such a basic part of the vocabulary of professional educators that we have lost sight of their historical origins. (148)

And of particular interest revisiting this book immediately after Shor, Gold argues that the legacy of the normal school movement can be found in community colleges, which picked up the commitment to educating working class and poor students (150).

Concluding Thoughts.

Gold concludes with a reminder that we can’t understand educational histories without situating them within the local communities and issues from which they emerged. He also pushes for greater attention to cross-disciplinary opportunities, working toward the more comprehensive instruction discussed in his analysis of these three institutions. Though I think these are both important points, his most useful conclusion (I think) is a call for more nuanced views of history and methods of historiography and a better understanding of the origins of the field, a call not only to remember our past but also, sometimes, to repeat it (156).



Gold, David. Rhetoric at the Margins: Revising the History of Writing Instruction in American Colleges, 1873-1947. Carbondale: Southern Illinois UP, 2008. Print.



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