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Stanford Report, November 28, 2001

Writing wrongs: English professor stands up for rhetoric


Tiny red shoes and pictures of red shoes, including a photograph of the ruby slippers worn by Judy Garland in The Wizard of Oz, decorate a bookshelf in the office of English Professor Andrea Lunsford on the second floor of Margaret Jacks Hall.

"They're just in fond remembrance of my grandmother, whose biggest compliment was always, 'You look as pretty as red shoes,'" Lunsford explained. Students who do particularly well on an assignment will have their papers returned bearing a red-shoe stamp in the corner.

Alex Huang, a graduate student in comparative literature, discussed a project with Andrea Lunsford, director of the undergraduate writing program. Photo: L.A. Cicero

Lunsford came to Stanford last year to direct the undergraduate writing program. With her hair in a bun, she projects the stately mien of an Edwardian schoolmistress, an image that runs counter to her personal style, which is warm and friendly. She was born in Oklahoma in 1942 and still speaks with a light Southern accent.

Lunsford has made a career out of the study of writing and rhetoric, but it would be more appropriate to call it a vocation than a job. Even before earning her doctorate in English from Ohio State University, she designed an undergraduate writing program there. She is committed to making effective writing every student's ally, and she believes polishing the much-sullied term "rhetoric" is at least symbolically key to achieving this goal.

The Faculty Senate voted in May to change the title of the undergraduate writing program from "Writing and Critical Thinking" to the "Program in Writing and Rhetoric." The name change, urged by Lunsford, was discouraged by some senators who objected to the term "rhetoric."

"The word tends to mean overblown, somewhat misleading communications ­ exactly the opposite of what we have in mind," said political science Professor David Abernethy.

Others agreed. Abernethy suggested some possible alternatives, such as "Writing and Public Speaking," "Written and Oral Communication" or "Communication Skills," but Lunsford stuck to her guns.

"This is a very established field," she said. "There are probably 35 quite distinguished graduate programs in writing and rhetoric in the United States, and a growing undergraduate curriculum around the subject."

Rhetoric, she added, is "not about manipulation, but about reasoned judgment."

The rhetorician

Last year, Lunsford asked her students to keep detailed records of everything they wrote over a one-week period. The results surprised everyone.

"To do" lists, e-mail messages, online postings, class assignments, lecture notes ­ most students ended up with hundreds of pages of writing. "Writing, they concluded, was much more intricately related to their lives than they had imagined," Lunsford said.

Lunsford first came to Stanford in 1998 as a visiting scholar. Soon after, the university began a search for someone to head its undergraduate writing program. She was offered the job.

"When this opportunity came up ­ and especially the opportunity to try to re-imagine the writing program here at Stanford ­ I thought it would be really fun," said Lunsford, who has had plenty of experience launching or re-imagining college writing and rhetoric programs.

After receiving her doctorate in 1977, she took a faculty position in the English Department at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, where she taught for 10 years and developed a writing and rhetoric program. In 1986 she returned to Ohio State as a professor of English, where she revamped the writing program she had designed earlier. In addition, she developed the Center for the Study and Teaching of Writing and a graduate program in rhetoric and writing.

"People you talk to will probably testify to [Lunsford's] accessibility and her friendliness," said Marvin Diogenes, associate director of the Program in Writing and Rhetoric. "She really believes in community. She's a high-powered scholar but very involved with people."

Ellen Woods, associate vice provost for undergraduate education, agreed.

"What is most exciting about working with Andrea is her vitality, energy and unending supply of good ideas," Woods said. "It's just a pleasure."

Why rhetoric matters

The Watergate scandal and modern-day political campaigns are not the only reasons some people view rhetoric as manipulative and obfuscatory. Indeed, the discipline has taken hits for thousands of years. Plato disparaged rhetorical practices of his time ­ that is, the fourth century B.C.­ for being deceptive. "He objected to the way in which rhetoric could make one thing seem like it was something else," Lunsford said.

The search for truth with a capital "T" does not easily reconcile itself with rhetoric, which is mostly concerned with shaping arguments to fit a particular situation in a particular time.

"Rhetoric is after local or contingent truths, truth with a little 't,'" Lunsford said.

Citing the debate over the use of stem cells for research, she added: "I don't think that issue is going to yield to absolute truth, although the very conservative religious leaders think they can provide an absolutely true answer ­ that it's wrong. But anybody looking at it from a rhetorical perspective must take into consideration a whole concatenation of factors to see what is the very best choice that can be made in this set of circumstances."

Until the late 19th century, Harvard undergraduates took rhetoric courses during all four years. Their chances of earning a diploma depended on their ability to use rhetorical principles well, for they were required to prepare oral presentations to demonstrate the breadth and depth of their learning.

Lunsford believes that rhetoric is now an important skill for success in the modern world, where the forces of globalization and the advent of new communication technologies make the ability to work collaboratively, write well and speak well vital.

"I don't think there's ever been a time when we have needed a stronger rhetorical sense of how language works and operates than right now," Lunsford said. "I do think the stakes are very high. ... When we see how many trouble spots there are around the world, and when we see how easy it is for the best-meaning people to fall absolutely out of contact with one another ­ in Northern Ireland and the Middle East and South Central Los Angeles ­ it makes me really want to give my time and energy to this project."

Bolstering the writing requirement

In addition to renaming the program in May, the Faculty Senate voted to revise the university writing requirement. By the fall of 2003, undergraduates no longer will be able to use credit from the Advanced Placement Exam in English Language and Composition to satisfy one of the required Writing and Rhetoric courses. More emphasis also will be placed on oral presentation.

In addition, the Stanford Writing Center opened Oct. 15 in the basement of Margaret Jacks Hall. The plushly refurbished room ­ formerly the office and laboratory of the Science, Mathematics, Engineering Core program, which was discontinued at the end of the 2000-01 academic year ­ has been outfitted with computer workstations, writing-consultation offices and other amenities.

"Students can come to a central location, where they'll get support with any kind of writing they're doing," Diogenes said. The center is staffed by advanced graduate students and program lecturers. Eventually, peer tutors also will be available for writing assistance. This academic year services will be aimed mainly at frosh but will expand to cover the needs of upperclass students and even graduate students over the next four years, according to Lunsford.

Meanwhile, Lunsford and Diogenes are spearheading an ambitious longitudinal study of student writing. They will examine the writing habits of a group of undergraduates from their first day on campus until graduation. The students will submit their writing assignments, as well as any writing done outside of class, if they feel comfortable doing so. A sub-sample of the undergraduate group also will be interviewed at regular intervals.

"At the end of four years, we are certainly going to know a lot more than we know now," Lunsford said.