On “Doing History”

These are just a few things I learned as a student in Rhetoric History & Theory. There were so many things I took away from this course, but for this reflection, I tried to focus on three:

How to read instead of reading for content. Reading texts for this course was, especially at first, challening. There are a lot of articles, chapters, and entire books to read, and many of them span decades and even centuries. Reading these texts has encouraged me to carefully consider the ways I’ve been taught how to read. In my prior experiences, I’ve almost always been expected to read for content and present mastery of that content through performative moments: sometimes through writing, other times through in class presentations, and occasionally even seminar conversations that turn into performances in themselves. In this course, however, I was encouraged to read strategically instead of for content. Instead of focusing in, always, on what the author is saying, I tried to consider how the author was writing, the context through which the writer was writing, the historical moments, events, and movements that were occuring at that time in history, the author’s education and disciplinary affiliation, and always considering why those texts are important (or presented as being important).

Further, especially in relation to the Western canon, I read those texts to pick apart why they have been used to form arguments to save rhetoric and affirm its value as a discipline. In short, I wasn’t able to read every reading that was assigned in the same way that I was trained to read texts as a master’s student; it simply wouldn’t have been possible. That isn’t to say that reading strategically and historically is easier. In fact, it’s much more taxing and time consuming, but also enthralling. It can also be discouraging to read about how authors have carried on the Aristotelian tradition, heirarchical systems, and violence through colonial education, the creation of race and color as a concept to benefit the colonizer, westward expansion, land allotment, and so many more things that I can’t even touch on in a final reflection.

(re)Orienting myself to texts and their contexts. There was so much that we covered in this course that it’s challenging for me to provide some general takeaways, but one thing that I can say concisely is that I’m now far more critical of historical texts. What I mean by that is I’m critical of how people talk about history, how historical figures and their ideas are haled, and what their motives are in doing so. While reading texts from the discipline of rhetoric and composition, for instance, I’m far more prepared to approach those texts with a critical eye for how they call upon theory, how that theory has been called upon in previous articles, and whether or not the author(s) orient themselves to that theory. I’m interested in whether or not they ground that theory in its original, historical context and discuss the implications and potential issues of a contemporary application.

Throughout this course, I have learned that it’s important to carefully consider my orientation to theory and history. Previously, I had learned –and I had also constructed my own set of assumptions about the field– that the Western canon was uncontested, it must be mastered, and it was necessary to do research and theory. While it’s important to know the canons, I find it necessary to know enough about those canons in order to make arguments critical of them. The discipline is always changing, to be certain, but I believe that its facing a crucial moment. Work in cultural rhetorics requires the kind of careful, strategic, ethical, and contextual argumentation that much work using the Western canon has not. I believe that the work in cultural rhetoric is requiring previous historical work (mainly texts haling the Western canons) to be more accountable for itself.

Historiography is hard, messy work. And it takes time. It requires new sets of methods and entire methodologies. Doing histories of cultures who have been systematically excluded from history is hard, but it needs to happen. It requires a careful study of the West, figures, texts, and belief systems that have facilitated violence and oppression, it requires one to assemble texts, ideas, materials, , stories, objects, practices, and places as sources for inquiry, and it requires one to constellate those things, map them out, and always, constantly thinking of history as a story–that is, putting story back into history.

Maybe the story has always been there, but it has been hidden from my view. In this course, it’s been placed to the forefront and I’m energized, even excited to do historiography in the future. Even if I don’t do that exactly, I’ll always, always consider the careful, contextual dimensions that any text ought to include because everything is a story, and everything, every moment, is a moment of history. It’s my (our) responsibility to shape that history.