Sample Exploratory Essay: Why Not Have a Rhetoric Requirement among UL Lafayette PhD Students in English?

What follows is an exploratory essay such as my students are asked to write for the Explore assignment during the Spring 2016 instructional term at Northern Oklahoma College. As is expected of student work, it treats an issue of its writer’s curriculum. It also adheres to the length requirements expressed to students (they are asked for approximately 1,000 words, exclusive of heading, title, page numbers, and any formal end-citations that may become necessary; the sample below is 1,000 words long when judged by those standards), although its formatting will necessarily differ from student submissions due to the differing medium. How the medium influences reading is something well worth considering as a classroom discussion, particularly for those students who are going into particularly writing- or design-intensive fields.

Please note that the essay below follows from the earlier sample topic proposal, here. Because it is a continuation of that same project, much phrasing will be similar to that in the earlier document.

Earning a doctorate in English from the University of Louisiana at Lafayette in 2012 required me to take coursework and complete a dissertation, both of which register in public consciousness. It also required me to do something perhaps less well known: sit for comprehensive exams. Widely required across disciplines, the exams serve several purposes; in most cases, they are prerequisite to beginning work on the dissertation. In the English department at my graduate school, they also serve to help reinforce the generalist nature of the department and suit graduates of the program to the work of teaching after they have earned their degrees. In the event, however, most of the teaching done by those who earn graduate degrees in English is the teaching of writing, and there is no requirement that graduates of the PhD program in English at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette demonstrate proficiency in the relevant area of English studies–rhetoric and composition–as there is that they demonstrate proficiency in one or more areas of literature. Why this is the case is not entirely clear, although some potential reasons suggest themselves.

One such is a logistical reason. Although it is not the case that coursework necessarily directly or fully prepares students for their comprehensive exams, it is not at all expected that students will sit for exams in areas outside their classroom experiences. That is, students rarely if ever take exams in an area in which they have not taken courses; examining in a given area effectively obliges sitting for coursework in it. Graduate classes tend to have low enrollment caps–which is good, given the relative intensity of the interactions between professors and graduate students. (In practice, the relationship is much more like a master/apprentice dynamic than the “traditional” teacher/student pattern in force at the undergraduate level, particularly at the doctoral level.) Having a doctoral rhetoric requirement would oblige either a raising of such caps, which would likely diminish the quality of instruction in rhetoric classes by diminishing the time each professor has available to interact with students, or the hiring of additional faculty in rhetoric and composition, which would likely not be feasible due to ever-tightening budgets. Although not perhaps the most pedagogically valid reason not to have a rhetoric requirement, it is a remarkably sound practical concern, and academics do well to recall that they must negotiate the tensions between the embodied and the intellectual.

Another reason may have to do with the disciplinary status of rhetoric in the Department. There is a prevailing tendency, albeit one that is diminishing, to regard rhetoric and composition as service disciplines. That is, rhetoric and composition are held not so much to have their own distinct identity, but to exist to enable other disciplines to do the work they do. This is reinforced by dominant teaching practices, which assign the common classes in rhetoric and composition–first-year composition classes–to the least experienced instructors–typically second-year graduate students, irrespective of their own concentrations within English studies. My own teaching at that institution was of such a kind; while I did teach first-year courses throughout my attendance at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette, I began to do so after completing but one year of graduate school. I was hardly typical, and the collective experience argues that the teaching of rhetoric and composition is devalued. If it is devalued, then a lack of a rhetoric requirement in doctoral examinations makes sense; the exams emphasize areas of study, and the devalued does not generally receive emphasis.

There is some vitiation of the point, however, as still another possible reason is motioned towards in the University of Louisiana at Lafayette English Department’s 2010 online English Graduate Student Handbook. The document, which includes the Department’s treatment of the doctoral comprehensive exams, explicitly notes that “Both the M.A. and Ph.D. degrees offered by the UL English Department are generalist degrees in English and American literature [emphasis added].” That is, they explicitly and specifically frame themselves as literature degrees primarily, falling in line with traditional conceptions of what an English department is and does. It would be expected that such degrees would de-emphasize rhetorical/compositional study in favor of their stated foci. A problem with accepting such an explanation uncritically emerges, however; were the degrees meant to be literary, there would not be options for students to focus their curricula and examinations primarily on non-literary fields. Yet it is the case that the doctoral program in the English department permits, and perhaps encourages, other approaches than literary study, as such. The aforementioned Handbook notes

In addition to the traditional M.A. degree in literature, masters students may pursue an M.A. with an emphasis in American Culture, English as a Second Language, Folklore, Linguistics, Reading, Creative Writing, Professional Writing, or Rhetoric; and in addition to the traditional Ph.D. in literature, doctoral students may pursue a Ph.D. with a concentration in Creative Writing, Folklore, Linguistics, or Rhetoric.

The avowed availability of other emphases and concentrations than literature belies the statement that the graduate English degrees are “in English and American literature”–specifically because not modified. More justification for such a reason, then, would be needed–although it may well be available.

That a few reasons there might not be a rhetoric requirement included among the doctoral comprehensive exams in English at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette suggest themselves does not mean no others are possible, of course. Any one analysis will be limited in what it can treat, and additional causes may arise from outside those limitations. In any event, however, whatever the reason that the doctoral comprehensive exams in English at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette lack a rhetoric requirement is, having that answer will prove of benefit to those students who mean to pursue a career in English studies; knowing what schools offer what curricula and why will help in selecting the most appropriate programs to try to enter. Since graduate school is arduous and expensive, careful selection is vital, indeed.

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