Sample Student’s Own Question/Researched Paper: Why Not Have a Rhetoric Requirement among UL Lafayette PhD Students in English?

What follows is a conference-length papers such as my students are asked to write for the SOQ assignment during the Spring 2016 instructional term at Oklahoma State University and the ResPpr 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 3,100 to 3,400 words, exclusive of heading, title,  page numbers, and Works Cited entries; the sample below runs to 3,116 words, exclusive of its own end-of-text citations), 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.

Note that the paper below follows from earlier activities at both the University and the College, serving generally as a later version of them, and so it will make free use of materials developed in response to those activities.

Among the many things of which I am proud is that I hold a doctorate in English from the University of Louisiana at Lafayette (ULL). Earning it required me to sit for no few hours of coursework past my Master of Arts degree and to complete a dissertation. It also obliged me to pass a series of comprehensive exams. Those exams are described by the ULL English department in its online “English Graduate Student Handbook” as consisting of four five-hour on-site tests taken in one or two semesters and spread across four of the following areas of inquiry: English literature to approximately 1500 CE, early modern English literature, Restoration and Eighteenth-Century English literature, Nineteenth-Century British literature, British literature from the twentieth century forward, American literature to approximately 1900 CE, American literature from approximately 1900 CE, literary theory, rhetoric, linguistics, and folklore; an option exists to sit for one exam in an open topic that must be proposed by the student and approved by the Department on a case-by-case basis. (My own were in early British literature, early modern English literature, early American literature, and contemporary fantasy literatures.) The exams reinforce the avowed generalist nature of the program, seeking to equip students to research and teach across a number of fields, but a problem arises when that theory encounters predominant practice. As Holly Hassel and Joanne Baird Giordano note in a 2013 CCC article, most of the teaching done at the collegiate level is by non-tenure-track faculty, reaffirming comments from Mike Palmquist and Sue Doe in a 2011 issue of College English. Also, as Brad Hammer notes in a 2012 CCC commentary, most of the teaching non-tenure-track faculty do is in first-year composition. If the curriculum, encapsulated by the comprehensive exams, is meant to equip its graduates to enter into the academic job market, then it would be sensible for it to require coursework in rhetoric and composition as it does for literature; per the “English Graduate Student Handbook,” all students must take at least two examinations in literature, regardless of their concentration or emphasis. The same is not true for rhetoric, however, and it defies sense to think there is no reason there is no rhetoric requirement among PhD students in English at ULL. The most likely primary reason–because there are doubtlessly many contributing factors–inheres in concerns of logistics.

It is, admittedly, tempting to try to ascribe the lack of a rhetoric requirement instead to perceived disciplinary status. There is a prevailing tendency among institutions of higher learning 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. Hammer makes the point, as do Hassel and Giordano; both pieces speak to the relegation of the experience most have with rhetoric and composition to lower hierarchical levels. 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 ULL was of such a kind; while I did teach first-year courses throughout my attendance at that institution, I began to do so after completing but one year of graduate school. I was hardly atypical in that (although I might have been so in coming into graduate work with some formal teaching experience already), 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.

While such a thing might be true in other English departments, however, it is not at all likely to be the case for the ULL English Department. Many of the faculty list “rhetoric” or some convenient variation thereof as a principal research and teaching interest; the list of graduate faculty in the “English Graduate Student Handbook” identifies four of the 25 members included thereupon as explicitly claiming to be rhetoricians, more than any single other identification (taking the specific variations of “creative writing” listed as each constituting its own area). The more general faculty webpage identifies another member of the graduate faculty, one who does not list “rhetoric” as an interest on the graduate faculty list, as the first-year writing director, which position necessarily carries a strong professional interest in rhetoric and composition. Further, the general faculty list identifies as interested in rhetoric and composition four other members of the teaching corps in the ULL English Department–in addition to several others whose research and teaching interests are not listed and who may well therefore be rhetoricians by training. (Several faculty have been added to the roster since I completed my studies at the institution, so I cannot speak to their interests.) Additionally, several of the English faculty are prominent in rhetoric and composition studies more broadly. Clancy Ratliff, for example, is highly placed in the National Council of Teachers of English, which body concerns itself greatly with rhetoric and composition, and James McDonald, a former head of the department, has contributed much to prevailing rhetorical study. It is not to be expected that such people will devalue rhetoric and composition as a field of study; it is not to be expected that disciplinary bias argues against requiring all PhD students in English at ULL to sit for a comprehensive exam in rhetoric.

Rather the opposite of disciplinary or departmental disfavor would seem to be in place, which demands another explanation entirely–and logistical concerns seem the most likely culprit for obliging members of the professoriate to set aside their own areas of interest. And they are substantial as regards comprehensive exams. For one thing, there are interdisciplinary standards and expectations that apply to the institution of the comprehensive exam as a whole. Surveys of comprehensive exam practices conducted by Robert E. Nolan; Nicole Ponder, Sharon E. Beatty, and William Foxx; and Joseph A. Schafer and Matthew J. Giblin, among others, note that a scant few forms of exams are found in practice; the surveys work across disciplinary boundaries, which makes all the more compelling the idea that the exams must happen, and that they must happen according to particular formulas. (Notably, however, Ponder, Beatty, and Foxx identify only one program that eschews the comprehensive exam altogether [233].)  The idea receives reinforcement by the notion that the comprehensive exam serves as rite of passage, a ritual that must be performed before participants can be recognized as peers in intellectual inquiry. Nolan speaks to the issue (39, 42); as do Ponder, Beatty, and Foxx (230); as well as Schafer and Giblin (277, 284). Both a 1987 piece in The American Sociologist by Cynthia Negrey and a 2015 piece in Arts & Humanities in Higher Education by Sara Scott Shields explicate the ritual aspects of the comprehensive exam in more detail, pointing to the enduring concept of the comprehensive exam as a thing that must be done in particular ways across disciplines to ensure the very identity of the intellectual as an intellectual. Such a concept tends towards making changes to forms difficult, which may account for some part of the non-adjustment of the ULL PhD comprehensive exams in English to account for current employment demands.

More concrete a reason for maintaining comprehensive exams, as well as one more frequently attested, is to allow students to demonstrate their mastery of the existing work done in a given field. Since the doctorate, particularly the PhD, is a research degree, one whose holders are expected to generate new knowledge, that it would oblige those who seek it to demonstrate such mastery is sensible. Again, scholars across disciplines speak to the issue (Nolan 41-42; Ponder, Beatty, and Foxx 227, 229-30; Schafer and Giblin 277, 284), situating it as one prevalent in the academy broadly. Changing the comprehensive exams therefore potentially registers as a possible lowering of standards for graduates, something that any academic unit will be chary of inviting; humanities departments such as the ULL English Department, which face a prevailing social onus (the jape of “I have a degree in English; would you like fries with that?” comes to mind, despite the many problems attendant on it), will be even more likely to look askance at any adjustment that might make them look less rigorous. This is not to say that including rhetoric as a required area of examination for ULL PhD students in English would be a lowering of standards–quite the opposite is likely to be true, as is noted below–but it is to say that it might appear to be so as looked at by those outside the field who exert unfortunately disproportionate influence on the allocation of resources to the Department and whose views must therefore be considered. (Indeed, recent problems with funding of Louisiana public universities highlight the immediacy of the problem. In February 2016, Louisiana announced that a funding program upon which students and the institutions that serve them rely would be suspended, as Brock Sues reports for WBRZ in New Orleans. Rebekah Allen, writing for The Advocate, reports that universities would be expected to absorb any costs incurred. Outside concerns about funding therefore loom large.) Any change, even one that would likely be for the better, thus must be approached with caution–if it can be safely approached at all.

As noted above, requiring students to take a comprehensive exam in rhetoric would, despite potential appearances, be an increase in their workload, as well as that of the faculty involved in the examination process. The additional area requirement would oblige many students to stretch their areas of study further than the generalist curriculum in place in the ULL PhD program in English already demands. I would not have been able to focus my area of endeavor even as much as I did were there a rhetoric exam requirement in place when I sat for exams, for example, and I often experience the sense of being insufficiently rigorously trained in my primary area of study (hence my eagerness to remain in practice through certain classroom activities, such as the riddle quizzes that have appeared in my teaching and that are discussed in an older set of teaching materials [“About”]). I was not atypical in seeking to align my exam areas or the areas of intellectual inquiry they represent. Since comprehensive exams purport to have students demonstrate mastery of the literature in a given field, asking for an additional area of examination that might well be markedly dissimilar from the areas students are already studying intently presents a formidable challenge to students who are already asked to do a substantial amount of work to earn their degrees. While it might well be argued–and with some justice–that those who seek doctorates should be able to handle many intellectual challenges, it is also true that an exam that covers one thousand years of literature in a minimum of three languages (Old English, Middle English, and Latin), or another that asks for several hundred years of material that could be in three other different languages (Spanish, French, and modern English), already presents a formidable challenge. Adding to it would doubtlessly occasion comment, and unfavorable comment, from the students who would have to face such an exam; given the work that is done by graduate students, helping faculty with their own research and teaching no few classes, there is some incentive to keep them content. Since imposing additional requirements would vitiate against that contentment, it suggests another type of logistical challenge to adding a required exam in rhetoric to what students in the ULL PhD program in English face.

One such additional requirement would be an added burden of coursework. Presently, PhD-seekers in the ULL English Department are obliged to take a gamut of courses to meet distribution requirements, per the “English Graduate Student Handbook,” courses that allow them to fulfill the generalist mission of the program. Implicit in the description of the coursework is that the courses lead up to and help prepare students for their comprehensive exams, the completion of which must precede the work to develop new knowledge conducted in the dissertation. For students to be able to successfully complete their dissertations, however, they must generally focus their attentions reasonably narrowly; again, my own exam spread is not atypical, as I am given to understand it. (I remain in contact with a number of people who have successfully completed the PhD program in English at ULL, and in focal areas other than mine. The discussions, informal in nature, corroborate my own experience reasonably well.) For many students, the addition of a rhetoric exam requirement would prove distracting from their intended foci, potentially hampering their ability to conduct the sustained research and investigation that a dissertation in the humanities demands–for while many might argue that poring over texts is easy, poring over hundreds of years of texts or the thousands of years that rhetorical study would seem to oblige quickly becomes quite the demand. Again, then, the added burden is one likely to occasion unfavorable comment, making it something that must be approached carefully if at all. It becomes something of a logistical concern therefore, one not necessarily easily treated and so one that suggests being set aside in favor of more immediate concerns.

Another such concern suggests itself, although one for the faculty more than for the students. As noted above, there is a strong implicit expectation that students who will examine in an area of inquiry will take courses in that area, taking the time not spent in meeting distribution requirements to cement their knowledge and understanding of those sub-fields in advance of demonstrating that knowledge and understanding. Obliging a rhetoric exam would therefore prompt more students to take courses in rhetoric and composition–wherein lies some difficulty. Graduate courses, because they are more intense due to the higher level of study and the increased depth of inquiry prompted thereby, demand more faculty involvement than almost any undergraduate class. (Directed independent studies at the undergraduate level, as well as undergraduate thesis work, are the exceptions.) This means that they must necessarily enroll fewer students–a need more emphatic for rhetoric classes, whose very subject matter is argumentation, such that they will demand more display of argumentative technique, demanding more time and effort to assess than many other classes might. That is, while a literature class might well ask for two papers (conference- and seminar-length, or 10- and 20-page pieces), supplemented by discussion and perhaps an exam (although the last is not necessarily common, in my experience), a class in rhetoric will be likely to demand persistent writing–and so persistent assessment from faculty. If a graduate seminar has a maximum enrollment of, say 15 students (which number seems a bit high), then a literature seminar can expect to see the professor review some 30 pages per student, or some 450 for the class–and the professor is likely to read graduate work with greater intensity and higher expectations than undergraduate work will receive. A rhetoric seminar might well expect twice that–and professors rarely teach but one graduate seminar in a term.

Even if faculty are willing to bear the brunt of student ire–and they may well be, particularly since an exam and concomitant coursework in rhetoric would be helpful for those going into the dominant academic job market–they may well not be willing to take on yet more burdens than they already carry with their current teaching loads, service obligations, and the calling to research which many feel. Increasing class sizes will not work for the reasons noted above, and keeping matters as they are in terms of enrollment would also be ineffective; class size caps would ensure that students are delayed in completing their degrees, which has deleterious effects on individual students (Nolan speaks thereto), as well as on programs, as completion rates and times factor into how programs are assessed and valued. The simple solution to the issue of workload and increased enrollment–bringing in additional faculty–runs afoul of the budgetary concerns that are always present but particularly prominent at public universities in Louisiana in 2016. It might well also begin to introduce difficulties at higher administrative levels; the PhD program in English at ULL is explicitly generalist, and bringing in several additional rhetoric and composition faculty at the level they would need to be introduced–graduate faculty designation is a separate thing, markedly subject to administrative shenanigans, as my experience has shown me–would begin to argue that the program is adopting a rhetorical focus. Such adoption might lead to the perception that the program is duplicating other institutions’ works–even if ULL is the only institution in the University of Louisiana system that offers a doctorate in English (Elliott, “Sample”), there are other public school systems in the state and other institutions available. Access to such a thing through other venues might well suggest that the ULL program is redundant and can be eliminated therefore. It is not something that would be good to see for the faculty, understandably, nor yet for those who have yet to complete their courses of study or who have already done so. Another systemic concern that argues against requiring an exam in rhetoric, useful though it would be, thus presents itself.

The kinds of logistical challenges that attend on requiring PhD students in English at ULL to sit for a comprehensive exam in rhetoric are formidable, certainly, and facing them will take no small degree of political will at the institutional level and above. As the only member of the University of Louisiana system to grant a doctorate in English and one of only three in its athletic conference to do so (Elliott, “Sample”), it does not face much competition, and so it may not have much immediate reason to change. But it does have long-term reasons to adjust how it prepares its students. The more of its graduates who can successfully enter the academic workforce, or who can successfully pivot into the kinds of professional writing demands of the emergent workplace, the more attractive ULL and its English Department will both be, which cannot help but conduce to the long-term health of the organizations. Obliging PhD students in English to sit for an examination in rhetoric–and to take the courses that such an examination effectively demands–will help in both cases, suggesting that the change, although difficult, is one well worth making.

Works Cited

  • Allen, Rebekah. “Gov. John Bel Edwards on Radio Show: ‘I can’t guarantee TOPS will be fully funded next year.'” The Advocate. Capital City Press, 12 February 2016. Web. 5 April 2016.
  • Elliott, Geoffrey B. “About Riddles.” Geoffrey B. Elliott’s Teaching Blog. Geoffrey B. Elliott, 11 October 2012. Web. 5 April 2016.
  • —.”Sample Infographic Portfolio Assignment: Context to Answer a Question about the Comprehensive Exams for UL Lafayette PhD Students in English.” ElliottRWI. Geoffrey B. Elliott, 1 March 2016. Web. 1 April 2016.
  • Hammer, Brad. “The ‘Service’ of Contingency: Outsiderness and the Commodification of Teaching.” CCC 64.1 (September 2012): A3-A7. Print.
  • Hassel, Holly, and Joanne Baird Giordano. “Occupy Writing Studies: Rethinking College Composition for the Needs of the Teaching Majority.” CCC 65.1 (September 2013): 117-39. Print.
  • Negrey, Cynthia. “How I Demystified Academe and Got a PhD.” The American Sociologist 18.1 (Spring 1987): 58-62. PDF file.
  • Nolan, Robert E. “How Graduate Students of Adult and Continuing Education Are Assessed at the Doctoral Level.” Journal of Continuing Higher Education 50.3 (Fall 2002): 38-43. PDF file.
  • Palmquist, Mike, and Sue Doe. “Contingent Faculty: Introduction.” College English 73.4 (March 2011): 353-55. Print.
  • Ponder, Nicole, Sharon E. Beatty, and William Foxx. “Doctoral Comprehensive Exams in Marketing: Current Practices and Emerging Perspectives.” Journal of Marketing Education 26.3 (December 2004): 226-35. PDF file.
  • Schafer, Joseph A., and Matthew J. Giblin. “Doctoral Comprehensive Exams: Standardization, Customization, and Everywhere in Between.” Journal of Criminal Justice Education 19.2 (July 2008): 275-89. PDF file.
  • Scott Shields, Sara. “Like Climbing Jacob’s Ladder: An Art-Based Exploration of the Comprehensive Exam Process.” Arts & Humanities in Higher Education 14.2 (April 2015): 206-27. PDF file.
  • Sues, Brock. “Budget Concerns Cause State to Temporarily Suspend TOPS Payments.” WBRZ.com. WBRZ, 11 February 2016. Web. 5 April 2016.
  • U of Louisiana at Lafayette Department of English. “Current Faculty and Staff.” U of Louisiana at Lafayette Department of English. U of Louisiana at Lafayette, 8 December 2015. Web. 1 April 2016.
  • —.”English Graduate Student Handbook.” U of Louisiana at Lafayette Department of English. U of Louisiana at Lafayette, 23 September 2015. Web. 5 April 2016.
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