I’m always on the lookout for a good textbook on rhetoric and research for my writing seminar, and I’ve never found the perfect one. Bedford offers the best selection, but still I’ve never found anything completely suitable. Thus, I don’t use a textbook, and am forced to create my own handouts and guides in addition to the academic readings for the class. Ideally, the students in the seminar should learn how to write academic essays based upon sources which they often find through library research. They should learn how to discover, evaluate, analyze, and synthesize sources into their own argumentative essays. My class is based upon classical rhetoric, and that also plays a role. Many rhetoric textbooks that I’ve seen aren’t based on classical or even contemporary rhetoric, but instead upon some bastardized simplification suitable for the remedial student unprepared for college work.
When I first started teaching as a grad student, I remember all too well the mediocre textbooks I was forced to use. In addition to some hurried advice on research, there were assignments asking students to write two letters–one to their parents and one to their friends back home–describing the same party. Oooh, look how an awareness of audience changes your writing! Yawn. We’re also usually told that essays can be categorized by genre: exposition, narration, description, or persuasion, and we have to write all four separately, as if one could narrate well without description or persuade without exposition. “Tell us a story about something you did that you’ll never forget.” “Describe this aubergine.” “Explain (or expositate) for us how to make a pizza. Include every step!” Or better yet, there are invented forms, such as the problem-solving essay, a variation, I suppose, of the expository essay.
I still vividly recall one of these from about fifteen years ago. There was a pizza place in town that had incredibly cheap pizzas, which always tempted students to buy them. However, the pizzas weren’t very good and used cheap ingredients so that they tasted like rubbery cardboard. However, the student argued, this “problem” could be solved if the pizza place would just use slightly better and more expensive ingredients, thus making the pizzas better. QED.
It’s like the textbooks were designed deliberately to bore students and make them hate writing, or perhaps under the assumption that writing itself is boring and students are lazy idiots, so if we just break everything down for them into simplistic, unrealistic tasks we can all get through this together. If we just Taylorize the teaching of writing, everything will be easier. There are some notably good contemporary rhetorics out there that avoid this oversimplification, but none that I’ve found do things quite like I want them to.
The ideal for me would be a combination of two such books: Classical Rhetoric for the Modern Student, by Edward Corbett, and The Modern Researcher, by Jacques Barzun and Henry Graff, both of which I highly recommend if you’re unfamiliar with them. Classical Rhetoric for the Modern Student sounds like it would be a good introductory text, but in fact the 4th edition is a 550+ page, detailed introduction to classical rhetoric. Classical Rhetoric for the Modern (Upper-level to Graduate) Student would be a better title. The Modern Researcher, now in its 6th edition, seems to grow slimmer with each edition, but it’s still a 300+ page introduction to academic research. One can’t assign close to 900 pages of preparatory reading for a 12-week course and have any time left over for the other readings.
What I would love to see is a 150 page combination of these two works appropriate for the well prepared college freshman. The ideal book would cover the appeals and canons of classical rhetoric as well as the separate parts of classical arrangement and useful rhetorical concepts, plus provide concise sections on finding, evaluating, and analyzing sources through library research.
I’d like to write such a book myself, but I imagine the audience would be small. In spite of the fact that there are undoubtedly many people more qualified to write both the classical rhetoric and the library research portions, I think I’m in a good position to write this particular book. Classical Rhetoric and Modern Research has a nice sound to it. Unfortunately, I think the only audience might be my class, and no writer or publisher would take on a book likely to sell twelve copies a year. So I suppose for next Fall I’ll rely once more upon the mishmash of my own handouts and links out to other people. At least the students won’t have to buy any textbooks.