Recently, I attended a conference called “Women, Rhetoric, Writing,” held at the University of Maryland to honor Shirley Logan and Jane Donawerth, longtime colleagues and friends who are both retiring. We enjoyed two packed days of panel presentations, on everything from Elizabeth I’s gift culture to feminist editing practices, and we celebrated the work of Logan (whose scholarship on nineteenth-century African American women rhetors stands as a landmark in our field) and Donawerth (who has pretty much created the field of early modern women studies). We shared reminiscences and stories about Jane and Shirley that brought both laughter and tears.
The last panel of the conference was devoted to pedagogical concerns, and Nan Johnson from Ohio State had a big home run with her paper, which was the talk of the conference later that day and evening. Called “A Rhetorical Model of Social Change,” this presentation mapped for us an assignment that Johnson (who last year won Ohio State’s most prestigious teaching award!) has been working on for a couple of years, and one that is particularly relevant to the fraught political times we live in. Using this model, Johnson leads her students in tracking “the appearance and progression of a social change issue” through three distinct stages, which she calls 1) articulation and definition; 2) debate; and 3) institutionalization / cultural inscription. Often, these three stages lead to a fourth, cultural upheaval, and then to what Johnson labels a “backwave,” which can start the entire process over again.
She offered several terrific examples of how this model works in her classes, one of which was on environmental issues. The students chart this movement from Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, which provides articulation and definition, through the enormous debate that followed publication of the book and that helped lead to environmental protection policies in stage three. As I think about environmental issues, I see ongoing attempts to roll back the changes brought about following Carson’s work: we might say that the latest attempts to radically cut the EPA is part of a “backwave” that will leave us charting yet other stages of change.
What appeals to me so much about Nan Johnson’s model—and what I see as its brilliance—is its ability to focus students not on arguing over whether an issue is “right” or “wrong” or getting stuck in the “debate” stage. Rather, working through this model focuses attention on how an issue gets defined, circulated, and sometimes eventually enacted into policy—and then possibly called into question again. It focuses on the process of social change rather than on any particular ideology. In one way, this rhetorical model of social change seems to me a streamlined and very contemporary version of stasis theory.
At any rate, Johnson’s students are working very well with this model, using it to generate all kinds of critical analyses of contemporary issues. Many at the conference urged Nan to publish this work, so watch for it! In the meantime, I am indebted to Johnson for sharing this model with all of us.
Credit: Photos by Andrea Lunsford