Constricting Keywords: Rhetoric and Literacy in our History Writing
As a composition historian working with nineteenth-century American literacy artifacts, I have become increasingly aware of how particular keywords have come to dominate our histories. Specifically, I have noticed how the keyword that most resonates with my research—literacy—has been eclipsed and to some extent erased by the dominance of the keyword “rhetoric” in our history writing over the last decade. Why has this happened? How does this trend affect the materials historians look for and the questions they ask? How do our keywords modulate the voices of our artifacts? How do our keywords determine the uses we claim for history?
I have surveyed book-length American composition histories published between 1999 and 2010 in order to describe the major trends shaping the kinds of histories we are producing to see if we can identify gaps and fissures, the roads not taken, in relation to these major trends. The preliminary thesis I put before you is that we are in danger of closing off certain types of materials and questions because our histories are increasingly dominated by the keyword “rhetoric.”
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