Keynote Speaker:
Professor Nancy Welch, University of Vermont

"What We Teach When We Teach (Only) Moderation and Civility"

Over the past two years the administration at the University of Vermont has pursued, against numerous rejections by the faculty senate and demonstrations by students, a dramatic restructuring of this ostensibly public institution, particularly through increasing the student body and tuition while shrinking academic's budget share to 
raise the funds desired for "boutique" research niches and other entrepreneurial ventures. There is nothing unique, of course, about what is happening here, right down to the language--memos inviting the campus "community" to join the "discussion" of the president's "vision" for "excellence" through "town hall meetings" and administrative "listening tours." As Jean-Jacques Lecercle and other critics of contemporary political rhetoric point out, the "woolen language" of neoliberalism--the economic order whose hallmarks are the privatization of public resources, the imposition of austerity, and a dramatic upward transfer of wealth--makes use of the ideals of moderation and civility, community and conversation, compromise and consensus... while smothering genuine exchange and debate. In response 
to the faculty's actual rejection of its "vision," for instance, UVM administrators promised a coming period of "dialogue," "discussion? and "reflection" in "what we see as an iterative and continuing process"--an iterative and continuing process that includes "moving forward" with "implementation" of their unaltered and seemingly 
unalterable plans.

My talk is not going to focus on the wooly and obfuscating language of "strategic change" at the University of Vermont. (Simply representing that language in the paragraph above leaves me dispirited, just as it 
is designed to do.) Rather I'd like to give some history for the underlying--and laudable--values that neoliberal rhetoric exploits. In his critique of Habermas's emphasis on cooperation and understanding 
as the driving goals of communicative action, radical language philosopher Jean-Jacques Lecercle helpfully situates such rhetorical values as civility, moderation, and compromise--the "rhetoric of the open hand," as Edward Corbett famously put it amidst the tumultuous movements of the late 1960s--in a post-World War II Western economic 
and social context. Notwithstanding the necessity of "closed-fisted" rhetoric in struggles for a more just social order, prominent in this "American Dream" chapter of U.S. history is, as Lecercle sums it up, an "ethics of discussion...fixed in legal contracts" through the establishment of domestic and international bodies, from labor arbitration to U.N. resolutions, to mediate disputes.

In this talk I'd like to focus on the two-fold problem created when pedagogies in writing and rhetoric emphasize exclusively a Habermasian ethics of discussion without attention to the historical consequences 
of, and situational alternatives to, civility, moderation, and compromise. For starters, teaching that upholds these terms as virtues rather than strategies (or as the world as it is rather than as the world as we would have it) creates a strangely distorted history of rhetoric in the United States. This history largely leaves out--except for a rhetorical exemplar here and there--the mass radical movements, from abolition to suffrage to labor and civil rights, that have been major persuasive forces through the American Dream period. But at stake is not only giving these social movements their due. In our present "twilight of the American Dream" period of economic crisis, austerity, and vicious scapegoating--including of public education and teachers--we and our students need a fuller and more contentious 
understanding of rhetoric if there is to be any defense of the social rights and safety nets earlier generations struggled to secure, if our dissent is not to be appropriated as simply part of the "conversation."

About the Speaker
Nancy Welch's most recent essay, "'We're Here and We're Not Going Anywhere': Why Working-Class Rhetorical Traditions Still Matter" appears in the January 2011 issue of College English. Professor of English at the University of Vermont, she is the author of Living Room: Teaching Public Writing in a Privatized World, Getting Restless: Rethinking Revision in Writing Instruction, and The Road from Prosperity: Stories.

Welch conjoins recent interest among composition scholars and teachers in public writing and rhetorical history to present a theory and method for engaging students in effective participation in an increasingly complex, militarized, theme-parked, privatized society. With the metaphor of June Jordan’s collection of poems titled “Living Room,” Welch provides a trenchant critique of neoliberalism at the same time she imagines “an alternative future winnable through the spirit, and logic, of solidarity.” Through recovering rhetorical histories like those of unsung civil rights and labor activists and providing students with literal soapboxes to stand on to learn to participate in public debate, Welch not only puts the “public turn” in composition in sharp historical and political perspective but also suggests concrete ways of enacting it in the classroom.