Interview with Les Perelman

When we first met, you were a postdoc at the University of Southern California. How did you happen to get there?

My PhD is in Medieval Literature, and my dissertation was on Beowulf. As a medievalist, however, I studied medieval rhetoric, which kindled a strong interest in classical rhetoric. Also, through John Searle, whom I had for Philosophy of Language at Berkeley, and Mary Louise Pratt, who had her first job as a visiting professor at UMass, where I was a graduate student, I became interested in speech act theory and pragmatic linguistics. While writing my dissertation, I read an article by Ross Winterowd entitled “The Grammar of Coherence.” I used the article in my dissertation, began making connections between my teaching of writing, rhetorical theory, and linguistics, and decided a Post-Doc at USC would be very interesting and very useful.

Which scholar/thinkers have influenced you the most?

I mentioned three above, John Searle, Mary Pratt, and Ross Winterowd, although later I found Paul Grice’s work and that of Deirdre Wilson and Dan Sperber to be much more useful than Searle.

Two very important influences on me have been two intellectual giants who I have been fortunate to know at MIT, the late Don Schön and Noam Chomsky. When I started working to develop a Communication Across the Curriculum program at MIT, I had some long conversations with Don, as well as reading The Reflective Practitioner and Educating the Reflective Practitioner. He encouraged me to get faculty in all disciplines to articulate clearly how writing and speaking were integral parts of their respective activity systems.

Noam is the modern Socrates. He is wise, one of great geniuses of the past hundred years, and like most people at MIT, he has a very low tolerance for bullshit. This leads me to another important influence on my work, Harry Frankfurt’s classic monograph, On Bullshit. His distinction between the liar, who knows the truth but tries to hide it, vs. the bullshitter, who just doesn’t care about the truth, is a crucial distinction for discourse in the 21st century. Bullshit is everywhere.

What advice do you have for younger scholars in comp/rhet beginning their careers?

Use data. Don’t bullshit.

What advice do you have for writing researchers?

Do not participate in any study with a vendor or employees of vendors that requires review and/or modifications for any reasons extraneous to academic research, that will not freely make the raw data of the study available, or that will not publish negative results.

Do you have any recommendations for institutions, school districts, states, and consortia regarding testing products?

Do not adopt any product that will not allow independent researchers free and open access to it. Conduct thorough and independent research on the effect of having AES machines as second graders with a first human grader. What is the reliability of the machine compared to the human reader? When the two scores are adjudicated, what percentage of time is the machine right?

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