The Online Tutor as
Cross-Curricular Double Agent

Epistemologies of Rhetorics

Writing centers occupy an epistemological space which is often informed, if not defined, by a long history of conflict between Rhetoric and a host of things which have been posited or perceived as antithetical to Rhetoric. Included among the supposed adversaries of Rhetoric have been Dialectic or Philosophy, Literature, Science--even Truth itself.

In the minds of most academics, both in and outside of the Humanities, writing centers are fix-it shops whose role is to address the one knowable thing about student writing: its "correctness" or the conformity of its surface to the conventions of Standard Written English. Unfortunately, it is the rare few in the academy who think of student writers as engaged in the act of making knowledge. Yet the epistemic nature of Rhetoric is a central tenet of some dominant strains of contemporary thought on writing instruction.

James Berlin calls Epistemic Rhetoric (or New Rhetoric) the best of the three reactions to Current-Traditional rhetoric (777). Many contemporary writing programs and writing centers practice a pedagogy which is based upon epistemological notions that much of the rest of the academy would not associate with Rhetoric itself, much less with student writing in general, and most especially not with the written work of the clients of a writing center.

Consequently, these competing ideologies foster some of the adversarial relationships which arise around the tutoring of writing. Current-Traditional rhetoric results from a long history of forces most of which tend, in one way or another, to vitiate much of the power of Classical Rhetoric. From 16th century Ramism, through Cartesian certainty, to 18th century Scottish Realism, a variety of forces conspire to render Rhetoric an art which is neither epistemic nor possesses an inventional system. Berlin writes, "Truth is to be discovered outside the rhetorical enterprise--through the method, usually the scientific method, of the appropriate discipline, or, as in poetry and oratory, through genius" (769-70).

Since both the Current-Traditional compositionists and the majority of the non-composition faculty share this view that rhetoric is neither epistemic nor concerned with invention, faculty and tutors who help students invent their texts are always engaged in something which is ethically suspect in the view of the majority of academics.