Today’s guest blogger, Paula Mathieu, teaches courses at Boston College in composition pedagogy, nonfiction writing, rhetoric, cultural studies, and homeless literature, while also directing the First-Year Writing Program and the Writing Fellows Program. She is author of Tactics of Hope: The Public Turn in English Composition and co-editor of three essay collections, including Circulating Communities, (2012) co-edited by Stephen Parks and Tiffany Roscoulp.
Why am I writing this blog entry? While this is either a painfully obvious or deeply philosophical question, it is also deeply rhetorical.
As I write anything—this blog, a letter to my daughter’s school, a love note, an academic article—I must first choose among the many “me”s who write. In this blog, am I Professor Mathieu, from Boston College, director of the Writing Fellows Program—a me who has taught Understanding Rhetoric and recommended it to colleagues? Or am I Paula, a friend of Jonathan’s, who first met him in an airport because I recognized him from his avatar in Understanding Rhetoric—a me who enjoyed learning about the many-layered process of creating a graphic rhetoric book? Or am I Paula the former Chicagoan, who loved seeing animated films such as Spirited Away and the Iron Giant at the grand Music Box Theater on Southport Ave—a me who sees animation and graphic writing as complex, important rhetorical styles? Or am I Delia’s mom—a me who tries to teach my five-year-old to value words and images and the story and imagination in both?
Choosing which parts of one’s identity are relevant to a specific writing situation allows for certain rhetorical choices while limiting others. For this reason, I love the character of Metamorph in Understanding Rhetoric. S/he helps me clarify to my students a question that can seem puzzling: Who do you want to be as you write this piece?
As Metamorph shows us, we have the ability to frame our writing by calling on certain aspects of our identity, while perhaps de-emphasizing others; we as rhetors need to decide and calibrate who we are in relation to the material and audience. And it’s often a matter of choosing among several viable possibilities.
Blake, a student in my Argument and Commentary seminar, responded to a New York Times article critiquing music-sharing sites like Spotify. In his first draft—which was four times longer than the Times letter’s 150-word limit—Blake wrote about his experiences as a musician, as someone who worked in the music industry, and as a music fan. Each experience offered its own logic and response to the article. In our workshop, he realized that he wouldn’t have the space to occupy all three identities in one letter, and he appealed to the class to help decide which identity gave him the strongest ethos. At first, the class suggested that having worked in the music industry gave him the most authoritative perspective. But once we talked through his argument, Blake realized that his most unique perspective came from Blake the Fan, which was the most persuasive metamorph for this situation.
Lizzy, in the same class, had originally hoped to persuade the organizers of the Boston Athletic Association (BAA) to continue a longstanding but informal tradition to allow a small group of Boston College students to run the Boston Marathon without a bib (which means without either qualifying by time in another marathon or raising the $5,000 necessary to run for a formal charity) in order to raise money for the BC Campus School, a program that provides intensive learning for severely disabled children. Given the horror of last year’s bombing, the BAA ruled that this year it will no longer allow “bandit runners,” those who run without an official bib. While understanding the reasons behind this rule, Lizzy mourned the loss of that marathon experience for many college-student runners who can’t afford the steep fundraising requirements of official charities, yet who still helped many local causes like the campus school.
Lizzy decided to write a respectful open letter in defense of bandit runners that she published on an unofficial BC Sports blog. In it, she she accepts the decision of the BAA for this year but identifies herself as a 2012 bandit runner who helped the BC Campus School. Instead of challenging BAA’s decision, she suggests a new class of college-charity runners, who could be issued a bib without having to raise the steep $5000 required of charity runners. To offer this new option, she relied on the metamorphing power of research (below) to report on the loss of fundraising to the campus school this year, and to report on other college-marathon relationships in jeopardy because of BAA’s ruling, like one at Tufts University.
The power to metamorph is real but limited. For example, as someone whose only music experience is that of a listener, I could not draw on what it means to be a musician or a music-industry employee, as Blake could. As someone who has never run farther than 5K at one shot, I could not draw on my understanding of what it feels like to cross a marathon finish line, as Lizzy could. So metamorphing, as Elizabeth and Jonathan so artfully show us, is more than putting on a writerly costume; it’s realizing that tactically drawing from our identities and adapting to changing conditions and audiences are central to shaping our persuasive possibilities.