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Rhetoric at the Margins: Revising the History of Writing Instruction in American Colleges, 1873-1947

Southern Illinois University Press, 2008

2010 Outstanding Book Award, Conference on College Composition and Communication

Rhetoric at the Margins depicts the rhetorical education of African American, female, and working-class college students in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Questioning the assumption that innovation filters down from elite institutions and that conservative pedagogical practices entail conservative ideologies, this work examines three institutions underrepresented in disciplinary histories—a black liberal arts college, a public women's university, and an independent teacher training school—arguing that each championed alternative intellectual and pedagogical traditions crucial to understanding the development of rhetoric and composition history.

At Wiley College, poet and civil rights activist Melvin Tolson combined African American and classical rhetoric to produce a critical pedagogy that honored students' home voices and fostered political action. At Texas Woman's University, gender-based vocational education served progressive ends; unlike their peers at many contemporary women's colleges, students were encouraged to participate in public discourse as both speakers and writers. At East Texas Normal College, founder William Mayo saw grammar instruction as liberatory and debate as the foundation for democracy, requiring all his students, both male and female, to write and deliver a public oration each term.

These rich case studies complement and challenge previous disciplinary histories and suggest that the epistemological schema that we have long applied to pedagogical practices may actually limit our understanding of those practices. This work makes a further contribution to methodological practices in rhetoric and composition history by encouraging scholars to theorize the local; resist easy binaries, taxonomies, and master narratives; and recognize a more fluid interaction between ideology and pedagogy.

Rhetoric at the Margins not only offers a more comprehensive accounting of the richness and diversity of rhetorical practices in American colleges but speaks to the challenges we face as humanities teachers, no matter what our field. The schools in this study, by forging strong community ties, developing locally responsive curricula, and addressing the professional concerns of their students, offer lessons for integrating the contemporary university into community life and convincing the citizens we serve of the value of humanistic inquiry.


  • Suzanne Bordelon, Composition Studies 36.2 (Fall 2008): Rhetoric at the Margins has much to offer readers.... but it is Gold's challenge of Berlin's taxonomies and insistence that scholars must resist tendencies to simplistically connect ideology and pedagogy that really stand out. As Gold stresses throughout the book, connections between pedagogy and ideology are much more complex than traditional taxonomies suggest. A highly engaging book, Rhetoric at the Margins should appeal to those interested in the different institutions investigated, alternative sites of rhetorical education, and the history of rhetoric and composition during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

  • Shirley Wilson Logan, Rhetoric Review 28.1 (2009): Gold's book makes an important contribution to the field of rhetoric and composition studies because it exposes and examines rhetorical education in understudied college settings and highlights the work of scholar-teachers committed to providing their charges with essential language skills. Rhetoric at the Margins leads us to consider more carefully the historical significance of instruction in diverse institutions among a wide range of learners and reminds us that conservative methods and radical aims frequently coexist.

  • Whitney Myers, Rhetoric Society Quarterly 39.4 (Fall 2009): Gold's historical snapshots offer a nuanced picture of the rhetoric classroom that invites reconsideration of teacher motivation, student needs, historical conditions, and community involvement as factors shaping classroom writing and pedagogy.... [It] has much to offer rhetoricians, historiographers, and writing instructors. Arguing for a more diverse, complex depiction of the rhetoric classroom and teaching practices, Gold successfully makes the case that local histories matter and that small schools responding to local community needs dynamically change the face of rhetorical education.

  • Kristen Garrison, Review of Communication 9.4 (October 2009): Gold's work...demonstrates a method of historiography that deserves repeat performances.... More importantly, however, he seems to resist the temptation to make another master narrative out of his recovered stories. His conclusion does not synthesize but sustains its commitment to the local and reiterates his initial objective to "develop a corpus of work that will illuminate the past with a minimum of narrative distortion." Given his third objective—to learn from the past we uncover—Gold explores the obligations rhetoric and composition instructors face if we are to, in effect, do our jobs.