Carnegie Mellon University

The Rhetoric of Literate Social Action: Mentors Negotiating Intercultural Images of Literacy

Author: Elenore Long
Degree: Ph.D. in Rhetoric, Carnegie Mellon University, 1994

One of the problems currently occupying rhetoric and composition studies is literacy's relationship to social action. The heart of the debate is the argument over theoretically informed practices aimed at supporting literate social action--or, more simply, over the praxis of literate social action. Educators supporting literate social action maintain that in praxis the link between literacy and social action is made. Yet they argue over what should constitute this praxis and propose alternative moves to forge, strengthen, or reconstrue the link. Some even argue to abandon it. While the debate poses alternatives arguments for (and against) literate social action, a more difficult problem emerges when we shift the ground to ask, how are these competing arguments transformed in local, situated praxis? What do the arguments mean in action? This study proposes to shift the ground of this disciplinary debate, asking what arguments for literate social action mean in real contexts, not as distinct alternatives but as competing voices--particularly in the learning of students. The study suggests that the link between the disciplinary debate and local praxis is forged within the rhetorical space between the necessary and the arbitrary, where educators encounter multiple, competing voices, as well as intense pressure to act.

This study looks at college students working as collaborative supporters for teen writers at an urban literacy center over the course of a 16-week seminar. Rather than a study of mentoring per se, however, this dissertation is a cognitive rhetorical inquiry that treats mentoring as a window into literate social action. The study presents six portraits of problems- under-negotiation, positioning these case studies against a backdrop which presents the disciplinary debate over literate social action along the socio- political continuum (an axis on which the literature on literate social action often aligns itself). Drawing from negotiation theory to trace the conflicts mentors negotiate, the study suggests that sites of conflicts are moments in which the mentors construct negotiated moves, transforming the disciplinary discourse into local action. The case studies document the process in which mentors transform disciplinary voices in distinctive ways (e.g., given the problems of entering a new discourse, one mentor finds she must construct a discourse of mentoring. Assuming an inherent link between literacy and social equality, another mentor struggles with how to instantiate her goal of equality.) The study reconceptualizes literate social action in terms of the process of negotiation it documents. This negotiated image positions mentors in the "realm of rhetoric," pushing them to control competing arguments for literate social action, to build cases, to engage in observation-based inquiry, and to take rhetorical action. While the study addresses the mentors as learners, it also raises the possibility that this process of negotiation may be the heartbeat of the discursive activity that supports literate social action.