A prehistory of rhetoric and composition: New Rhetoric and neo -Aristotelianism at the University of Chicago, 1947–1959

James P Beasley, Purdue University


In Rhetoric and Reality: Rhetoric and Composition in the American College 1900-1980, James Berlin points to the University of Chicago in the 1950's for a resurgence in rhetorical thought. He writes, "Rhetoric was being elevated to a new level of academic respectability—or at least being restored to something like its previous status" (116-117). While the names Richard McKeon and Richard M. Weaver seem the most associated with the time period, it is Henry W. Sams, a professor in the undergraduate College from 1946-1959, who draws Berlin's attention. According to Berlin, "An even more comprehensive attempt to restore the formal study of rhetoric to the English department was described in a 1954 essay by Henry W. Sams, also of the University of Chicago" (116). As a researcher, Sams was interested in identifying the "fields of research in rhetoric, that is, locating the areas of the discipline that merited study in the academy" (116). While Sams's article for College English identifies stages of rhetorical scholarship, beginning with translations of ancient texts and culminating in full rhetorical theory, Sams's work as an administrator of Chicago's writing program demonstrates how both Frederick Ward's and Kenneth Burke's commitments to rhetorical theory found their way into composition pedagogy at Chicago. These pedagogical commitments and the conversations they created illuminate, perhaps for one of the earliest times, a "contextualist discourse" paradigm in the discipline of composition. While James Berlin credits the Chicago school for creating new spaces for rhetoric in composition studies, Dean "Champ" Ward foresaw the limitations of the Chicago school of criticism as a composition model.




Blakesley, Purdue University.

Subject Area

Linguistics|Education history|Rhetoric|Higher education

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