Rhetoric's Outliers in Second Language Writing:
A Corpus–Based Study

Jay Jordan | University of Utah

It would be difficult to survey literature in second language writing without encountering "rhetoric." Since the mid–1960s, that term has dominated discussions of the differences among native and nonnative English–speaking writers' textual production, appearing prominently in journals, in monographs and collections, in teacher training materials, and in textbooks. The term's heavy circulation appears to reflect its circulation in the overlapping field of rhetoric and composition, whose development has been an extended attempt to marry the relatively recent and contingent enterprise of "first–year writing" to rhetoric's more historically significant identity, whether in attempts to recover rhetoric as an approach to deliberative public discourse (Crowley, 1998), as the proper humanistic content of entering students' introduction to college and university study (Berlin, 2003), as a technology for sorting and disciplining burgeoning student populations (Connors, 1997), or as a label preserving the name of a two thousand–year tradition if not the practices (Brereton, 1996). "Rhetoric" in the field of second language writing, however, has been prominent less as a claim to a disciplinary heritage and more as an umbrella term for various analytical and pedagogical approaches to multilingual writers' compositions. Its rise in the field came in response to prevailing, largely behavioristic, second language teaching in the mid–twentieth century, which sought to rid linguistically diverse students of first–language "interference." A 1962 article summarizes the state of the field:

For the foreign learner, any free, random, hit–or–miss activity is eliminated whenever possible, so that errors arising from the native–to–target language transfer can be avoided. The learner is deprived of any opportunity to use his own automatic native language habits in the target language. He is made to mimic and repeat in drills the phonetic and syntactic patterns of the target language. He is not allowed to "create" in the target language at all. (Pincas, 1962, p. 1)

Writing four years later in explicit response to such a view, linguist Robert B. Kaplan (1966) claimed that nonnative–English–speaking students wrote in ways that represented their cultural backgrounds and associated rhetorical strategies, which became particularly apparent at extra–sentential levels of written discourse—especially the paragraph. While Kaplan drew extensively on years of sentence–level "contrastive analysis" of multilingual writers' texts, he shifted his focus to paragraph–level concerns that he explicitly tied to writers' rhetorical decisions—a methodological move that he and his contemporaries termed "Contrastive Rhetoric" ("CR"). Rather than viewing writers' divergences from English–language generic and rhetorical norms as unproblematic evidence either of interference or of a lack of rigorous behavioristic training, Kaplan ascribed paragraph– and whole–discourse–level organizational decisions to writers' first–language backgrounds. Most famously, he cemented this connection between writing and cultural/linguistic inheritance by publishing a series of icons, which popularly became known as "the doodles":

Contrastive Rhetoric images by Robert J. Kaplan

Where the "English" icon for Kaplan represented linear, deductive reasoning and organization, the other icons, mapping onto several other language groups, purported to represent diverse organizational and even cognitive patterns. For example, students with "Romance" language backgrounds were thought to be discursive and somewhat digressive, as the long, wandering arrow in the corresponding icon showed. And students coming from "Oriental" backgrounds (Chinese and Japanese chief among them) purportedly favored nonlinear, digressive, highly inductive, implicit rhetorical styles and associated patterns of thought.

Kaplan wrote in the wake of rapidly changing demographics and national educational priorities: after World War II, colleges and universities were beginning to see waves of students whose English writing did not conform to what educational institutions expected—whether they were veterans using GI Bill funds, enrollees from underrepresented US ethnic groups, or (most pressing for Kaplan and his colleagues) growing populations of international students (Matsuda, 2003; Otte & Mlynarczyk, 2010; Trimbur, 2008). By his own admission 21 years later (Kaplan, 1987), his creation of the figures didn't represent his desire to build or even suggest a comprehensive theory of L2 composition. Instead, Kaplan wanted to give his colleagues a relatively quick heuristic for anticipating a reason for students' divergent arrangements of preferred argumentative writing. As Kaplan related, "rhetoric" was a convenient way to label the arrangement schemes as well as a way to employ a term with credibility and distance from the pathological vocabulary of linguistic deficiency.

In spite of Kaplan's intention and later qualification, however, rhetoric—especially contrastive rhetoric—has endured as an attractive explanatory framework for second language writing scholar–teachers, solidifying its position through articles, books, and collections as the most recognizable "indigenous" perspective in the field (Baker, 2013, p. 37), and one that has crucially created an "institutional space" for multilingual educators themselves, "where [their] experience in the home culture is made relevant to the English–speaking audience here [in the United States]" (Li, 2008, p. 11).

I do not dispute the importance of CR to the field of second language writing and to the field's project of learning about linguistic differences while welcoming students and scholars who often represent those differences. And recent shifts to what Ulla Connor (2004) began calling "intercultural rhetoric" (IR) have usefully broadened the field's perspective on the dynamic nature of language contact and on the value of employing diverse methodologies beyond textual analysis. But while successive scholars have clarified the meaning and stakes of "contrastive" and "intercultural" approaches, there has been much less clarity about the meaning and stakes of "rhetoric." In their published "conversation" on CR, Paul K. Matsuda and Dwight Atkinson (2008) wondered aloud about apparent limits on the field's study and application of rhetoric, speculating about its expansion to encompass fields ranging from comparative rhetoric to discourse analysis (p. 291). Their comments echo those of JoAnne Liebman (1992), who sixteen years beforehand cautioned that "[i]f we're going to contrast rhetorics, then they should be rich views of rhetoric" (p. 146).

While Liebman (1992) and Matsuda and Atkinson (2008) were especially interested in understanding what is in fact rhetorical about "contrastive" and "intercultural" rhetoric as those terms have dominated decades of relevant scholarship, I begin here a broader project on rhetoric's circulation with a different approach. As all three scholars imply, rhetoric's typically expansive semantic context has been attenuated by its collocation with a small number of terms in second language writing. In my attempt to pry rhetoric from those terms to understand other patterns of its circulation, I use software-enabled corpus-based analysis to trace rhetoric's less‐common connections through roughly 42 years of scholarship in second language writing (1972–2014). There are, to be sure, many connections—often, eruptions of bimodal terms (such as "controlled rhetoric") that may reflect short-lived trends. In general, though, I argue that definitions and uses of rhetoric reflect to some extent changes in the field's focuses and emphases since the advent of Contrastive Rhetoric, but despite such shifts, literature in second language writing has consistently employed "rhetoric" (in relationship to whatever other terms that occur with it) to name a collection of pedagogically realizable targets.

The larger project of which this webtext is part will analyze more broadly rhetoric's circulation in the field of second language writing and in other approaches to multilingual composition (including recent translingual approaches). Specifically, it will return to "contrastive" and "intercultural" rhetoric and both terms' long prominence in an attempt to answer Matsuda and Atkinson's (2008) question more extensively. However, I focus here on other word clusters including "rhetoric" or "rhetorical" as a way of opening definitional nuances of a crucial, but narrowly construed, term in second language writing.