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Composition Forum 37, Fall 2017

Forty Years and More: Reminiscences with Sharon Crowley

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Ryan Skinnell, Judy Holiday, Andrea Alden, and Kendall Gerdes

Abstract: This interview takes Sharon Crowley’s CCCC Exemplar Award as a kairotic moment to ask her to revisit her work and reflect on some valuable lessons she learned about what it means to be a teacher, writer, and rhetorician. The interview took place in Professor Crowley’s home near Tempe, Arizona in June 2015. The discussion below is a small part of that long and wide-ranging conversation, and it demonstrates well Professor Crowley’s care, her candor, and her critical acumen.

Interview conducted June 27, 2015
Transcribed by Roxanne Zech

In March 2015, Sharon Crowley was awarded the Conference on College Composition and Communication’s highest honor, the CCCC Exemplar Award, in recognition of her exemplary record of service to the profession as a teacher, scholar, and leader. During her distinguished career, Professor Crowley taught thousands of students about rhetoric and writing at five universities across the country, including Arizona State University, where she is Professor Emerita. She published five books, thirty-nine journal articles, and numerous essays, reviews, interviews, and commentaries covering an incredible range of interests. She served on important committees. In addition, she has won awards from several organizations in recognition of her invaluable contributions to the field.

We are appropriately awed by Professor Crowley’s record of accomplishment, but we first came to know her as our teacher. The four of us enrolled together in one of the last courses she taught before retiring, a graduate seminar called “Rhetorics of American Feminisms” in 2007. In that class in particular, we came to know her as a brilliant teacher and a trustworthy advisor, and we have been proud to see the profession’s major organizations recognize her in the ways we began to know her in that class.

This interview takes the CCCC Exemplar Award as a kairotic moment for us to get better acquainted with one of our most influential teachers (in multiple meanings of the phrase). And given her status as “exemplar,” it strikes us as an opportune moment to ask her to revisit her work and reflect on some valuable lessons she learned about what it means to be a teacher, writer, and rhetorician. The four of us met Professor Crowley in her home near Tempe, Arizona in June 2015 and we spent nearly six hours talking, reminiscing, and reflecting. The discussion below is a small part of that long and wide-ranging conversation, and it demonstrates well Professor Crowley’s care, her candor, and her critical acumen.

GERDES: We want to start by asking you about finding rhetoric. You talk in Women’s Ways of Making It in Rhetoric and Composition about taking rhetoric classes in the speech department at the University of Northern Colorado. But something must have happened that sent you to those classes. So how did rhetoric find you?

CROWLEY: Um...serendipity? I taught high school for five years, and my last high school was Davenport Central High in Iowa. This was 1967. You can imagine what fun that was. I taught the senior writing class because nobody else in the English department wanted to teach writing. I got this huge room full of some of the smartest kids in school. I think they probably took the class because I was the new teacher. And the textbooks were just useless. So I said, “What do you want to do in this class? We’re going to be here every day from one to whatever. How would you like to run this class?”

They said, “We want to know how to manage sentences better.” That’s not the language they used, but that’s what they said. They wanted a style class. So we developed an approach. It wasn’t fancy but every day, they’d decide what they wanted to write about and write a few sentences, and we’d try different versions. And they were satisfied, and I was satisfied their writing was improving. And luckily, nobody policed us.

In another class we had an American Lit textbook—one of those big anthologies, and it had “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.” That was the first reading for a room full of Black students. I handed out the books the first day—I’ll never forget this—and in the back of the room, somebody opened it up and went, “Shiiiiiitttt.” So I started with Civil Disobedience. A lot of them didn’t read very well because their families were itinerant. They traveled up and down the Mississippi River following the crops, so they weren’t able to stay in school very long. I knew that they needed reading instruction, but I didn’t want to tell them that, so we just read it aloud. We read Civil Disobedience aloud. Took us a month. But this old essay made sense to students living in the 'sixties.

SKINNELL: Where does rhetoric enter the scene?

Portrait of Sharon Crowley

CROWLEY: Oh! Thank you. I knew that I wanted to know more about teaching writing, so I went back to graduate school at Northern Colorado. My office mate, George, and I were interested in teaching writing while most of our colleagues were into literature. There were something like 30 Ph.D. students, and most of them were not interested in teaching writing. I’d ask faculty members, “How do I learn about teaching writing?” Nobody seemed to know. Finally George, who was in English Education, said “Let’s go talk to Shirley Carrier,” a well-known English Education professor. She said, “Oh, rhetoric is what you need.” And we both said, “What? Huh?” She introduced us to the chair of the speech department, who was this Aristotelian who taught classical rhetoric. He taught this wonderful class. I took many courses in the history of rhetoric and rhetorical theory.

The English department let me get away with it. I had to twist some arms, but it wasn’t that hard, and I was committed. After that I couldn’t stop. George, who went to South Carolina to teach, was also committed. There was no director of composition, and he and I both had teaching experience. He’d been at a junior college and I’d been in high school, so we became the default comp directors and mentored a few TA’s and eventually we published together (see Crowley and Redman). So that’s how I discovered rhetoric.

ALDEN: Can we talk about the work of rhetoricians a little? Towards the end your article, Reflections on an Argument That Won’t Go Away, you write, “To the extent that ordinary citizens are unable to articulate or criticize the discursive conditions that cause and maintain unfair and destructive practices, we academic rhetoricians must bear some responsibility for their silence” (464). To that end, what is the role of academic rhetoricians beyond the academy?

CROWLEY: [In reference to convicted murderer Dylan Roof:] We ought to be out there getting on CNN and saying, “This kid isn’t mentally ill, he’s a racist. And, there’s a thing called white supremacy and here are its premises.” That’s what rhetoricians need to be doing.

ALDEN: So you believe that there is an activist component to our work? Or that there must be?

CROWLEY: What would Gorgias say if he heard you ask that?

SKINNELL: But that’s a major concern. The thought that academics would speak, particularly in an activist manner, is widely derided by the people who write the checks. So there’s a constant push and pull between being an activist and being in an institution that will punish you.

CROWLEY:’s worse I think than it used to be. It used to be more flexible. Of course when I joined the academy there weren’t a lot of feminists, weren’t a lot of Black people. And now there are more. In fact, when I go to ASU, even when I go on Saturdays to use the library, there’s often festivals going on. And it’s so diverse. I just sit and sort of soak up all these people from all over the world. But universities are the only spot in America where that happens. And that’s because for a time, affirmative action was aggressively pursued by universities. It isn’t anymore, but it was for a while.

ALDEN: Maybe the resistance to faculty activism ties back to the resistance to confronting ideologies?

CROWLEY: Well, that’s liberalism. That’s what I wrote about in Toward a Civil Discourse—liberals don’t accept ideology. They don’t believe in it. They believe in facts and evidence, and that was a conscious choice back in the 18th century—to reject ideology to give respectability to liberalism.

HOLIDAY: But on the other hand, I abide by the idea of reason and reasoning and warrants and evidence. So I’m wondering precisely what you mean.

CROWLEY: Well warrants are not always rational, right? Warrants, as Aristotle taught us, can be ethical or political. Even Aristotle saw that. He probably didn’t like it, but he was so rigorous that he had to say it. I got all that from Toulmin—who was a liberal—but it was an important insight for me that Toulmin treats warrants mostly as substantive. He likes substantive warrants, by which he means liberal. He means reason and evidence, and he doesn’t like the other kinds. But I realized reading Toulmin that most warrants are not substantive. They are emotional...desire, you know. People express desires all the time in their warrants. That’s what they hang their arguments on. The conclusion is drawn from a piece of desiring. That seems to be a really strong motivation in popular argument, and if you point that out to people, it pisses them off. Of course, there’s nothing wrong with expressing your desires and using them to hang an argument on, but you have to realize there’s a kind of imposition of your own position on others. And you have to be willing, as I say in that book, to take responsibility for people’s reactions if you do that.

GERDES: Picking up this theme of responsibility, my next question is about civility. After the publication of Toward a Civil Discourse, I think civility remains a foggy, but central term for both understanding and policing much of the rhetorical activity at and around the university. I’m curious about your opinion on the use of civility in several public controversies—Steven Salaita, Saida Grundy, Emma Sulkowicz. But I’m also curious about the relationships you see between civility and censorship or civility and academic freedom. Specifically I’m wondering how you think student activism in support of trigger warnings in college classes might fit into those relationships.

CROWLEY: When I read your question I thought, I really don’t have much. I mean you’re probably way ahead of me. The only one of these figures I’d heard of was Salaita. So I had to look them all up and all seem to be interesting, interesting people. The issue between civility and censorship—I mean if you take civility not in the university sense—if you take it in its ordinary meaning, I think in liberalism you’re going to end up with censorship because people are so sure they are not ideological when they’re liberal, so things that seem fair to them are actually censoring. Especially when difference is around. Now with the business about trigger warnings, I’m really conflicted.

SKINNELL: Can I reframe it in ideological terms since ideology was the subject of your last book?


SKINNELL: To what degree do you risk confronting students with issues or course materials that you know could be felt as ideological attacks, even if they’re not meant that way?

CROWLEY: Generally it depends on where a student was in the class. If she was thinking about enrolling, and we talked long enough for her to indicate her beliefs, I would say that she might not be comfortable in class. If she was already in the class, then you’ve got all the work she’s done to consider. And to be honest, you usually don’t know. My favorite example is of a young man whose name was Mike. It was in a 300-level composition course. I used small groups. I let everybody write about what they wanted, but I insisted they run everything past everybody else and that they run through the topoi and do systematic invention. And this guy discovered from his partner, who was an older Mexican American woman, that his argument was racist. He had the damnedest time with that. He came to talk to me and he wanted me to kick her out of class. I got him to see that some of his arguments were at least perceived as racist, if not indeed racist. He was never able to get past that. He wanted to switch his subject and I wouldn’t let him—I made him keep writing about whatever he was writing about, and he finally produced a decent paper. He came to my office after the class was over to tell me how much he’d learned, and I was surprised. I really thought he was just acting about how much his mind had expanded. So I said, “Well did it bother you being called a racist?” He said, “No. I am.” I said, “Well did your partner advance enough arguments that you’re going to start working on this?” And he said, “No.” What do you do?

GERDES: Well I think there’s one sort of figure of the trigger warnings issue that is essentially a fear of student ire. “What do I do with this person who’s resistant to my ‘correct view of the world?’” But there’s another angle, too, which is when someone has been traumatized. How do you serve that student? How does a rhetorician respond to a student who’s been through trauma who may find it difficult to engage in certain discussions?

CROWLEY: I don’t know. I mean in the case I was just talking about, for example, explicit racism of which the student is unaware? Obviously, he’s not unaware of his opinions, but he’s not aware anyone would call it racist. Luckily the woman with whom he was partnered was an older person who’d been exposed to these arguments her whole life and had no trouble telling him what the truth was. So sometimes you can rely on other students. But with someone who’s been traumatized, if you don’t know? The one example I keep coming back to is racism when you have students of color in your class and people spout racist commonplaces. I usually stopped and gave a little lesson on racist speech.

GERDES: But I also think about my own experience in your Rhetorics of American Feminisms class. It was well before trigger warnings were a concept. But certainly a lot of what we read, and not just for me, but for a lot of students in that class, was triggering material. It was about sexual violence or internalized misogyny or exploitation of women. And the complicity of men in the class in those things was constantly on the table.

CROWLEY: I trusted all of you, I mean I had to trust all of you.

GERDES: It seems to me it’s also a certain willingness to be exposed or vulnerable as an instructor. As a teacher, to allow your students to go to that place, is something you can’t do unless you’re also there.

CROWLEY: Right. But you have to remember when I came to ASU, I was 50 years old. I’d been around the block. For young teachers, especially young women teachers, I suspect that these are all really serious issues that they worry about. Especially if there’s no mentors around that they can trust. It’s difficult ground to tread.

HOLIDAY: There’s a lot of resistance, and often just shutting up—letting other students respond—will often really handle it.

CROWLEY: Yes, that’s true. But it’s up to you to build that sort of culture in the class, and that has to be done very quickly. I’m sure you all have done it. You may not even know you do it when you are doing it. You can do it ostensibly by saying, “Alright. No racist talk. No sexist talk.” But that doesn’t work. You can also place it in secondary sources and people can bounce off. Bounce off Peggy McIntosh and a student can say where’s she coming from. And another student will say, “Oh, no. This is what she’s saying.” But this is the kind of thing that kids have to think about for a long time. I had a student at Northern Arizona University once, and I ran into him like 20 years later at CCCC. He told me, “You know, I never understood a word you were saying back in the day. But one day I was walking down the street and it just hit me right between the eyes.” That’s the way it happens. He was probably just unconsciously mulling it all that time and getting older and having more experiences.

HOLIDAY: Taking a slightly different direction, in Composition Is Not Rhetoric, you commented you do not have high hopes for a rapprochement between rhetoric and composition. Should they go their separate ways?

CROWLEY: I don’t care what happens to composition. Writing instruction is a good thing. But composition...

SKINNELL: What does that mean? What does “composition” mean to you when you say you don’t care?

CROWLEY: It means the first year core. It means slave labor. It means coercion of students. If you did what I did—I had a sabbatical one year, and I spent a lot of it traveling. CCCC gave me some money to do it because I was running the National Committee on Professional Standards in Postsecondary Writing Instruction, and I got some money from universities, too. People would ask me to give a talk, and then I’d really go talk to the part-timers. The stories I heard would break your heart. It was just awful.

SKINNELL: So do you consider composition and writing instruction to be different?

CROWLEY: Writing instruction would be helping people feel more comfortable and more ready to invent. That’s what writing instruction would do, and composition doesn’t do that. Creative writing comes a lot closer but even creative writing instruction is write one of these and then one of these and then one of these. In graduate level creative writing programs, that’s more like writing instruction. Where the writers are respected and their work is taken seriously by an instructor and by other writers too.

GERDES: I have a question about the universal requirement. The argument that stabilizes the universal requirement is about democratic citizenship. What that’s supposed to be or how first year composition contributes to it or why it should happen at the freshman level in college is generally very poorly articulated. I’m interested in your opinion of that argument. Whether there’s a better way to reach that democratic value or whether there’s problems with the way the value is expressed.

CROWLEY: Wouldn’t a civics course do a better job? When I was in the 8th grade I took a civics course. Every kid did back in the day. You learned who your senators were and how many people were in Congress. Americans could really use something like that. I wonder if the argument about democracy doesn’t go back to the origin of the first-year composition course at Harvard. The whole course was justified—the requirement was justified—because it taught the young men taste and judgment. And good taste gave them the requisite values to be middle-class or upper-middle or high—whatever they were aiming at. I wonder if that hasn’t morphed into kind of a democratic imperative. I don’t know.

GERDES: That’s a very interesting hunch, though. Bill Keith and Roxanne Mountford published “The Mt. Oread Manifesto” out of a Rhetoric Society of America seminar on rhetoric in between the disciplines. And it relies so much on the claim that what rhetoricians are doing is about equipping students as citizens. Whether there’s a relationship between that and what you called taste I think is a question someone in our field needs to ask as we articulate the utility of rhetoric in the institution.

CROWLEY: I don’t know. I treated it in my own scholarship as something that came and went in the early 19th century, but you’re making me think it may still be with us.

ALDEN: Alright, more generally then, beyond first year composition, what should be the role of the humanities in the contemporary public university?

CROWLEY: Bigger than it is. I think everybody should have a philosophy class, or six. Everybody should study rhetoric; everybody should study literature; everybody should study history. The first thing I did when I retired was start reading American history because I never had. I have a PhD and taught for 40 years, and I’ve never really read American history. What an eye-opener. I would live my whole life differently if I had a chance to read all that. I started with the Civil War on Katherine Heenan’s suggestion. Read about Reconstruction. First I ever knew about Reconstruction. My god. How can you be an American without knowing about Reconstruction?

HOLIDAY: The more I study rhetoric the more I value history—the study of history.

CROWLEY: I feel the same way. The history of rhetoric up until the modern period is the history of Europe in many, many ways.

HOLIDAY: I don’t think you can understand the present...I mean you can’t understand present issues, like what’s going on in South Carolina [with the mass shooting at a Bible study class at Mother Emanuel A.M.E. in Charleston in June 2015] or anything.

CROWLEY: Well—and if you’ll forgive me here, I sound like a metaphysician—if the right history were taught. That is the history of Black people. I have come to believe that the history of America is the history of Black people. Black people were here before most of us, as early as 1619. Take Reverend Clementa Pinckney, for example. Pinckney is a big deal name in South Carolina. Governors, two signers of the United States Constitution were Pinckneys. And, of course, there are Black Pinckneys. There probably were Black Pinckneys from the 17th century. Ol’ Tom Pinckney, who came over here in 1668 and started a plantation, had Black children. So Clem Pinckney is NO DOUBT related to the founders of South Carolina. In fact, his mother is probably one of the founders of South Carolina. I mean mother’s mother’s mother way back. But why don’t people know that stuff? In fact I heard somebody on the TV saying that he was related to the Pinckneys, the founders of the state, so why don’t people know that? They should know that kind of stuff.

SKINNELL: So far you’ve talked frankly about race, gender, and civility, among other charged topics. So this brings me to another question. Shirley Rose called you “fearless” in her comments about your nomination for your 2015 Conference on College Composition and Communication Exemplar Award. The announcement called you “a brave and consistent contrarian,” a phrase which Duane Roen repeated in his introduction to your remarks.{1} Composition in the University is explicitly designated as “polemical” and there are documents in your archival materials [now housed at the National Archives of Composition and Rhetoric at the University of Rhode Island] that indicate confrontations you had over the years with people in the field, in your departments, about labor, gender, theory, and more. Can you talk a little about being a “fearless contrarian” in the field and in the academy? About the responsibility of rhetoricians to engage in heated, maybe even antagonistic argument? About conditions in the field and beyond it? And about rhetoricians’ or academics’ responsibilities in confronting entrenched interests, even at the risk of making enemies? What would you be fighting today? That’s a big question. You can chop that up how you see fit.

CROWLEY: I can talk about what a surprise it is to be called a contrarian or fearless. I mean when one lives, one doesn’t think that one is being contrarian or fearless or antagonistic.

HOLIDAY: Of course at the time you didn’t think of yourself that way, but history writes you that way.

CROWLEY: Oh, yeah. So here I am, a fearless contrarian, or whatever, and I was scared to death for the first twenty years of my career. Fearless, my eye.

SKINNELL: Okay, so maybe instead of fearless, you can talk about “exemplary-ness.” Maybe I’ll put it another way. In the 1970s and 80s, there seems to have been a pretty small number of influential people affecting the trajectory of the field. People running NEH grants, founding and editing journals, developing PhD programs. As I was going through your archives, I noted that you worked closely in a variety of activities with Victor Vitanza. You were on panels he organized, you were on the editorial board of Pre/Text. At one point he accused you of being a terrible man-hating feminist in comments on a draft of Let Me Get This Straight. You also interviewed Maxine Hairston, Lynn Bloom, and Win Horner (Three Heroines); went to the NEH seminar with Corbett; and regularly sat on panels with Berlin. That’s the tip of the iceberg. I wonder if you can talk about what it means have been involved with those people-–or, maybe what it means to be a “famous” academic.

CROWLEY: You know when I read your question, I realized you all have a very different relation to people like Janice Lauer than I do. Janice and I had a friendship like you have. And it’s really hard for me to think of her like, [GASP] Janice Lauer. As people do, you know. Or Kinneavy or Hairston or whoever. Because these people were my friends and we were beleaguered, we were under fire. Or at least we thought we were. We used to huddle together at conferences.

I remember Mike Leff used to set up a table at CCCC. He’d find one in some hallway some place and set himself down and order a beer, and all of us who were rhetoricians knew this is where we were to go to talk about rhetoric. Mike would stay there the whole afternoon, and people would come and go and talk about rhetoric because nobody else at the conference was interested.

SKINNELL: I guess maybe part of the question is, do you realize you are a famous academic? And was there a point where you realized that your buddies were famous academics?

CROWLEY: You know when it first came home to me was at CCCC in Tampa Bay [in 2015]. I was sitting with Katherine Heenan in the hotel bar, and people would walk by and sort of whisper and then come up to introduce themselves to me. It struck me at that point.

We went to a wonderful party, and people kept coming up to me and saying, “Oh! Doctor Crowley.” And they’d smile and shake my hand. And that’s when I first realized. At one point, Vitanza came over to me, and he takes my arm and says, “Do you mind if I clutch for a while?” I said, “No, I feel like I need that kind of support as well.” Because, you know, he walks by and people [GASP] Victor Vitanza. It’s really weird. You feel kind of dislocated. And I was really pleased to see that Victor was feeling it too because to me, Victor invented the field of rhetoric in America. He really did. He didn’t invent it but he institutionalized it. He made it possible for it to be institutionalized. With his program down at Arlington, and the early Rhetoric Society of America conferences he hosted, and look at all the wonderful people who went through that PhD program. Really talented people. And look what he’s doing now? He’s off in Europe making friends with Žižek. So part of the weirdness of being "recognized" is that people imagine, let’s say, a Lunsford who isn’t the Andrea I know. She’s the Andrea of her work, and not the warm, energetic person I know.

HOLIDAY: Well we’re running low on time, so here are a few kind of summative questions. What were you most proud of? Or what do you see as your biggest or most important contributions to the field, anything you wish you had done differently, and of what are you most proud and why?

CROWLEY: Well the questions, two of those, the answers are sitting right here in this room. My students are the people of whom I am most proud. I have fantastic students and most are doing just superbly well. Anybody who teaches as long as I did, you know, knows how satisfactory that is. I’m sure you’ve been teaching long enough to know how satisfactory it is to have good students that succeed. That’s where it’s at.

I think I’m probably most proud of—I think it’s probably that last book, Toward a Civil Discourse. That chapter on rhetorical theory is probably what I’m most proud of. I don’t think I could write it again. So can we stop talking like this? This is really hard for me to think of myself as somebody who has made contributions and has a legacy. I’m sorry I wish I could be more forthcoming. I should have thought of something clever to say.


  1. The video of Duane Roen’s introduction and Sharon Crowley’s remarks can be viewed online at: (Return to text.)

Works Cited

Crowley, Sharon. Composition in the University: Historical and Polemical Essays. Pittsburgh UP, 1998.

---. Composition is Not Rhetoric. Rhetoric/Composition: Intersections/Impasses/Differends, special issue of Enculturation, vol. 5, no. 1, 2003.

---. Sharon Crowley. Women’s Ways of Making It...In Rhetoric and Composition, edited by Michelle Ballif, Diane Davis, and Roxanne Mountford, Routledge, 2008, 217-32.

---. Let Me Get This Straight. Writing Histories of Rhetoric, edited by Victor J. Vitanza, Southern Illinois UP, 1994, 1-19.

---. Reflections on an Argument That Won’t Go Away, or, A Turn of the Ideological Screw. Quarterly Journal of Speech, vol. 78, no. 4, 1992, 450-65.

---. A Teacher’s Introduction to Deconstruction. NCTE, 1989.

---. Three Heroines: An Oral History. Pre/Text, vol. 9, 1988, 202-6.

---. Toward a Civil Discourse: Rhetoric and Fundamentalisms. Pittsburgh UP, 2006.

Crowley, Sharon, and Debra Hawhee. Ancient Rhetorics for Contemporary Students. 5th ed., Longman/Pearson, 2011.

Crowley, Sharon, and George Redman. Why Teach Writing? College Composition and Communication, vol. 26, no. 3, 1975, 279-81.

Crowley, Sharon, Linda Robertson, James Slevin, Elizabeth M. Wallace, and Susan Wyche-Smith. Report to the Profession from the Committee on Professional Standards. College Composition and Communication, vol. 42, no. 3, 1991, 330-44.

Keith, William, and Roxanne Mountford. The Mt. Oread Manifesto on Rhetorical Education 2013. Rhetoric Society Quarterly, vol. 44, no. 1, 2014, 1-5.

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