“This renegade line of thought values rhetoric not as ‘formulaic discourse’ or pure technique, but rather as the activity of learning and wondering; a process that eschews the constraints of a singular ‘purpose or end or stance’ and cultivates instead a ‘suppleness of mind’ well-suited to address continuously evolving social contexts.”
— T. R. Johnson

Key Terms: Renegade Rhetoric

T. R. Johnson describes “renegade rhetoric” as a “pleasure-oriented, magical tradition,” an approach to composition as something powerful that can be enjoyed (4). In framing this discussion of pleasure, Johnson cites ancient Greek philosopher Gorgias’s theory of rhetoric, noting, that the first step to students’ learning of composition, particularly persuasion, requires the student to “first learn to experience composing itself as a kind of pleasure-charged performance” (2). Further, Johnson derives from Gorgias a “working definition of authorial pleasure,” describing it as “the feeling that ensues during the composition process that is roughly analogous to the transformation of pain and alienation into knowledge and connection, and its contagious quality is the stuff of persuasion, perhaps of communication” (2). However, Johnson also observes that “[Gorgias] explicitly understands the contagion of pleasure in terms of magical spells and witchcraft” and that occult thematic symbolism surfaces throughout the history of rhetoric whenever pleasure is discussed, right up to Peter Elbow in the 1990s (3). This makes Johnson, for me, a landmark thinking in the world of deciphering the magical practice of writing.

Questions and Answers

1. Considering Adichie’s description of being unable to perceive herself as included in a particular community until she had seen herself welcome there, how can we use Johnson’s pleasure-oriented “renegade rhetoric” to create a more inclusive academic community that encourages students to be active, engaged participants rather than feel academics are a toil inflicted upon them?

As this is Jonson I’m responding to, the answer is a bit on the nose. However, it gives me a chance to discuss the way Adichie illuminated Johnson’s points for me.  I have long considered Johnson’s belief that using a playful, pleasure-oriented approach to teaching is preferable to a toil-oriented, error-fixated approach. It was thinking about Adichie’s speech “The Danger of a Single Story” that sparked a further connection for me. I realized that I had never seen myself as fully included in my own academic community. My interests–my passions, that which drove me–never seemed to align with those of my professors or fellow students. Yet, when I took a class from a professor (Dr. Scott Miller of Sonoma State University) who shared my passion for certain genre fiction and was willing to make a serious study of it, I began to realize that the things that I loved could be sites for serious academic work. It is my belief that by focusing on this passion–the pleasure of it–I can make the same connection possible for other students.

2. In the text, identify a specific community that is discussed. What role does inclusion in and engagement with that community play in forming an identity (both as an individual and as part of said community) that serves to facilitate the goals of liberation and critical consciousness as put forth by Paulo Freire and bell hooks?

I am not certain that Johnson specifically orients to this question, but the connection I see is very much the same here as it was in my response to the previous question. For my reading of Johnson, the central question is one of academic community and inclusion in that community. Building on Johnson’s idea of pleasure of punishment, I believe that focus on treating students from the outset as legitimate members of the academic community is preferable to trying to force them to take interest in the preoccupations of their professors, which often as not comes across as tantamount to punishment. As Johnson puts it, referring to the freedom of “self-invention”: “Presumably, when students don’t feel this freedom or any impulse to connect with their texts or their audiences, they can only write so much ‘BS'” (70).

3. How can seeking to orient toward pleasure and satisfaction as pedagogical modes be designed to specifically address the concepts of varied learning styles, multiple intelligences, and the highly varied backgrounds (personal, cultural, academic) of students?

Here again, the central thread is that allowing students to bring themselves and their interests to the table is designed to orient to their own concerns, desires, and intelligences. As an example, one of the most cogent, passionate, and effective student presentations I have ever observed from one of my classes came when the student in question delivered a brilliant discussion on the history and controversies of running footware. He brought a very kinesthetic intelligence to the problem, an athletic question that I would never have even considered. Making as much of the work student-centered and student-driven offers great opportunity for not merely accommodating the students but making the experience fundamentally oriented to them.

4. What can we learn about learning, both as students and teachers, by studying the ostensibly enjoyment-oriented concept and practice of “play”? What connects pleasure and play–enjoyment and engagement–to learning, cognition, and individual development?

For Johnson, this connection lies in what William Covino calls “generative magic.” As Johnson writes, “To cultivate generative magic, writers must learn techniques and principles that, rather than arrest the play of critical thought, stimulate it, structures that liberate rather than merely limit the composing imagination” (40). Johnson goes on to explain that he achieves this by teaching stylistic devices, inviting students to play with their words and discover what “sounds right” and what does not. This combination of low-stakes language play and encouraging students to find meaningful personal connections to their writing replace the idea of high-stakes, performance-oriented writing and externally imposed, restrictive topics of focus. I feel there is more for me to discover here, particularly as I move from theory to increased practice of these ideas in my own classroom.

5. In considering the concept of “inclusion,” how can a focus on student pleasure and engagement in academic pursuits serve to address fundamental questions of complex exclusion and divided identities? Consider this discussion in terms of a borderland, such as discussed by Gloria Anzaldúa in Borderlands/La Frontera. Students’ language is a kind of homeland for them, a place they have long occupied; what divisions and exclusions are we asking them to navigate (within and without) by asking them to learn to write and use language “correctly” without including their own pre-existing language—their own territory, as it were—into the process?

Johnson addresses this In a traditional model of composition education the move to normalize student writing is enforced by the harsh correction of deviations from standard usage, which is characterized as a failure–a source of shame. Johnson states, “By embarrassing students this way, we slowly but surely initiate them into a certain set of affiliations, into a kind of membership that, as Patricia Bizzel (1986) and Robert Rodriguez (1993) both note, can unfold as a painful repudiation of their home culture” (8). His main counter to this problem seems to be emphasizing the positive instead of the negative. That is, instead of focusing on the criticism of what a student does “wrong” (in terms of Standard English), Johnson emphasizes teaching stylistic devices and techniques.

I cannot pretend that this is a direct answer to the issue, but it does perhaps present a positive attitude in response. I am reminded of a technique in improvisational theatre: instead of negating what another player has done, the improv actor is always to take the attitude of “Yes, and…”; thus, they are able to both treat what has come before as valid and valued while still helping to steer the scene somewhat. They do not, however, take over completely. Perhaps there is something in that.


Johnson, T. R. A Rhetoric of Pleasure: Prose Style & Today’s Composition Classroom. Portsmouth, NH: Boynton/Cook, 2003. Print.