Most readers are probably familiar with the work of John Duffy—Professor of English and Director of the University Writing Program at Notre Dame—in works such as Writing from These Roots and essays in numerous scholarly journals. You may also have read pieces he has written to a broad public audience, such as “Post-Truth and First Year Writing” in Inside Higher Education. I’ve been following Duffy’s work for a long time, always learning from his thoughtful, thorough, evenhanded, and highly provocative insights into the challenges facing teachers of writing today. Throughout his career, Duffy has asked us to examine our motives, our choices, our stances—and to ask how they do or do not help to establish ethical norms for writers and speakers.
Now comes his Provocations of Virtue: Rhetoric, Ethics, and the Teaching of Writing, which is a must-read for all who profess composition and rhetoric. Opening with a series of by-now common yet still disconcerting instances of the “toxic discourse” all around us, Duffy argues that teachers of writing have a special obligation (and opportunity) to intervene in constructive ways:
. . . to say writing involves ethical choices is to say that when creating a text the writer addresses others. And that, in turn, initiates a relationship between writer and readers, one that entangles writers, and those who would teach writing, in the questions, problems, and choices associated with ethical reflection and reasoning.
Recognizing this fact means that we are always already involved in teaching rhetorical ethics, that the teaching of writing “necessarily and inevitably involves us in ethical deliberations and decision-making.”
This text goes on to explore these claims in detail, to explore the major moral theories and to propose a new one, which he labels “virtue ethics;” that is, one based on the ancient concept of the virtues and especially emphasizing phronesis, or practical reason, through which a rhetor chooses “the right course of action in specific circumstances.” I was galvanized by chapter 4, in which Duffy challenges traditional agonistic aims of rhetorical practice and refigures as he moves toward an “ethics of practice,” and chapter 5, where he offers concrete strategies for bringing the concept of rhetorical virtue productively into our writing classes. The final chapter, which explores what Richard Lanham so brilliantly interrogated as “the Q question” (after Quintilian, who linked being a good person with being a good speaker/writer) and then offers instead “the P question”:
. . . the better question is what a deliberate engagement with the rhetorical virtues of our classrooms might make possible, our P question, for our students, our discipline, and for practices of public argument. What becomes possible if we acknowledge the ethical dimension of our work? What might be possible if some portion of the millions of students who leave our classrooms and graduate form our institutions do so having learned that writing is an ethical activity, and that their arguments speak as much to their character as to their topics? How might practices of public argument be repaired and reinvigorated if we were to commit ourselves, in our classrooms, our conferences, and our scholarship, to addressing the question of just what it means in the twenty-first century to be a good writer? What knowledge, transformations, and provocations might follow?
As always, Duffy is modest in his claims and humble in the face of such momentous questions, but steadfast in our need to ask, and to try to answer, them. So thank you, John Duffy. Thank you.
Image Credit: Pixabay Image 1052010 by DariuszSankowski, used under the Pixabay License