Working on a project, I realized that I didn’t actually know much about Rogerian rhetoric, even though I endorse its principles. So I did a day’s worth of reading. Here’s the result:
Rogerian rhetoric was not developed by Carl Rogers. He was an influential psychologist in the 1950s and 1960s who developed a nuanced methodology (not method) for therapy sessions, involving empathy and active listening. Compositionists of that period were very much attuned to psychological approaches to teaching writing. The first to take up Rogers’ ideas was Young, Becker, and Pike (1970). Maxine Hairston then took up YB&P’s ideas and published two influential articles in the late 70s. Rogerian rhetoric had arrived, and it persisted in scholarship through the early 90s. Phyllis Lassner describes its appeal: In the formulations of Hairston and of Young, Becker, and Pike, “Rogerian argument would . . . provide a heuristic by which students come to understand the assumptions and biases on which their positions are based, as well as the positions, attitudes, and values of those who differ from them” (221).
During the last decade of its scholarly career, Rogerian rhetoric had its critics who who challenged its political assumptions. Lassner names Berlin as one of them, but a look into her cited text, the 1988 “Rhetoric and Ideology in the Writing Class,” reveals that Berlin mentions Rogers once—to associate him (interestingly, he himself and not his rhetorical posse) with expressionistic rhetoric (Berlin 484).] Invoking Berlin and Michael Awkward, Lassner works from a cultural studies POV in which one cannot be empathetic without taking race and gender into account; otherwise one is complicit in “cultural hegemony” (Zappen’s words) and manipulation. In Ede’s view, Lassner says, empathy cannot replace “judgment and guidance”; unlike therapy, the writer cannot avoid leading the reader to agreement. Ede points out, too, that even as Young, Becker, and Pike profess a non-agonistic rhetoric, they refer to the reader as “the opponent” (Lassner 222).
Rogerian rhetoric persists today, it would seem, primarily in textbooks, where it is a staple though not a universal. This day’s worth of research inclines me to continue endorsing it, but I want to avoid the two common errors of textbook rhetoric about Rogerian rhetoric: the direct attribution of it to Carl Rogers, and the complete erasure of argument against it.
I’ve posted a bibliography
of my work here; it has the full citations for the works I reference here. I’ll welcome suggested additions to it, or revisions to what I say above.