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“Humans all the way down”: English Graduate Students Re-Think Rhetoric in ENGL 8900            

By Brianna Phillips

In Spring 2022, Dr. Nathan Kreuter taught a small, graduate-level course called “ENGL 8900: Rhetorics of Making and Doing.” The goal of the course was to expand students’ conceptions of rhetoric. If you’ve ever studied rhetoric in an English course or in First Year Writing, you’ve likely heard variations of “rhetoric is the study of the deliberate choices (and their effects) made by a writer” or “rhetoric is the art of persuasion” in the Aristotelian sense. In ENGL 8900, though, Dr. Kreuter chose an unconventional route by asking graduate students to re-think rhetoric through New Materialism. He encouraged students to re-assess Rhetoric by exploring the rhetoric behind craft and craftsmanship (the making of objects) alongside hands-on tradesmanship (the doing of a trade or a craft). In doing so, students were also removing themselves from the purely textual ways in which they had been teaching rhetoric as FYW instructors. Dr. Kreuter asked them to consider a rhetoric created by the hands and the “rhetoricity of our physical, created world.” Rhetoric, ENGL 8900 students learned, extends beyond the boundaries of the pen and the page.

Dr. Kreuter’s inspiration for the course evolved partially from his love-hate relationship with New Materialism and its recent emergence in the field of Rhetoric. Although he aimed “to create a course that engage[d] the ideas of new materialism,” “one of [his] objections” to New Materialism is “that [it] isn’t informed by the people who actually work materials.” His solution to that dilemma resulted in a rhetorics course that revolved around non-academic “works by carpenters, cooks, brewers, and builders” so that the course “engage[d] these emerging disciplinary conversations, but [added] in voices from people who work with their hands.”

On the other hand, ENGL 8900 emerged from both academic and “selfish” interests. For Dr. Kreuter, a graduate rhetoric course was needed in the English department because “we [don’t] have as many rhetoric classes on offer in the department as we really should.” He believes that courses like ENGL 8900 offer the “chance for graduate students to engage with the rhetoric subfield of English Studies.” He hoped, too, that exploring a hands-on rhetoric would “encourage students to take a class that they might otherwise pass over.” Rhetoric, then, becomes a bridge between disciplines, assuming a community-building role as “students from other areas of English Studies see the relevance of rhetorical theory for their own studies.” The result is a scholarly “symbiosis” between fields, including between the (often divergent) English and Rhetoric fields.

Beyond satisfying his academic interests, ENGL 8900 also indulged Dr. Kreuter’s “selfish” interests. He has “always been struck by the wisdom of people who create things with their hands, and this course gave [him] an opportunity to put those people in conversation with theorists who are trying to understand the rhetoricity of our physical, created world (as opposed to just our linguistic world).” He was “convinced” by the end of the semester “that [this] intersection is indeed rich and worth pursuing a lot further, both in [his] teaching and in [his] own research.”

The semester-long final project for the course likewise allowed students to indulge both their academic and "selfish" interests in order to re-think Rhetoric. Dr. Kreuter asked each student to commit

Taylor Drake’s Puppet Project
Taylor Drake’s Puppet Project

themselves to “mastering” a craft or manual skill over the course of the semester, producing a physical object by the end and a corresponding theory of doing. The goal was to learn to do a craft and then put into words how one learns that specific craft, how one’s hands and the materiality of the product affect the doing/making, and how that specific labor informs the rhetoric of craft writ large. Having read theories of doing by chefs, carpenters, BBQ restaurant owners, butchers, bakers, (beer) brewers, bread makers, and woodworkers, the students chose projects that were not only hands-on but which also redefined “handmade.” Taylor Drake, for example, learned to sew and construct a mouse puppet from scratch, using everyday materials. Allison Harris learned to make paper in order to re-think Victorian scrapbooking practices. Liz Wayson learned to make cheese (the hard way) using raw materials such as unpasteurized milk. Sam O’Sullivan built his own guitar pedal rather than buying a new one, ultimately gaining “a new appreciation for the various ways that expertise has been constructed and transmitted throughout history.”

Brianna Phillips’ Coffee Roast
Brianna Phillips’ Coffee Roast

Sierra Diemer learned to bake croissants by hand from flour to finish, and Mounawar Abbouchi learned to make bread from scratch, forming a sourdough starter and baking traditional Lebanese breads. Through her project, Mounawar “quickly learned that the yeast is the one in charge, and I grudgingly learned to live with that.” Brianna Phillips roasted green coffee beans by hand instead of buying them pre-roasted from the store, questioning how our commodified coffee consumption practices remove us from the (noisy) pleasure of roasting our own brew from bean to cup. Whether the "craft" was puppetry, music, scrapbooking, croissants, baking, or coffee, the projects simultaneously gratified a long-held personal interest for each student while offering a chance to create new, unfamiliar scholarship. By the end of the semester, Dr. Kreuter demonstrated that academic scholarship can be as personal and as meaningful as our most "selfish" indulgences. 

Sam O’Sullivan’s Guitar Pedal
Sam O’Sullivan’s Guitar Pedal


In their final projects, each student removed themselves from their familiar “linguistic world” to experience how things are made in our material world. Dr. Kreuter believes that “the student projects that came out of the course were fantastic, particularly because in so many cases they were not things that I could/would have imagined students undertaking.” In each project, students “gained a lot of insight into material, embodied knowledge and how different that sort of knowledge is from the knowledge we pass along through reading and writing.” The final result of ENGL 8900, then, was a knowledge transformation inspired by the unexpected use of their hands (as well as their ears, sight, and smells) in what normally would've been a textual-based

Brianna Phillips’ Coffee Roast
Mounawar Abbouchi’s Lebanese Pitas

English course. Such a hands-on experience of rhetoric likewise challenged students to re-think the forms of rhetoric they teach in their classrooms and the value of urging undergraduate students to think about the rhetoricity of the world they live in. It matters, that is, what kind of a world we build and craft with our hands because, as Dr Kreuter insists, “the responsible agents [in any new materialism] are all humans.” Hands or no hands, “rhetoric…is humans all the way down.”

Brianna Phillips is an English Ph.D. student and FYW Instructor in the English department at UGA.



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