The Vocation of a Teacher: Rhetorical Occasions 1967-1988 (1988)

The Vocation of a Teacher: Rhetorical Occasions 1967-1988. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1988.


In this compilation of his speeches about teaching, Booth conflates his two “overlapping lifetime projects” (xi), rhetoric and teaching, arguing that these projects are almost identical . He writes, “to become a teacher of any subject is already to aspire to skill in at least one kind of rhetoric, the kind that changes minds and possibly even the lives of students” (xi).

This book is Booth’s effort to counter criticism towards the teaching profession, particularly in English departments, by assembling his public queries—speeches and essays —into these questions: “What is the profession of English teaching? Where are we, and where should we go from here?” (xiii).

As a rhetorician who advocates the important relationship between author and reader, or in this case, between speaker and audience, Booth explains that the speeches he includes in this text are each “bound to its time and place” (xiii). Thus, instead of chapters, Booth treats each speech as a particular occasion. He warns his readers that because every speech was rhetorically fitted to its particular occasion, some references and examples may overlap and some may date the text. This warning also serves as a way for Booth to deflect criticism about portions of his earlier speeches that may not pass the test of political- and social-correctness at the time of publication in 1988, a move that might be criticized as a defensive silencing of potential responses to Booth's arguments. However, in Booth's defense, in several places in the text, he does attempt to critically address his past chauvinistic tendencies, most notably in "Is There Any Education that a Woman Must Have?".

For the most part, though, Booth chooses to include the pieces as they were delivered on the original occasion to demonstrate how he employs rhetoric: Booth’s rhetoric in these speeches is of the ethical kind--rhetoric that aims to establish common ground so as to promote improved symbolic exchange. Booth notes that this decision also emphasizes the significant relationship between rhetoric and the occasion, which leads into one of the teaching strategies he praises throughout the book: the importance of teaching based on each particular occasion so as to allow for as much learning as possible.

As a whole, the many occasions assembled in this text answer the questions Booth poses in his preface: together, they highlight the importance of rhetoric, as Booth defines it, for all teachers and learners. The many occasions speak together to proclaim what good teachers should teach their students and what they should practise themselves: curiosity, critical inquiry, and pluralistic understanding. Responsible teaching is an integral part of the rhetorical pursuit that defines Booth’s career—the pursuit of improving symbolic exchange to expand human understanding and relationships.

The Organization of the Text

The Occasions

  • “The Meaning of Dedication” (1973)
  • “M.H. Abrams” (1982)
  • “Richard P. McKeon, 1900-1985” (1985)
  • “Ronald Crane, Scholar and Humanist, 1886-1967” (1967)
  • “The Good Teacher as a Threat” (1977)

The occasions that Booth describes (listed below) in these sections are all ceremonial celebrations of teachers who have demonstrated the kind of teaching that Booth celebrates in this text: dedication to learning and to inspiring students to practice critical, engaged, communal learning.

Critical Overview

Because the most significant part of this section is that Booth includes it in a concluding position at the end of the text, we have not summarized in great detail the specific accounts of praise Booth gives to Ronald Crane, Richard P. McKeon and other teachers who practiced a love of critical learning and passed that love on to many students

By celebrating these teachers, Booth attempts to illustrate the value of their careers. Perhaps their dedication to teaching did not earn them as much financial or celebratory rewards as their publications did, but Booth makes clear here that their teaching contributed far more: their teaching inspired new generations of learners, proliferating the communal enterprise of learning, practicing the kind of rhetoric that Booth which is for Booth, arguably, the most esteemed and valued accomplishment possible. Their teaching lives on through the proliferation of the critical enterprise that these teachers have helped to preserve.

To Students and Teachers Under Siege

The Occasions

“To Students and Teachers Under Siege,” confronts the teachers and students in English Departments who, “in the late, threatening decades of a most puzzling and threatening century” (3) face an increasingly divided and unstable teaching and learning environment within English departments. Booth includes five speeches which he has written to address faculty and students on the following occasions.

Occasion 1:"The Credo of an English Teacher" (1982)

On this occasion, in his address to fellow members of the MLA, Booth describes English departments that privilege respected, tenured, much-published professors, casting them in the role of “buyers in a buyers’ market” when hiring recent PHD graduates. These buyers pay more attention to whether they can fit these aspiring professors into their particular mold than to what new voices might add to their department. He reiterates the importance of critical understanding within departments and the responsibility for passing on critical understanding to all students, a task that he implores teachers to take seriously.

Occasion 2: "Rhetoric or Reality: My Basics are more Basic than Your Basics" (1982)

Booth addresses composition teachers with a speech that celebrates Rhetoric as a necessary skill. He shows how, despite popular usages of rhetoric, rhetoric and reality cannot possibly be separated because rhetoric substantiates truth. He describes the problem of senior faculty avoiding teaching Freshman classes, passing on that responsibility to new MA students, thereby ignoring that Freshman classes have the most opportunity to introduce the skills at the core of the discipline: critical ways of thinking, reading, writing, and speaking.

Occasion 3: "The Scholar in Society" (1981)

In this address to the Modern Language Association (MLA), Booth describes how those outside of English departments do not understand what English departments teach. This lack of outside knowledge about the nature of the English teaching profession is the result of scholars of English who value their own studies and privilege their own positions as superior to other newer scholars, leaving little room for productive discussion to emerge; scholars value their own scholarly endeavors—research, writing, publishing—and scorn Freshman composition classes, the very classes where they have the opportunity to stimulate new interest in the discipline; scholars fail to realize that the center of the discipline lies in the particular ways of thinking, reading, writing, and speaking that English studies encourage. As a result of these divides within the English departments in colleges and universities, Booth depicts the fourth occasion as a general mistrust and misunderstanding from individuals outside of English studies.

Occasion 4: "To Warring Factions in an Up-to-Date 'English Department'"

Booth addresses English departments who divide themselves into two camps: the “Ancients” who think that English as a discipline is “most important because in our culture it is the major heir of a once-glorious liberal arts tradition” (78); and the “Mods” who think that English as a discipline is “most important because in our culture it is the standard-bearer of some new vision that is to replace the outworn purposes and fixed canons of the past” (78). Booth argues that most of the time these groups simply agree to disagree, without really listening to each other, and without acknowledging the common ground they share: again, critical thinking, reading, writing, and speaking practices that Booth places as the centre of English studies.

Occasion 5: "The English Teacher's Decalogue"

Here, at a conference in Las Vegas, Booth continues to address the problem he dwelled on in Occasion 4: the lack of agreement within English departments about what to teach. He develops 10 Commandments for English teachers, which he claims fell from a slot machine in a casino. His 10 Commandments pinpoint the roles that an English teacher ought to take on.

Critical Overview

In the five essays and addresses that make up this section Booth tackles these occasions, offering what he sees as solutions to the division within college and university English departments and between those departments and the general public.

From his “Credo of an English Teacher,” to his witty account of “The English Teacher’s Decalogue,” ten commandments of English teaching that descend from God by way of a Las Vegas slot machine, out of the five chapters arise several distinct ways out of the conflicted occasions that Booth identifies. Each of his ways out rely on Booth’s central themes: communal meeting of minds, the value of reading and writing, pluralistic understanding, critical understanding.

Freshman Courses as an Opportunity to Reach the Most Minds

Booth criticizes the scorn that seasoned faculty feel towards freshman teaching, reinforcing in all the chapters that those classes are “where the public . . . where the transformations will occur . . . where most people in our society have their last chance to learn the joys and uses of critical understanding” (23). Further, as Booth points out in “The Scholar in Society,” often times, it is the public who “funds and thus rewards (or punishes) scholars” (55); therefore, those who fail to defend their own work by failing to teach the courses that have most chance of reaching the public may affect, not only the discipline, but themselves in the long wrong.

Booth emphatically asks, “how can we go on pretending that those courses that are most important, both to society and to our own departmental recruiting, the freshman courses, should be taught by the least fully prepared and most badly paid members of the profession?” (86). This practice, Booth warns, sends the public the message that professors of English “think teaching freshmen how to read and think and write is child’s play” (87). This message is obviously a very faulty message according to Booth, who calls for a change to this attitude in order to improve and proliferate university and college English departments.

Finding Common Ground

Despite the many specialties blanketed under the title of English studies, Booth attempts to point out the shared common ground. He argues that all English teachers, regardless of their particular areas of study, think English to be “the most important subject in the curriculum, most important partly because it is subversive of values conventional or dominant in our culture” (81). He argues that it is senseless to “spend our energies fighting caricatures of one another, when our common opponent,” namely the “destructive, anti-educational forces of consumer capitalism” (80) threatens more harm. For Booth, no matter what the specific subject matter, all English scholars care about “critical, reflective freedom” (80); thus, joining together to teach this common pursuit is far more important that disputing the particularities of different approaches.

Booth also suggests another link between all areas of English study: “the art of improving our capacity to interpret what other people say, to think about it, and then to say something worthwhile in return” (32); in other words, the art of reading,writing, thinking, and speaking, which Booth chooses to call “rhetoric,” noting that for him these concepts are the important part, not their label (32). Though Booth implies throughout this chapter that the teaching of these particular arts tie together all the specialties under the umbrella of English study, he also points out how the disdain that professors show for freshmen courses, especially freshmen composition courses, seriously undermines the value of this tie that binds. Thus, by encouraging more serious treatment of composition studies as “the road to liberal education through the serious study of rhetoric,” Booth encourages English departments to treat seriously the common ground shared by all disciplines of English study.

The Need for Critical Understanding

As in his other works, Booth maintains critical understanding as the way to turn destructive conflict into productive conflict. As in Critical Understanding, he reiterates that “the profession is plagued these days with a good deal of unnecessary, meaningless controversy,” but he celebrates that such disaccord “means we are alive and free in our endeavors” (77). Such freedom should not be wasted on attacking counter-voices but should be instead used to what Booth sees as the greatest possible advantage to such freedom: critical understanding, which involves “entering other minds, or ‘taking them in,’ as nourishment for our own” (21)and “learning to understand what people are really, saying, learning to look at what words really mean, and . . . learning to respond” (32) in order to improve the “quality of our lives together” (44). He encourages critical understanding to make productive conflict within English departments and as the most important skill to teach to English students.

At the heart of Booth’s criticism lies his valorization of the teaching profession, his insistence that, despite common belief and practice, teaching English is as important as publishing scholarly essays and books, if not more important. Teaching can stimulate the kind of critical understanding—meeting of minds, productive conflict, assenting to hear others’ voices, justly understanding before judging—that Booth vigorously upholds:

In what we teach, we make the society in which we shall continue to remake ourselves.

To Assemblies of More Or Less Restless Learners

Occasion 9: “Who Killed Liberal Education” (1968)

(Reprinted in Now Don’t Try to Reason With Me)

On this occasion, Booth centers his speech on an essay which he (ironically) tells his undergraduate audience that he has taken from a machine that produces papers at the press of a button.

This ready-made speech is a recollection from year 2000, long after liberal education has died. Booth “reads” the speech to his audience, telling them that the demise of liberal education occurred because of the combination of several factors: teachers stopped teaching, especially undergraduate classes, and instead focused just on publishing, which left students forced to learn only by reading; university officials played a role in this change by emphasizing and rewarding publications; students began to specialize as soon as they arrived at college.

Occasion 10: “What’s Supposed To Be Going On Here?” (1970)

Booth speaks to his audience of new undergraduate students about the “freedoms” to which various groups, from advertisers, to religious groups, to rock bands, claim to hold the key.

Booth, naturally, advises his students that they hold the key to their own freedom, and that they can find that freedom by taking on the task of learning through a process of what Booth calls the three R’s: recovering, rejecting, and renovating what they read and hear.

Booth uses his speech as an illustration of why a critical approach to learning is so important. He throws in twists and discrepancies to warn the students that they cannot merely “take his word for it” just because he stands before them in a position of authority and delivers a lecture under the catch phrase of “intellectual freedom”. To critically understand his speech, they must recover, reject, and renovate what he, or anyone else, tells them.

In his introduction to this section, Booth mentions how increased student activism surrounded the occasion on which he speaks. When he concludes this occasion by telling the students that “about the fourth ‘R,’ the art of intellectual Revolution, I really have nothing to say; we must leave it up to the geniuses” (189), he implies that those students who practice the first three R’s are the geniuses who, through their critical understanding, will inevitably invoke some degree of intellectual revolution.

Occasion 11: “Is There Any Knowledge That a Woman Must Have?” (1980)

In this speech Booth puts into practice his own methodology of critical understanding by responding to what he wrote thirteen years earlier in his essay “Is There Any Knowledge that a Man Must Have?”.

He maintains his general stance that reading, writing, and thinking are necessary parts of education, but addresses his neglect in the earlier essay:

It describes what you need in a general way, when it says that all of us need to learn how to read critically, how to distinguish between the beautiful and the ugly, and how to make practical choices in the world. . . But what choices—and how do you make them? (199)

He now explains that his essay failed to “help in how to choose models for one’s self, in how to protect one’s self from seductive models or metaphors that are offered by those who pretend to be friends but who are really exploiters” (199).

Booth explains that his metaphor of “man” to refer to all people could be seen—and was seen by many who sent critical letters to Booth—as exploitive. He also criticizes his own use of metaphors about women, including a passage where he inadvertently compares women to art. Thus, he now uses women in place of men in his title, calling attention to how even his seemingly innocent exclusions of women reveals his failure to not think about or “mention the possibility of a corrupt society that might threaten anyone’s effort to achieve freedom” (199).

Thus, Booth talks about “women” when he really refers to all people, but, through his discussions of “self-as-selves,” he clarifies that both men and women take in to their own selves parts of the opposite gender. He urges his audience to take seriously the kind of world they want to live in, and to do so, Booth tells them they must evaluate how the metaphors they take in characterize that world. Booth focuses much of this speech on explaining the importance of metaphor “as suggesting our need both build a self and to protect it from all the social acids that might dissolve it” (199).

As such, Booth explains that education should be a “liberation” from a world of “enslaving metaphors” (205) a liberation achieved through four arts that help to build and protect the selves by reconstituting metaphors for selves and situations. When we work to “resist the reductive metaphors” (206) we find that friendship with other selves becomes possible (206). 

Occasion 12: “What Little I Think I Know about Teaching” (1987)

Here, Booth addresses graduate students who are about to become teachers. He lists some generalities of good teachers and points to examples of teachers who have defied each generality but have still proven to be good teachers. In the end, Booth gives the students some generalizations of his own: his principle generalization is that teaching depends on the occasion, that only by teaching for each particular occasion rather than with some future objective in mind, can teachers hope to motivate students to continue learning in a particular field.

Booth argues that letting each class guide the teacher provides an opportunity for teachers to learn from and respond to discussions along with students, thereby demonstrating the key factor to learning: engagement with other selves. At the same time, besides motivating students, teaching for each occasion motivates teachers to love what they do, to realize the “the most distinctively human of human activities, learning to learn” (216).

Critical Overview

Again in this section, Booth reinforces the importance of community. What connects these four speeches is Booth’s attempt to portray the carefully balanced distribution of responsibility shared by students and teachers. He implores students to be critical learners, to ask questions of teachers and texts, and to reject some, retain some, and reconstruct all.

But, he also strongly implies that teachers must also approach learning with these ends in mind. Booth criticizes teachers who churn out papers like a machine along with students who do the same. He warns students that they need to approach learning from teachers using principles similar to those he advises critics to apply to texts: vitality, justice, and understanding. Teachers are not always correct, a point that he makes in his criticism of himself in “Is There Any Knowledge That a Woman Must Have?”

Thus, in this section, he attempts to encourage responsible teaching and responsible learning, each benefiting from the other to stimulate better learning as a key human practice.

To Himself and Those He Tries to Teach

Occasion 13: “A Teacher’s Journal 1972-1988”

In his journal, Booth reflects upon his own highs and lows as a teacher: the instances that make him feel as if he’s been a success, and those that have made him feel like a failure. His own reflections about teaching support the theme that he raises in other speeches in this text: that teachers are not all-knowing authoritative figures; rather, teachers are part of a community of learning and deserve the same critical approach to understanding from both themselves and their students.

Critical Overview

When he reproduces his journal entries for this section of the text, Booth pastes in portions of his comments to students at the end of papers. Booth describes his practice of writing lengthy comments to students about their essay submissions, and stresses that he has never regretted the considerable time spent on this practice as wasted.

When he adds bits of those comments into his own writing about his experiences, he seems to be heeding his own advice: consciously exemplifying his standards through his own writing, a move that is characteristic of much of Booth’s writing.

In this case, his careful consideration to apply what he teaches to his own work strengthen the suggestion that Booth is attempting to depict a shared responsibility for learning between teachers and learners.

Just as Booth advocates a critical approach to texts, even one’s own texts, he advocates a critical approach to teaching. Productive learning cannot take place if teachers fail to continuously judge their own teaching and learning by the same standards that they judge their students. 

To All Those Who Care About the Survival Of Institutions that Preserve Teaching and Learning

Occasion: "The Idea of a University--as Seen by a Rhetorician" (1987)

Booth reprints his Ryerson lecture, as the epilogue to this text, describing the Ryerson lecture as “an occasion ready-made for [his] purpose: a rhetorical occasion about rhetorical occasions” (397). His address describes the variations of rhetoric that can be found in any university: rhetoric-1, a rhetoric of shared beliefs and topics confined to individual departments; rhetoric-2, a rhetoric of general beliefs shared by all members of the society outside of the university; and rhetoric-3, the "Boothean" type of rhetoric which he promotes throughout this text.

Rhetoric is where all distinct departments overlap, the staple practice for all members of the university, faculty, graduate students, undergraduate students, and administrators and the responsibility that all members are jointly charged with sustaining. It is the common commitment to genuine inquiry that holds together the university, the commitment to curiosity, to establishing connections, to teaching and learning as a community rather than as an individual pursuit for “top prize” (334). In short, rhetoric is what makes it a “uni”-versity rather than a “multi”-versity.