A Feminist Legacy: The Rhetoric and Pedagogy of Gertrude Buck


reviewed by Jane Donawerth - January 08, 2008

coverTitle: A Feminist Legacy: The Rhetoric and Pedagogy of Gertrude Buck
Author(s): Suzanne Bordelon
Publisher: Southern Illinois University Press, Carbondale
ISBN: 0809327481, Pages: 243, Year: 2007
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This book richly contextualizes the academic life and scholarly publications in composition and education of Gertrude Buck (1871-1922). Buck was born and raised in Kalamazoo, Michigan, and was the first person to take a Ph.D. in Rhetoric and Composition, under Fred Newton Scott and John Dewey at the University of Michigan. Buck first taught at the Detroit Normal Training School under the administration of Harriet M. Scott, her mentor's sister, and with her composed her first book, Organic Education: A Manual for Teachers in Primary and Grammar Grades (1897). Buck's dissertation, The Metaphor: A Study in the Psychology of Rhetoric (diss. 1898, book 1899) was published, and in 1897 she began teaching at Vassar, where she remained for the rest of her life. Besides editions of literary works and articles for scholarly journals, Buck also published Figures of Rhetoric: A Psychological Study (1895), A Course in Expository Writing (1899) with Elisabeth Woodbridge Morris (also a Vassar professor), A Course in Argumentative Rhetoric (1899), A Brief English Grammar (1905) with Fred Newton Scott, A Course in Narrative Writing (1906) with Morris, A Handbook of Argumentation and Debating (1906) with Kristine Mann (also a Vassar professor), The Social Criticism of Literature (1916) and, posthumously, Poems and Plays (1922). In addition, Buck for many years headed the Rhetoric and Composition Program at Vassar, teaching foundational and advanced courses in argument, added play-writing and production to the curriculum at Vassar, and helped to found the Poughkeepsie Community Theatre. She lived for most of her life at Vassar with the head of the English Department, Laura Johnson Wylie.


Bordelon's book employs meticulous research on the historical contexts for Buck's lifelong interests, arguing that Buck's composition textbooks and pedagogical guides, as well as her administrative and curriculum development, reflect a progressive, feminist, democratizing philosophy. Chapter 1 gives an overview of Buck's social view of ethics and rhetoric, arguing that Buck saw humans as inherently social and knowledge consequently as communal, and treats Buck's textbook on expository writing as viewing composition as a cooperative endeavor. Bordelon concludes that for Buck, writing was a vehicle (no matter the genre) for promoting social transformation. Chapter 2 offers compelling new insight into Buck's works, arguing that her teaching at the Detroit Normal School opened the tradition of grammar-school progressive education to her, which later influenced her work on college curriculum as "social education" (pp. 42-43); in this context Bordelon analyzes Buck's and Scott's treatise on education for primary schools (which used racist inflected Social Darwinism to trace culture from uncivilized Natives through Greek and Roman to the height of Anglo-Saxon civilization), and also examines the more beneficent influence of this theory on Buck's view of rhetoric as communication rather than persuasion. Chapter 3 surveys Buck's life as an administrator and the influence of Laura Wylie, based on meticulous archival research at Vassar, and demonstrates the democratic force of Buck's view of composition as a right for every citizen, as well as Buck's cooperative administrative style among faculty at Vassar, especially in recurring debates about the load of composition teachers. Chapter 4 recounts the debates at Vassar about suffrage between the male conservative administration and progressive faculty and students and Buck's involvement in the suffrage movement. Bordelon argues that this experience influenced Buck's argument textbooks--pointing to suffrage in her second handbook as one topic for debate. Chapter 5 provides the history of Buck's training in drama, her founding of a drama workshop in play-writing and production at Vassar, and her establishment of the Poughkeepsie Community Theatre as an experiment in town-gown democratic relations. The final, fascinating chapter examines the careers and philosophies of two students of Buck and Wylie's who then returned to teach English at Vassar--Mary Yost and Helen Lockwood. Yost extends Buck's theories of communication, arguing that communication is always social, a transaction drawing on emotion as well as reason, and Lockwood furthers Buck's investment in social issues, developing courses in "The Contemporary Press" and "Public Discussion." Bordelon concludes that Buck's legacy of student-centered, politicized education was transmitted to future generations.


While Bordelon's organization is clear and coherent, there are infelicities of style that the copy-editor should have caught: for instance, lack of parallelism ("she and other women were denied the right to vote and socially oppressed" [p.3 and repeated exactly p. 28]); and dangling modifiers ("In investigating Buck's involvement in the progressive education issues of her time and her prior collaboration with Harriet Scott, it is evident..." [p. 65]). Although Bordelon's historical research is deep and rich, and her footnotes a pleasure, her analysis of Buck's textbooks is sometimes thin, and I would have liked a more complex, closer analysis of those textbooks. At times, Bordelon allows her thesis concerning the feminist, democratic goals of Buck's teaching, administration, and rhetorical theory to limit her rather than to guide her. At other times, Bordelon does not seem sufficiently aware of the earlier history of education. For example, she overemphasizes the influence of Kant on ethics (when there were other influences on rhetoric of common sense Scottish philosophy), and praises Harriet Scott's development of education based on story without noting the development of narrative textbooks in the late eighteenth century by the Edgeworth family, among others. Still, this is an insightful, accessible book that brings a great deal of archival research to bear on Buck's composition and education theory. I would recommend it to all interested in Buck's works, nineteenth-century progressive education, and the history of rhetoric and composition.





Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: January 08, 2008
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 14872, Date Accessed: 5/27/2022 5:05:58 PM

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