Last night the Rhetorical Studies Reading Group hosted Angela Ray, who is in town for the Lincoln's Rhetorical Worlds speaker series. Our drill for the RSRG is that we ask the visitor to give us two or three things to read, then we gather at the IPRH and have a wide-ranging, informal discussion. Angela gave us a couple of published pieces to read, and also a fascinating essay-in-progress: a study of Helen Potter, a late 19th century performer who earned her living imitating, quite faithfully, popular speakers and actors of the day. Because of the complexity of Potter's (sometimes cross-gender) performances, Angela's working with a wide range of materials that deal with everything from phrenology to dress reform to passing to elocution. She's also wrestling with questions folks who do rhetorical history frequently encounter: What kinds of materials properly constitute "the text" or "textual fragments" in a historical case? And, what kinds of conclusions can one draw from these materials when there is so much we don't have access to?
One of my favorite things about these meetings is that we learn how people came to do the work they do. In Angela's case, her story involves degrees in English and drama and an early job that introduced her to a strange little field called rhetoric. It involves a grad seminar that piqued her interest in studying the lyceum movement. And, perhaps most importantly, it involves professors who not only encouraged her and challenged her but pulled rare books from their shelves and gave them to her. To keep! There are all kinds of gifts we get from our mentors, but that's a pretty cool one.