Notes: Linda Ferreira-Buckley, “Archivists with an Attitude: Rescuing the Archives from Foucault”

Ferreira-Buckley, Linda. (1999). Archivists with an attitude: Rescuing the archives from Foucault. NCTE 61(5), 577-583.


Ferreira-Buckley argues that rhetoric and composition, having a deep history of training in theories of history writing from literature, lacks training as a discipline in the standard methods of historians. Ferreira-Buckley contends that rhetoric and compostion needs to develop standard and deep practices with the archives in order to address this.

Keywords: archives, disciplinarity, histories of rhetoric, methodology


“I want to insist that traditional methodology, far from being incompatible with a progressive politics, is in fact the best agent of change” (582).

“Theoretical sophistication does not obviate the need for practical training. We lack the tools of the historians’ trade; familiar with only the most obvious granting agencies, we cannot secure the money needed to carry out research agendas that are both deep and broad” (582).


This strikes me as a text that is calling for the discipline to define its expertise, or shore it up, as much as it is calling for a deeper understanding of archival practices. She opens pointing to what may be a deep rift in rhetoric and composition/writing studies’s history: its connection and histories with literature. And later in the text brings up issues of funding research enterprises, which seems a symptom of that rift.

At the same time, the point that the discipline needs to take seriously the practices of the methodologies it takes up is one that needs making and reminding. The call is important to attend to methods carefully, to instruct in them carefully, and to represent them thoroughly.

I find it, perhaps, especially compelling that she writes, “I believe fully the truism that even historians who deny theory operate nonetheless from a theory” (p. 577). Though, I suppose that’s on my mind after my reading of Gaillet’s text. Ultimately, it is important here though to note that she discusses practice in a way that is not separable from the theories that operate within it, but that one nonetheless needs to develop an understanding of practice as a part of that. I’m not sure if it is because the time since then, or my own disposition, but all of this seems—is nonissue or obvious the right word?

I come to a sticking point around the emphasis of ‘traditional methodologies.’ Traditional methodologies, I have no doubt, can be agents of change—and by all means should—but I’m dubious of the suggestion that the privileged methods are the means, in the name of expertise, should be naturalized or given the superlative of ‘best’ in her concluding paragraph. For one, it seems arhetorical: best for who, in what context, to what ends—one’s methodology need not stop at one’s theory, but in the interpolation between one’s theory and one’s methods, which will occur in particular contexts.

And, perhaps simply: research is messy. Becky Rickly writes in “Making Sense of Making Knowledge” of the need for “our field become a little more comfortable with what Law refers to as the ‘messiness’ of research” (p. 266). Rickly argues that “we need to situate our methods (and our application/analysis) so that they help us understand more complicated research scenarios and questions” (p. 262). And histories and archival works are certainly messy, certainly complicated, and need methods to be situated as such.

While I understand the need for expertise as well, I’m not sure that it needs uncritically reinforced. Disciplinarity disciplines at the same time as it offers material conditions that allow for meaning making, such as funding, graduate programs, and tenure lines. Jack Halberstam writes in The Queer Art of Failure:

Being taken seriously means missing out on the chance to be frivolous, promiscuous, and irrelevant. The desire to be taken seriously is precisely what compels people to follow the tried and true paths of knowledge production around which I would like to map a few detours. Indeed terms like serious and rigorous tend to be code words, in academia as well as other contexts, for disciplinary correctness; they signal a form of training and learning that confirms what is already known according to approved methods of knowing, but they do not allow for visionary insights or flights of fancy (p. 6)

I mention this because it interrogates the assumption that the traditional modes of doing knowledge production are the best means of doing so, in some sense by asking the questions “best for who?” and also by asking “what is meant by best?”

Developing practical knowledge is important, but that practice is always situated and a rhetorical education of methods needs the work of situating to be explicit and as much a part of the research design as any other part of a method.

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