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A Q&A with Paul Butler

January 29, 2019

Join us today as we talk with Paul Butler, associate professor at the University of Houston and author of The Writer's StyleOut of Style, and Style in Rhetoric and Composition. 

University Press of Colorado Blog Q&As share the perspectives of scholars working within their disciplines, bringing readers closer to their knowledge, research, and voices. Join us today as we talk with Paul Butler, associate professor at the University of Houston.

What outcomes do you hope will spring from your research?

I hope my research will inspire others to think about their writing in new ways; to consider the effects of their words, sentences, paragraphs, and essays on readers; and to incorporate stylistic techniques in their writing. Since Robert Connors’s article “The Erasure of the Sentence” appeared in 2000, a cadre of dedicated scholars in Rhetoric and Composition has been retheorizing and rethinking style in fresh and innovative ways. I hope my work will continue that trajectory by encouraging scholars, teachers, students, and writers everywhere to get excited about style in their research, teaching, and writing.

Favorite field/research anecdote?

As hard as it may be to believe, I received twenty-three (yes, 23!) separate reader reports from reviewers of my most recent book project. A few years ago, I remember getting a call from an editor while I was at the Digital Media and Composition Institute at Ohio State University that May. I learned that thirteen reviews had just been emailed to me. I was sitting outside in Columbus during a lunch break, and I was late getting back to DMAC for the afternoon sessions because I was so eager to read what readers had to say.

The readers had read four chapters, and, as you might predict, their responses ran the gamut from praise to critique. One reader would say a chapter was the best they had ever read on a topic while another would say it should be completely rewritten. It was hard to figure out what to do, so my initial response was to throw out everything—and start over! Eventually, common sense prevailed, and I reworked much of the material that had been reviewed, guided by the responses from reviewers and their useful, if divergent, advice. You often hear of playwrights revising their work based on audience reaction. Well, the same is true of anyone trying to write a book that others will find useful and relevant to their rhetorical and pedagogical situations.

Worst professional advice you’ve ever gotten?

The worst advice I received was to stay in law school when I tried dropping out after my first semester. I remember hating law school. I didn’t feel successful or happy studying law. When I went to the dean’s office and asked to simply fill out the forms to leave, you would think I’d committed a federal offense! I ended up staying after it seemed I had spoken to every dean and administrator at the school. To be honest, my attitude never changed over the course of three long and arduous years. I did end up graduating, passing the Colorado Bar exam, and working as a judicial law clerk and a deputy district attorney. But after being in the profession for about two years, I left it for good—and have never looked back.

Best advice?

The best advice I received was from a friend and classmate at Middlebury, where I was pursuing my passion for French by working toward a master’s degree. (I had already earned a bachelor’s degree in French.) During my first summer there, I spent hours in the language lab listening to a native French speaker’s voice superimposed upon mine. I remember struggling with the pronunciation of certain vowels (especially the nasal “u” [y] sound in words like “tu” or “sucre”) in combination with the consonant “r” sound, which is in the throat. After discussing my efforts, a friend from Ukraine pointed out that I was surrounded by many French speakers who had started learning the language as young kids when it’s easy to acquire native fluency (much earlier than my beginning it at 13). He said he could sense the affinity I had for words and language, especially English, and he encouraged me to pursue that path, which he saw as my true calling.

I didn’t think much about his advice at the time, but after some time in French doctoral programs at Vanderbilt and UC-Irvine, I eventually realized his instincts had been on target. Today, I focus on English but use my French language skills whenever I can, and that includes in my writing, which benefits from my fluency in French and my increasing interest in second-language writing, code-meshing, and a translingual approach to language and style.  

Why did you decide to work in this field?

While I was doing graduate work in French in California, I was asked to teach a composition class at Los Angeles Trade-Technical College, part of LA’s massive community college system. The class was large, with nearly 40 students, but I immediately loved the energy in the classroom and the diversity of the student body. The course made me realize that teaching composition was a perfect fit for my background in law and language (both French and English). I discovered that it’s almost impossible to land a full-time community college teaching job in the LA area without a PhD, so I started doctoral work. While I didn’t end up teaching at a community college in California, I have had the opportunity to teach at institutions with diverse student bodies and have also been able to share my ideas with others as a scholar-teacher in the field. I see my decision to work in the field as a fortuitous accident!

Paul Butler is associate professor of English at the University of Houston. His recent scholarship focuses on style, the public sphere, and digital rhetoric. He is the author of The Writer’s Style, Out of Style, Style in Rhetoric and Composition, and many articles in journals and edited collections.

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