We’ve launched a new series that we’ve titled “Department Dialogue.” This series offers our professors a platform that they can use to discuss English-related topics that are of interest to both faculty and students alike. We continue the series with responses from the Rhetoric & Writing faculty, who have all answered the same question: what does rhetoric mean to you?
So, first, I acknowledge that all communication involves what communication theorists call the communication triangle. I would portray it as follows: Imagine a triangle with a circle around it. The points of the triangle stand for the key elements of all communication: I (the writer/speaker), It (the message), and You (the audience). That triangle is surrounded by the Context of the message. Those four elements are included in any human communication. The relationship among those four elements is Rhetoric. Any message in any medium or collection of media can be analyzed or planned by thinking through those four elements.
From another perspective, the ancient Greeks were interested in the human element of communication whereby human thoughts find outward expression in words. That relationship was often called Logos. So, in brief, Thinking→Words = Logos. For the ancient Greeks putting one’s thoughts into words then necessitated that you act on those words, thus setting up the relationship, Thinking→Words→Actions. That relationship defined one’s Ethos or Character, leading Aristotle to say that “character is almost, so to speak, the most authoritative form of persuasion.”
From both this modern communications and this ancient historical perspective comes my interest in Rhetoric: how it has been conceived, the way it is conceived, the way we use it, the way we abuse it, and the way we learn it.
Once, at a conference, I heard a keynote speaker say the following in describing the way one’s discipline shapes the way s/he thinks: “We tend to see and experience the world through the lenses offered via our respective fields. A hammer, for example, goes through the world seeing only things to be nailed.” That quote resonated with me because I realized that I tend to see the world rhetorically. For me, everything has rhetorical potential, and everything can be subject to rhetorical analysis. And my field has equipped me with the frameworks, concepts, and terms to discern and unpack those rhetorical potentials and to conduct those rhetorical analyses. In short, my field has helped me to see more clearly the complex ways in which I am always being communicated to, whether I want to recognize it or not. Just as important, it has taught me ways in which I can communicate back–and do so responsibly, strategically, and effectively.
Perhaps more than anything, however, my field has confirmed for me what I’ve always sensed: language is the ultimate mediator; it is our means for understanding and experiencing the world. Take away our words, our various symbol systems for making meaning, and what do we actually know? About anything?
Rhetoric permeates every aspect of our lives and is our means to navigate our lives: it’s how we know and do, it’s how we control and are controlled, and it’s how we go about envisioning, making, and shaping the world we want to live in. That sounds like something important, something worth knowing better and helping others know better, too.
The reason I love rhetoric is because it is a deeply human subject. The strength of human beings is our ability to communicate and coordinate, to band together to solve problems far greater than any of us individually. That communication and coordination is driven by rhetoric.
My own specialties—professional writing, visual design, and web development—are far removed from the roots of rhetoric in Ancient Greece, but they still have much to gain from the study of rhetoric. I teach people to look at professional writing, design, and development from the perspective of rhetoric: to analyze the choices others have made in crafting their communications, to carefully make those choices themselves to achieve particular effects. Professional writing, design, and development may be the subjects I teach, but at their foundation is rhetoric.
I think that the value of the area of rhetoric and composition is that we are able to offer our students a set of tools that can not only help them in their future career but in all areas of life. We equip them with the tools they need to understand the rhetorical arguments happening around them, and to hone their critical thinking skills as they discover and analyze layers of meaning. The students are then able to craft more powerful, effective and useful appeals in their own writing and speaking. We are, essentially, offering our students what I like to call “a place at the table,” where their ideas are more well-received by a broader audience.