As a student studying rhetoric at the graduate level for the last two and a half years, I had always felt uncomfortable when people asked me, “so, what is rhetoric anyway?” It wasn’t like I didn’t have an answer or general definition of rhetoric, but my conceptualization of rhetoric felt fragmented, ungrounded even. Having never taken a history of rhetoric course, I acquired my working definition of rhetoric from teaching composition courses and taking rhetoric-related courses (composition studies, multimedia theory, online identity, etc). Similarly, I was uncomfortable with writing the word rhetoric in papers. I swapped out words all the time: discourse, composing, literacy, communication, meaning-making, writing. I felt like rhetoric had an immense amount of baggage attributed to it—baggage that I had never examined in historical detail.
After this course, I still feel like rhetoric has baggage. What complex concept/practice doesn’t? But, for me, it’s this long-standing theory building (and disrupting) that makes rhetoric so malleable, interesting, and important.
I’ll be using the word more often now—baggage and all.
- Avoid paralysis. Find your niche, mention its limitations, then work with it.
When I think back on the course’s progression—studying the Greco-Roman canon then moving into theory that disrupts the canon—I feel a sense of paralysis. (I’m thinking specifically about the Octalog discussions here.) How can we move forward? Do we work within the system of rhetoric whose traditions stem back 2,500-plus years? Or do we disrupt the system, asking critical questions about the practices that get privileged? Do we seek to contextualize rhetoric based on the social, economic, political, temporal, etc. factors that affect how we communicate/who gets to communicate?
Yes, yes, yes, and yes.
It’s easy to get bogged down in such questions. And for good reason—they’re extremely important. If we think of rhetoric as the art of “shaping content” (Covino and Joliffe), these questions should remain central to our study. However, I want to be mindful that all projects will likely have holes, aspects that are vulnerable to critique. Importantly, I want to be extremely attentive to issues of power, access, and agency. I want those issues to be central to my work. I don’t want, however, to be paralyzed from studying how discourse is working (or has worked) in particular contexts. In essence, I think it’s more useful to work within and react against the “canon” than avoid it altogether.
Although this take-away deals more with research and scholarship, I see it as playing out in the classroom, too. Is it oversimplified to offer students an Aristotelian definition of rhetoric? Maybe. I think, though, that we have to start somewhere…and then continually complicate definitions, assumptions, and implications.
2. Public rhetoric: can it be done in the classroom?
Public rhetoric has been an interest of mine since our readings of 19th-century rhetoric (Grimke, Douglass, Wells, etc.). Their aim to effect some sort of social change reminded me of the important work rhetoric does. These rhetors show how issues of power are always embedded in rhetorical situations. For me, studying these rhetors augmented my understanding of rhetoric and my ability to teach it. Discussing the public sphere—where rhetoric has its roots (the polis)—seems like an essential way to teach rhetoric.
As we moved on throughout the semester, though, readings questioned the extent to which public rhetoric can be practiced within the confines of the classroom (I’m thinking here: Powell; Crowley; Foucault; and Sheridan, Ridolfo, and Michel).
Although I think agency is always negotiated based on various constraints of a discourse community, I’ve found that discussing rhetoric in terms of reaching a real public to be productive. Moreover, students who have aims to publish their work in public venues, I have found, are often more successful in their writing. Also, in their reflections for inquiry 4, my students were much more successful at discussing audience considerations than the previous inquiries. They noted that publishing their videos on YouTube gave them greater awareness of their rhetorical purpose.
As an endnote, I’d like to mention my confidence in teaching composition has been improved by taking this course. And now that we’re nearing the course’s end, I can’t wait to make some changes to my 111.