Reconstructing Rhetoric

My M.A. in Writing and Ph.D. in Comp/Rhet required six rhetoric classes (classical rhetoric, history of rhetoric, medieval rhetoric, 19th century rhetoric, modern rhetoric, contemporary rhetoric). Because I assumed I would always teach at an institution that was primarily undergraduate as more of a composition scholar than a rhetorician, the study of rhetoric for me was less about preparing to teach it as it was having six semesters to play with theories I could pull on at leisure for other academic pursuits (and to bore people at parties with my esoteric ability to parse etymology with a shallow knowledge of Greek root words). Dr. Linda Hanson at Ball State University taught us that the 19th century basically began in the mid 1700s and extended into the early 1900s. Her seventeen-page syllabus, replete with about 5 pages of “recommended” (read: also essential) readings was the first syllabus I received in grad school…and almost the last. Dr. Paul Ranieri so vehemently and eloquently disagreed with my ideas about critical pedagogy that I immediately wanted him for the second reader on my dissertation. A single sentence he mentioned in an office chat about the nature of Platonic reality still haunts my dreams.

This fall, my first graduate class in Rhetorical Theory goes online. All graduate students in our professional and technical writing program (with tracks in technical writing, nonfiction, and editing) are required to take this class…and it is the only rhetoric class required. I am facing the mind-numbing task of condensing approximately 2500 years of rhetorical theory and history into sixteen weeks. In doing so, I’ve been rethinking what makes rhetoric a fascinating study for me and how best to communicate that passion to students who will primarily be technical communicators, nonfiction writers, editors, and composition teachers. In other words, students who are very much who I was as a graduate student…not necessarily seeking to be rhetorical scholars but who very much need to understand the foundations and theory of rhetoric in order to navigate 21st century communicative possibilities.

In keeping with the list-happy nature of popular online media in early- to mid-2014, here are five reasons that I was happy I had those six courses in rhetoric (and why nearly everyone would benefit from a little bit of rhetoric in their lives).

1. Most of what holds true about rhetorical theory today was laid out 2500 years ago by a man named Aristotle and some guys called the Sophists.

If you were to study nothing but the first 500 years or so of rhetorical history, you’d have a pretty good grasp on most of the key terms, concepts, and structure of rhetorical theory. In fact, Aristotle’s Rhetoric alone (written B.C.E. 350) will provide about 80% of what you need to know in order to be either a practicing rhetorician (provided you are a good man speaking well–sorry about the sexism) or pull off a solid rhetorical analysis. For grins, you can also dabble in the Sophists, a much maligned but fascinating group of teachers who, again, practiced before the Common Era. A good chunk of the last 2014 years of rhetorical writing from the Middle East to the Midwest involves destroying, upholding, apologizing for, condemning, modifying, sanctifying, or reclaiming these basic rhetorical principles. In other words, we have a few basic precepts, then 2000 years of variations on a theme.

2. Rhetoric is more art (techne) than it is a science or philosophy.

Much of rhetoric’s history has been spent in a shoving match with science and philosophy, or rhetoric has been relegated to the handmaiden of the above. However, to me, the discussion around the epistemological nature of rhetoric (i.e. does rhetoric create or convey truth) begs the question, what’s so great about the search for “truth” (other than most academic fields are fairly obsessed with it)? Rhetoric’s true nature as an art form, as the infinite realm of potential not the finite realm of the real or “true,” makes rhetoric more a dance than a dissection, more cantata than cadaver. Although there is some dissection involved…just not the bloody kind.

3. Studying rhetoric is like buying a blue car. Once you buy a blue car, you start seeing blue cars everywhere. The same is true with rhetoric.

That commercial for bath soap? Rhetoric. Stump speech for your favorite (or least favorite) candidate for Congress? Rhetoric. Infuriating Facebook post? Argument about socks with your significant other? Yep and yep. Study rhetoric and you will soon find otherwise innocuous daily activities imbued with a special hidden meaning. Dabble in stasis theory, and you might look at CSI Miami in a whole new light. Delve into visual rhetoric, and you’ll begin questioning why your children’s teacher feels it so necessary to use comic sans as a default font. (Ok, to be fair, you might question that choice without the formal study of rhetoric).

4. You have been operating under the Platonic view of reality and you probably didn’t even know it. And that is a terrible, terrible shame.

No, the Platonic view of reality does not mean you can be really great friends with the opposite sex. What Plato did was set up a view of reality that…he posed the ephemeral against the…damn it, Dr. Ranieri! I can’t even start talking about it without getting angry. Read this excellent blog that explains the problem with Plato as it relates to the sciences while I gather myself.

5. No matter what you do or choose not to do, rhetoric will enrich your understanding of language and human nature (and might help you win a few more word battles with the important people in your life).

Aristotle defines rhetoric as “the faculty of observing in any given case the available means of persuasion.” The study of rhetoric will make you a more observant human, better able to navigate the core of most human endeavors, the rock-riddled waters of speaking with, writing to, and/or gesturing at other humans. The ability to open our mouths and stick our feet directly in them separates us from the rest of the animal kingdom (except for cats, who can literally open their mouths and…well…you know). And no field…not even literature or creative writing, rhetoric’s closest cohorts (in academe, at least)…will help better equip an individual for a life lived among others in the polis. Or in the country, for that matter.

One of my favorite quotes is from a comp/rhetorist named James Berlin: “To teach writing is to argue for a version of reality and the best way of knowing and communicating it.” If this is true, then to teach rhetoric is to challenge students to argue for their version of reality with all the means available (which they are pretty much forced to do because Plato…no…I won’t get started on this again…).

In short (she says after nine paragraphs of rattle), I can sit in front of my computer every day and open my online rhetoric course with a smile because the study of rhetoric makes us ontologically more human.

That and coffee. But mostly rhetoric.