History and Theory of Rhetoric: A Retrospective

For the first time this semester, I taught the five week section of the graduate introduction to rhetoric.

This was the first time I taught as part of the team. I wanted to be as accurate to expectations as possible, so basically I took the book and the assignments that were given last year and repeated them. I like Herrick’s book and I am glad that was our text. I still have my colleague’s other text totally ticked out in page markers. I have not yet gotten my own desk copy. I may have to buy one myself. While I like it, I think Herrick did a better job of introducing rhetoric.

I did ask for permission to do a few things differently. These things included (with reasons for rejection):
assigning a reading before class began (late adds)
assigning primary reading (intro course)
assigning weekly blogging (intro course, another course at same time is overwhelming)

Because I have never taught the course before, I kept basically the same syllabus that anyone else teaching the course had. Almost every week I would assign each student a different question from the reading so that the students had to learn that one well enough to answer in front of the class. They could write notes and/or read their answers. I gave no length or format requirement for responses.

During Week 1 I used a PowerPoint to talk about rhetoric: how the students could relate rhetoric to what they knew, where it fit in history, how it appeared in the Genesis account of creation, then a short intro to Greek and Roman rhetoric, and multiple definitions of rhetoric. I also used a PowerPoint to introduce the major sophists.

During Week 2, I used the three chapters students read for homework to ask questions of the students and have discussion. I also introduced the lessons I use to present the Aristotelian appeals to my students.

During Week 3, I had them write down the answers to a few questions based on their reading and then to get in groups and discuss them. In addition, we discussed the rhetoric that the AP Language exam expects and I read them a poem utilizing the kind of odd examples that were used on question 3, which I read this summer. I also talked about using that question as an in-class diagnostic and then having the students do brainstorming, discussion groups, and free writing on the topic before I gave it again, unexpectedly, as an in-class writing. I talked about the percentage of students whose grades increased and how many stayed the same.

During Week 4 I used three historical PowerPoints that covered the time periods we had already read about. These were too disjointed and not closely allied to rhetoric and I felt they were unsuccessful. (The students agreed.)

During Week 5 I brought artifacts from my office (books, art, and knickknacks) and we discussed them in terms of visual rhetoric. The students were at four tables and I had them discuss in their groups the texts on their tables. Then I had them introduce one that they felt was well created or odd or caught their attention and mention why and whether they thought it was appropriate to its apparent audience. The students loved this and felt like it was Show and Tell.

At the end of the five-week section, I asked for feedback. I did this by creating boxes on the board, listing what we did within each box, writing the homework between the boxes, and then soliciting both specific and general feedback.

Different in 2013?

Next time I teach the class I will use the first PowerPoint I created to introduce rhetoric. However, instead of only having them discuss once (in response to the Ecclesiastes 4:12 reading) I will also add multiple discussions to the PowerPoint exercise.

After the Genesis 1-3 discussion of rhetoric, I will ask the students to think about where they see language, persuasion, verbal trickery, or argument having an effect in the Bible. These can be for good or evil. Hopefully this will help students apply the concepts of rhetoric to their biblical knowledge.

I may add a section on the rhetorical lesson I heard at Southwest Central Conference on Christianity and Literature in 2011 on the book of Amos and entrapment rhetoric. I want to make it clear that even with a PhD emphasis in rhetoric, I am still learning.

I plan to repeat the slide asking how they can hook into rhetoric at the end of the presentation and have them discuss things they already know and care about which might relate to rhetoric, based on the definitions we will have reviewed of rhetoric.

I may shorten the Sophistic introduction. I will absolutely talk about the unilateral and bilateral approaches and where we see those in daily life. I will review the meanings after the introduction and ask students to suggest places where the unilateral approach of Gorgias (active speaker, passive audience) seems most likely/appropriate and then for the circumstances which make Protagoras’ bilateral view of the relationship between the rhetor and audience most likely.

preacher on Sunday morning
teacher in a classroom
lawyer speaking to a jury

group members working on a project
jury members trying to reach a verdict

I will work on adding applications of rhetoric to each class period.
We will look at ethos, pathos, and logos in commercials one week. This will be fine in the same week that I present my freshman lessons.
We will look at politicians’ metaphors one week. This will be particularly appropriate with the Roman rhetoric readings.
We will examine lyrics and contrast them with music videos one week. This will work well with the Renaissance rhetoric, since it talks about the rhetoric of poetics.
We will look at book covers and album covers one week. This will be specifically visual rhetoric and we can compare/contrast more masculine covers with feminine covers and see if there is anything to the oppressive persuasion versus the invitational idea.

Next time I teach the class, as homework I will assign the students to write a short blog post for each week. The students will respond to the week’s assigned readings in whatever way helps them think about and discuss rhetoric. Also, if they don’t have anything else they want to say, they will be able to answer one of the discussion questions on the blog. The longer blog post will remain the same.

The students liked this idea and most of them said they would prefer this to the single question from the reading I asked each to be responsible for.

I will still assign a single question each, just to make sure we can stay on track with the reading and that the students make the effort to understand the readings. In addition, I sometimes learn how other things in the book are related to the question because the students try to cover all the material that might possibly impinge on the question.

The students felt like this was unnecessary, as they are graduate students in English and can certainly handle reading. It has been my experience, however, that when people are not held accountable for their assignments, some tend to not do them. There are always a few students in a class who need that kind of accountability.

Finally, next time I teach the course, I will add a short primary reading (or possibly two) and/or an article applying the rhetoric to each reading in Herrick. These will be based on an accessible online text. For the first week’s homework, I like the article on Paul’s use of sophistic rhetoric. For the second homework, I would use Cicero’s canon section and Aristotle’s appeals. For the next reading, I would take a section of Augustine’s discussion of why Christians should use rhetoric, probably. I do like the idea of incorporating an early female rhetorician, though. I have purchased a book of their works to read, but have not yet read through it. If one wrote particularly well on the rhetoric of poetics or Christian persuasion, I would use her work. For the final week’s reading, I am not sure what I would do yet. I am leaning personally toward Bahktin, but the students seemed more interested in Foucault and/or Derrida.

This was something the students specifically requested. I was glad to hear about it. I also was kind of bummed, because I gave them links the first two weeks to short primary readings; however, because they weren’t assigned, no one read them.

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