History and Theory of Rhetoric: Retrospective 2013

Last year the course was once a week. This year, we had it at the “normal” time, which meant it met twice a week. I liked that organization a lot better. I felt like the students had more time to interact with each other and I could keep tabs on where they were getting lost much more easily.

Another difference between this semester and last year is that the class this semester had only five students, while last year it had fifteen.

In addition, two of those students somehow had managed to take a graduate rhetoric course before they had this introductory course. They had more knowledge, but also more questions and confusion.

For clarity’s sake, and for the sake of a continuance, I am block quoting the points I made in last year’s retrospective that relate to this year’s class. Then I am commenting on them.

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.

This year I also used the PowerPoint I created to introduce the course.

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.

I did this. I had the students talk about ways that a strand of three cords has shown up in their lives. I specifically talked about the three strands of English in our department– literature, creative writing, and rhetoric– and said that I thought this class would tie those all together as well. The students came up with multiple strands of their lives that could be viewed in threes.

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.

We talked about some of these. It was a good discussion.

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 did do this, but, even though there are lots of details, I skimmed over it in the Ppt. That was not the focus I wanted; it was just another example of rhetoric. I had it available to talk about, if the students did not come up with lots of ideas, but they did.

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.

We did this. This is when I found out that two of the students had been in a rhetoric class before. The rhetorics they spoke about were primarily actions (parades, costuming, and so on) or performative 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.

I did this. I had the students write down times when they saw the unilateral and the bilateral approaches in life. Then I asked for their lists. They came up with a lot of the ones I had listed myself and added some others.

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.

I did this. The students, in our review last Thursday, said that it was the most helpful thing they did. They read from the book as homework for both Tuesday and Thursday. Then for Tuesday they had a blog post to write and before class on Thursday they had to comment on two other people’s blog posts. Partially the helpfulness came from the routine; they knew they were going to write and read each week. Partially it came from the ability to talk through things on paper with each other before they came to class.

We often used the blog posts as starting points for the week’s discussion. There were some really good questions that came up and I was able to clear up some misunderstandings. But even more important, I think, they saw that they had learned enough about rhetoric to talk about it (at least a little bit) and were able to build on that each week.

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.

I did not do this. Some of the students in the other class seemed to feel it was a bit patronizing, because of course they know how to read, analyze, and synthesize. I think it was helpful last year, but I also think that the blog posts let this year’s students do the same thing without any negative feelings attached to it.

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.

I did this, but not the way I expected.

The students read from Plato, Aristotle, Cicero, and Augustine. The modern authors, however, we did not read from. It turns out several of the students (not just the two in rhetoric classes) had already been exposed to some of their writings.

Last year, because the class only met once a week, the week of SCMLA we had no class, so my section was actually short a full week. This year, however, SCMLA is in the week after our class and, since we are meeting twice a week, they will only miss one class–if any. I think the professor will be here during SCMLA, so they won’t actually miss any.

I used a history Powerpoint as introductions for the sections they were going to be reading (medieval) and used the Augustine’s rhetoric Powerpoint afterwards to draw out students’ understanding of Augustine’s interpretation of Aristotle and rhetoric.

This year, we finished the readings with one class period left and no more textbook. Because of that, they read the introduction from a book called Spiritual Modalities: Prayer as Rhetoric and Performance and the theory chapter from my dissertation. I picked the first because I had been reading it and it applied Burke’s theories particularly well and, as it covered a religious form of speech/writing/action, it was particularly relevant for our university. I picked the second one because I had no idea if the introduction was going to be over their heads and I knew the dissertation theory chapter would not be. In addition, two of the students had asked persistent questions about theoretical backgrounds of the rhetoricians in the department and about what theories might be most applicable to their work.

I gave the students both chapters and asked them to let me know if Spiritual Modalities was within their range of interest. The response I got decided me. The students were asked to read the introduction and first chapter of the book for homework; they could read the chapter of the dissertation if they wished, or not.

Our final class we had quite a discussion over Spiritual Modalities. I think I may have talked more about my own personal beliefs than I have outside of a private discussion with friends, in explaining things I thought the book was saying while answering their questions. I don’t know if that was helpful or not, but it was the only way I felt that I could answer them with examples that didn’t just repeat what the book said.

I know at least one of the students also read the chapter from my dissertation, as they asked for the bib list to check out a few of the referenced works.

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.

This list did not happen quite as integratedly as I had hoped. We did talk about ethos, pathos, and logos, but the computer would not show the movie clips I had to go with those, so they had to make do with explanations. (We also didn’t get to watch the music videos.) However, we did look at particular images as ethos, pathos, and/or logos.

In addition, I brought in an ethos assignment I have used with freshmen, had the grad students do it, and then we discussed their responses. It was an interesting discussion in terms of determining what makes people credible from their point of view.

I did not bring in the politicians’ metaphors, as I had intended. However, we did have a lively discussion on the rhetoric of politics and the gender differences in expectations (both what the men vs. the women expected and what the students expected from male vs. female politicians). This actually was very useful, since it grew out of student questions on both politics and gender. It tied in well with our discussion of credibility, also.

One thing I did this semester, which was not on the list, but will be for next year, was a rhetoric of display. I brought things in from my office and placed them around a large table. (There were probably fifteen different items.) I told the students they could pick them up, play with them, look at them, ask questions. Then I asked them to comment on what they thought those particular display items might mean.

That was actually very interesting as an exercise because, since I display them, I think of them in one way. However, it allowed me to see the way others interpret them, too. Some of the items were perceived as relating to my sons, when, in fact, they had no connection to my sons. One piece, which is a painting by my grandmother, but which was done in about five minutes while she did thirty others as party favors, was perceived as being a typical family painting. I realized that I have the piece up because it was Grama’s, but it does not show that my grandmother was actually an accomplished artist. I am seriously reconsidering the placement of that item (and the replacement of it).

In addition, I brought to the class things that I was reading or saw that showed rhetoric in action. There was a news article about a study on strong- and weak-futured languages and how the language influenced people’s actions. We read the article and discussed that.

I brought examples of communication problems, where people did not succeed with their rhetoric or where their rhetoric failed, such as the Three-Mile-Island memo and signage with significant errors (such as the Pubic School System sign about how wonderful the Pubic School was and the truck sign for a business named Apostrophe in which they misused an apostrophe).

We also talked about the rhetorical aspects of fashion and looks: business suited people are seen as more trustworthy/persuasive (a study from the 70s I referenced) and good-looking people are viewed as smarter and are more likely to be hired over someone less good-looking but equally qualified, for example.

Photo by Jebulon, WC CC3.
Photo by Jebulon, WC CC3.
The students’ favorite rhetorical application work we did was when I asked them to post images that reminded them of God on the blog. Then other students were supposed to go on and comment on how those images made them think about God. This was actually a metaphor assignment that was borrowed from Sherry Rankin, but I heard about due to Al Haley and Shelly Sanders’ wonderful metaphor presentation: “Beyond King and Throne: 21st Century Metaphors for God.”

I enjoyed that experience particularly because it got everyone thinking about God in different ways. Then, when we came together again in the next class, the students who posted the images said what they had been thinking about when they put them up. Some of the metaphorical conceptions were incredibly detailed and intricate and seemed particularly apropos. I wish Al and Shelly could have been there to hear the students talk; then they would know their presentation is impacting beyond that particular class time.

Overall, I would say that this class went very well.

Next time I teach this class, I will continue to integrate practical examples of rhetorical analysis and increase those. (Including checking with the tech team on getting the software updated so we can have videos running on the computer again.) I will match each exercise very concretely with the readings for the week; I want them to supplement and not supplant the discussion of the readings.

One suggestion the students made, but which I am unsure of the practicality and utility, was to have student-led classes. In a course where students are being introduced to a topic, it is particularly hard to have students lead discussion. I like the idea, but giving students something in rhetoric, when they have no knowledge of rhetoric and it is a required class, is a bit stressful as an idea.

I am considering the idea, but it would have to have some changes. Perhaps I could have them identify an interest they have (like Chris’ interest in Eastern rhetoric) and do some research and present to the class. Maybe a modified paper of some form? Think about this and see if it will actually fit within the parameters of the class objectives.

Right now the second paper allows for this (and, for example, at least three of the students from last year took advantage of that), but the second paper means the students already have five weeks’ of introduction to rhetoric. I am not sure that reading a theoretical paper (or even a research paper in rhetoric) would be a level the students were prepared for earlier.

It would be a good final class period, if we have a small class, where each student reads one scholarly paper on the rhetorical topic of their choice and presents on their findings to the class. Perhaps that is the way to go with that idea. I will try to flesh that out a bit more.

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