Thursday, March 15, 2012

Ruminating on Rhetoric

If you had asked me in high school what the term "rhetoric" referred to I would probably have given you a definition that would be more fitting of the word "blather." That is to say that I would have used the word rhetoric as in the phrase "political rhetoric." My definition for the word would almost be synonymous with "deceit."I also would have mentioned that I knew what "rhetorical questions" were but that is about all. I would imagine that most students are in the same place today; although some may know more about its history and such.

It may be humorous how little I knew of rhetoric and my ignorance of the fact that it is defined as "the art of persuasion." But what may not be so humorous is how little attention rhetoric receives at the high school level, or really any level of education.

In my opinion "communication" is almost synonymous with "persuasion." Even the most basic of greetings contains an element of persuasion. As humans we always have a motive even if that motive is understood. For instance take the following interaction:

Jim: Hello
Steve: Hello
Jim: How are you?
Steve: I'm good. Thanks.

Lets interpret this one of two ways. First, Jim and Steve are friends and this interaction is a genuine one. Second, Jim is pretending to be a friend of Steves but he is trying to trick Steve into thinking that he is a cool guy. In which instance is Jim being persuasive? Most of us would say that in the second instance he is trying to persuade Steve. I would argue, however, that in both instances Jim is being persuasive. We often think of persuasion as a means of deceit but this is simply not the case. Although it may take more persuading when deceit is involved. However, persuasion is also increased when a teacher is trying to teach students a concept that is very abstract; as opposed to a discussion of something that can be verified easily.

I promise this will all tie in at the end but I must make one more digression before discussing what all this has to do with rhetoric and the classroom. In Response & Analysis (p.130-133), Probst discusses how we approach texts differently based on how they look. We expect a poem, for example, to have creative words, abstract concepts, a particular bouncy rhythm, etc. When we read a piece of prose we expect the information to be more straightforward and not really concealed in heavy poetic language. Imagine converting a Dr. Seuss poem into prose. It would be confusing and obnoxious. We simply expect prose to make more sense than that. But when we see a poetic work in its proper form we are prepared for  the type of language that might typify that particular genre.

So what does all of this have to do with rhetoric? Well if all of our communication is a form of persuasion to some degree rhetoric is immensely important. In my discussion of Probst I brought up the visual expectations of a text because so much of today's literacy is based off of visuals. Even the text itself is a visual which imposes on the reader an expectation of what they are about to read. With Web 2.0 and multi-modal instruction becoming more prevalent, the study of persuasion is of immense importance.

Color, font, font size, music, video, powerpoint, video chat and more are all persuasive elements. Social networking itself is one giant act of persuasion. We select the photos we want on our profile in order to persuade people and their view of us (whether true or not). We list groups, organizations, sports teams, celebrities, friends, movies, books, and just about everything else that we want to be identified with. In the employment section of everyone's social network profile it should say "Full-time Rhetorician."

It makes sense. If communication and persuasion are essentially synonymous then the increase of communication, which has occurred due to the innovation of Web 2.0 and the surplus of User Generated Content, necessitates that the study of rhetoric is of utmost importance. Students need to recognize that their audience is the world. They should recognize the permanence of things they post. Students need to understand the power that they have to persuade and act as rhetoricians. They should also be aware of how they themselves are being affected by the rhetoric of others.

1 comment:

  1. I'm taking Comp and Rhet for the first time and I absolutely love it. I cannot help but to think how much use this subject could have been to me at the high school level. I know that I will probably not have the time to delve deep into the matter when I actually start teaching. However, I do believe that I will give my students a brief foundation, just so they'll know what rhetoric actually is and how it can be useful in both writing and speaking. You're right. Rhetoric IS important.