Department of Rhetoric & Writing
Department of Rhetoric & Writing

From the Department Chair

Rhetoric, as we in the West have inherited it, has been defined as the art of winning souls through discourse (Plato), the faculty of discovering all the available means of persuasion (Aristotle), speech designed to persuade (Cicero), or more generally the art of speaking well (Quintilian). According to Kenneth Burke, the “father” of modern rhetoric, it is “the use of words by human agents to form attitudes or to induce actions in other human agents.” As a productive art in this humanistic tradition, rhetoric involves effectively moving others to a take up a desired action or attitude. As an analytic art, it involves the critical examination of persuasive appeals and techniques, the rhetorical moves inherent in any communication, from a television commercial or a Facebook meme to a news story, a Presidential address, or a friend’s earnest plea.

But contemporary rhetorical study also exceeds this tidy frame, taking up a complex and dynamic scene of address that is never simply reducible to a speaking subject, a receptive audience, and the message the former intentionally delivers to the latter. Architectural design and décor, the “mood” of a room, the sound or tone of a voice, the smell of a campfire, the force of an image, and the beat of a song can all be enormously persuasive, for example, and may be significant factors in moving you to perform a certain action or adopt a certain attitude. From another angle maybe you’ve found yourself passionately defending some belief you never actively chose but somehow adopted (were moved to adopt) from a culture or subculture that takes those beliefs for granted. Or maybe you’ve found yourself persuaded by or attempting to persuade a nonhuman interlocutor: your companion animal, a “higher power,” the internalized voice of a loved one you’ve lost.

The “language” involved in these scenes of address is not necessarily verbal, nor are the addressor and addressee necessarily present or even finally knowable. Yet, there is no ethics, politics, religion, or law that does not begin in this relational dimension of “language” very broadly defined; that dimension is rhetorical.

The Department of Rhetoric & Writing is devoted to the study and teaching of rhetoric, both as a productive and analytic art and as a scene of address that exceeds any humanistic discipline. Our lower-division writing courses and undergraduate major are designed to prepare 21st century students to be effective communicators and savvy rhetoricians able not only to analyze the persuasive discourses that bombard them every day but also to attend to the larger scene of address from which knowledge and values emerge. Our graduate program in Rhetoric, offered through and in conjunction with the Department of English, is one of the nation’s oldest and most distinguished in the country and is designed to train teachers and scholars in the history, theory, and practice of this transdisciplinary “discipline.” Our teaching draws upon a continually growing knowledge base and discussion of best practices in the discipline.