Department of Rhetoric & Writing
Department of Rhetoric & Writing

From the Department Chair

Kenneth Burke once wrote that people “build their cultures by huddling together, nervously loquacious, at the edge of an abyss”; and he defined rhetoric as “the use of language as a symbolic means of inducing cooperation in beings that by nature respond to symbols.” These statements are modern renditions of ideas that have reverberated through the history of rhetoric for more than 2500 years. Human beings are “political animals” by nature (Aristotle), and are uniquely endowed with a capacity to form complex, flourishing societies through the agency of persuasive speech and writing (Isocrates). Without the ability rhetorically to reach agreements, induce cooperation, and form institutions — when rhetoric fails — societies descend into Burke’s “abyss,” a chaos of dysfunctionality, random violence, coercion, and oppression.

Another idea that reverberates through the history of rhetoric is that, in complex societies whose functioning and flourishing depend on effective written and spoken (and these days digital and visual) communication, those who are most skilled in rhetoric have a distinct competitive advantage. Rhetoric is how you get your concerns (or your group’s concerns) addressed, or overcome injustice. Rhetoric is how the individual speaks to power. Rhetoric is also how the individual “gets ahead,” or exercises leadership.

The Department of Rhetoric & Writing views rhetoric as both a humanistic discipline and a practical art and skill. Through RHE 306, our lower-division writing courses, and our undergraduate major, we seek to prepare students to communicate effectively in the 21st century, and also to be good critics and judges of the various forms of persuasion and argument that bombard us all every day. Further, we offer one of the nation’s oldest and most distinguished programs of graduate study in Rhetoric, administered through (and in conjunction with) the Department of English.

Our interests are diverse — including rhetorical theory, the history of rhetoric, rhetorical-cultural studies, literacy studies, writing studies, rhetorical pedagogy, digital rhetorics, and visual rhetoric — and our teaching draws upon a continually growing knowledge base and discussion of best practices in the discipline.