Monday, November 07, 2011

The Problem of Rhetoric as a Word

A student in one of my courses wrote that she hates rhetoric, especially the rhetoric from politicians. In my lectures, I do my best to explain that "rhetoric" refers to much more than manipulative tricks and empty appeals to emotion. The problem is that "rhetoric" is now synonymous with political chicanery. My students have no other understanding of the word, no matter how many courses explain the historical foundations of the academic discipline we call rhetoric.

In the last few weeks, I've been told the following by students:
  • I don't like to argue. 
  • Rhetoric is what destroyed the middle class. 
  • Most texts aren't rhetorical. 
  • Studying rhetoric is like mastering lying. 
  • No one takes speeches seriously anyway.

I study the rhetoric of fiction and the rhetoric of science. These two fields might seem lightyears apart, but they aren't. We communicate through stories and narratives. But my students do not associate the ways in which we share knowledge and ideas with the discipline of rhetoric.

How can we better reach today's students? I've tried to explain the "personas" students adopt online: the Twitter, Facebook, and miscellaneous profiles they carefully construct for different audiences. Even though we consistently refer to the choices as "rhetorical analysis" the students actively reject the word rhetoric.

Maybe the word "rhetoric" is beyond rehabilitation? I hope not. Yet, my students have had four or more courses that use standardized terminology, including the lexicon of rhetoric. So to reject the word is to reject a fair amount of university instruction.