Enthusiasm and Rhetoric

This fall, my students watched some essays being read or recited by the authors of the works. The students soon recognized that the live events with audiences were far different from the printed page. We watched a political speech by President Obama that they had read in class. Reading the speech, without knowing the author, the students declared the speech empty of content and slim on evidence. The speech was a series of tired clich├ęs about a better future and the ideal this country embraces.

Watching the speech, the students leaned forward. Some found the audience's enthusiasm infectious. Others, recalling how harshly student groups had judged the speech, found the audience reaction troubling. After the five minute speech, the discussion was lively.

I compared the live event to a concert. When I listen to a studio album in the comfort of my house, I focus on every subtle sound. You can hear strings vibrate and piano key-lever combinations swing. You can hear musicians inhale right before a trumpet hits a high note. It's a wonderful experience for a music lover with an audiophile setup. And then you have the live concert…

The live concert is imperfect. You hear the people around you, not the subtle aspects of music. I've been to numerous live concerts, and I can tell you that rock, country, or jazz, the music fidelity isn't near what you experience at home. But that's not why you go to a concert. You go to a concert to share in the love of music. You go to be part of a community wanting to show appreciation to the musicians.

Political speeches are like concerts. They are not meant to convert the audience, they are meant to reinforce existing loyalties. Political speeches are pep rallies, something like the pre-game tailgating before a football game.

My students were initially troubled by this. The academic materials we read in class imply speeches are much more.

Though 2012 would be a great year to teach rhetoric and public speaking, I'm teaching technical writing and editing courses. I won't have the opportunity to have students read unattributed speeches and then view the same speeches. Hopefully, science and technology issues will be a part of the campaigns so I can at least have students analyze one or two speeches.

For a variety of reasons, my own enthusiasm for the political has waned. I also don't enjoy live concerts as much as I once did.


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