Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Whining Rhetoricians, Proving the (Wrong) Argument

The call for proposals was typical: explore the vulnerabilities of our programs. Yet another conference or journal wallowing in collective angst. Once again a group of individuals supposedly specializing in the art of effective communication would announce they have failed to persuade various others of our unique value. I suppose advertising an obvious record of failure makes sense to a tradition that begins with Socrates "winning by losing" in the official court of public opinion.

Almost daily, I read the complaints of my colleagues in rhetoric, composition, speech, communication, and related fields. And yet these colleagues seem oblivious to the fact that their whining, self-important rants only serve to support the argument that we might not offer the benefits we claim to deliver.

Students and parents expect practitioners and mentors. Nobody wants a teacher who isn't a master of his or her field. No, you do not need to be the best to be the best teacher. An analogy might be the arts: you can learn the basics from an average musician with a gift for teaching. Still, the instructor is a musician of at least journeyman proficiency. You don't have to play Carnegie Hall to be a great instructor — but you do have to play with a certain competency.

A medical student expects professors capable of diagnosing basic conditions. An electrical engineering student expects a professor capable of diagraming circuits. My journalism professors were at the top of their profession, and I valued their courses. The computer science instructors I know still consult on corporate projects. The instructors were good, talented practitioners of the skills and knowledge they sought to impart.

While I do not believe the purpose of a university is purely vocational — I am a liberal arts advocate — the people teaching each of the disciplines within the "liberal arts" should be more than theorists. Scholars serve an important role, but I admit a bias against isolated scholarship.

The common complaints are that we are undervalued by students, parents, administrators, politicians, and colleagues from other disciplines. People "outside" our fields do not understand how special we are! How essential we are! How much we contribute! How everything in life is rhetorical! Philosophical! Political! All communications are acts of rhetorical composition!

What does it reveal about the instructors of the communication fields when they constantly complain about not being understood? When we protest that our value is ignored, are we not demonstrating our failures as practitioners of effective communication?

A colleague told me, in all seriousness, "Rhetoric isn't marketing." Well, that seems to be true — marketing actually persuades people to act. Consider it crass, but wallowing in self-pity because people cannot see the value of the "art of effective communication" proves how stunningly ineffective we are as a group.

Of course marketing is rhetoric. In fact, marketing has turned to psychology, behavioral economics, anthropology, neurology, and to any other disciplines that might help master persuasion. Forget the logos, pathos, ethos, and kairos; marketing seeks to get the task of communication accomplished. They are "selling ideas" (and products) while we complain that logical arguments are losing the battle for academic resources.

Of any group, shouldn't we be the most aware that logic alone seldom wins arguments? That our ethos has been damaged because we focus so much energy on social issues, instead of teaching skills? People do not take our disciplines seriously, it should be clear to us, and we are why.

More than one colleague has said, "If only people were critical thinkers, then they would understand our value!" Well, but didn't most elected officials and business leaders take general education courses? Were not our leaders exposed to rhetoric, composition, and communication courses? In other words, generations of former students have decided that our courses did not offer a special value.

We failed to persuade our own graduates of the 1970s, 80s, and 90s, of our value proposition. There is no other explanation for how political, business, and academic leaders who graduated from colleges and universities could so readily cut our courses and programs. We failed. We are still failing.

A colleague who believes strongly in "pure democracy" and the "wisdom of crowds" recently complained that the majority don't understand what we do. Wait a minute… the majority shouldn't be empowered to decide the fate of programs that claim to foster democratic ideals?

I admit that I attempt to "sell" writing and communication to as many people as possible. I do not sell the scholarship of various "studies" or overt political agendas. I sell the idea that a doctor, a programmer, a business owner, and most other professionals benefit from writing effectively. I do not sell more or less than that idea: I can help students discover how to communicate a bit better.

Too much of our energies are being spent protesting and complaining. It is time to prove our skills by persuading people that we offer an inherent value. And we should start by being active practitioners of our disciplines. That means writing for larger audiences than each other and our little like-minded communities that seem to be shrinking each year.

We complain that other disciplines pay better. We complain that other disciplines get more respect. We complain that our students do not appreciate our courses. We complain a lot, as any conference agenda demonstrates.

If we proved our value, there would be more demand for our courses than instructors to teach them. Instead, most students take writing, speech, and philosophy courses because they must. What happens when students are no longer required to take our courses? The same thing that happened when Latin and Greek requirements were removed: those programs largely died, with only a little community surviving in isolation.

We need to be more than the bad tasting medicine that claims to be good for everyone — or we will be relegated to the margins forever.

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