By Claire Edwards & Madison Williams
What is rhetoric?
It’s a question anyone in our field has been faced with, be it by students, parents, or friends. It is the subject we have advanced degrees in, the term we spend hours discussing, the concept some of us spend our lives studying; so why is this question so hard to answer? Many of us have our go-to definitions prepared to answer this question, usually short and sweet, that seem to sum up the concept well enough. Rhetoric is “the study of effective argument, persuasion, and messaging” or “the art of successfully conveying a message for a specific audience within a specific context”. Duh. While this sort of answer might suffice in the moment, we know rhetoric is more than just a persuasive argument. But, how can we possibly encompass all that rhetoric means to us in a few short words?
The root of the difficulty defining rhetoric is complicated, much like the word itself. Rhetoric has often been associated with Aristotle, politicians, and a history of institutionalized oppression but has transformed and expanded, particularly in recent years, to embrace various new perspectives. The field has moved beyond traditional views of rhetoric in academia, to appear differently depending on context, resulting in this lack of a field-wide consensus as to its definition. The uncertainty surrounding how to define rhetoric has been continuously perplexing and, especially considering the word is featured in the title of this blog, it is a vexation we’ve frequently encountered. Thus, as dutiful rhetoricians and members of this editorial board, we thought we’d give it the old college try and attempt to adequately define rhetoric (at least for the purpose of this blog).
The definition of rhetoric has evolved over time, from its earliest explanation as “the faculty of observing in any given case the available means of persuasion” by Aristotle, to its interpretation as "the use of language as a symbolic means of inducing cooperation in beings that by nature respond to symbols" by Burke, to the description as “the art, practice, and study of human communication” by Lunsford, and everything in between. In Becoming Rhetorical, Jodie Nicotra writes that “Rhetoric… refers to the wide array of communicative devices humans have at their disposal to create effects on each other” and “While it was originally developed to help people make persuasive speeches, rhetoric is still studied for its supreme practicality and adaptability” (“Introduction” 2018).
Some of these definitions might initially seem straightforward and simple enough. However, defining rhetoric becomes more complicated when one considers that intentional or not, anything with a decision made about it is rhetorical; the decision itself makes it rhetorical, and if there is thought behind it, it’s in the realm of rhetoric (Watson). For example, a protest poster decrying the negative effects of a zoning bill is certainly rhetorical. But, the following things are also rhetorical: the placement of a homeless shelter adjacent to luxury condos, the design of that shelter, the community outreach efforts to gain funds for the shelter, and the ongoing discourse surrounding the shelter and its efficacy.
These examples illustrate just how difficult rhetoric can be to define and that it means potentially very different things in different contexts. It has evolved over time in not only its definition but also its scope and application. While some might define rhetoric as the study of effective argument, persuasion, and messaging, our program and the current larger study of rhetoric asks us to return to the drawing board as the field has broadened to include matters not easily classified as argumentative or persuasive (or even intentional). What is clear though, is that rhetoric is bigger than just something we study in our program; it surrounds us in our daily lives.
So, what is rhetoric to us?
For our purposes in this blog, we see rhetoric as a way to examine and communicate about the various power dynamics inherent to our city. We will use rhetoric to better understand communication across contexts, as something that exists in and, perhaps more significantly, outside of the academy. Rhetoric has power; it helps us to understand power dynamics, our roles in the world, and how we might interact with and respond to the environment around us. In these attempts, we hope to support the practice and study of rhetoric as vital activities that offer insights into the languages and communities of our city.
Danielle: I’ve lived in the greater Milwaukee area since I was young. I graduated from Marquette University in 2013 with a degree in Writing Intensive English. For my Rhetoric and Composition MA project, I rhetorically analyzed how Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez utilizes Instagram in order to build community with her followers. I hope to do more research about the ways in which people make rhetorical choices in digital spaces. As a mom of two energetic daughters, I don’t have much “spare time,” but I love drinking coffee and finding pockets of time to read.
Chloe: I’ve lived in the Midwest my whole life. As a first generation college student, I got my bachelor’s degree in English from Southern Illinois University Edwardsville in 2017. I finished my masters in Rhetoric and Composition at UWM this past spring. My MA project focused on the history of “Students’ Right to Their Own Language” and supporting teachers in furthering linguistic equality in their classrooms. In my free time, I enjoy cross stitching, listening to true crime podcasts, and supporting the Chicago Cubs.
As two students about to begin working toward their PhDs in UWM’s brand new Public Rhetorics and Community Engagement program, we see this blog as an opportunity to spotlight important work, events, and people in our community. While Milwaukee is known for its beer and cheese, we hope to explore more deeply what is happening in and around this city, and how people are engaging with rhetoric.
We’ve both been with the blog since the beginning, in Rachel Bloom-Pojar’s Latinx Rhetorics course in Spring 2019. We’ve seen the blog in all of its uses: as a tool to recap class discussions and readings, as a highlight of community events, and as a way to connect with other academics over the woes and triumphs of qualitative research. As contributors to this blog, we’ve written pieces that connected to theories and practices in the field of Rhetoric and Composition, and we’ve workshopped with our peers to create content that both a local and extended audience would be interested in reading.
Slowly but surely, we’ve seen the connections between our program and the community being built with this blog, and we’re looking forward to keeping that momentum. Writing for the blog was sometimes challenging as part of our class assignments, as it could be difficult to write good content within the confines of the guidelines. We hope that going forward, this blog can be not only a source of information but also a conversation starter with both our local community as well as with our larger academic community.
Both UWM and the Milwaukee community as a whole has an exciting year ahead: here on campus, the English department will be officially launching our new PhD program: Public Rhetorics and Community Engagement. Through this program, students will be challenged on their notions of rhetoric and stretched to engage with the diverse communities that surround UWM. We hope to utilize this blog as a platform to highlight other writers on campus and off. People are doing rhetoric in Milwaukee in a myriad of ways and we want to celebrate and share it!
It's going to be a big year for rhetoric and writing in Milwaukee. Next March, the city will be host to the 2020 CCCC Annual Convention; in July, the 2020 Democratic National Convention. We look forward to being a place of learning, connection, and community for those in the city, those visiting, and those keeping tabs from afar.
We hope to continue adding intriguing rhetorical writing to this blog, and welcome submissions from fellow writers who are engaging with community events, organizations, individuals, or anything else that highlights writing and rhetoric in our city.