Ugh, I thought, scrolling through the website for my university’s Communication Department. Who would want to study rhetoric?
Well, it turns out I would, in about a year and a half.
Back when I was a naive freshman scoping out potential major options, I thought rhetoric was just for people who wanted to be a lawyer or a politician. It sounded stuffy to me, concerned with speech-writing and the drudgery of determining whether various appeals were logos, ethos, or pathos. My future in rhetoric seemed dim.
That all changed when I first talked to my communication advisor (who, in full disclosure, also teaches rhetoric) near the end of my sophomore year. He asked me the fateful what-do-you-want-to-do-with-your-life question, which I answered by mumbling something about being interested in writing and social justice. Based on my response, my advisor persuaded me to pursue rhetoric–a recommendation that has turned out to be one of the best I’ve received in college.
Rhetoric: A Definition
Rhetoric is a vast and varied field. Over the course of its 4,000-year history, rhetoric has undergone quite a few changes. To a number of ancient cultures, rhetoric was the art of public speaking. Romans living in the first few centuries AD linked rhetoric to legalese and politics, while Medieval scholars added poetry into the mix. Enlightenment academics debated if the study of rhetoric should follow the course of an art or a science. Finally, modern theorists have begun to research how rhetoric reflects our own biases and values.
Long story short: to me, rhetoric is best defined as how we create and share meaning. We convey messages thousands of times per day–by our words, our inflection, our body language, our clothes, our customs. To me, rhetoric is about studying the messages and the dynamics behind them.
Rhetoric and Social Change
As any good English major can tell you, language has immense power. Rhetorical scholars look at the world much as an English scholars might look at a book–as a complex, multifaceted text that can reveal both truths about the world and the author. Except if rhetorical scholars don’t like what they see, they have the power to change it.
Take, for example, immigrants. Illegal alien may technically be a correct word to describe them, but so might political refugee. Both terms emphasize different aspects of people who, for one reason or another, now reside in a country in which they were not born. But one term conjures up a much more negative image than the other–which can influence how other citizens perceive and respond to these newcomers.
This is what fascinates me most about rhetoric: the potential it has to work for change. Rhetoric can be as expansive as identifying how systems of oppression perpetuate themselves, or as particular as providing a reason why people think a certain way. Either way, changing language can change behavior, which in turn can change the world.
A Future with Rhetoric
Studying rhetoric in college can lead to whatever future you want it to. Rhetoric helps you hone your critical reading, writing, and thinking skills–tools that will help you no matter what field you end up in. Of course, the most visible postgraduate path for someone studying rhetoric is more school, whether that be of the graduate or law variety, but there are other options as well. Generally speaking, rhetorical studies provides a strong basis for future careers in politics, advocacy, or social justice.
So forget about rhetoric as the dusty art of toga-wearing politicians. Forget about rhetoric as the empty words of a presidential candidate. Rhetoric is a modern, powerful, and very real tool for making sense of the world. It’s preparing me to be both a better citizen and a better advocate–and it can help you to become one, too.