Rhetoric Studies Profile

What is Rhetoric Studies

Our department's 2013-14 catalog description explains that:

Rhetoric is the art of persuasion, of communicating effectively and with consequence. As such, Rhetoric Studies examines public advocacy and social expression by exploring influential speeches, internet posts, court opinions, media representations, written documents, and the many ways society engages in persuasive arguments. Courses focus on political, legal, environmental, social, activist, identity politics, and cultural argument while providing a solid grounding in the theory, practice, and criticism of contemporary communication. Students ultimately utilize this rhetorical understanding on the kinds of communication in which they have interest. In the process, they learn what makes rhetoric effective as well as how it affects their and others' lives.

The core of what we do is the examination of communication in public and social advocacy. We are interested in how people persuade others; the consequences of that persuasion; the ethical obligations of such communication; and a search to improve that communication.

To fulfill the goals of our study, our department does the following:

  • We participate in and examine civic engagement, dialogue, deliberation, debate, presentation, and public argument.
  • In our classes, students frequently engage in presentations, debates, speeches, and active discussion. Often, students learn about rhetorical theories and then examine how those theories operate in case studies. For example, we might examine Chaim Perelman's "universal audience" and how that operates in the construction and reception of arguments about national health care policies. We might discuss Raymie McKerrow's eight elements of a critical rhetoric and how this operates in transgendered people's struggle to seek equality. Or we might assess the merits and limitations of Barack Obama's appeal for a multiracial coalition committed to the ideal of justice.
  • We look for what isn't immediately noticeable; for the ways rhetoric influences us in hidden yet pervasive ways. That requires thought provoking analysis of communication.
  • We look for the most effective ways to persuade; communicators need to understand and analyze the rhetorical hand they have been dealt and make the best of it.
  • We teach students how to combine passion with civility. We look for the most ethical ways to influence others, thinking through the consequences of our rhetorical practice for creating a more equitable society based on the democratic and shared expression of each person's experiences and ideas.

What is a Rhetoric Studies Major?

The Rhetoric Studies major is designed to give students the tools to engage in and criticize communication, especially the kinds of communication in which they are interested.

Students have a shared foundation in our discipline's critical methods by taking the required Rhetorical Criticism course (387) in their junior year. This course covers seminal approaches to the study of rhetoric and provides students with multiple writing exercises engaged in analyzing communication.

From there, students choose from a wide variety of courses that provide a deeper understanding of the kinds of rhetoric in which they are interested. Students interested in political and legal communication can take courses such as "Argument in the Law and Politics," "Rhetoric and Political communities," and "Free Speech and the First Amendment." Students interested in social activism can take such courses as "Persuasion, Agitation, and Social Movements," "Rhetorical Explorations of Race, Class, and Gender," and "Civil Rights Rhetoric." Students can also study rhetoric and discourse theory from classical, contemporary and post-modern perspectives (for example, the rhetoric and discourse theories of Aristotle, Cicero, Campbell, Perleman, Burke, Zizek, Lacan, Foucault, Derrida, as well as people from our own discipline such as McGee, McKerrow, and Wander).

Students can also, and generally should, take two courses outside the department to strengthen their knowledge and understanding of the rhetoric they wish to study (these two courses are an optional part of the existing major requirements). A student that is interested in feminist rhetoric, for example, should take gender studies courses; a student interested in political rhetoric should take politics courses; a student interested in psychoanalytic approaches to rhetorical theory should take courses outside of the department covering that material.

As students take these courses, they can work on projects related to their specific rhetorical interest. Students interested in political campaign rhetoric can both take a course specific to that interest and also write papers and give presentations on that subject in Civil Rights Rhetoric and in Rhetoric and Political communities courses (by considering those subjects in the political campaign context). In the junior Rhetorical Criticism seminar, students can write papers in their area of interest.

Students' course work builds toward their thesis which happens in the fall semester of their senior year. Students write theses centered on the rhetoric in which they are interested. We have had students write on Obama's 2008 political campaign, theories of meaning losing their stability in the internet era, criticisms of politically incorrect humor such as South Park and Sarah Silverman, post 9/11 rhetoric about terrorism as revealed in Supreme Court, presidential, and popular media rhetoric, and the rhetoric surrounding the French Muslim veil controversy.

We have, this year, begun an introduction to the department course. We hope that it will encourage students to learn about our department. This course is not required for the major but we can consider that.

We are also planning to add major tracks in, first, social justice and activism and then, second, rhetoric and discourse theory after we complete the hiring of two tenure track professors. Each professor will be expected to teach at least one course in their area each semester (i.e., the social justice professor will teach a social justice course each semester) so that students can easily complete the expected 3 courses for that track.

Student Interest in Our Department

We believe students' primary interests in our department include:

  • Advocating for change; communication strategies to make persuasive arguments, to make a better world, to communicate more effectively.
  • Becoming knowledgeable about advocacy in the law, politics, social activism groups, digital networks, and other venues of discourse.
  • Understanding rhetorical theory-about how words, pictures, and videos influence people and the ethical implications of that persuasion.
  • Learning to be engaged citizens; reading the news, books, the web, with better interpretive skills.
  • Becoming better evaluators of messages; learn how we are being convinced, how we can evaluate persuasive communication, and how we can respond to others' arguments.


In developing these deeper understandings and stronger skills, students in our department are likely to become political and social activists, lawyers, business leaders, news and information providers, advocates for groups, writers, speakers, and researchers.

Rhetoric and Other Areas of Study at Whitman

Rhetoric Studies is about the use of symbols to influence audiences; we examine these symbols in all areas of society, especially in public and social discourse. In our examination, we cross paths with many other areas of study at Whitman College and we welcome the cross and inter-disciplinary aspects of our department. Consider four examples where there are close connections:

  • Rhetoric and Politics: We're definitely engaged in politics but we primarily focus on discursive, communicative, symbolic structures in political and public policy advocacy; we also examine communication in historical, social, gender, digital, and other contexts.
  • Rhetoric and Philosophy: Rhetoric and Philosophy go back many years; Plato's criticism of the sophists emphasized philosophy's interest in truth and rhetoric's interest in beliefs, something that Aristotle's Rhetoric attempted to balance. That distinction continues as Rhetoric focuses on probabilities and audience beliefs about argument rather than Philosophy's stronger emphasis on truths and goodness. We aren't interested in truths per se; we are interested in more persuasive arguments even as we challenge the problematic consequences of that persuasion (for example, misleading audiences, disenfranchising the public with claims of expertise, etc.).
  • Rhetoric and English: We examine texts, including in a few cases, literary ones, but also public speeches, online videos, court opinions, and we do so for how they persuade audiences rather than their literary value. We use rhetorical theories about persuasion and we do so by thinking of the audience-how the text communicates ideas to those interacting with that text.
  • Rhetoric and Sociology: We examine societal interaction including race, class, and gender and we do so from a rhetorical perspective. We don't do empirical data research (well, except in rare situations) and we aren't focused on various social structures as sociology usually is; we are focused primarily on a rhetorical study of the communication aspects of societies. We examine how advocates engage in these issues as well as how social, political, and other controversies are confronted in public and social discourse.


In each interaction with other campus courses, Rhetoric places its strong emphasis on the communication; on theorizing, analyzing, and engaging in how differing communities persuade and influence those who come into contact with them. That is our primary emphasis: communication, persuasion, influence, the use of symbols to express meaning.

Rhetoric Studies & Debat, Public Speaking, and 'Communications'

Rhetoric and Debate: Debate is an important program, it will continue to be part of the Rhetoric Studies program, and it is an intensive area of research and presentation but it is not the core, nor, certainly, the totality of our department. Rhetoric Studies is interested in much more than debate and usually does not study subjects in the same way as debate does. Rhetoric Studies focuses on criticism of communication (which is not really a core part of debate) and is interested in public arenas of communication (debate is more a specialized form of communication focused on technical argument skills).

Rhetoric and Public Speaking: Our courses improve student presentation skills, especially the Public Speaking courses, but we are more than just speaking and arguing; we critique the ways in which we express ourselves and we do so from the perspective of rhetorical theories while examining public discourse in all its forms-legal opinions, media representations, political campaigns, as well as public address and community debate.

Rhetoric and 'Communications': We are not like many of the state school "journalism" "radio" and "television" programs. We can certainly examine those areas of public communication but we are not a pre-professional program. That is not our focus. We are interested in the symbolic representations that exist in all areas of public discourse and we study it from a thoroughly liberal arts perspective emphasizing rhetorical theories and reflective interpretation of communication.