Rhetoric: It Ain’t a Four-Letter Word, Y’all!

“The very ordinariness of rhetoric is the single most important tool for teachers to use to help students understand its dynamics and practice them.” (Roskelly)

Whether aware or unaware, the 21st Century student is steeped in rhetoric on a daily basis—Facebook, Twitter, movies, advertisements, conversations, school, books, music.  Colleges have instituted a freshman level course on it—to help students think more critically.  Its origins are as old as philosophy.  AP English teachers have been teaching it for decades.  What is it?  Why should I care?  How can it help me with STAAR?

According to Edward P.J. Corbett and Robert J. Connors, “rhetoric is the art or the discipline that deals with the use of discourse, either spoken or written, to inform or persuade or motivate an audience, whether that audience is made up of one person or a group of persons.”  The origins of rhetoric began in 5th century Greece.  At this time, the primary purpose of rhetoric was to aid public speakers.  During the Middle Ages, rhetorical techniques began to be applied to the art of letter writing.  But it was not until the Renaissance and the invention of printing that we saw the art of rhetoric being applied to all forms of writing.  It is hard to ignore rhetoric’s ubiquity in our everyday lives and its strong historical background.

With the advent of the STAAR, rhetoric’s relegation to AP level courses is no longer justifiable.  If we are to prepare students to – take a deep breath –  “analyze whether a writer’s historical support for an argument is relevant” (analytical composition on released STAAR), take a position on whether what a person thinks or does is of greater importance (persuasive released),  “explain whether a person must always be acknowledged in order to have accomplished something” (expository composition on released STAAR) or to “analyze how words, images, graphics and sounds work together in various forms to impact meaning” (eligible TEKS), we must equip them with some basic rhetorical skill sets.  Even if not all students will be tested on the persuasive essay, ALL students could encounter questions regarding persuasive techniques in the multiple choice sections of STAAR and MOST of the tested compositions will benefit from rhetorical understanding. Furthermore, our goal as educators has always been for students to communicate and think critically in order to be successful beyond their school years, test or no test.

Teaching rhetoric does not have to be complicated, like memorizing the technical term for every type of metaphor ever invented (metonymy and synecdoche, really???), but we can start simply with the 5 Canons of Rhetoric: the connection between speaker, audience, subject (context and aim).

 

The 5 Canons were established as a way of codifying rhetoric.  Not only can the Canons be used to deconstruct arguments but also a means to construct them; it’s the idea that we read like writers and write like readers.  (I will be speaking of the Canons as a generative tool for students’ writings but, conversely, students can use them to understand readings.) The 5 Canons are Invention, Arrangement, Style, Memory and Delivery.  Though Memory deals solely with spoken rhetoric, the other four Canons are still relevant in our modern classrooms. First, Invention is the act of finding something to say, i.e. a topic and then, as Aristotle would posit, “discovering the best available means of persuasion.”  In 20th century composition studies, this act is called prewriting.  During the Invention phase, the writer considers the subject, audience and speaker.  What does the writer know about the subject? Will he/she need to research?  What examples can be used to provide support for the writer’s thesis?  Who is the audience, what does the writer know about them and how can he/she move them?  How can the writer establish credibility so as to come across as trustworthy?  What tone should he/she use?  During the Invention phase, the writer must also consider context and purpose.  What background information might the reader need in order to better understand the argument?  What is the aim or purpose of the argument?  To explain?  To move to action?  To console?  As we know, we lay the groundwork for good writing during the prewriting phase.

The second Canon is Arrangement, the selecting and organizing of ideas and arguments.  Arrangement mirrors the
drafting phase.  Naturally, compositions should have a beginning, middle and an end, but this organization is vague and TEA has communicated, “NO FORMULAIC WRITING WILL BE TOLERATED ON STAAR!”  If a formula is perceived, students compositions will drop into the lower score category.  So what’s a teacher to do?  Rhetoric has a solution.  Teach

students how to read like writers by having them analyze the organizational structures of “real” writers.  If we’re looking for 26 line sample essays to show students organizational patterns, then we’ll be looking for a long time because they don’t exist (especially not right now).  Once students become proficient at discovering the myriad ways authors organize their writings, we can have students play around with these structures in their own writings.
There is no simple answer or formula.  Students need to be able to create their own text structures, to look at the information they have compiled during the prewriting phase and decide the best method of arranging it.  Flexibility is key.  It’s messy but it is the only way to put the five paragraph essay out to pasture.

 

 

 

The third Canon is Style, “proper words in the proper places.”  In English classes, Style is comprised of diction, imagery, details, figurative language and syntax, to name just few.  Style can be incorporated during the drafting or the revising phases (or both).

 

The fourth Canon called Memory involves the memorizing of speeches.  Since it doesn’t pertain to our classrooms, I will mention it and move on.  We can make students aware of the fourth Canon and explain its importance to speeches but it is mostly irrelevant to the written word.Finally, the fifth Canon is Delivery.  In Ancient times, Delivery referred to body language, voice volume and inflection, but in modern composition studies it is more closely related to Publishing.  In this phase, we can teach students how to merge“words, images, graphics and sounds…to impact meaning” (eligible TEKS) through the use of technology.   This is 21st Century communication (and a tested student expectation).  Instead of using computers merely to type up final drafts, we should be teaching them use every available means possible to communicate their ideas—using computers to their fullest potential.  Students should be considering things such as: What is the best mode of delivery?  A Power Point? A blog?  A Prezi?  A Website?  How can I embed graphs, images, sounds and/or video to strengthen my aim?  Finally, we can have students present their final products to authentic audiences such as their peers, other teachers, or special guests from the community.  It is important for students to realize that people write for real world situations and not just for teachers; providing authentic audiences for our students is one of the best ways to make writing purposeful and fun.  The caliber of writing students produce exponentially increases when they consider delivering their writings to “real” people. (Insert image 5)students aware of the fourth Canon and explain its importance to speeches but it is mostly irrelevant to the written word.

OK—if you’ve gotten this far, you must surely realize that I am a rhetorician at heart.  It’s my “jam,” as I like to say.  But I also hope you can see rhetoric’s relevance with regard to the He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named…aka STAAR.  If we’re looking for answers, this is about as close as we’re going to get.If you’d like to learn more about this subject, Professor Tom Buckley will be presenting a workshop titled “Rhetoric 101.”  Tom is the resident rhetorical guru at UT Austin—and my former teacher and current friend—where he prepares future generations of teachers how to teach writing.  Look for it coming soon to an E-Campus website near you!Corbett, Edward P.J., and Robert J. Connors.  “Classical Rhetoric for the Modern Student.” 4thEd. New York: Oxford UP, 1999.Lunsford, Andrea A., John J. Ruszkiewicz, and Keith Walters.  “Everything’s an Argument.” 3rd Ed. New York: Bedford, St. Martin’s, 2004.

Roskelly, Hepzibah.  “What Do Students Need to Know about Rhetoric?”  AP Central. Website. 12 Jan. 2012.  http://apcentral.collegeboard.com/apc/members/repository/ap06_englang_roskelly_50098.pdf


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