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Watching and Discussing “In Defense of Rhetoric”

by Steve Krause on September 7th, 2014

We’re beginning this term with some discussions/readings that I guess I would describe as some “fundamentals” that we will return to again and again through this course and beyond. After all, writing well– professionally or otherwise– isn’t just about being correct (though that too matters a lot) and it isn’t just about the right format. Rather, writing and communicating effectively is more complicated than that.

The first of these fundamentals is exploring this thing called “rhetoric,” which is about much much more than the common use of the term in the popular media– as in “that’s just empty rhetoric.” Rather, rhetoric is about how we persuade and how we understand (and even create!) what we know in the world around us.

Of course, this is just an introduction, a short video. There’s a lot more to it than this. But this should point you down the right path.

Oh, and PS:  To see a bigger version of the video, just watch it directly on YouTube.

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  1. LeeAnne Baumdraher permalink

    What was most interesting about the above video, for me, is that it caused me to realize that I never had a preconceived idea about rhetoric. I never looked at it as “the art of bullshit,” and I never really thought about the phrase “empty rhetoric.” I guess I was a bit ignorant when it came to rhetoric.

    Now that I know a lot more about it, it’s amazing how PRESENT it is, how absolutely necessary it is. According to the video, not only is speech part of rhetoric, but body language too. Everything is a message, whether you’re giving verbal or nonverbal clues.

    Also, the weight of rhetoric is just so…unbelievable. Like Dr. Martin Jacobi said, rhetoric is the difference between a wall existing and realizing that wall exists. Jacobi’s interjection was, hands down, my favorite because his simple, practical application of estemic rhetoric really drove home the meaning.

    It’s quite remarkable how much a 15 minute video has taught me, actually.

    • Natasha Wickenheiser permalink

      Jacobi’s discussion of rhetoric was my favorite as well. I took a note when he stated, Rhetoric “creates reality…creates our understand of the physical world and our place in the physical world.” It can be difficult to conceptualize, but what is reality? Sure, atoms make up objects that we recognize as tables, trees, and walls, but their physical existence does not create the same reality for all people. Everything we see creates a perception of reality, and that perception is unique to each of us because we all have different life experiences that shape our understanding of the world. I agree with Jacobi when he talks about rhetoric shaping our perception of our place in the world because we really do see ourselves differently in relation to “reality” because of our past experiences with different forms of rhetoric.

      I hope that makes sense. It is an abstract thought to express, since we are accustomed to accepting the physical things around us as reality.

      • Steve Krause permalink

        Sometimes, the rhetoric creates reality thing is a little tricky to grasp when talking about science or nature or physical objects. Rhetoric didn’t create the chair I’m sitting in, for example.

        But a really easy example is in politics, and I assume everyone sees the connection with rhetoric there. The “reality” of things like whether or not there should be a new bridge to Canada or whether or not a wolf hunt in the UP should be allowed are largely the result of the rhetoric around those issues– you know, political ads, editorials, etc. So bridges might not be rhetorical, but whether or not to build one and where to build it is.

        Another one of my favorite examples from the rhetorician Kenneth Burke: the fact that we have to eat to stay alive is not rhetorical. But what and how we eat is definitely rhetorical.

        • Jessica Kane permalink

          Regarding eating, how very true. The GMO and organic debates, as well as what constitutes vegetarian fare, are based, not entirely, but largely on who in the debate can relate (logically, emotionally, and aesthetically) best to the audience at the time.

          • Steve Krause permalink

            But I also mean the sort of cultural things we associate with eating. For example, in a lot of Mediterranean cultures (Spain, Italy, Greece, etc.), it is surprisingly common for people to sit down for the main evening meal really late at night, like 10 pm or so. In other cultures, the main meal of the day is lunch and dinner is more like a snack. And so forth.

            There’s a book I have with a great title that I have yet to read that says a lot about this: Some We Love, Some We Hate, Some We Eat: Why It’s So Hard to Think Straight About Animals. A simple example: it is not uncommon for people in France and Italy to eat horse, while in the U.S., this is pretty much unheard of. Why is that? I would argue it’s cultural reasons, and those reasons are part of the realm of rhetoric, too.

        • LeeAnne Baumdraher permalink

          Rhetoric didn’t create the chair you’re sitting in, but it created the way you think about the chair. Rhetoric is the reason you recognize it as a chair, why you know what to do with it, and why you think it’s comfortable.

      • Sabrina Gissendaner permalink

        I was definitely intrigued by Jacobi’s portion of the video as well. When rhetoric is put into a real life example like the wall example he gives, it is much easier to understand as a concept that seems slightly abstract.

        It is very interesting to me how far the current understanding of what “rhetoric” means is from what it originally meant. I suppose it’s alright for the general public to believe it to be a form of trickery, or as they call it “BS” in the video. However, I think it is an important basic concept that people should take more time to genuinely understand.

        Rhetoric is an important tool in language. As they say in the video, a person’s rhetorical ability in different situations determines how effectively and successfully they will communicate. It’s really such a simple, yet complicated thing all at the same time.

    • Chelsea Idzior permalink


      I agree with you about the realization of how present rhetoric is. Whenever I am involved in a discussion about rhetoric, it still seems to really hit me in the face how present rhetoric is in pretty much everything we do. I also agree with you that everything is a message. Every time that we speak or move or do anything, we are sending out a message even if we do not intend to.

      I too liked Dr. Jacobi’s explanation of rhetoric. It definitely showed me how rhetoric influences our understanding and perception of things around us.

      • Nijea Wilson permalink

        I was definitely suprised to see just how much we use rhetoric in our everyday conversations and choices we make.

      • Steve Krause permalink

        I think this is right, and I think an important way of looking at it is rhetoric is a system for analyzing, understanding, and using stuff we use all the time anyway. It’s useful to understand things like “the rhetorical situation” because it helps us when we’re in situations where we need to figure out how to persuade someone (“what do I think they would like me to say?”) and it also helps us explain why some things are more or less persuasive than others.

  2. Latasha Davis permalink

    “In Defense Of Rhetoric” was a interesting video. Its amazing I didn’t realized that the term rhetoric and how its used in so many ways of our everyday language. I enjoyed the example of the two college students. How the connected of epistemic rhetoric and our perception is intertwined. Although Kate decided to enroll in a university where her friend attend, her misleading emotions cause her a years setback of school. The trick with Rhetoric and how it helps people understand the ways we write, help the reader believe in what we are saying and hoping we can persuade the reader to agree is fascinating.

  3. Natasha Wickenheiser permalink

    I really enjoyed the video. Most of my classes this semester are dealing with rhetoric in some form, and this video has best introduced the topic.

    Around 11:27, the narrator was talking about facts, and how facts do not speak for themselves. It is a strange concept to say “Facts don’t speak,” because we are accustomed to assuming facts can stand on their own. For example, it is commonly known that there 365 days in a year. We accept this as truth, and if asked how long a year is, this would be our immediate response. However, what do those numbers truly mean? At the core, 365 is simply a series of numbers. Data. That “fact” is entirely useless until we place it in a context that makes the information useful and relevant to its audience–ourselves and others. To relate this to the process of using rhetoric in writing, it is important not to assume our audience has the same perception and/or understanding of reality. We cannot assume, for example, that potential employers entirely understand what a class entitled “Writing in the Professional World” entails. As writers and communicators, we must create a context by perhaps stating a few of the projects we worked on in the class. Creating a context through detail can help create a shared understanding or perception of reality.

    I also liked that the video discussed rhetoric as both a verbal and nonverbal entity. When I think of rhetoric, I tend to think about a person’s choice in language. However, nonverbal communication is so important in rhetorical communication. One student in my Theories of Speech Criticism class mentioned the young woman who is choosing to carry her mattress around Columbia University until her rapist leaves the university campus. Until we started talking more seriously about rhetoric, I never would have thought her actions fell under the category of rhetoric. They do! She is making a bold nonverbal choice which is not only serving as supporting evidence for her argument/demand that her rapist leave campus, but also serving as a symbol for standing up against sexual assault, which is prompting further dialogue about the important topic.

    After watching the video, I think rhetoric will be more interesting to learn about than I originally thought.

    • Steve Krause permalink

      There’s a story about the woman at Columbia here:

      She’s definitely trying to persuade through her actions and speech, so that clearly falls into the category of rhetoric.

      By the way, as the video points out, rhetoric is more about a practice that crosses disciplines than it is about a content-oriented discipline, like literature. But the academic departments/disciplines that tend to spend the most time on it are Writing studies (often but not always in English departments) and Communications. We both have classes in “rhetorical theory,” for example.

      • Natasha Wickenheiser permalink

        I imagine that many professions would be upset to hear that rhetoric exists in their fields. For example, a biology researcher might think, “Rhetoric is not part of biology. We’re not trying to trick the public with our research,” or something like that. But in reality, it would be best for people in all fields to take classes in rhetoric, because it would teach them how to present information in a more influential manner, or understand other influences which may disrupt or counteract their particular message.

        • Steve Krause permalink

          That’s exactly right, Natasha. In fact, I have a friend who is a cancer researcher at the University of Michigan and we have literally had this conversation.

  4. Elyse Cawetzka permalink

    After watching this video it has come to my attention that I never really understood the true meaning of rhetoric. I never realized that we all use it everyday to communicate, whether we are talking or using non-verbal ways. I’ve always thought of it as a way of getting your point across in one way only – by asking a question to someone and say that you are asking “rhetorically” as to make it clear you don’t want them to say the answer aloud. The video has made me aware that we are are constantly using rhetoric for decisions and communication. It’s interesting to me that we use something everyday without realizing it.

    • Steve Krause permalink

      You are thinking of a “rhetorical question,” which is but one of hundreds of stylistic elements that have been passed down since ancient times. Don’t worry– we’re not going to talk about that stuff too much this term, though if you take WRTG 328, there’s a good chance that will be in the mix.

      Rhetorical questions are interesting because for them to work, the speaker/writer has to assume that the listener/reader will agree with the answer. A lot of times, that backfires. So for example, if I’m giving a speech and I say something like “After all, could anyone do a worse job of being president than George W. Bush?” and there are people who either supported Bush or who thought someone else was even worse, that rhetorical question would kind of fall on its face.

  5. Ashleigh Swinehart permalink

    Thanks to this short, yet informative video, I realized I never fully understood rhetoric and how many facets of life it truly takes place in. I was intrigued by the last person to speak, William Schraufnagel, when he stated examples of rhetoric at work. When he said “You have to get a job”, “Oh, that’s just the way things are” and “Shut Up. Don’t complain.” I discovered a use of rhetoric that I have heard for many years now, but never recognized as such. I was (supposedly) taught “all I needed to know” about rhetoric in my advanced English classes in high school, yet I learned about eight new things about rhetoric in a 14 minute video. Thank you for posting this video to the class site!

  6. Kourtney Lovett permalink

    As a few of my peers have noted, this video made me realize that I never understood the true meaning of rhetoric. In a course that I had last semester, we discussed rhetoric but I still felt like there was a gap in my understanding of the subject. With the help of this video, I believe that I now know why there was a gap in my understanding.

    The video mentions that rhetoric is important enough to be it’s on isolated field yet it is very much so present in various fields. The latter is the part that I failed to realize. Not realizing that rhetoric is connected to fields such as science, technology, music, etc, hindered my ability to have a full understanding of it.

    In addition to my initial realization, the video helped me realize that rhetoric is not simply present in the world of academia but is also heavily utilized in our daily lives. As stated by Dr. Randy Nichols, “For everyday communication we use rhetoric in that we choose what to say and how to say it for the purpose of getting someone to either understand us, to believe us or agree with us.” This quote alone significantly enhanced my understanding of how I use and am affected by rhetoric everyday.

    Through its visuals and meaningful quotes, as a whole, this video helped me modify my knowledge of rhetoric in its entirely. While I have been pondering over most of the statements that were made throughout the video, one in particular has really resonated with me. “The real world is not what they tell you it is.” While I understand what William Schraufnagel meant by this quote, I am still pondering over how it specifically pertains to me. I doubt I’ll come up with all the answers but I suppose it’s an interesting concept to think about throughout this journey called life.

    • Chelsea Idzior permalink


      I like what you said about not realizing rhetoric’s connection to other fields of study, and I feel like that is a normal thing for many people. Our society has such a tendency to pull apart the different academic disciplines and say, “Oh you’re either a science person, or a math person, or an English person.” And this takes away from the fact that, to an extent, all of these disciplines will in some way overlap. Especially with rhetoric, which is present in all types of communication, which we all have to take part in no matter what academic or career field we are in.

    • Steve Krause permalink

      Just to build a bit on what Kourtney and Chelsea are both saying here: at the graduate level, I teach a course called “The Rhetoric of Science and Technology.” A lot of people (including a lot of the students!) come into that class thinking that it is kind of a silly idea because science is a series of “facts,” and facts are just facts and not therefore really rhetorical. Obviously, I think there are lots of ways that isn’t true.

  7. Kristen Smith permalink

    This video packed a lot of information into a short, interesting video. While watching this I realized that I had never given rhetoric much thought or consideration. In fact, I have always just passed up the term, never really knowing its true meaning or application. After watching this video I not only feel that I have a much better understanding of what rhetoric is and how it applies to every day situations, but I’m also interested into looking more into it.

    Before watching this video I would have likely said that rhetoric is something that can be applied in certain situations or scenarios, but isn’t something that affects our every day lives. I now see how rhetoric is actually a part of everything we do and say and have trouble coming up with situations where rhetoric doesn’t apply to some extent. This video has served as a great first step in expanding my knowledge about rhetoric and how it applies to my personal experiences and day-to-day interactions.

    • Melanie Waller permalink

      I agree with you on your post, but I like you never thought of what I said and did as rhetoric. I too hope to learn a lot more about rhetoric and how to use it effectively in todays world. I guess when I go to my job tomorrow I will be more aware of the things I say and do and see if I can figure out why I act the way I do around the customers. Might be interesting

  8. Chelsea Idzior permalink

    To me, the most important point from the video was the different types of rhetoric, and how it is thus present in just about everything.

    I think that people are often quick to overlook the idea of visual rhetoric. In a class I took last semester we did a lot of discussion of visual rhetoric, and how people make just as many choices with images they use, as they do with the words they speak and the words they write.

    In some cases, I might even argue that visual rhetoric can be more important or more powerful than written rhetoric. Take anti-abortion campaigns for example: what really makes people pay attention to them, is it facts, statistics, or tag lines that they use, or is it the graphic pictures they often display? In a case such as this, I think it is clear how images can oftentimes speak much louder than words.

    I definitely think about rhetoric in a different way when I consider all of the ways that it exists-in our words, writing, movements, pictures we see, and choices that we make.

  9. Leah permalink

    This was a very interesting video for me. I don’t know if this is crazy or not, but I had no knowledge of what rhetoric was or the meaning behind it. Out of all English classes that I have taken no one has thoroughly discussed this word.
    I was slightly confused while watching the video because I couldn’t figure out if rhetoric was a figure of English, or a way of knowing. By the end of this video it seemed as thought rhetoric could mean many things based upon English, speech, body language, decision makings, what we have learned, and will continue to learn throughout the world. This is a very unique term based on how it keeps revolving, and how it never seems to have one particular definition of what it stands for.
    This video taught me something that I completely didn’t know. I am a fan of learning new things, great video.

  10. Nijea Wilson permalink

    I definitely had no idea as to what rhetoric really was until this video. As everyone else has stated I was shocked to see just how much we use this in our everyday conversations and even when making simple or huge decisions throughout the day. The term seems to be used very broadly so I was a little bit confused at to what peopel were really trying to define rhetoric as.

  11. Jessica Kane permalink

    Mindful rhetoric in conversation is not one of my strong points. I tend to be awkward when attempting to make small talk and frequently say something that is taken out of context. The discussion of rhetoric in this video is aimed at the presentation of the whole. A person’s ability to persuade, or even be seen as competent regarding the discussed topic, is not solely based on the information they give. The body language and connotative meaning behind word choice is very important, and rightfully so. You can get a feel for the person behind the words, or, at the very least, the image they are trying to portray and the audience to which they are attempting to appeal. I can see the immense benefits of this skill, both for practice and interpretation. I currently have a professor who I am beginning to suspect is very good at rhetoric but saying very little of consequence…
    I have come across ethos, logos, and pathos before, but did not have a good grasp on their meanings. The following website helped:

    • LeeAnne Baumdraher permalink

      “I tend to be awkward when attempting to make small talk and frequently say something that is taken out of context.”

      I do this too!! lol

  12. Melanie Waller permalink

    After watching this video, I have come to the conclusion that rhetoric is how we talk to others and the way we talk to them. This video has cleared up some grey areas about what I thought it was. I did get something out of it and hopefully I can use it in my writing.
    When holding a face-to-face conversation we tend to engage in pretty much useful (or useless) talk. We judge how the other person is reacting to what is being said and either give up and change the topic or we move on to something else. “That’s the way it use to be” fits here quite nicely because over the years conversation has changed so much. Now we have to watch everything we say and do and hope that others do not take offense. We don’t even mean to offend others, but somehow we seem to do it unknowingly.
    When we write, I know we are suppose to pick an audience, but how do we write to an audience we don’t even know. Yes, we may want to persuade someone to understand and accept our ideas, but how can we actually tell the truth (or bend the truth) when we don’t know what lies ahead. Sometimes we tell “a little white lie” or the art of bullshit to get our point across. Sometimes we have to in order to know that we made our audience understand just what is being said.
    The world and times have changed so much, that now when I think about writing for a future employer, it scares me. Everything and everybody are being so scrutinized down to the last dot on the page that one really has to watch everything they say and do. I have seen this too many times within the last decade or so and I have seen some really good applicants lose a job offer because of rhetoric. I have also seen bad applicants get jobs because of rhetoric. It all comes down to saying the right words to the right people and once inside the door that is when the true person shows up.
    I hope I got the meaning of the video and will be able to put it to good use

  13. Mary Rutkowski permalink

    This is my first encounter with rhetoric in any way. Or at least with my actions and words being called rhetoric. I had never thought of my decisions as being rhetorical. I found it interesting that even our smallest decisions such as choosing toothpaste involve some sort of rhetoric. It seems to be a way of self-promotion but in a humbling way. (If that makes sense without contradicting my point.) There was one mention that the use of rhetoric can make one self-conscious and aware of oneself. The ideas of rhetoric making us aware of the physical world were very helpful in my understanding of what rhetoric is. The world is physical and I myself am noticing that the wall is real, and I have persuaded myself rhetorically that that wall is an obstacle. There were points in the video where I did feel slightly confused and a little behind since this is my first involvement with rhetoric being stated. Nijea, I agree with you in that regard. Rhetoric seems to be such a vast and open term that it feels that it is everywhere and everything.

  14. Brian Gardner permalink

    A quick Google search revealed to me what the cold definition of rhetoric is – language tailored to persuade. The toothpaste example makes perfect sense, as commercials and marketing are forms of rhetoric that persuade people to buy one over another. Saying your breath will smell “cool and refreshing” signals the pleasant thoughts (cold glass of lemonade) associated with those words.

    The university example doesn’t seem to make as much sense. While the language used in the decision might be designed to increase enrollment, facts and statistics are not necessarily so. While one will make an informed decision, it doesn’t seem implied they were rhetorically informed unless they were specifically persuaded.

    I think it’s fairly obvious (though I already watched the video for another class) that rhetoric under this definition has never disappeared. Theologists in the middle ages used language to persuade people into their side of religious thought.

    If the definition of rhetoric is more expanded, then some of the statements make more sense. Information, for example, can be used to persuade or “inform” others, but it is not necessarily created solely for such purpose.

    • Steve Krause permalink

      I think the university example is one of the weaker parts of this video too, but I understand what they’re trying to get at here. Rhetoric is about persuasion and one of the main ways we persuade each other and are persuaded is through research and evidence. So the story they were trying to tell is that one person made a bad choice because they picked a college for bad reasons (e.g., “my friends went there”) while the other one picked a college based on good reasons, the research she did about the college based on her goals.

      And while it isn’t so much that the study of rhetoric “disappeared,” it was (and to a large extent still is) repressed and went through a long history of being disparaged. Rhetoric was once one of the classic parts of an education in Europe, but in the 1500s or so, rhetoric as a study became greatly de-emphasized. I think it’s still not as much of a part of the curriculum as it should be. Though we didn’t stop being “rhetorical” just because we don’t study rhetoric as much as we used to.

  15. Carly permalink

    Not to piggy-back off what everyone else has mentioned, but I too didn’t fully understand rhetoric mostly because it was such a broad subject, I just couldn’t get my head wrapped around it fully. This video helped that a lot. One thing I couldn’t place however, is where Mary Parker uses her Rhetorical Triangle and compares Ethos to a communicator, Pathos to an audience, and Logos to a message. In a sense, I get Logos, but I’m lost as to how the others connect. Can someone maybe clarify or give your thoughts on this?

    I too found the link that Jessica posted above, but maybe I’m having a harder time understanding.

    • Steve Krause permalink

      Just to be clear: this video is just a tiny tiny taste of all that we could be talking about with the study of rhetoric, and that web site is just some shorthand definitions of some of the parts of rhetoric. There is a lot more to all this. I have a PhD that is more or less all about the study of rhetoric; we offer several undergraduate and graduate classes that are all about rhetorical theory.

      But that’s not this class. So the main thing I wanted to convey with this video is that what we’re doing in talking about the kinds of writing people do in the professional world is not just about the right format and following the conventions of a letter or whatever; rather, the things we are doing are rhetorical in that we are trying to persuade specific audiences to do specific things with our writing.

  16. Melanie Waller permalink

    it just dawned on me the other day what rhetoric really is. Way back when I was taking my speech class, there was a guy who sat next to me and from day one obviously became the teachers’ pet. Anyway we became good friends and really enjoyed the class. But on one of our speeches (we had to give 4) he really showed me rhetoric.
    The speech was demonstration. I picked him up for class and on the way he was trying to figure out how to explain the art of bunting (baseball). By the time we drove to class he had it all figured out. To make a long story short, he had not prepared at all (except in the car) had no note cards and walked in with a bat. Now remember he was teachers’ pet (she did really like and he was a very personable guy)
    Anyway, when it came his turn, he grabbed my note cards his bat and walked up to the front and did his “demonstration speech”. When he was done the teacher said he had done an excellent job and that the class could learn from him. He got an A.

    He was dying from laughter and I kept throwing him disgusting looks and shaking my head. I on the other had worked hard on my speech, got an A but no praise or any other comments. this shows the “art of bullshit”
    at its finest. From then on I didn’t put so much worry into my speeches and just did the best i could and accepted the grade. Yes, I did pass, but now I understand more what “rhetoric” is

    • Jessica Kane permalink

      “this shows the ‘art of bullshit'”

      This reminds me – I definitely used rhetoric when I was a bartender/server. When I would start a new job, I would ask to spend a few days in the kitchen. While learning how things are made, I came up with words to describe the cooking process to the guest, enticing their senses and, based on reaction, adjust my rhetoric accordingly in order to increase my sales. Watch out for these types!

    • Steve Krause permalink

      Ha! That’s a funny story, Latasha. It probably wouldn’t work out so great in this class, but still…. 😉

      I will say this though about your classmate: it sounds to me like he actually did do the work and maybe even deserved the grade. It sounds like he picked a good topic because it was in the genre for the assignment but it was also something a bit new and fresh. As you describe it here, he went through a fair amount of rehearsal to get the speech right– in other words, he didn’t go into the speech totally making it up on the spot. Rather, he had obviously run through the idea in his head, he had you as an audience, and he had a “draft” of the speech in the form of practice before he even went into the class. And he was also smart enough to have some fake cards as a prop to convince the teacher.

      (Of course, if I had been teaching that class– and I did teach speech as part of a class I taught at a different university a long long time ago– I would have collected those note cards, and then he probably would have had a problem….)

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