Rhetorical Theory

ENC 3371 | Spring 2015 | Dr. Marc C. Santos

Course Description

I often find myself facing a dreadful question. I’m at a party, meeting a group of people for the first time. It really doesn’t matter whether they are academics or not. They ask me what I do. I say “I work at the University of South Florida.” They say something like “Neat, what do you teach there?” I say “Rhetoric.” Their face contorts just a little bit as they nod and say “Oh, yes, rhetoric.” There’s usually a second or two pause as they wait for me to elaborate. If I don’t, then they’ll gently ask “What is rhetoric?”

One would think I could articulate a simple, direct answer to this question. After all, I have dedicated the better part of the past decade to studying rhetoric. This semester will attempt to show why I often find myself at a loss of words.

The term “rhetoric” has a fraught and complex history. Typically, in our contemporary culture, it surfaces as a pejorative (“ah, that’s just rhetoric, what he’s really doing is blah blah blah”). Thinking back to my vignette of the party, a few more forward interlocutors have asked (with various degrees of politeness): “wait, you teach bullshit for a living?”

This semester I hope to show that rhetoric can mean much more than bullshit or manipulation (and that those connotations were cast upon rhetoric by its staunchest opponents: Idealist philosophers). In doing so, you should gain some sense as to why defining rhetoric can be such a difficult task. We will explore 3 different conceptions of rhetoric, each linked to a specific historical context and corresponding communication technology. Our goal is two-fold; first, we will familiarize ourselves with the various historic-theoretical definitions of rhetoric: from Plato’s dismissal of rhetoric as manipulation and bullshit to Grassi and Cicero’s defenses of rhetoric as substantive and “metaphysical.” At heart in this debate is a simple but also complicated question: does language and culture come to cover (and hence obfuscate) a real (Ideal) world (truth), a world/Truth that exists beyond the shadow of mere appearances? Or is language and culture the medium through which we determine what is real? Can one get outside of language? Or are we always seeing, thinking, and doing within the register of the symbolic? Do we control language as a tool? Or are we the tools of language’s own trajectories? This debate, waged by Plato and Gorgias (and continued by their students, Aristotle and Isocrates) in ancient Greece dominates 19th and 20th/21st century debates between between empiricists and phenomenologists (or, in perhaps more familiar but often maligned terms, “Scientists” and “Humanists”).

In addition to exploring the theoretical question of “what is rhetoric?,” we will also explore the central techne comprising the rhetorical arts. While the earliest intellectuals engaged in a debate concerning whether rhetoric was good or necessary, they all agreed that rhetoric was at least partly comprised of a series of techniques concerned with communicating with audiences. What were these techniques? How do these techniques change as humanity develops new communicative mediums? How (and when) should we use Jedi mind tricks?

What are the three epochs and modes to which I refer?

  • Orality and Persuasion: The principles and major players of/in ancient rhetoric
  • Literacy and Interpretation: The methods germane to rhetorical analysis of texts and situations (focus: late 19th, 20th century)
  • Electracy and Ethics: Contemporary perspectives on rhetoric, politics, and identity (post-Holocaust 20th century, 21st century)

I don’t mean to suggest that one course could possibly introduce the entirety of rhetorical studies. Rather, this semester is a survey that attempts to introduce different senses of rhetoric in relation to different eras of media. When I write that we will explore 3 different conceptions of rhetoric, I do not mean that one rhetoric comes to replace another as much as one rhetoric comes to operate alongside another, bleeding into each other. Just because we developed writing didn’t mean we stopped speaking, and the development of the electronic image and sound has not eliminated print. However, one of our first readings (Walter Ong) argues that communicative mediums do more than allow to communicate: they also shape the way we think and what we value/desire. Rhetoricians pay particular attention to the ways in which language, objects, networks, relations, emotions, and events affect us.


  • Email: insignificantwrangler at gmail dot com
  • Twitter: Oisin16
  • Office: Cooper 301c
  • Office Hours: Tuesday / Thursday 2:00 – 3:30

It is best to reach me via DM on twitter if you have a quick question. If your question is more than 140 characters, then send me an email. I check my email twice daily (9:00am, 3:00pm). I generally avoid email on the weekends. So, if you have an emergency and need to reach me right away, use twitter.

Required Materials

Course Texts

  • Aristole. On Rhetoric
  • Burke. On Symbols and Society
  • Three-Ring Binder.

Note that a considerable number of our readings this semester will be PDFs provided through Canvas. You are required to print all course readings and to punch them into a three-ring binder. Further, you are required to bring this binder to every class session. Failure to bring your binder amounts to an absence.

Course Projects

This course gives you a choice as to your projects. Everyone will complete Project One. Then you will have the choice between completing two shorter projects (Project 2 and Project 3) or completing a longer Research Project. I provide short descriptions below; I will provide longer descriptions as the time arises.

Project One: What is Rhetoric?

As we conclude our unit on Ancient Greece, I will ask everyone to produce a modified Pecha Kucha that offers a definition of rhetoric. A Pecha Kucha is a multimedia presentation format consisting of 20 images playing for 20 seconds each, with voice recording (or, if presented live, a spoken presentation). The script for a Pecha Kucka should be 750-900 words (3 to 3 1/2 pages).

I am looking for presentations that use images strategically. I will be paying attention for the ways in which your presentation juxtaposes what you say alongside or against what you show. This is a unique affordance of electracy, one largely unavailable to orality or literacy. As you speech argues for a definition of rhetoric, your images should help us understand its contemporary relevance. For those of you who have had me before, think about how the images of your presentation can present a MEmorialization/Kalmanization of rhetoric germaine to your contemporary moment.

Project Two: Rhetorical Analysis

Our second project, built around Kenneth Burke’s methods of rhetorical analysis, asks you to analyze a major speech from the 21st century. This analysis should be delivered in a paper of 1300 to 1500 words.

Project Three: An Act of Listening

The third project is grounded in our final readings on ethics and listening. The instructions for this project (and the expectations) are somewhat nebulous, but I will ask you for a multimedia project that “listens” to something. The project will have to include at least ten hours of documented research and field work. The project must also have a rhetorical purpose–that is, it must in some way attempt to compel an audience to “listen” to something. And, perhaps, to do something, too.

Research Project

The research project is intended for students continuing on to post-graduate study. These students will complete a longer research project of 6500-8000 words. I will meet with students interested in this option during week 4 to generate reading lists. Topics for the research paper can be tied to major theorists (who was Isocrates?), theoretical terms (What is kairos, historical events (how does rhetoric help us understand the Boston Marathon Bombings), etc. These students will compile an annotated bibliography from weeks 4-10. A rough draft of the paper will be due week 13. The final draft of the paper will be due during exam week.

The Binder, The Spreadsheet, The Discussion (to Quiz or Not to Quiz?)

This course is reading intensive. It is also structured like a true academic seminar. I will ask you to read 3 articles (75-100 pages) in preparation for a Tuesday class and two articles (50 pages) in preparation for a Thursday class. While the total number of pages might not be intimidating, the density of the material likely will be–most of these texts are theoretical in nature. To help you unpack the material you are reading and prepare for class discussion, I will ask you to do a few things.

  • First, I will ask you to print out any readings and put them into a three-ring binder. Studies have shown that reading on paper if fundamentally different (better) than reading on a screen. Given the density of the material, you want every advantage possible.
  • Second, as you read, I will ask you to annotate the readings. Here is my guide to reading and annotating theory.
  • Third, I will ask that you contribute to the Rhetorical Theory Reading Grid. Contributions to the grid should be in complete sentences. Also, you should edit each other’s work–add to it when possible. Please make sure each contribution has a citation to a particular page in the text. The idea behind the grid is to give us interpretations to assess and passages to re-examine during class discussion.

These steps should ensure we have quality class discussions and increase your ability to read closely and carefully. If class discussions are lively and useful, then I will not assign any reading quizzes. If I feel as if only a handful of people are contributing in class, then I will assign reading quizzes. Trust me, you don’t want to make me do this. I don’t enjoy quizzes, and I will make sure you don’t enjoy them, either.


For students completing the three projects:

  • Project One: 25%
  • Project Two: 25%
  • Project Three: 25%
  • Reading Grid, Quizzes, and Class Participation: 25%

For students completing the research project:

  • Project One: 10%
  • Annotated Bib: 10%
  • Rough Draft: 10%
  • Final Paper: 45%
  • Reading Grid, Quizzes, and Class Participation: 25%

Standard Syllabus Fare

Students with a disability and thus requiring accommodations are encouraged to consult with the instructor during the first week of class to discuss accommodations. See Student Responsibilities: http://www.sds.usf.edu/Students.htm. Each student making this request must bring a current Memorandum of Accommodations from the office of student Disabilities Services.

You are excused from class for major observances of your religion. Inform the instructor at the beginning of the term when you expect to be absent for these events.

Plagiarism: put briefly, plagiarism is the unattributed use of another person’s ideas. I expect you to cite all sources in your writing and projects in MLA format. See http://www.usg.usf.edu/catalogs/0405/adap.htm for USF Undergraduate Catalog’s definitions and policy.

Attendance is mandatory. Given the complexity of the readings, you really need to be in class. I will excuse three absences this semester. Any absences above three will result in a 10-point penalty per absence. If you have a family or medical emergency that will require you to miss class, then you need to contact me as early as possible. As indicated above, failure to bring your three-ring binder, complete with readings and responses, constitutes an absence.

Turn your phones off.

As I have indicated above, this class will explore difficult material. I urge you to take advantage of office hours to come and ask questions about the reading–even if it is to ask a question about the meaning of a single sentence. This course intends to provide a broad introduction to the history of the West, focusing on the conflicts between metaphysics, ethics, philosophy, rhetoric, and technology. Occasionally, we will tread on theological and political issues as well. Please, please contact me if you have any discomfort with course material or course discussions, either via email or in my office. You can also print out material and slide it under my door if you wish to ask a question or voice a concern anonymously.


Things change. Roll with it.

Week One

Tuesday: Course Introduction
Homework: Read Ong, “Writing is a Technology”

Thursday: Discuss Ong
Homework: Read Plato’s Gorgias (only the sections w/ Gorgias and Callicles; Jowett’s introduction is optional, but might be helpful if you have no experience of ancient dialgoues), Plato’s Apology. Remember to print these dialogues out; do not attempt to read them on-screen.

Week Two

Tuesday: *Flash Read: Allegory of the Cave. Discuss Plato. Episteme. Idealism.
Homework: Read Kennedy’s Introduction to Aristotle and I????

Thursday: *Flash Read: Plato’s Phaedrus. Discuss Aristotle. Topoi. Techne. Appeals. Branches.
Homework: Complete/read Aristotle Book I and II.

Week Three

Tuesday: *Flash Read: Aristotle’s Ethics Discuss Aristotle. Canons. Topoi. Techne. Appeals. Branches.
Homework: Read Halloran (JSTOR) and Sullivan (JSTOR).

Thursday: Discuss Halloran and Sullivan.
Homework: Read Jarratt (JSTOR), Carter (JSTOR), and McComiskey (JSTOR)

Week Four

Tuesday: Discuss Jarratt, Carter, and McComiskey
Homework: Read Haskins (JSTOR) and Haskins (JSTOR)

Thursday: *Flash Read: Isocrates, Vitanza. Discuss Haskins.
Homework: Read Lanham, “The Q Question” (PDF), Read Grassi.

Week Five

Tuesday: Discuss Lanham and Grassi.

Thursday: Classical Rhetoric Jeopardy.
Homework: Complete Project One.

Week Six

Tuesday: Project One Presentations
Homework: Read Burke, “Rhetoric of Hitler’s Battle” and Bitzer, “The Rhetorical Situation”

Thursday: Project One Presentations
Homework: Read Burke, “Definition of Man” and “Terministic Screens”

Week Seven

Tuesday: Introduce Project Two. Discuss Burke.
Homework: Burke, “Dramatistic Method” and “Identification”

Homework: Dilliplane (JSTOR), Timmerman, Gussman, and King

Week Eight

Homework: Hawhee, “Burke and Nietzsche” [JSTOR]


Week Nine



Week Ten (Spring Break)


Homework: Project Two, Rhetorical Analysis Paper due Sunday at 11:59pm.

Week Eleven

Tuesday: Lecture: What is Postmodernism?
Homework: Read Berlin “Rhetoric and Ideology in the Writing Classroom”

Homework: Read Latour “Why Has Critique Run Out of Steam?” and listen to Rivers “Rhetorical Theory/Bruno Latour”

Week Twelve

Tuesday: Read Corder “Argument as Emergence, Rhetoric as Love” [JSTOR] and Ratcliffe “Rhetorical Listening” [JSTOR]
Homework: Read selection from Rice’s Distant Publics

Homework: Read Cooper, “Being Linked to the Matrix” [PDF], selections from Lingis, The Community of Those Who Have Nothing in Common

Week Thirteen

Tuesday, March 31: Progress reports, state of the semester, writing a research annotations
Homework: Read for 30 minutes, write for 30 minutes

Thursday, April 2nd: Class optional. Focus on your research and writing
Homework: Read 2 chapters or 2 articles; write annotations for each source. If you are working on the manifesto project, then collect research for your manifesto.

Week Fourteen

Tuesday, April 7th: We will work on drafting a research paper, moving from a research question to a thesis statement/paragraph.

Homework: Read for 30 minutes, write for 30 minutes.

Thursday, April 9th: Class Optional.
Homework: Complete a rough draft of your essay or script for your manifesto for Tuesday’s class. The draft needs to include an introduction w/ thesis paragraph and section headings. Minimum of ten pages.

Week Fifteen

Tuesday, April 14th: In class peer review #1 of final papers/scripts. Class attendance is mandatory.
Homework: Spend time revising your paper based on feedback.

Thursday: April 16th:
Homework: Read for one hour, write for one hour

Week Sixteen

Tuesday: April 21st, “About this class,” MLA / APA workshop (citation format, works cited, etc)
Homework: Work on your paper/project for 1 & 1/2 hours.

Thursday: April 23rd, ATTENDANCE MANDATORY. Course evaluations. Manifesto presentations.
Homework: Final papers are due Thursday, April 30th at 11:59pm.

Week Seventeen

Tuesday: April 28th

Print Friendly