About ENG 4020: Theory as Live/d Practice

If you have spent any time in the EWM major, you probably already realize that “rhetoric” is defined in several ways. For our purposes, we’ll define it as a way of making knowledge in the world. In fact, the way in which we interpret, respond to, or perceive ourselves to be involved in things like ecology, digital revolutions, globalism, feminism, and even war is inherently rhetorical because it requires our understanding of how symbols act on us and on others—what Kenneth Burke has famously called “equipments for living.” Thus, this course will involve you in the study and practice of rhetorical criticism by introducing you to some theoretical landmarks that make it a living practice for the 21st century.

In one semester, we won’t have time to cover all schools of thought that have historically contributed to rhetorical theory as we know it (e.g., Classicism, post-structuralism, Marxism, dramatism, postmodern feminism, etc.) but we can engage with a set of critical problems or dilemmas that have shaped contemporary understandings of rhetoric, writing, culture, and text. In fact, much of what challenges us as writers, readers, students, workers, and citizens often boils down to four dilemmas (some call them paradoxes) of agent/cy, anti/signification, text/uality, and re/presentation. For example: Does having an agent mean that you cannot also act on your own behalf? How is it possible for language to destabilize meaning while also becoming more concrete? When does the medium of a text become its message? How do you represent some person or group ethically and accurately without making them an “other”? 

Whether or not you consider yourself a rhetorical theorist, much critical work is often done to meet real demands in real contexts. So, we will also use two films, a graphic novel, some short fiction, and other web, print, and video texts as “cases” or situations on which rhetorical criticism can be practiced. No prior theoretical background is required to do well in this course, but you will need to be willing to spend considerable time working through some difficult texts and writing about them thoughtfully. By the end of the semester, my hope is that you will have achieved the following goals: 
  • gained a solid overview of some important landmarks in the development of contemporary rhetorical theory; 
  • expanded your understanding of the analytic possibilities of rhetorical theory; 
  • learned different methods for reading theoretical texts, some of them multimodal; 
  • gained a clearer sense of how critical terms can be applied to mundane circumstances and how complex thoughts can be communicated in a variety of media; 
  • honed your critical writing skills in both essay and blog formats.

We will read. We will write. We will view. It will be glorious!

Looking forward,
-Dr. Graban