Jared Conaway ’08: What is Rhetoric?

By Jared Conaway ’08, senior Rhetoric major 

            Inevitably, when one is approaching a question as broad as this, one must do their best to immediately set the boundaries in which they will define the identified term. My definition of rhetoric focuses primarily upon rhetoric as a means of analyzing and better understanding the ways in which artifacts affect our decision making process as a populous. This definition seeks to explain rhetoric as the process in which scholars are able to dissect messages in society and how these messages affect our choices. This definition is grounded in the notion that rhetoric is not solely the art of speaking influentially, but is also the study of how one achieves influence with a target audience.

            Rhetoric in its essence is the art of speaking influentially. However, in light of the 21st century and all of the advances that have been made in this field of study, rhetoric has grown to become the way in which we interpret and explain the different artifacts that exist in our world to influence our decision making process. In addition, I believe that this definition best supports the argument for rhetoric not being limited to its responsibility to teach its students the art of public speaking, but rather its responsibility to teach students to effectively evaluate arguments and their validity. For rhetoric to be limited to the art of influential public speaking is the equivalent of discrediting rhetoric as a second tier educational field. It becomes relegated to a second tier educationally because as merely the art of public speaking, rhetoric has little to no room to grow as a field of study.

            To put my definition into an example, I will use my education and experiences with this area of study to more clearly explain how rhetoric functions as not only the art of speaking influentially but as a tool of analysis. When addressing an audience, my thought process extends past the idea of how I can deliver my words persuasively. That is, my thought process leads me to discern what artifacts I will use to achieve my influence, how the audience might interpret those artifacts, and if the quality of my sources will gain credibility with my audience. Anyone can go in front of a room and try to be a salesman, but a real rhetorician understands how his arguments work, why they are influential, and most importantly, why those arguments are moral and credible.

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