“Rhetoric is useful to communities because those who practice it–here called ‘rhetors’–can find ways to alleviate disagreement; those who study it–here called ‘rhetoricians’–try to understand why disagreement occurs so they may help rhetors figure out how to alleviate it. Granted, rhetors sometimes deliberately obfuscate or mislead, and sometimes they foment or intensify disagreement. This fact does not undermine the usefulness of rhetoric itself, however.” (24)
Sharon Crowley, Toward a Civil Discourse, University of Pittsburgh Press, 2006
Questions of whether rhetoric is good or bad and how to determine which are as old as rhetoric itself. I wouldn’t study rhetoric if I didn’t agree with Crowley’s point that rhetoric remains more useful than not. That said, I’m not sure the word “sometimes” adequately covers the scope of problematic rhetorical practice.
For as long as it has been practiced, rhetoric has had to defend itself against criticisms that it is manipulative, that it obscures truth, and that in general it does more harm than good. These criticisms can be answered, but in order to do so we must understand what makes problematic rhetoric problematic, and my research is largely directed toward furthering this understanding.
My dissertation compares dialectical and rhetorical models of discourse. Dialectic has been offered as a method of reasoning that rises above the manipulations of mere persuasion, but it is unclear how well such a method can function in the realm that Kenneth Burke describes as the “Human Barnyard.” I apply rhetorical and dialectical models to examples drawn from church-state separation arguments in the US. Given the often polarized nature of church-state debate, it is well suited to investigating what makes certain rhetorical practices more or less problematic.
My conference presentations have also pursued questions of how productive rhetoric might be defined, such as in the context of the writing classroom or in discussions of prejudice and diversity.
While working in the Digital Writing and Research Lab at UT, I have participated in both the Cross-Cultural Rhetoric and Visual Rhetoric project groups, and I have developed digital resources for the teaching of writing.