Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Rhetoric and society

portrait of Peter Ramus, rhetorical bad guyLately I’ve been thinking about the problems that rhetoricians have sharing our knowledge with others outside the field. Ever since Ramus limited the scope of rhetoric to style and delivery, rhetoricians have been losing the public battle over the relevance of what we do. This situation was not much improved when rhetoric attached itself to freshman composition, the indentured servitude of academic disciplines. Like freshman comp, rhetoric is seen as somewhat remedial, unnecessary for people who are already good communicators.

As a student of rhetoric, I find this view of rhetorical studies to be somewhat limiting, in that it ignores the substantial contributions that rhetoricians have made to our understanding of reading and writing practices, as well as of argument and other forms of communication.

Which brings me to this Lifehacker post which I saw over the weekend.

Job interview master Vj Vijai describes how make the best impression at a technical interview using people skills (versus technical skills). His talk, which happened at O'Reilly's awesome Ignite event, is informative, funny, and short. Vijai also has a web site outlining the principles.

I thought that description sounded catchy, so I clicked on the link and here’s what I saw:

NLP or Neuro-Linguistic Programming is a rogue branch of pschylogy that is based on the premise that language and communication can be used to influence people.

What he is teaching isn’t hacking or psychology but rhetoric! This conclusion is reinforced by reading the comments on the Lifehacker post. They read like a greatest hits of criticism of rhetoric: if this is so great, why doesn’t it work all the time? Isn’t this manipulation?

I am continually shocked that rhetoricians have allowed our subject matter to be hijacked in this way, but I‘m not sure how we can reenter the conversation without seeming out of touch—quick, which term is more appealing, ‘pathos’ or ‘Jedi mind tricks’?—or worse, whiny.

Anyway, here’s the video of Vijai’s talk:

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