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Rhetorical Studies Reading Group

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On January 18, 2014, the Department of Communication hosted the Midwest Winter Workshop. Over 75 graduate students and faculty in rhetorical studies joined us in Lincoln Hall for a day of professional development panels and paper workshop sessions. Over the next several days, we will be posting notes from our panels.

Next, we have some thoughts from our panel “Research Methods in Rhetorical Studies I.” Thanks to Donovan Bisbee for compiling these notes!

Panel Title: Research Methods in Rhetorical Studies I

Sara McKinnon, T.M. Linda Scholz, Lindsay Rose Russell

Each panelist spoke briefly regarding their general processes, specific approaches to their research interests, and then fielded a variety of questions. Below are notes from each of the “prepared” remarks.

Using the methods of rhetorical genre studies and feminist historiography helps to inform research. When working with genres, remember that if all you’re looking at is how the text fits the genre, you’re probably doing it wrong

When thinking about archives, remember that we can both question archives about their omissions, gaps, and particularities and help to build new archives through our work.

Genre plays an important role in structuring individual texts, and it is important to remember this.

When looking at methods in rhetorical studies, start with a question. Then, consider what methodological tools you might productively turn to.

We tend to work quite a lot with text, whether retrieved online, in a book, or in archives. Keep in mind that other methods can work alongside analysis of a text to help us really get at the questions in which we are interested. “Methodological promiscuity” can be really useful.

When using field methods in rhetorical work, we should think about “what’s rhetorical about this project? Where is rhetoric here?”

Qualitative methods teaches us to share our process, and there is a pedagogical function to this. We often struggle with this in rhetorical studies.

We often struggle to access texts and choosing a particular object of study can raise a number of methodological, ethical, and practical problems. For example, studying marginalized women in Latin America requires some flexibility and creativity when access to texts is limited.

We should be open to being critical about traditional western rhetorical theories and methods, not because they are inherently problematic, but because they don’t always work for texts outside of that mold.

We then moved on to questions from the audience

When doing interdisciplinary work, how can one distinguish English, Communication, or Rhetoric from other fields and how might we translate between our field and others we are working with?

– Know your audience. You will probably articulate rhetoric to a lesser degree or in a different way to a Gender/Women’s Studies audience than you would elsewhere.

– Use rhetoric as a theoretical lens while speaking the language of other audiences.

– Remember that things are rhetorical, for bringing rhetoric to the table allows us to see the consequences and biases of texts and practices in a generative way.

What distinguishes a rhetorical approach from, say, approaches in sociology, ethnography, etc?

– One way is to remember rhetoric’s focus on language in the text. This is one way we can find the rhetorical and distinguish the topics in which we’re really interested.

– Historians, for example, might catalogue a moment as an oddity and then move one. However, rhetoricians often want to stop, focus, spend more time studying that oddity.

Once you’ve gone forth and done field work or carried out your research, what are the challenges of representing what you do back to your field? For example, how do you re-situate yourself in rhetoric journals if your work primarily used ethnographic methods?

– Some of the panelists haven’t necessarily struggled with this, while others have.

– One way to approach this is to remember that you are offering methodological models to the field.

What are some good examples of texts that bridge the gap between rhetoric and other fields?

– Raka Shome on Postcolonial theory

– Wanzer on Decoloniality (QJS)

– Some of the canonical texts in rhetorical studies really are doing this sort of work by putting rhetoric in conversation with other fields, methods, and concerns

How do you justify connections that would never happen otherwise, scholarly conversations that would not occur naturally?

– It depends on the audience. Some journals will be more receptive, but keep in mind that the justification of the conversation is a big concern for your article.

Do you ever look back at traditional or more canonical rhetorical texts or ideals and critique them?

– Yes. It is important to remember, however, that rhetorical theory is not the only body of theory that has problems.

-There’s only so much you can do in 25 pages, and you may get to the point where you don’t have to prove yourself/do huge, bold things in every article.

What about dealing with the critique of journal reviewers, how do you choose when to stick to your guns on a critique?

– Try thinking about reviewer feedback as the homework you have to do or may be required to do in order to get your work to where it needs to be.

– A journal editor from the audience suggests that authors should not stay committed to their writing as it first comes out. It will take time to revise and improve your writing.

– Remember that you don’t do all your intellectual work in your brain. A lot of it happens on the page.

– Explaining why you are keeping or not modifying something can be extremely important.

– When cutting, several panelists suggest making reductions in historical context, “what you are saying in five pages can be said in one.”

On Methodological promiscuity, what are some concerns and details involved in such processes? What suggestions do you have for pursuing such work?

– If a graduate student still, take classes in interviewing, focus groups, qualitative methods, and in general build a base of methodologies in which you are competent.

– DO IT! There will be mistakes along the way, and this is part of the process. Read and practice.

– Think carefully, always, about the ethics of the work you are doing. There are almost always questions we have to ask about ethics, representations, member checking, and more.

– If carrying out work that might (or could) lead to advocacy work, be mindful of the politics involved in institutions and how you might be intervening in those.

What advice would you give to you of five years ago?

– Take a lot of methods classes and theory classes.

– Librarians can be really helpful.

– Be flexible. Don’t place anything on a hierarchy.

– IRBs are really important, and they vary by institution. One IRB may be much more amenable to qualitative research while others may want to send you with a 12 page release to talk with someone for five minutes. Start early, and check really carefully to see if you need IRB approval for your work.

– Write fellowship applications where you have to articulate your methods. It will be frustrating and painstaking, but it is immensely helpful for to figure out what your methods are.

Stay tuned for more from the Midwest Winter Workshop!


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We hope you all are surviving the end-of-semester. We write bearing news of news of some upcoming events of interest:

Next RSRG Meeting: Thursday, April 25 from 6-7:30. Join us for a special Rhetorical Studies Reading group with guest Christa J. Olson. We will be discussing two pieces by Dr. Olson and you will find them below (along with with some images for reference).

Olson Places to Stand

Olson Chapter 4 Constitutive Visions

Chapter 4 Figures

Dr. Olson will also be delivering a keynote speech the very next day at the Gesa E. Kirsch Graduate Student Symposium, sponsored by the Center for Writing Studies. Her talk will take place at 2pm in GSLIS Building, room 126 and it is entitled “The Persuasions of Travel: Andean Landscapes and U.S. National Vision.”

Here is the description of Dr. Olson’s talk:

The assumption that “America” means “the United States of America” is so ubiquitous—within and beyond the borders of this country—that it hardly occasions comment. And yet, the fact that the U.S. claim to America is unmarked ought to call our attention to the remarkable, long-term, and ongoing rhetorical processes that make that claim possible: the not so hidden work of American exceptionalism. This talk enacts that attention, turning to a relatively early moment in U.S. hemispheric power to track how U.S. publics looking at Latin America learned to see themselves instead of Latin America. It explores how two travelers, the artist Frederic Church and the explorer Hiram Bingham, used visual accounts of their adventures in the Andes to shape U.S. national vision. Church’s spectacular exhibition of his “great painting,” The Heart of the Andes, in 1859 and Bingham’s lavishly illustrated accounts of his 1911 re-discovery of Machu Picchu appeared more than fifty years apart, used quite different media, and circulated through distinct means. Together, however, they speak to how U.S. publics in the first era of U.S. empire came to imagine themselves as [partial] proprietors of the American hemisphere and as the inevitable subjects of inspiring landscapes and impressive cultures. By seeing the Andes through Church and Bingham’s eyes, U.S. audiences learned new national visions appropriate to a period of growing global influence. Ultimately, the talk suggests, examining how those audiences and image makers accomplished the invisibility of Latin America through extensive imagining of it sheds useful light on the subtle, pervasive force of American exceptionalism and the claim to America.

Finally, all rhetoricians of the graduate student variety are invited to attend any or all of the CWS Symposium. The event will last from 8:30 to 4pm in GSLIS Building Room 126 and will feature presentations of graduate student works in progress. RSVP to if you are interested in attending!

Hope to see you at any or all of these great events!

Rohini, Jon, Paul, and Katie

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On January 30, the Rhetorical Studies Reading Group was lucky enough to have some time to chat with Dr. Richard Graff from the University of Minnesota while he was on campus to deliver the Illinois Program for Research in the Humanities lecture. We were joined by several students from the Department of Communication and the Center for Writing Studies as well as faculty from the Department of Communication to discuss several articles related to Dr. Graff’s research (you can check out the pieces we discussed below).

Dr. Graff discussed several issues and questions that animate his research interests in the oratorical spaces of classical Greece and Rome, including visuality and orality, performance, rhetorical style, and what he called a “synesthetic” approach to studying rhetoric (one that encompasses and connects the multiple senses in sometimes contradictory ways). Graff also noted some of the potential challenges associated with the study classical rhetoric, and a key theme throughout the discussion was the ways in which archaeological evidence informs this research. For Graff, studying the oratorical spaces of classical Greece and Rome is like a puzzle–one must put together a coherent picture based on the evidence available from a variety of sources.

Overall, the discussion was an exciting prelude to Dr. Graff’s fascinating talk later that afternoon. We appreciate the time Dr. Graff took to meet with us, and all the students and faculty who joined the conversation.

The Rhetorical Studies Reading Group is an IPRH sponsored group of students and faculty from a variety of disciplines and departments who are interested in the study of rhetoric. Several times a semester, the group comes together to discuss issues and research in rhetorical studies. We are often joined by guest scholars from across the country. Our next RSRG meeting will take place March 1st. Watch this space for updated information and readings. 

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Hello rhetorical scholars:

Instead of trying to pull together a hasty RSRG before finals, we’ve agreed to push that to next semester.

However, we have some very exciting events in the works for next semester, including:

Late-January 2013: Lunchtime RSRG meeting with Richard Graff 
February 2013: A Writing Studies-curated RSRG
March 2013: Graduate Lyceum
April 2013: Potential RSRG event with Dr. Christa Olson

Check this space and your inbox for more details and updates as plans are solidified. We’re looking forward to hitting the ground running next semester.

We hope you all have a smooth end of the semester, an enjoyable Winter Break, and a Happy New Year!


Rohini Singh

Katie Irwin

Jon Stone 

Paul McKean

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