Speaking about Speaking in Manhattan

Next Tuesday (March 5) I am appearing in a performance about speeches by actual speechwriters and writers of that hardest form of rhetoric, comedy. They told me I can speak about anything I want related to rhetoric, so I think I’ll speak about the upcoming season of political debates, Presidential and otherwise. It’s always a good idea to follow Cicero and “prepare the minds of the audience for what they are about to hear.”

It looks like it will be a good time. I have 7 minutes (the fingerprints of debate practice are everywhere) and I’m not sure what the venue will be like. I have a lot of ethos questions too. As the professor in the bunch, will it be necessary to read from a paper? Will it lose credibility if I just speak about it without notes? I’m definitely wearing a coat and tie, so if I feel that is an integral part of the ethos, why do I have questions about reading notes? A professor would do that - at least that’s what the audience might think.

I’m very happy I get to be a part of this mostly because of my recent obsession about reaching publics frequently with rhetorical insight, and Roman educational perspectives, where listening to, evaluating, and giving speeches were all a part of learning how to be a citizen and function politically in the day-to-day life of the Roman Empire. We seem to have lost that in the U.S. (among other places I’m sure too) and I’m very interested in exploring how to recover that. My hunch is that the loss of the town hall, the church meeting, or whatever was the forum for handling local problems goes hand-in-hand with the loss of our rhetorical abilities to deeply investigate our views and work to reject simple binaries on complex issues.

Part of this project is to raise questions about who controls the agenda for public discourse, and there’s no better place to start than with those who control most of our public imaginary about what debate looks like and should be used for - the Commission on Presidential Debates. We have a lot of scholarship on how bad the debates are, but not a lot of scholarship on how to make them better, or how to make what we have a positive thing. Perhaps we should approach the Debates like the TV show Chopped? “Open your basket, you have to use these awful ingredients.” Maybe there’s something nice that could be made from the random assortment of statements a Presidential debate provides.

I should get my comments together this weekend and practice a few times before Tuesday night. As someone who is old and grumpy, 9PM is quite late to be doing anything, let alone starting something! But I’ll just down a few coffees before I go and things should be good. They said they might video it as well so if that turns out to be the case I’ll post a link to the video in a follow-up.

Public Engagement

More strange than academics engaging the public is the idea that academics engaging the public is strange. In the field of rhetoric, we’ve nearly totally pulled away from this idea. Debate teams exist at the margins of rhetoric and communication departments, structured like sport teams. Faculty push to publish in journals were 7 to 10 people will read and possibly use their work. Rhetoric and communication courses are taught with total fidelity toward theories and principles from the academic literature, not with an eye toward helping students improve their ability to capture audience attention and persuade. Courses at the higher levels draw on and celebrate ideas and writing that have little to do with the rhetor’s art of crafting meaning and working to carefully untie the knots that moor audience belief. The field is almost totally inward looking.

I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately and how to engage in rhetorical work that’s valuable while reaching a broader audience. I don’t think rhetoric exists without audience; you could have all the other elements there to it and not have rhetoric. The audience is the thing that is necessary for the rhetorical.

It doesn’t have to be a real audience, but material. There should be the presence of a material manifest audience of some kind. So when I’m typing this blog entry I think about the report I see as to how many people clicked on the last one and what the monthly traffic is like to this site. When putting something on YouTube I think about the numbers of views and sustained minutes. These aren’t real as much as they are material. They are guideposts for what works, as long as you can honestly imagine what the audience might want.

I’m pretty disappointed we don’t have a journal dedicated to this sort of thing. Contemporary Argumentation and Debate always has promise, but is really trapped in a bad situation. As a debate journal, it has the twin prongs of 1)pressure to be something “better” than debate, the inferiority complex of debate as not a real thing passed down from the scholars-on-high who forget how their critical acumen owes a debt to intercollegiate debate for sparking it and 2) the event horizon of intercollegiate debate itself. When you are in the event horizon, the rest of the universe looks askew and becomes a problem. As you try to move away from the singularity, you rely on distorted information - in this case light - to navigate. You could easily be headed right into the singularity as you start to move. Even basic information is distorted in the area of the singularity. So even well-meaning people can still be pushing a monastic, non-public model of debate and scholarship while claiming they are getting out of it. As an example think about the following attempts to break the event horizon: Lincoln-Douglas Debate, Ted Turner (now Public Forum), CEDA Non-Policy Division Debate, and finally British Parliamentary debate. All these forms are now nearly inaccessible to audiences without a lot of training about how to stop doing what they would normally do when listening to arguments, and instead “follow the rules.”

I do hope that some debaters take seriously the pieces/interviews that Shanara Reid-Brinkley gave a few years ago about how debaters are scholars. This can be true, although I don’t believe it’s automatically true. A well researched position in a debate is aimed at winning a tournament, so it suffers from that. But what’s the difference between that and the conference paper or journal article written by an academic in hopes to fatten a tenure file or lead to a promotion? The utilitarian element of a paper or a debate case need not be totally deterministic of the quality of the work. What’s missing is a venue, or a way out of the event horizon of the tournament. Similarly, the event horizon of the academic department, or bureaucracy is equally devastating. I wonder what publication possibilities there are out there.

Currently working with many others on the reboot of Timely Interventions and perhaps this journal could be a place where debate arguments could transform themselves into interesting pieces for a broader audience. Debate podcasting that is not about debate would help, but about the work, insights, and understandings that debate has brought to people. In The Bin was my podcast for a long time and some of the episodes seemed to bend that way, but the stronger forces were always toward talking about the tournament. Without legitimate competition to the tournament, debate will never provide all the possibilities for transformative education that it could. What is needed is for a few debaters and their teachers to imagine and implement serious alternatives to the tournament schedule, competitions that do not rely on tournament structure, and give debate back its rhetorical aspects - the big audience - in order for us to benefit from its power. I like the idea of debater/scholars very much, but I’m uncertain we can get there given the obsession over breaking, octafinals, and speaker awards. These don’t belong in scholarship. Yet, professional scholars run a similar conflicting system for tenure and promotion that strips away the possibilities of thought and research in the same manner.

We Need Creative Platforming for Rhetoric

We need local community platforming for rhetors, speech, debates, and argument. We have to lead it and we need it locally. We cannot rely on privately owned corporate communication platforms to curate, cultivate, and teach people how to engage in public deliberation and argument.

In the past the Town Hall was the way of doing this. People would attend and listen for a while before engaging. If they engaged too early, the collective body would push back on that speech making it conform to the recognizable, the actionable. Rhetoric’s discipline is meant to make something palatable, in the way that taste disciplines the cook’s imagination and provides limits that don’t stifle, but engage creativity.

Most of our educational efforts toward critical thinking - perhaps over 90% I would guess - are about reception. We think we can solve problems of shallow thinking and poor inference by addressing reception alone. We tend to fall into a trap of thinking that production of text, either writing or speaking, is a part of the problem. We don’t think of a critical thinking exercise as creative.

This is often apparent in bad assignment design where students are asked to replicate and repeat good, valid sources that are determined by the instructor. They are not encouraged to think about what they would like to contribute to the conversation outside of how they are going to quote and cite the sources that they found. Professors often establish a hierarchy of quality sources without the necessary discussion about why one source might be better than another. For many students, it doesn’t make a lot of sense why academic journals would be superior to their own eyes and ears. This has to be explained in a way that they can understand. But too often this is set out as dogma, and people who reject research are laughed at. This doesn’t make them respect professors or peer reviewed work whatsoever.

Professors are very scared to grade quality. They would rather grade via a rubric that establishes points per source cited, APA format citations, and the like. This teaches students that these requirements are mere arbitrary, bureaucratic demands to a functionary. They are not invited to see themselves as potential scholars or as people who belong in the conversation. They are more like file clerks, and as such, are eager to see the rubric so they know where they can cut corners - not where they can excel. Professors have somehow come to the determination they are there to police students, to discipline them, to show them when they can’t follow rules or instructions, without the necessary compliment of helping them improve the quality of what they are crafting and making. Following rules is the secret major that all college students are forced to take. What about inquiry? What about trying something new based on the readings? Why all this reporting on other things said by others? What about the development of the future ortators, future producers of smart texts?

Quality is a whole different issue and it is often a source of anxiety for professors who have become very comfortable in pointing to point totals and math to justify grades to worried students. It’s as if they too depend on the rubric to find meaning in the assignments they give. They cannot just talk about how a paper or a speech was not great, and give advice for how to make it better. They also don’t realize they could just have the student do it over - why not? What is the point to having university classes? It’s certainly not to follow rubrics as if they were laws.

The value of the rubric is in helping your blindness as a person when you are grading. There are tons of biases that instructors could have toward student work. Keeping names off of assignments is one way to address this, but that harms the ability of the instructor to grade on a continuum - to recognize micro-improvements as they happen for each student. The second way is a rubric that you use as a professor and perhaps don’t share with the students. This ensures you give equal time to all aspects of the assignment rather than just to one or two things that bother you about it. The things that bother you often are cultural or issues of privilege; what you think is appropriate and good. A rubric can help you snap out of these biases and look toward improving that student’s production where it is and how it is manifest.

Platforming speeches seems like a good rubric-oriented move as it lets students do the one thing that they never get out of public speaking and the like - an audience. The audience is the most vital element of speech instruction that you can have. But we teach our courses like swimming without a pool, like basketball with no court to practice on, and like chemistry with no laboratory experience. These would be considered incomplete experiences at best, and perhaps not the courses in another sense.

This can be achieved with community involvement of some kind, or perhaps community partnerships with the university. This requires a lot of work and a lot of investment. There might not be a good way to attract audiences to have a look at student speeches. The other way might be web videos, but these would have to be made for a web audience, not just a lateral of the classroom speech with broken podium and dusty chalkboard. Maybe streaming is a good way to do it? This is a nascent thing, but there are many programs out there in forensics who do a show night of their top speeches for the community as a fundraiser. I wonder if this could be expanded to the entire curriculum of public speaking (as well as related courses) as a starting place to see how these speeches play with the presence of a manifest audience.

It then must expand to club status beyond the university to give people space to practice oral engagement with others on ideas. Local interaction and normalization of this is very important. Part of the practice is the normalization, locally, of rhetorical styles. The idea that one attends a debate or a display of good speeches as a normal part of community should come back. This could be funded by the university, but it could also be a civic project as well. This interaction - serving only as consumers of persuasive speech rather than the creators of arguments - is responsible for a lot of our failing in political conversation today. And it’s a failing of those who should be promoting it - the rhetoricians.

Rigid Virtues

I just read Steven Salaita’s new blog where he writes a very nice, very long piece about his new job as a school bus driver in the Washington D.C. area. It’s really good, really well written. But it’s not good rhetoric.

Salaita describes being a school bus driver in very noble terms, anchoring his description on the terrible alternative, being a university professor, and having to compromise one’s views. He describes not being able to hold his position at the American University in Beirut because he refused to compromise with the provost on a matter of campus dissent about his loss of his position. It seems, from the way Salaita tells it, that he could have held onto a position there if he had worked to quiet the student unrest. He refused to do it.

At the same time, he is very flexible and fluid and generous about finding the values in being a school bus driver. I’m sure it’s a fine job for those who need to do it. But Salaita could have done so much more if he was a bit more flexible in the way he presents his viewpoints.

Consider the idea that he could have helped those protesting students find more productive, and more acceptable ways to vent their frustration, anger, and concern about his loss of appointment. He might have been able to stay at AUB and teach and write. He would have been able to reach a great many students there, expressing to them his principles, the backing for them, and reasons why they should oppose colonization. But as a school bus driver he no longer has that opportunity.

It seems to go without saying that Salaita’s downfall is his lack of understanding when it comes to rhetoric. For him, rhetoric is always fake, always a gut-wrenching compromise, always opposed to the truth in service of the bad. Here’s a quote from him describing the oldest rhetorical form, that of speaking:

I was rarely nervous speaking in public, even when infamy provided large audiences.  During that period I was fighting for a cause, one indivisible from my career, and so I welcomed opportunities to lecture.  Self-assurance gave way to nervousness after speaking became an occupation.  Like any prestige economy, speechmaking is fraught with ego and betrayal.  It requires self-promotion and networking and assertiveness and all kinds of other things I do poorly.  People in the circuit are cognizant of the approaches and opinions that would limit their desirability and the size of their audiences.  They also understand which demographics to ridicule and which to promote.  Public discourse doesn’t exist in a free market. 

Salaita’s lack of fear of public speaking is truly disturbing. Such lack of concern means a lack of interest in the audience’s role in the crafting of meaning. Salaita is there to merely tell, to impose upon the audience his view. They are to receive it. Since it’s a right view, they will get it, or they won’t, and that will be that. His admission that he does networking poorly is meant to be a dismissal of networking as not something “honest people with conviction” are able to do, but what I get is someone who has little interest in the dynamics of communication, language, and speech. Speechmaking and public discourse don’t fit his model of what it should look like, so they don’t exist. Salaita is a certain person. Certain about a great many things, and it informs this very thin, very strange model of giving talks.

Consider an alternative, where one’s fidelity to one’s political positions encourages one to find ways of reaching audiences that, through legitimate means very much like your own, have arrived at certain conclusions. Imagine these people’s conclusions being the product of reading, thinking, living, and talking. This is how you arrived at yours. Now imagine that this machine, the human mind, could be driven on another road of such materials, and it could arrive at different conclusions. Imagine that the certainty that language offers is merely one iteration of language’s power, and that doubt and questioning are the other side of that descriptive and dominating function of language.

Sometimes it is very valuable to soften one’s virtues, one’s principles in order to allow access to why they are so good to those who you deem most unlikely to agree. A rigid expression of principled view is often the best way to eliminate any conversation or conversion, and also a good way to make sure that any and all of your attempts at persuasion are shut down (the so-called “blacklist” he mentions in the post). There has to be some flexibility in how one proposes and presents ideas to audiences. If that flexibility is not there, then we should seriously doubt the authenticity of the claim of the person that they really do want to convince people of their view. Most of the time, such as in this case, we see that the correct view is merely correct, and exposure to it should render people eager to change minds.

The idea of “honest work” is a good one, but who gets to determine that? From this post, it seems that the “honest work” of driving the school bus is that because it is extremely removed from being a professor or scholar. The distance between absolutes is not honest, but constructed. To talk about the constructed nature of scholarship, professor labor, the academy, and the blue-collar world is very interesting and could open up a great discussion. But here we have simple contrast bordering on contradiction. “this is honest because it is the opposite of that.” I think from his blog we will get a nice clinic in the importance and difficulty of the art of rhetoric.

It’s not easy to try to approach others with ideas; it is exceedingly difficult to get someone to see things from your perspective; it is nearly impossible to get agreement on a contentious issue with others. But the art of rhetoric, being flexible with the presentation of firm commitment, opening or even unlocking the door to how that commitment was formed, is essential even in its difficulty. For at the end, our presentation out loud of our commitments for the ears and mind of others turns us into an other for our own ideas, and gives us much needed refinement of those thoughts for the furthering of the argument, idea, or belief. We might not be able to convince others of our viewpoints in a frame of total agreement. But we might all end up with something new to consider, to think about, and to evaluate that comes from the no-one, from the act of rhetorical engagement itself. This is what is missing from the discourse of Salaita, and all those who fear adjusting the presentation of their ideas is total betrayal of those ideas. Good rhetoric requires it.

Argumentation and Star Trek

Surfing around this morning and discovered that the Star Trek: The Next Generation episode, “Measure of a Man” has it’s 30th anniversary today! I feel pretty old.

Here’s a great article talking about the history of the episode and its production.


In this episode, Starfleet has a hearing to determine if Data has rights. He’s about to be considered the property of Starfleet so a robotics expert can disassemble him and build more Datas to serve on the entire fleet.

Data decides to resign from Starfleet to avoid being disassembled as he doesn’t feel the robotics expert will be competent enough to reassemble him.

This sparks a hearing where an admiral appoints Riker to advocate for Starfleet against Data. Picard advocates for Data. I guess Starfleet doesn’t have JAGS? Or maybe everyone has a legal education in Starfleet?

Anyway, this episode I used for years upon years in argumentation courses. Watching the way the arguments are made, the way evidence is presented, and how the two characters try to persuade the judge is burned into my memory. It was a fun time. I even used it here at St. John’s for a few years, but haven’t done so in a long time.

The episode is good to show to students as it’s very disconnected from the familiar. Many of them haven’t seen much of Star Trek of any kind, and the topic - whether an artificial intelligence has rights - is one that seems somewhat fantastical, which is good for pushing creativity among students (they don’t get much of a chance for it at any point in schooling).

It might be time to show this episode again in class as this is the generation that will have to face this question for real: Does an artificial intelligence enjoy the same rights to self-determination and choice as a human being would?

I’m wary of using entertainment media to teach these concepts, but this premise is one where we can really mine out some “equipment for living” in Burke’s phrasing. The question is still an open one even given the entire argument of both sides. Students can use it to generate their own arguments about the issue and bring up conceptions of the case that did not appear in the episode.

Maybe I should return to this in the classroom and see what happens.

P.S. I rewatched this episode a couple of days after i posted this, and the reason there are no JAGs is the starbase is new, and nobody has been assigned to the office yet there. This is the reason why the officers of the Enterprise must serve as the advocates.

Note Taking

I used to use Microsoft OneNote a ton to take notes and save clips of things, but since I now am using my new Pixelbook more and more (it’s what I’m typing on now) for everyday tasks, Google Keep is my go to for saving stuff I want to write about or think about later on.

It’s so strange. Google Keep is far too simple. It’s a web based clipper of URLS, images, and lists. It doesn’t have nearly the features of OneNote, but it’s so quick and easy to use I just keep clicking on it to save stuff. Plus on a chromebook you are imbedded in the web anyway, so I think that makes me perceive that things are going faster.

Also I just take notes now in Google Docs and it’s helping me remember stuff a lot better, and create a lot more. I think that I’ve reached a point where direct and simple are more important than a bunch of features that I might use someday. OneNote is still amazing, but for some reason I just don’t really go back to it and poke around. When I feel like I want to do some writing that’s not connected to a project that I’m already into, I just open keep and poke around.

Of course I have many notebooks - drawers and drawers of them - which is my preferred way to write when in transit. Now the pixelbook’s big advantage is that it fits perfectly and comfortably on the tray of an airplane seat. It’s quite literally the best airplane computer I’ve ever seen, even better than an iPad with a keyboard case. I’ve tried everything, and this one is super great. It doesn’t feel like you are going to break the tray either. It just works perfectly and feels comfortable.

But if you don’t want to have the tray out, the notebook does fine. I always have a Muji pen or a uniball pen as those are cheap, but they move fast, they seem to not mush up your thoughts or reactions as you go, like slower pens will do. The best way to test out what you’d like to write with or on is to subscribe to ScribeDelivery which is a blind-box for notebooks and pens. I’ve learned a lot about my analog writing desires and process from them. And here in New York, being on a bus or a subway always gets me thinking about writing, so I want to have something to jot things down on.


I don’t like tiny notebooks; I really don’t have a lot of hates, but I really do hate the smallest Moleskine notebooks. They are just so rigid and bulky and the pages never sit right when you try to use them on the go. This is my current notebook that I bought in Japan at a museum gift shop. It’s perfect, plus it has that great Japanese paper, not sure what it’s called, but it has a great feeling and the ink doesn’t bleed off of it. I got another one after I opened the one I bought and tried it out so I wouldn’t run out. It’s doing pretty well so far, mostly because Google Keep is slowly encroaching on my paper notebook habits.

Keep is great for taking pictures of books and book reviews so I know what to read next. I’ve found myself slipping into the habit of taking pictures of paragraphs - something I’ve seen students do on social media - instead of writing the quote out or typing it out. I wonder how this experience with note taking changes the relationship we’d have with the note. Is it better to write it out? I have notebooks full of paragraphs I wrote out in the library because I didn’t have a laptop, or my laptop’s battery was so bad that it would not be possible to sit there with it for hours pouring over books. But the pixelbook regularly will go 8 to 10 hours without the charger. I’m just typing after all, nothing very battery intensive. But these devices seem to have the technology to where we could type out quotes and notes fairly easily. I wonder why I take photos more often then? Keep is becoming my go-to place for keeping lists of books to buy is part of it too. Easier than the old notebooks.

Yet still this semester I stopped using Google Calendar so much and have a Moleskine planner, which I love filling up with tasks. Perhaps this is all a big, slowly moving circle or something where things trade off with one another based on what I’m thinking and feeling. Or maybe there’s a process underneath that determines it based on what I’m writing about or working on.

Bird Box and Rhetoric

The movie Bird Box got a ton of attention over December and I happened to watch it as well. I thought about it for a while after I saw it and decided to try to write a paper about its connection to the contemporary political situation and how we think about rhetoric.

I gave this paper as a talk during our brown bag series that the rhetoric & communication department do every semester. I think it went pretty well.

After the failure of the GoPro 7 to record less than 15 minutes in any one go, I decided to use the old handycam again. So this was shot on a now 12 year old Handycam with a wide angle lens and a zoom mic. It turned out pretty good I think considering the age of everything involved.

I usually use Wondershare Filmora to edit my videos, but it kept crashing, so I used Cyberlink Power Director 14 instead, which was great. It crashed a lot too, so I had to use my laptop to render it but it was super fast once I got all the video transferred over. The Handycam uses this weird compression format called AVCHD which takes some special effort on the part of the editing software to decode.Glad I got it figured out as this is a nice camera (and my only option really) for recording my more long-form stuff I do.

Another Semester of Public Speaking

Public speaking, the class everyone must take at University (with a few exceptions such as being at an Ivy League, or being in a very professional-oriented degree) is my new life. It looks like for the foreseeable future it’s all I’ll teach. This is good as it’s all I pretty much want to teach. There are a lot of possibilities within this class, it’s status as a requirement, and its status as a core-curriculum “sacred cow” that makes it interesting. I really can’t believe how little this class has been used to empower speech, rhetoric, and communication departments in the U.S.

Instructors aren’t connecting the dots very well. It wasn’t that long ago that composition was a very small, very ignored corner of the English department, where literature was king, and writing just to study writing was so low that even the MFA program was seen as more legitimate. Now it’s impossible to imagine a campus without a writing center, writing in the disciplines, writing across the curriculum, etc. Now it’s amazing every time I hear a University official talk about how everyone has a responsibility to teach writing.

The same should be true of speech, but we teach only simple modality in our courses. Public speaking textbooks exist, which is a huge problem. There are so many amazing things to read about, study, and present about that there really shouldn’t be a need for a public speaking book. Teaching people form of public address is to miss the wonderful opportunity to get them interested and motivated to read good works about ideas and topics they really love.

That research benefit goes with a confidence benefit in the art of presentation, particularly because they have a stake in whatever it is that they are speaking about instead of it being randomly assigned by some instructor, or some topic that is “reserved” for class speeches. Speaking centers would be a great addition to writing centers as places where students could get assistance and help developing what they’d like to say instead of being graded on whether they can “find the thesis” of a speech.

The absolute poverty of what we teach was revealed to be very starkly last week during an assessment meeting, where the pre-test to be given to students had them locate a thesis statement. How is this helpful? How does this help them come up with what to say to convince others that they are right? How does this help a person marshall the right words when the stakes are high and the disagreement is everywhere?

Assessment might be impossible for public speaking in a way that satisfies the Dean’s office bureaucrats who want the right form filled out the right way in the right folder so they can go home at the right time. A performance assessment might be better for public speaking, just to see if we can see the attempt to connect to audience, establish a position, and show the audience that this position is a reasonable, if not the best position, to take on a question.

I’m very worried that students don’t know how to do this, and are instead learning a “courtly” rhetoric, where they learn how to follow the rules to say something that pleases power. As Sacvan Bercovitch pointed out years ago, American society even agrees on what dissent should look like. There’s a cultural practice of consensual dissent defining what it means to be recognizably against. Awareness of this, and the awareness of engagement in structures of power distribution, or awareness of human motives and how they are accounted, seems essential and at the very least, more valuable than rule-following for the construction of messages. Following the expected rules of a speech is one thing, but following them in order to gain adherence from an audience is quite another.

To this end, I’ve started playing around with various controversiae and declamation topics from Rome, updating them to suit the modern day. I tried this out on Friday, and it went pretty well. What was most interesting about it was that the class I have that is younger students, mostly first or second year in college, were very much into it and very excited about doing it. The other class with mostly juniors and seniors was not into it at all, and seemed to resent my disruption of their passive existence in the classroom. It might sound like I’m blaming them here, but I feel that this is a survival strategy that comes from having numerous professors who just want attention and a space to talk rather than a space to engage with others in practice.

The Ancient Roman curriculum recognized the need for practice to happen to get a grip on how and why commonplaces worked (or didn’t). To theorize in action the audience reacting to an appeal as it unfolds over time (praxis, in rhetoric at least). And to indicate the existence of perspective and ideology in every account we can give of a situation and the need to judge/move/or act on it (narrative). These are three things that I think could be assessed through performance, but again, this is something that would be too difficult to do since assessment is more of a “I’m doing my job” thing rather than an authentic exploration of what students are becoming through study.

More posts to come about my declamation experiment - I’m always thinking about and composing them which is super weird, but it’s a good time. I think that the crafting of these declamation exercises is really good for the mind, which is why I like to work on them anytime my mind drifts. Creating the possibilities of rhetorical response is also rhetorical, and very healthy as it reminds us that there are numerous ways to be within society and the world. We don’t have a grasp of that at all, but we do like to universalize our own experiences. Public speaking is the art of keeping that from happening by showing how powerful and attractive it is to be trapped hopelessly in perspective, but a perspective that makes politics possible.

State of the Union 2019

Should we boycott the State of the Union, even if we feel that the President is a reprehensible person or a terrible figure?


I don’t agree with not listening to it at all. I think that the speech is meant to be an address to Congress by the way the law is written. But clever rhetoricians cannot avoid writing it by thinking about it as eavesdropping - being allowed to see an event that you are not invited to. Being able to hear and see what two giant forces in governing do when they meet. People who watch it might interpolate themselves as seeing something that is elite and closed-door in a way. Writing the speech this way allows for some powerful rhetorical moves to influence the people under the guise of, or in the name of, asking the Congress to do something or (more powerfully) for help.

But the more reasonable and mainstream read is that it’s a speech for the American people under the very thin veil that it is an address to Congress. That’s too bad, as the methods of persuasion - and the power of rhetoric - are somewhat lost in a very simple construction of a wink.

But then again, these speeches are less and less a part of rhetoric every year. Every year, they are more and more infected with the discourse of apparent truth. Presidents state claims and tell stories without any attempt to address those who might have doubts about what the President is saying.

Everything a political figure says should be questioned, which should be taken into account by the political figure, and they should attempt to make what they are saying somewhat palatable to the doubtful audience. If not, one could make what one is saying palatable to one’s own supporters - but those people are going to cheer anyway. So why just state things and not try to weave them together using reasons?

It’s strange. And maybe a reason to boycott, as the Congresswoman suggests we should. But I think that one of the best things about public political discourse is riffing off of it. We use these speeches and addresses - including the terrible Presidential debates - as platforms to reach other people with our political beliefs and ideas. For that reason I think it’s worth watching, just so we can base our discourse off of what was offered by the President.

So what happened?

The speech moved between rather obvious opposites and there was no surprise when the President asked the Congress to reject gridlock for it’s natural and obvious opposite, greatness. The first third of the speech was pretty bad, pretty simplistic, and seemed to be the way you’d start a speech if you just sat down to write it in order without thinking it through.

I wonder why the President never points to particularities when making claims such as the number of jobs created, the number of people no longer requiring food stamps, etc. What would it mean for the President to do a bit of work to justify these claims? It would be better if the President would try to historicize the speech a bit, instead of using words as a showcase of uncontestable truths. Everyone finds the words of a President to be contestable.

Sadly the State of the Union is not a rhetorical event because the President realizes, as does everyone in there, that all that is expected is the announcement of facts without context or explanation. I think that the National government has given up on the idea of trying to persuade, move, or invoke new ideas with this address. It is simply going to be liked or hated based on how you feel about the President.

Not the best political model to have, is it?

I also think it would be interesting for the President to not compare his work to other administrations or where we were when that President took office, but to give images of the quality of everyday life in various parts of the country, in various walks of life, that would reveal the power of the choice and the great lives that are being led due to the choices made in Washington.

It seems really odd to talk about particular policy success and say the Union is strong based on that. A more traditional rhetorical appeal would be to talk about what the Union stands for, what the principles are, and how the pieces of legislation that have gone through show consistency with these uncontroversial principles.

I think after solidifying one’s administration and one’s legislative successes as part of the norm of the United States, based on timeless principles, then you are ready to talk about what needs to happen next. I think that there should be a very clear line and very clear division between what American stands for, what has been done to continue that legacy and that greatness, and how the Congress has the power to make or break it.

It’s really vital for the President to retreat into the limits of the role when on the greatest stage provided to them, and point out that Congress is more responsible for the direction of law and policy than the President ever can be. Trump tried to do this, emphasis on tried, when he described his version of the facts as to what comes across the southern U.S. border. It just wasn’t very convincing because of what it’s saddled with. I would advise the President to be less specific here and talk about the need for security in immigration as a whole. I think that the specifics harm the larger case in this instance.

Everyone can agree that crimes should be prevented and people should not be in the country who have not completed the proper screening processes. The argument needs to be made that somehow the process and procedures can’t work right today. Perhaps a connection to the “hottest economy” claim would be a good move here. There also could be a really strong argument made here that denying legitimate immigrants access by the accident of trying to prevent these horrible crimes is justified, as good immigrants will be taken even with the strongest scrutiny.

The stories of the individuals should be used as evidence that the general approach of the administration is one that is good because it lines up on the level of principle. The argument falls apart if you use these people as evidence that a particular law is good. A principle of organization of a space will always be far more rhetorically powerful than saying, “I cleaned up this mess, and then this one.”  It’s great that these people turned their lives around and the President helped them, but he’s not getting the mileage he needs out of these powerful examples. I don’t think the family who suffered from a crime committed by an illegal immigrant was used very well. I think it needs to be infused with much more energea, the word that Quintilian used to talk about the creation of images in front of an audience. This does not have to be graphic; this could easily be the suggestion that these crimes have no pattern. But it must be done in a persuasive, haunting way.

The wall arguments were the most looked forward to I bet. I think that the argument was stretched too far. The President should have discussed simply the reduction of illegal crossings and that as the goal, since illegal crossings are primarily the source of all the dangers, all the drugs, and all the violent crime. This connection would be a powerful one and also help with the creation of the image of the policy he wants in the minds of the listeners. Of course, this suggestion sits well with those who see the State of the Union as an address for the American people not the Congress.

The last part of the speech had a lot of interesting calls for future policy. But in the light of the weakness of the Wall portion, these parts shined. I wonder if he could have discussed these before he talked about the wall.

The other controversial topic, abortion, seemed to be a very strange transition. I think that phrasing the policy this way appealed to those who were already on his side. But it could have been said in a way that was much less direct and still clear to them what it was that they should argue for in the Congress. But this abortion policy might be a way to regain support for the administration after the disastrous wall discourse that has happened. If I were advising the President, I would suggest a much more concealed argument here. People who know will know, and those who do not know that this is about abortion, will support the idea of a life-culture, whatever that is. But why not spend more time on security and the wall?

The speech failed to thread the policies all under a rubric of security. That would have been the best way to mark the way forward here. That should have been the overall theme of the speech and a great way to connect a lot of these policy ideas in a way that made more sense, and it would surprise a lot of people to think about these initiatives under the title of security.

In the end the State of the Union more and more does not benefit from the attention of the rhetorician. It’s very debatable whether or not these are rhetorical events, or are they a simple display of facts that appear for our assent or ire. Perhaps this could be theorized as the discourse of extreme rhetorical poverty, but that is not something I am interested in doing.

One of the most cringeworthy moments of these events is when rhetoricians react in shock and dismay that hypocrisy and lies persuade people, or that people hold positions of violence and hate. Rhetoricians should not be examining fact-check, or connections to what is true. Speeches should be evaluated as attempts to way or convey perspective. Because of their nature, speeches cannot access what is true, they can convince people that their experiences are universal, or deserve to be universal.

Theorizing how to move people away from the idea that there’s a correspondence between truth and speech, and get them to accept that the only gap exists between interpretation and interpretation is a better way to evaluate policy. It would also require careful listening, as the pressure would be on the President to interpret responsibility for the data in the same style that Presidents often call upon, blame, or question the Congress.