Every English major encounters the same situation — maybe it’s already happened to you since going home for the summer: a neighbor, relative, or (just the other day, in my case) the optometrist politely asks you how school’s going and what you’re studying.
You tell them.
“Oh, English?” they ask with a note of concern in their voice. “So what’re you gonna do with that degree?”
I love being an English major and all, but I’ve had to go through this song and dance more and more since I changed my major from English Studies to Rhetoric and Writing a year ago. Only now, the concern in their voice is coupled with a puzzled, raised eyebrow whenever I reply, saying that I’m an English major with a concentration in Rhetoric and Writing.
Creative writers and literature majors are lucky; folks can at least grasp that there’s a lot of writing and reading involved.
But what comes to mind when most people hear “rhetoric”? It sounds intimidating. Perhaps they think we spend our days labeling everything ethos, pathos, and logos like in the rhetorical analyses many of us did in ENG 103 and 104. Or maybe they imagine us in class firing back at each other like politicians on the news.
So, what is the English major in Rhetoric and Writing?
In reality, the rhetoric major’s more than just learning how to make a sound argument; it’s about learning how to think critically and write and design experiences for an audience.
The worst part is, even some of my English major friends don’t seem to understand what it is we rhetoric undergrads actually do. Well, to be fair, I didn’t know what rhetoric was when I first arrived at Ball State, either. At the time, I wasn’t even sure what I wanted to study.
I knew I wanted to study English because I loved to read and write. But when it came time to pick my concentration at freshman orientation, I remember reading the descriptions on the pamphlets and feeling bamboozled by the names of the English concentrations after being told I had to choose one. I knew what literature and creative writing were, but what in the world was “linguistics”? It was overwhelming, given all the campus tours, surveys, and the dreaded icebreakers, so my mind was more concerned with scrounging up some Taco Bell during the lunch break in an hour than my academic prospects.
So I settled on English Studies, which —according to the advisor assisting me that day —would allow me to “dabble in a bit of everything,” in case I eventually changed my major to a more specific field like literature, creative writing, linguistics, or something called “rhetoric”.
Because I’d already taken my first-year composition courses in high school through dual credit, I was able to jump into some two hundred-level English classes, including a couple of literature courses and another in linguistics. But it wasn’t until I took former BSU professor Dr. Stephanie Hedge’s English 210: Introduction to Rhetoric and Writing class (now called Introduction to English Studies) that something inside me finally clicked.
“Invisible” rhetoric becomes visible
When I think of the rhetoric major, what comes to mind is that scene from The Matrix when Keanu Reeves’ character, Neo, is suddenly able to see all those green, coded strings of 1s and 0s which make up the virtual world. To me, Neo’s journey toward his final realization that he is “The One,” (being able to see what is visible on the surface) is a lot like the journey we Ball State rhetoric majors take — but with fewer trench coats and people-chomping robots, of course.
All the English concentrations at Ball State teach us how to write better and develop critical reading and thinking skills. We always read fantastic books, from Shakespeare to those written by the up-and-coming InPrint festival authors.
However, rhetoric, more than any other major, asks us to really look beyond whatever we’re watching or reading.
As one of the rhetoric scholars I’ve studied, Barbara Warnick, says, rhetorical criticism “make[s] the invisible (what is transparent and unnoticed) visible”. Up until that famous Matrix scene, Neo’s lived in the Matrix, a world he has almost always accepted as the “Truth.” Yet once he sees how the Matrix operates behind the scenes, he gains a new perspective of the world, which gives him a better grasp of what holds the fake one together. Like Neo, we learn not to passively take the texts we read and the shows we watch.
Instead, we dive in, look around, and question them.
So what good does questioning everything do, you may ask?
Once you know a bit about some of the rhetorical moves and bias in a work, you become a better writer and researcher yourself. You become more aware of how others will look at your own writing; it’s kind of like a superpower.
In Steph’s class —and later in my digital literacies class with Professor Elmar Hashimov, professional writing, and public discourse — I got to practice writing and designing my own texts and projects in all forms: written, but also digital texts like tweets, blogs, websites, and PowerPoints.
Keeping an audience or stakeholders in mind as you work hasn’t just helped me become a better writer; it’s probably one of the best professional skills someone can have when applying to any job.
Since last year, for instance, I was selected to be a member of The Infinite Museum (a VBC immersive learning project), became a Writing Center tutor, and had my first creative nonfiction essay published. I owe these successes to my wonderful mentors who have helped me in these groups and projects. Yet, all these opportunities have been successful because I kept my stakeholders, clients, and audience in mind as I worked.
So fear not, relatives, neighbors, and optometrists everywhere! We rhetoric majors probably won’t be living in our parents’ basement anytime soon.
Thanks, Amory! She won Tweet of the Week a few months ago, and so we asked her to write a guest post for us.
We’re always looking for great work by students, faculty, and alumni! Contact Prof. Cathy Day at cday ((at)) bsu dot edu.