The Most Divine Works

It’s been interesting this week to watch Academic Twitter chew over Nicholas Kristoff’s assertion in the NYT last week that, gosh darn it, academics are just too tied up in their ivory towers and their wanky, inaccessible writing to make any damn difference in the world these days. If only (he wrote) scholars would spend more time on Twitter and other social media platforms producing texts that real people can understand and less time chasing our own academic tails, the world might–just might–be a better place.

While it’s true that there are a host of telling presumptions about academia’s relationship with the “real world” that are at work in Kristoff’s column [you can read some excellent work on that front here and here], I’m most interested in Kristoff’s implicit assumption that for academic work to “matter” to the general public, it has to affect social or political policy.

This strikes me because a lot of scholars in my own unruly discipline–that of rhetoric and writing studies–feel the same way.

I don’t.

Here’s why.

For many rhetoric and writing scholars, the notion that “rhetoric is action—past, present, and future” is fundamental to their understanding of the purpose of their work (Kirsch and Royster 653). Implicit in classical discussions of rhetoric is its potential, when wielded by a skilled orator, to facilitate change. As Susan Jarratt observes, the sophists–a motley collection of Pre-Socratic teachers and speakers who practiced rhetoric before the discipline itself existed–embraced this potential; they “concentrated on the power of language in shaping human group behavior explicitly,” and regarded rhetoric “as an instrument of social action in the polis” (10). Little wonder, then, that Aristotle was wary of rhetoric’s potential to do of “great harm,” of what he saw as the ills that could “be done by unjustly using such power of words” (36).

Although this fear of the “unjust” use of rhetoric persists in contemporary popular culture where, as David Coogan and John Ackerman argue, “doing rhetoric is akin to menacing our fellow citizens with lies and misdirection,” for many rhetoricians, the ability of their work to affect what Lloyd Bitzer calls a “positive modification” within the social realm continues to be central to their understanding of rhetoric’s purpose [emphasis original] (Coogan and Ackerman 2; Bitzer 6).

But the precise terms of such modification–what “counts” as social change, both in terms of content and scale–is a matter of debate.

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