I came across this online the other day and couldn’t resist the urge to write about it because I get the sense that this is how people feel about speaking in public. It’s a misconception that I, as a Speaking Fellow, would like to attempt to disprove. What is rhetoric? I like to think of rhetoric as ever-present and all-encompassing because it applies to our interactions on a daily basis. Whether it be speaking to a friend, a professor, a family member, etc., rhetoric is a part of those interactions. Rhetoric doesn’t even have to involve speaking. Both verbal and non-verbal interactions are encompassed by rhetoric (think of body language!)
We have all been moved at some point in time by a powerful speech encouraging us to take action. Part of the art of rhetoric is the ability to inform, persuade, move, and rouse people to act, a fact that the Speaking Fellows embrace and continually seek to promote. Rhetoric is deeply embedded into our daily lives.
Political affiliations aside, Barack Obama is a fantastic example of an inspiring and moving speaker. One of the many examples in which he has embodied the power of rhetoric both content and delivery-wise is during his speech regarding the My Brother’s Keeper initiative, which seeks to create opportunities for boys and young men of color. If you have not watched this speech, I encourage you to watch it.
The My Brother’s Keeper #NewDayMovement at Columbia University exemplifies the power of spoken word when it comes to inspiring others to take action: “We hope that this video provides insight into our roles as men of color for our university, for its prospective students and for any others who are interested in the educational advancement of a young man. In addition, if our project inspires other students and colleges everywhere, we encourage them to also work to showcase how their men of color are excelling within their own community. Join the #NewDayMovement.” This video showcases the accomplishments of men of color on campus; breaking educational barriers, and going above and beyond their academic commitments and embracing their passions as dancers, tutors, mentors, and volunteers. I encourage you to watch this video and share it.
I hope that these initiatives will serve as a form of encouragement on Barnard’s campus. Women of color are doing great things for the community. Showcasing their talents and their accomplishments via social media outlets would also inspire other women of color across the nation to continue to strive for their goals. Using social media platforms as a way to spread a message, in this case about educational advancement, is just one example of how a speech can create action.
This initiative represents how rhetoric comes to life. I hope that this example serves to inspire those who have at one point been moved and inspired by spoken word to take a form of positive action. Rhetoric is powerful.
Amy Cuddy, a social psychologist at Harvard Business School, explores how body language impacts confidence. She finds that “power poses” increase the body’s release of testosterone (the “dominance” hormone), while meek and submissive body language increase the body’s release of cortisol (the stress hormone). In this video, Cuddy explores how holding “power poses” for even just two minutes can have physiological responses that empower speakers in preparation for classes, interviews, and meetings. See her TED Talk here: http://www.ted.com/talks/amy_cuddy_your_body_language_shapes_who_you_are
Earlier this month I took advantage of Barnard’s awesomeness by attending the Athena Film Festival. It’s a four-day celebration of women in movies, with features, shorts, documentaries, discussions, and panels that are all wonderfully accessible to students. One of the documentaries shown this year was Rebel, the story of Civil War soldier and spy Loreta Velazquez. I’m from northern Virginia, where we pretty much breathe the Civil War whether we want to or not, and an early exposure to the Battle of First Manassas gave me an enduring affection for the subject. So you can bet I was there for Rebel.
What stuck with me wasn’t any new understanding of the Civil War. This is, after all, an area of longtime
obsession interest for me. What was more interesting was the movie’s discussion of historical storytelling. We know of Velazquez through her memoir, The Woman in Battle, which was popular in her time but delegitimized immediately after it was published. Its erasure from historical canon is due in large part to the criticism of Jubal Early, a Confederate general who controlled the depiction of Southern history in the wake of Civil War defeat.
Since then, The Woman in Battle has been a subject of contention for historians. Director Maria Agui Carter has carefully corroborated Velazquez’s story with other historical sources wherever possible. I love the boldness of that pursuit. What pushes me to the edge of my seat is thinking about a woman in the present writing anew the self-told story of a woman in the past.
Lots of people are fond of the phrase “make history.” They usually use it to mean “do something impressive or interesting.” I’d rather use it to mean “write it down” or “write it over again.”
The words spoken from Velazquez’s point of view in the movie are not entirely hers. After the movie, Carter spoke of how difficult and flowery the language of The Woman in Battle is to a modern moviegoer, which I respect. This is an interpretation, a retelling, made powerful by supporting research and the advantage of a long backward glance. With dedication and respect, we the people of the present have the power to do this with the stories of the past.
I left the screening feeling like I owed it to Loreta Velazquez to find a copy of The Woman in Battle to read for myself. Then in my preliminary research I discovered that the full text is online, but in print it comes to about 600 pages, which is a little heavy for me right now. I’m not ruling out the possibility of reading it eventually, though. An abiding topical
obsession interest can take you far into madness. But I decided that what I really owed to Loreta Velazquez was to write my story. We won’t all be women in battle, but if we write we will all be women in history.
Watch this new video about the Speaking Fellows Program, created by our very own Speaking Fellow staff!
I’ll admit it; I’m a little bit obsessed with the show Scandal. I love a good drama, and the Washington-based political thriller always delivers shocking twists and tons of intrigue. But as I was catching up on the latest season, a question occurred to me: how is Olivia Pope so successful given her poor rhetorical choices? After all, she works in crisis management, a field in which rhetoric is tantamount. Great communication and presentation skills are key. But Olivia spends more time agonizing over her affair with the president than she does skillfully negotiating. As a matter of fact, when she does act in a professional setting, she is hardly a model rhetor. On the contrary, she orders people around without discussing or rationalizing her decision making process; she usually refuses to compromise in negotiation settings; she expects people to know what she’s thinking without any explanation. In short, Olivia Pope’s rhetorical tactics just wouldn’t cut it in the real world. So why is this the model that Hollywood gives us of effective rhetoric?
It seems that the entertainment would rather deliver perfectly polished drama than powerful speech. For whatever reason, great rhetoric just isn’t sexy. So even though Olivia Pope is a successful professional woman, she is primarily depicted as a love interest or sex symbol. And it isn’t just Scandal. Most popular television shows don’t showcase great and powerful rhetoric. That’s a problem. If our models of speaking skills are so heavily romanticized, where does that leave rhetoric? It relegates rhetorical choices to the back seat; speech is suddenly less important than vicious cat fights, passionate romance, and unrealistic intrigues.
That’s not to say that great rhetoric is non-existent on the small screen. Shows like The Good Wife and House of Cards make rhetoric exciting, fascinating, and, well, sexy. But this is the exception, not the rule. On the whole, over-the-top dramatics and romance win out over great rhetoric. But surely it’s possible to have both. I love a good scandal as much as the next person, but I also want good, effective, powerful dialogue and speech. I’m not saying that we should take all of the drama and romance out of television, because we shouldn’t; that’s what makes it exciting. But all that drama should be grounded in solid and effective rhetoric. Because words matter, even the people saying them are fictional characters.
Last week, I helped plan a slam poetry event with spoken word performer, Caroline Rothstein (carolinerothstein.com) . This is the second year in a row that I have worked with Caroline to bring programs to campus and over the year I have had the opportunity to get to know her and her experience quite well. Caroline is a survivor of sexual violence and an eating disorder and uses poetry and performance to talk about these issues.
When I learn about Caroline’s traumatic past through her speaking and performing, I can’t help but wonder how such a strong and powerful woman arose from such terrible circumstances. What is amazing about Caroline’s work is that she uses writing and performing not only to share and empower, but to heal. For me, writing has always been therapeutic. During the most difficult times in my life, I have filled journals with dark words of loss, hurt, and struggle. And then in the midst of it, I might use the paper to paint a picture of a good day; to observe the world around me, or to think out a thought. Looking back at the scribbles on the pages years later, I can see the ways in which I am continually transforming and evolving; my writing shows the ways in which I have overcome, healed, or remained in heartache.
Writing, for me, is most powerful when it is for me. Words can be inspiring and moving to others, but if you can look back at your own words and grow within them, that, I believe, is the true sign of great writing.