Reunion Alumni College - Adams Lectures on 'Rhetorical Design'

As one of the Reunion Weekend events, John Adams, visiting professor of rhetoric and communication, gave the lecture "Rhetorical Designs: Stop the Rhetoric and Get to the Reality" in the Kirner-Johnson Red Pit. The lecture soon turned into a discussion. After hearing alumni questions and opinions, Adams showcased his expertise on the subject, explaining how the different assumptions people have about rhetoric shapes the understanding one can have about subject matter and about language itself.

Adams feels that in the recent past, rhetoric has been downplayed in importance by those who are unable to grasp its true power of expression. "Speech is in a lower-archy in the approach to life," Adams said. "(People say) actions speak louder than words, a picture is worth a thousand words. I always say that a picture isn't worth anything until someone says, 'Sold!'"

When asked about government, Adams gave several examples about how rhetoric and politics are connected. He explained that many politicians use rhetoric, "to adjust people to ideas, and ideas to people," and those in politics are able to manipulate citizens to feeling and voting a certain way. Adams also explained that candidates in an election, much like those in the ongoing 2004 presidential campaigns, use rhetoric to dance around prominent issues and keep from committing to a controversial view or stance.

The reason, Adams explained, is quite simple. If a candidate states that he or she is pro-choice, they will lose a vast majority of votes from those who are pro-life, and therefore would have a bigger chance of losing the election.

Other governmental factors rely heavily upon rhetoric, according to Adams. Legal documents, especially those concerning new laws, place high emphasis upon rhetoric by focusing on one minute detail in a sentence at a time. Adams explains this by saying that the government does not want anyone to try and read the document in a different way than first intended, avoiding different readings and the exploitation of loopholes.

The difference between good and bad rhetoric, according to Adams, is that  good rhetoric requires the speaker to have the values and morals to keep from twisting other people's words and using the language to attack others and their beliefs.

While some people feel words can be used as a weapon, Adams feels that rhetoric is truly, "the art of influencing the soul with words," and that those who speak must do so with responsibility. Adams feels that many people still underestimate the power of words, but instead they should realize that rhetoric is "a study in practical wisdom."

--by Jason Ruback '05


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