I recently had a chance to get in touch with Dylan Rollo, a Rhetorician who graduated from Drake University with a double BA in Writing/Rhetoric and Communications Studies. He's going to grad school at Syracuse, but already has a lot of editorial experience for his age (twenty-two). He cites his academic experience as one of the major sources of his success. While Novelism is not purely academic, I thought you guys might be interested in hearing what Rollo has to say about language and what relevance it may bear for writers of his generation. I certainly was, so with his permission, I'm hereby posting some of our dialogue on the subject (I'm in bold):
A lot of people don't really understand what "rhetoric" means, even though they may have heard it before. Can you give us your definition of the field and tell us about when you first discovered that it could be academically studied?
--The request for a definition is what I get the most, but it's still, in some ways, the hardest to respond to. Part of the difficulty lies in the fact that different areas within rhetoric and communication use the term slightly differently. Because these definitions were chosen by my professors, I'll trust them more than my own selections:
1. The art of winning the soul by discourse - Plato
2. The faculty of discovering in any particular case the available means of persuasion - Aristotle
3. The use of symbols to form attitudes or to induce actions - Kenneth Burke
4. The study of how we come to accept and transform our sense of reality through the means by which it is presented - Judith Butler
If you ask different people, you'll get different preferences among these, but I would be inclined to agree most with Butler. If you haven't read any of her work, I would highly recommend it. I like her definition because of its nuance, because it is less direct and more complex.
I first realized that I would enjoy studying it after I took a Critical Theory course in the English department and craved more theory. The following semester I took two Rhetoric courses...I was quickly won over. It's a highly academic field, of course, partially because it often studies itself. This can make it less practical, but it's an important and misunderstood area of study. Just looking at how politicians use "rhetoric" to mean "bullshit" shows how misunderstood the field can be.
As an editor, what role does the writing practice (if any) have in your daily life?
--Not as much as I'd like. How to communicate what you need done and how you need it done is much more difficult than I expected. I do often feel that nagging need to do something creative, though. Unfortunately, I rarely have the time to indulge that need. There are trade-offs to stepping to the other side of the creative (and academic) process.
People have long claimed that the verbal form is dying in the face of new media. It continues to persevere, but I have to wonder if the nature of it has changed. Jean Thompson, the editor of the Spring 2014 issue of Ploughshares, reflects that the sheer variety of content in literature is part of what keeps it alive. Do you have any thoughts?
--I think it's safe to say that the verbal form will never die. It's unavoidable, though, that it should change. When people say that literature is dying, they're usually just refusing to acknowledge the developing and prominent forms of literature today. I'm not saying that I'm fully behind everything that's happening and how media is changing, but I'm trying to be more aware of how things are changing overall, not just decaying (or just improving).
I once had a professor claim that the study of English at University is "incestuous." It does seem that fine literature, like some fine art, is often written, edited, read and paid for all within the academic circle. As someone with a higher education, what's your take on this sentiment?
--It rings fairly true. Really, I don't think that it should be surprising to anyone. The people who write and create are often the same people who care enough to study what is written and created. I don't think the idea of the "Ivory Tower" is necessarily wrong, but thinking that it's purely incestuous or even masturbatory doesn't give much credit to the real people involved in academia. Academics are not robots or uppity nobles. They don't (usually) think themselves better than those outside of academia.
They study it because they love it. This doesn't mean that others can't love it, though I understand there is some sense of exclusion because there are very clear social, economic, cultural, and personal obstacles to being able to effectively enter the discourse. This is something many academics that I know are very concerned with, and it's an issue that requires multifaceted solutions.
My takeaway advice to battle this is: if you're interested in something, look into it; if you're able to access or understand something, make it accessible to others; don't assume that something is beyond your comprehension if you aren't formally educated on it.
I have long felt that there is too big a disconnect between theoretical studies of writing and its practical application. It seems that most academic approaches focus more on the history or social relevance of a written work than on its form. Do you agree with this, and if so, what long term effects can you see coming from that disconnect?
--Practical application of writing is tricky. I don't think that history and social relevance should ever be ignored, but I agree that it can sometimes be frustrating to not find the analysis of form that you're looking for. Ideally, I believe form should be studied and understood in conjunction with questions of history and social relevance -- each affects the other. I would definitely enjoy more attention to form throughout writing theory. It's hard to guess at effects of this disconnect partially because I'm not convinced they're disconnected, or that they even can be.
Lastly, what is your best advice to those of our generation who want to pursue a career in communications?
--If you're interested in rhetoric and communication, read theory on what you enjoy. Media Theory has a lot of exciting things happening with it, and it allows you to think critically about the media you consume. Television shows, movies, music videos, celebrities; they're all ripe for study....From those readings you can fall down the rabbit hole and see who those scholars cite. There is always something else to read....To enter the conversation, you need to know what's being said.
Personal thanks to Rollo for his contribution to this blog; he had a lot of interesting things to say. If any of you want to connect with Dylan Rollo, you can find him on LinkedIn.