Introduction: Raising the Barre

Alessandra Von Burg

People may not be persuadable, but they are teachable, and reachable.


This book is about rhetoric in everyday life, not to persuade readers to embrace and celebrate rhetoric, as the students of two sessions of the Communication class “Rhetorical Theory and Criticism” at Wake Forest University did for the spring 2021 semester, but to teach how rhetoric is already part of daily conversations, discussions, and arguments. Rhetoric, defined here as the theoretical and practical ability to see and say what the moment calls for, specific to people and contexts, with the goal of moving others to persuasion and possible action, is, always have and will be central to personal, political, social, virtual, and cultural contexts.


This book is an example of horizontal pedagogy, not a vertical, top-down approach. Students as members of two classes learned by teaching, sharing, explaining to each other what rhetoric is, why it matters to them, and how and why rhetoric is already part of their repertoire, how people/we/they speak, laugh, argue, agree and disagree.


This book is not a comprehensive overview of rhetoric. The chapters are as unique as each member of class, each starting with a focus on a rhetorical term or theory with a special approach to teaching that term or theory, through academic as well as creative forms of writing, including letters, interviews, screenplays, poems, mosaics, and stories.


The chapters are both final and works in progress. For most students, the writing for this book is their first publication. One day they as authors may write their own books, publish their own poetry, direct their own films. But for the spring 2021 semester, I as the faculty member encouraged students, and myself, to embrace our vulnerability, our imperfections, our typos, as together we let go of punitive methods, deadlines, as well as the need to please others, to show off as smarter, more organized, or more punctual than our audiences. This book embraces and celebrates excellence in thinking, sharing arguments, and writing in multiple ways. As part of the writing process, all students as authors shared at least one “perfect” sentence in each chapter (find them while reading). I also encouraged students to stop editing when they felt they were happy with their writing, possibly leading to a sentence that may seem a bit off, but it is uniquely theirs. This process extended to style, citations, spacing, footnotes and other copyediting traditions that we as authors politely accept and occasionally refuse.


We hope this book is exemplary in the celebration of showing up, coming together, writing something for ourselves and for others, and learning not to see a paper as a final assignment to end a semester. What educators have always known is that the best teaching is the kind that ignites a question, an idea, a project to come later, so it is with this in mind that this group of students invites readers to learn. This collection of teachers teaches and asks: what is rhetoric, where does it live, how does it feel, why does it matter?


An invitation to show up as we are does not mean this book is not perfect just the way it is.


The students as authors raised the barre, for themselves, for me, and for readers.


In the midst of the third pandemic semester, students showed up as authors, teachers, inquirers, thinkers. I conducted class from my basement-turned-dance-studio-turned-classroom. We used the metaphor of the (ballet) barre first as an invitation to unpack the academic process of planning and producing a book, showing how the academic sausage/tofu is made. In dance, sports, or teaching, often the end product is what spectators and readers see, possibly missing out on a deep appreciation of what performers and authors go through to get to that “perfect” step, throw, catch, sentence. Secondly, the metaphor of raising the bar(re) function to reveal and build on the process that pushes students as authors to write what they want, to go beyond the term-paper mentality, to explore multiple drafts of their own work, to express themselves through various styles and formats.


We embrace expertise and knowledge not as finite and complete, but as circular, movable and moving. This book is an invitation, a beginning, a stimulus to reflect on how and why rhetoric is already impossible to escape while simultaneously carving out possibilities for what is not yet.


We as authors, writers, thinkers, rhetoricians, students, and teachers cannot wait to see how readers may embrace the lessons of this book and make them theirs.


Who are you?


I teach not to think or assume that the audience, especially this book, is “everyone,” because the generalization of assuming every single person cares about what we write is against the specificity and contextuality of rhetoric.


Throughout the book, “we” refers to students as authors and teachers, including myself and Tatenda Mashanda, the teaching assistant for both class sessions. “We” also connects to the larger field of rhetoric as we are scholars, thinkers, and researchers in and of rhetorical theory and criticism. Whenever we as authors write “you,” we are calling our audiences into being, inviting you to join in the learning, teaching, exploring, playing with and through rhetoric.


So who are you?


The students and authors write for their families, loved ones, and their peers first. This book is a special shout-out to other students of COM 225 and to all other undergraduate and high school students who are thinking about rhetoric, learning rhetorical theory, engaging in rhetorical criticism, and writing rhetorical papers. The students as authors wrote papers that became chapters in the very familiar way you, students, complete assignments, doing research, reading articles and books, checking, asking about page numbers and begging for an extension, eventually figuring out that the answer was always yes. Maybe this book is the first of numerous volumes that future students of rhetoric may write, as they pick a favorite term or concept, develop an argument, and support it with evidence and a personal connection. We hope students as readers see and feel what we describe above as the making of the academic sausage/tofu. You all have the ingredients and the recipe. Go to class and mix your own magic.


The families, loved ones, friends, partners, peers, supporters of the students as authors show up all throughout this book, from beautifully written dedications to foundational stories that led to the selection of the rhetorical term for the chapter. Mothers, fathers, siblings, relatives, friends, partners, peers as supporters, cheerleaders, advocates, listening ears, shoulders to cry on…. This book is for you to feel special, loved, thanked, and to reflect on the influence you have on each word the authors wrote for you and because of you. Do you see yourselves in the chapters? Did you know how much you teach everyday as you practice and model rhetoric? Now you know. Plus, please appreciate what the authors have done as they build on your teaching with new rhetorical language. Ask them about those terms. There is so much more to say.


This book is also for teachers, not just as a tribute to them but as an invitation to read what students in these two classes went through as they learned rhetoric and became teachers themselves. In that sense, this book is meta-pedagogical, teaching about teaching, unpacking the process as we write and revealing the method while gently pushing back as the veneration as the classroom as the one-teacher model. The students lighted up their zoom boxes with examples, insights, group lectures, and questions that left us thinking and wanting more. Hopefully this book captures those moments and invites everyone to teach and share with others, as well as how to teach and spark an interest in others, whether about rhetoric or another subject.


Finally, this book is for those who are and remain suspicious of rhetoric and still think it is only for those who can speak and argue well. You already are a rhetorician in ways that may surprise you, as you recognize the power of storytelling, find common grounds with an example about family life, or feel the energy of powerful language at the perfect moment. Hopefully this book may also inspire new and different thinking about how and why rhetoric is and can be theorized and practiced in everyday life, pushing us into the more uncomfortable but necessary moment of admitting we did not know what gender, race, ideology, identity, purpose, connection, love, labor …mean and how they are rhetorical.


Who are they?


Gratitude means everything. Without others, nothing. We thank you as readers here, we thank the people who inspire us and support us throughout, with dedications at the beginning of each chapter (mostly). We thank reviewers, readers, co-conspirators, accomplices (they) here, at the end, throughout.


First, Shelley Sizemore. Shelley is often the first to hear my ideas, and without missing a beat, she says “let’s go.” She did for this book, walking and thinking together and helping us as we make obvious that rhetoric is a skill, a techne, a practice that anyone can and should learn.

Shelley is a teacher, a student, a thinker, and a practitioner who lives rhetorically and teaches rhetoric through what she says and does. Shelley and I share stories of being looked at suspiciously when making good arguments, as if being good at rhetoric is a disease. It is not, rhetoric is theory and practice, from idea to saying the appropriate or provocative word right time, or the same word each time (“let’s go”). Everyone should have a Shelley in their life.


Second, Tatenda Mashanda. Tatenda redefined the role of the teaching assistant as an attentive zoom box with side messages, irony, humor, last-minute questions, too much football (Go Blues), inquisitive comments, and blow-us-all-away lectures. Tatenda demonstrated to all members of class what it means to be a public intellectual, a scholar of politics who takes language and symbols seriously, and why a global perspective matters.


Third, the reviewers. Colleagues and friends who read carefully and provided incredibly unique comments, all while grading or writing during the busiest days of the semester. Their contribution to this book may seem invisible, but besides challenging students to think and write in deeper ways, at times reshaping their arguments entirely, the reviewers also challenged the timing, practice, and hierarchy of the academic review process, the infamously agonizing method of making authors wait patiently for someone to tear apart their work. Not for this book. The reviewers built the authors’ writing up, providing comments based on what the students as writers wanted to say, not on what the reviewers believe. A huge amount of gratitude to all my colleagues and graduate students in the Department of Communication. A special thank you and unrepayable debt to: Shelley Sizemore, Tatenda Mashanda, and Jarrod Atchison, Cagney Gentry, Rebecca Gill, Rowie Kirby-Straker, Allan Louden, Ananda Mitra, Thomas Southerland, Holly Swenson, Robert Tabackman, Ron Von Burg.


Fourth, our families, friends, loved ones, peers and supporters who made pandemic life bearable, while allowing room for thinking and writing. The students thank their families, friends, loved ones throughout the book, so it feels unfair to highlight mine here. For each name I mention, most of us as authors have the equivalent of someone who made us feel loved, supported, or at least kept our anxieties at bay long enough to teach and write.


For me, Ron installed the ballet barre which transformed the basement into a dance studio. He painted the back wall with enough chemicals to make it a white board for both ballet steps and rhetorical terms. Josh, along with Natalie, taught me technology, multiple screens, the separation of place and labor, all without laughing at me. My brother and his family in Belgium, my mother and her support system in small-town Italy, my extended family and friends-teachers all over Lombardia, Veneto, Emilia Romagna, Arizona, Pennsylvania, New York, and North Carolina kept me (mostly) balanced as I stumbled. My gratitude to them is not just about the book, it is really about making it through the last few months.


Fifth, dulcis in fundo, the students of both classes. Wow. When the two fully online classes started in January 2021, I wanted to cry and run away. When the semester ended, I did cry and wanted to stay. Each student came to class with their own life, happiness, stress, excitement, tiredness, and so much I and others will never know. Each zoom box had their own story, personality, image, emoji. Together, they listened, talked, asked, and taught each other and me. Through their journals, I got to know them beyond the 2-dimensions of zoom. Their answers to the weekly prompts and in these chapters are truly a gift, one I treasure as a teacher and one I will never forget. We made it. We finished the semester, some graduated (Go Deacs!), hopefully we will meet in person one day. Thank you from the bottom of my heart. You are what teaching is all about.


It seems odd to thank Tatenda and the students, as they are authors and makers of this book, but I do want to name that without them, this book would literally not exist. Thank you for indulging me and not letting me dance alone.


This is not a preview, too many amazing words, but we offer a list of keywords and terms in each chapter and at end. This is a live document, with a huge thank you to Bill Kane and Library Partners Press for allowing multiple versions of this book as we as authors grow and think.


Please enjoy each chapter in any order you want, make your own plan based on your definition of rhetoric. See you on the other side.


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Rhetoric in Everyday Life by Alessandra Von Burg is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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