What Are the Different Types of Rhetoric Programs?

Emily Daw

Since the time of the ancient Greeks, the study of rhetoric, or persuasive speech and writing, has been central to a well-rounded education. In modern American universities, rhetoric programs are usually contained within either the English or the communications department. The types of courses offered in rhetoric programs varies depending on whether they are at the graduate or undergraduate level as well as whether their emphasis is on teaching, theory or public communication.

Aristotle's rules of rhetoric are still used to train students.
Aristotle's rules of rhetoric are still used to train students.

The study of rhetoric originally pertained to formal speaking, and as such found a natural home among other communications and public speaking courses. While in modern terms rhetoric refers primarily to the actual words that are spoken, Aristotle's five canons of rhetoric — invention, arrangement, style, memory and delivery — focus on both the verbal content and the presentation of the content. Other rhetoric programs concentrate more heavily on specifically verbal aspects of communication, including written communication, and so become a subset of the English department.

The Greek philosopher Aristotle defined five canons of rhetoric.
The Greek philosopher Aristotle defined five canons of rhetoric.

Rhetoric programs also vary in the types of careers they are geared toward. Some approaches to rhetoric might prepare one for working in academia by concentrating on rhetorical theory and the ways that rhetoric has been used throughout history. They might contain heavy analysis of historical and present rhetoricians.

Other rhetoric programs are more geared toward pedagogy, or teaching. These programs are more often found in English departments than communication departments. Since the ability to use rhetoric for persuasive writing and speech is a necessary skill in nearly any profession, most colleges require at least one composition course. Such courses are often taught by any available member of the English department, including those whose concentration is actually literature rather than composition, though someone with a graduate degree in rhetoric and composition would be an ideal candidate to teach such a course.

Those seeking a career in public communications might also benefit from the study of rhetoric. Programs with this emphasis might offer courses in public relations and speech writing as well as rhetorical theory. These programs might prepare a person for a career as a political speechwriter, for instance.

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