Let’s Infiltrate Popular Men’s and Women’s Magazines with Rhetoric

My class project regarding Mary Augusta Jordan, a late 19th/early 20th century female rhetorician, and her rhetorical textbook that she published under the guise of a conduct book in 1904, has made me think about conduct books in a new way.  That is, I think that the conduct book genre is still alive today, but, perhaps, in a different form – popular men’s and women’s magazines. I’m not talking about magazines aimed at specific interests or hobbies – Wired or Food & Wine magazine – rather, the popular men’s and women’s magazines of the likes of FHM, Esquire, Glamour, Cosmopolitan, etc. It seems that these modern magazines perform the same role as many conduct books as, like the 19th century conduct books, they focus on delivery, dress, and prescriptions (or rules). And yes, they are also a bit mind numbing.

As I look at these popular magazines, I’ve found that the majority include at least one article that has a “how to,” which includes very prescriptive advice on dress or even explains what to say in certain situations, primarily in regards as to what to say to get a date or advance in one’s career. For example, in FHM, a popular men’s magazine (feminists, you may shudder at the mention of FHM) there is an entire article dedicated to haircuts – “how short is short?” and even includes a “Glossary of terms, so you know what you’re asking for.” This very prescriptive list explains why a man would want each haircut/what it says about the man – not only a throwback to the conduct book genre but also a form of visual rhetoric – exactly what  a haircut, suit, lipstick, etc. says about a person is a popular topic in these magazines. Also, the prescriptive advice in regards to behavior, appearance, and conversation, focuses primarily on delivery and audience analysis – how to say certain things to achieve a certain outcome, how a certain hair cut will be received – which is strikingly similar to the genre of conduct books and utilizes, at least in part, rhetorical devices and ideas in a personal venue.

Unlike the earlier conduct books, which focused on women’s behavior, the modern “conduct book” is for both men and women. As Jane E. Rose explains in her article titled “Conduct Books for Women, 1830-1860,” conduct books were used as way to link women to domesticity and certain spheres in culture (37-39). It’s interesting that it’s now socially acceptable for men to receive such prescriptive advice, and if you don’t believe me, check out Esquire – they have an explanation of “How to Buy a Suit”  with “rules” to help the reader purchase the right suit for him, and specific “rules” and “advice” for how to meet women, which makes it seem much like a 21st century conduct book. Granted, these topics are a bit vapid, but wasn’t the idea that women needed to be instructed on how to engage in conversation with men?  Besides, I think that these magazines may shine some light on the evolution of the conduct book as well as the power that prescribing how one is to behave, dress, and speak can impact the way in which a person views his/her social role, power, and rhetoric.

And, yes, these current popular magazines are reinforcing certain social expectations, including very prescriptive “advice” on how to behave, building on the tradition of the conduct book. Many of the popular men and women’s magazines perpetuate negative stereotypes and can, due to popularity and circulation, create a cultural idea about how men and women should behave, dress, and interact that may not be the most positive. As Judith Butler’s gender performativity theory posits, our gender is created not by biological factors, but by our actions or performances; therefore, these magazines may be creating what it means to be a man or woman in popular American culture (for the good or bad). As a modern form of the conduct book, these magazines may be more influential than I initially thought.

On that note, I’m going to make a real jump. Since these magazines are very popular (and, yes, they may be guilty pleasures or the bane of your existence), maybe we can use them as a venue to continue our intellectual rhetorical pursuits. That is, maybe we can change the popular concept of rhetoric – a dirty word associated with trickery, politics, and backhanded advertising – into something more hospitable. Perhaps, we need to create an online magazine that takes on a similar format to these magazines, analyzes current events, but makes rhetoric more accessible. That is, maybe the way to bring more than just delivery into the minds of many readers is to subvert the new conduct book genre. Anyone want to give it a try?


Works Cited/References

Butler, Judith. Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity. Routledge Classics. New York: Routledge, 2006. Print.

Esquire.  Hearst men’s network, 2010. Web. 9 Dec. 2010.

FHM: Good News for Men. Bauer Media, 2010 Web. 9 Dec. 2010.

Glamour. Conde Nast Digital, 2010. Web. 9 Dec. 2010.

Rose, Jane E. “Conduct Books for Women.” Nineteenth-Century Women Learn to Write.  Ed. Catherine Hobbs. Charlottesville: UP of Virginia, 1995. Print.


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The Failure of Rogerian Argument

Many of our blog posts have been concerned with ethical argumentation in the public sphere and the need for a more civil discourse. It might be time to say “Fuck that.” Obama’s recent capitulation on, well, everything seems to point to the fact that Rogerian Argument, goodwill towards your opponent, or ethical argumentation has been squeezed out of our public sphere. Oh, we can blame it on anything we want. Blame it on the media. Blame it on the Electoral College. Blame it on the anachronism that is our Constitution. Blame it whatever you want. It’s there. And there’s no point in ignoring it.

While Obama slides into his Clintonesque rope-a-dope and tries to wait for the GOP to punch themselves out, there’s really no hope that anything will change. I’ve never been a big Obama fan. I never bowed down to his golden calf, never bought into his whole rhetoric of transformation. The only thing I really based my vote on him for was that he was a slight evolutionary step above McCain/Palin. Of course, Obama started out with a conciliatory tone. Much as Bush 2 did at the start of his presidency. Whether or not Bush 2 actually believed in his cross-the-aisle rhetoric, he quickly realized that Karl Rove’s maxim “A majority is 50% plus one” was a better strategy for maintaining power than trying to compromise on every little thing. And it worked. And, yes, he’s probably one of the most hated presidents ever, but you can’t say that he didn’t get things done.

Obama has been far more reluctant to go to the mat. Some chalk it up to incompetence. Some chalk it up to pragmatism. I’m not really sure where I stand. The only thing that’s certain is that it’s been an abject failure. He’s been labeled a terrorist, a socialist, and everything else you can imagine, and instead of firing back, he’s decided the better route would be to try and meet his opponents on common ground, such as with his “health care summit” with congressional Republicans. None of this really worked. His poll numbers are abysmal. His party suffered a huge defeat in the mid-term elections. He’s pretty much on the run.

What’s the alternative? Well, maybe he could take a stand. He could abandon his reconciliatory tone and start to fire back. I think that Sen. Bernie Sanders’ recent speech provides a good model. It might be something Obama should copy. His strategy of reaching across the aisle and trying to compromise with his opponents has certainly failed him to this point. And there’s no reason to think it is going to succeed now that his opponents are actually in power. It certainly wouldn’t lower his poll numbers.

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Now we can all be Super Spies!

WikiLeaks bothers me. I’m usually quite comfortable with mucking around in gray areas, but I can’t seem to decide exactly how I feel about this practically unmovable Internet behemoth. So I’ve been poking around a bit on their main site. The … Continue reading

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A semi-analytic rant about DADT …

So, the senate, in a gesture of grand backwardness, has blocked legislation that would have overturned “don’t ask, don’t tell.” Despite a general consensus among high military officials and the Obama administration that it’s a needless, anachronistic policy worth ceremoniously sloughing off, 40 senate Republicans decided that … well, they just aren’t comfortable with queers calling themselves queer in the military. Or else they just don’t want the Democrats passing any bills at any cost. Anyway, if you’re gay and in the military, you still can’t tell anybody. And you sure as hell still can’t get married.

But maybe I oversimplify. I wanted to gain a better scope on this issue before writing about it, so I tracked down this New York Times op-ed piece, titled “Don’t Change ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,’” by former Air Force chief of staff Merrill McPeak. It ran earlier this year in anticipation of the debate that’s come up. A well-written little piece. It made me think. Think, but not agree.

McPeak makes the claim that having self-identifying gays around will “weaken the warrior culture at a time when we have a fight on our hands.” Maybe he’s right. But I don’t care. I don’t care because soldiers are still American citizens, and anyone willing to commit to that life deserves the decency of basic human rights. Right? Right.

What does McPeak say to this? “So why should exclusion of gay people rise to the status of a civil-rights issue, when denying entry to, say, unmarried individuals with sole custody of dependents under 18, does not?”

Why indeed?

Interesting enthymematic claim: Excluding single parents from military service does not count as a breach of civil rights; therefore, neither does excluding gays. That’s like saying that cinderblocks are not fruit, and therefore neither are pomegranates – there’s just no viable connection between item A and item B, and the claim made of item B is just batty. Unless … unless, he means to suggest that being gay is a lifestyle choice just like being a single parent (sort of) is, and that matters of lifestyle choice are exempt from civil rights. That’s the warrant – it has to be.

Should I be surprised? It’s amazing to me how often that very warrant is invoked in order to deny gays their civil rights. I have a theory that a lot of anti-gay spokespeople have gotten pretty good at avoiding actually saying that being gay is a choice, since that assertion is wrong, but rather insinuating it like McPeak does above – assertive roundabout lying, let’s call it. It’s nasty, it’s malicious, and it needs to stop – especially when employed to accost an armed service member. I mean, Come on! as Gob Bluth would say. Imagine if we went around insinuating that black people had chosen to be black and that there was something immoral in that choice. Wrong, and doubly wrong.

That’s another thing … even if homosexuality were a choice, so what? That would be immoral … why? Because of some uncontextualized vaguery from Leviticus, the how-to manual that proscribes the consumption of shellfish? I guess that’s another discussion to be had. One unpleasantness at a time …

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Goodwill vs. “Fair and Balanced”

This blog post is inspired by Jon, whose excellent question about the eunoia aspect of ethos got me thinking more about the concept of “goodwill” toward one’s audience, and also by one of my students. Let’s call her Sally. Here’s an anecdote to frame Sally’s conception of goodwill, which makes me challenge my conception of goodwill as it pertains to ethos.

Sally is a dream student who works hard and really cares about the quality of her writing. She continually questions her scholarly ethos and continually seeks feedback on her work. It was not surprising, then, when she approached me after class to ask about the sources she gathered for a research project. She recognized that her ethos depends largely upon her use of credible, scholarly sources. So far so good. After class, she volunteered a report on how the researching was going and told me, proudly, that she was confident that one source in particular was a good one. The author cares about all readers, she said. She could tell it because the website where she found the source described itself as administering unbiased information. This disclosure, she felt, revealed the corresponding organization’s honesty and goodwill toward multiple audience/s. Hm.

Perhaps it is unfair that my mind immediately produced a slogan from the most watched source of news in the nation, FOX, which proclaims the phrase “fair and balanced.” Over the few years that FOX has actually been around (and yes, here I am contrasting this station with NBC, ABC, and CBS, to argue that longevity does relate at least somewhat to reputability, even if no news source is perfect), this phrase has caused me a range of emotions, from anger to laughter. Recently, the Simpsons poked fun at the concept of Fox as “fair and balanced,” sparking a rebuttal from Bill O’Reilly. Let me just say—I love a confrontation that pits a pundit against animated characters.

Maybe, the whole “fair and balanced” tagline has something to say about eunoia. First of all, it strikes me that FOX could change its tagline to “Conservative News for Conservative Americans” and still carry its primary audience. Also, I would argue that most Americans are smart enough to know that FOX promotes a conservative take on—well—most everything. Even if we substituted “Real” for “Conservative” in my hypothetical tagline, “Real News for Real Americans,” implying that there’s a relationship between conservative viewpoints and authentic Americanness, I do not imagine an audience would be lost.  Why does Fox call itself “fair and balanced” then? Is this the guise of goodwill?

A friend in the communications department told me once that as a reporter, the primary goal is to be “a conduit for information,” that is, there should be no value judgments, and the reporter should report “both sides.” To demonstrate, she said that, for instance, if she had to do a story on global warming, to be ethical, she would need to present the perspectives of both scientists who argue the existence of global warming and global warming deniers. Even if 90% of the population believed one thing and 10% the other, the responsibility would be to show both sides, equally, without bias. Of course, she was speaking generally here. There are some news stories that clearly do not celebrate certain interests (consider news stories on the Westboro Baptist churchers for example).

Clearly, I’m no communications person, and I apologize if I’m misconstruing here, but I wonder if the idea of fair and balanced is a modern-day version of eunoia. That is, for a news source to have ethos, it has to have “goodwill” toward its audience/s. Because the audience could essentially be anyone who has a TV set or Internet connection, is the idea that the best way to do right by everyone is to present issues as pro/con, with half of reporting time devoted to one side and half the other? Translation: pro and con tends to create two clear cut groups when perhaps those groups weren’t so clear cut before–Fair and balanced?

It strikes me that this strategy could be as dangerous as calling yourself “fair and balanced” when you’re really not. For instance, the most “balanced” television show I think I’ve ever seen was Jerry Springer, where the member of the KKK got as much screen time to explain his racist views as the victim of hatred. Jerry just listened on—so concerned and caring . . .

So all my rambling leads me to these questions: at what point does calling oneself “fair and balanced” begin to have nothing to do with eunoia and everything to do with gesturing toward a concept in order to be granted permission to run amuck? At what point does having goodwill toward one’s audience actually mean failing to represent the perspective of one group of people as valid? And is it even possible to have goodwill toward one’s audience when issues are framed as either pro or con, this “camp” or this “camp” when audiences are much more diverse than either “these guys over here” or “those guys over there”? What meanings does this obscure, and what opportunities are missed?


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The need for scholarship on the “Design” and “Administration” of Rhetoric and Writing programs

Intrigued by the conversations I have had in classes regarding the titles of rhetoric and composition programs—should the term composition or rhetoric come first, for example—I wanted to look at the websites of programs other than my own to think about (1) why they are titled the way they are and (2) how these titles are clarified within the overarching program description on the home page. The site I focused on was California at Davis’ program, titled as follows: the Designated Emphasis (DE) in Writing, Rhetoric, and Composition Studies. The first thing I noticed was that this program is not listed as one within the English department (the only two graduate programs they have within English are the Ph.D. in Literature and the M.A. in Creative Writing).  The English department website is starkly different, in terms of design alone, and it has no links (that I could find anyway) to the DE in Writing, Rhetoric, and Composition Studies. In fact, within the DE, English is only listed (along with Comparative Literature, Cultural Studies, Education, Linguistics, and Performance Studies) as an “Affiliated Program”.

 Yet, at the same time, the English department is very much attached to the DE: all DE students need to be admitted to one of the six affiliated PhD programs (listed above). I found it interesting that these programs serve as the students’ home departments during the course of their graduate work (once enrolled in these programs, students apply to the DE). Indeed, professors within the DE come from all six affiliated programs—thus allowing a student housed within English, for example, to take a course on the relationship between sexuality and cultural studies—yet the DE does not belong to one of these programs (it is not housed in or labeled as a graduate program within the English Department).

Now I would like to be clear that I’m not arguing that Composition and Rhetoric programs should try to separate themselves from the English Department. As a student who initially intended to study Literature, I see great value in the relationship between Creative Writing, Literature, and Composition and Rhetoric at my institution. After taking multiple courses on the theory and practice of teaching—in which colleagues of mine from all three areas have studied together—I continue to see great value in how the insights of people from all three concentrations strengthen  how I, and we, teach composition courses. A conversation I would like to approach, however, is the extent to which we should be more explicitly studying—within programs that offer courses in both rhetoric and composition— the politics behind the structure of writing programs, administrative approaches to them, and how Rhetoric (as well as other fields of study such as Education or Cultural Studies) shape how we teach and interact with the greater university structure. The home page of the DE at Davis, for example, explicitly states that students will be introduced to the following four areas of research: “research methods and practices, rhetorics and/or literacies, writing pedagogy, and writing program design and administration” (emphasis mine).

Thinking about this title, I call to mind discussions with people in my program regarding its title (Should it be “Rhetoric and Composition”, “Composition and Rhetoric”, etc.). I also call to mind discussions—which also ultimately get into the design of our program— regarding how other departments perceive what we do in the composition classroom or within the English Department more broadly. Although these discussions (especially those regarding how the composition classroom is misinterpreted) may seem tangential, I think are anything but this, and I think we need to take them up more frequently—in specific seminars and in individual and collaborative research. I think it is more important to explicitly study—and spend more time doing so—the the “administration” and “design” of writing programs within the field of rhetoric and composition. And I think this involves aligning inserting ourselves—as scholars and teachers— more aggressively within the institutional politics surrounding the the changing structure of the university.

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Working Rhetoric: A Mother to “Think Back Through”

My last blog will be a story – one of which I am particularly proud.  It is the story of my next scholarly project and it begins with my mom.  My mother, Charlotte, works, as she has for the past 26 years, as data registrar for a public high school in my hometown.  She is what is called a “classified” employee – which is the term given to non-college degree-holding staff.  This is a big deal in her world; administration and faculty – “certified” employees – are at the understood top of a very enforced hierarchy and often through the years my mother has lamented that her skills, successes, and smarts go unnoticed and under-valued simply because she is rhetorically, linguistically categorized as “less than” those individuals with university training.  I cannot count the hours I have spent on the phone, around the dinner table, over coffee listening to my mother complain about the “asinine” (one of her favorite adjectives of all time) and “chickenshit” decisions made by administrators – the botched policy and procedure calls of a dozen degreed men in charge.

“They never listen to us, you know, – I could have told Steve this new software wasn’t auto saving records – I brought the problem to his attention two months ago.  He’s a damn idiot. And he ignores those of us who actually know what’s going on,” my mother wrote in an email to me back in July.  (I told you I can’t count how much “complaint” I’ve endured).  When I read this – okay, skimmed this – I dismissed it as “Mom venting as usual.”  But then my mother did something downright rhetorically brilliant and brave – she used a series of emails sent to the “classified” list serve for her district to incite a change in her working environment, to illicit different treatment from her superiors, and rally her peers to help make positive change.

The first email my mother sent calls attention to the  “lack of respect, the inequities and the day-to-day stresses we have all had to deal with” and notes that “in the face of all this, [we] power through and do our best.  My heart is JOYFUL at the continued desire on the part of classified to be dedicated, consciencous (SP Charlotte’s), and supportive in the face of adversity and in some cases, horrific working conditions.”  My mom speaks to her peers directly, cheering “You are all to be commended.” She uses some serious pathos, illustrating colleagues’ woes:  “However, this has not all been without some casualities (SP Charlotte’s).  How many of you have noticed others around you on the brink of tears or gone home and cried yourself? Spirits have been broken and this is not acceptable.”

After drumming up sentiment from the masses of over-worked, furloughed little guys (gals in this case – 100% of classified employees on Mom’s list serve are female), my mother busts out a plan for change.

My mother, Charlotte (the white lady center) and her co-workers and firends, Maria, Xenia, and India who helped send out color reminders via email and Facebook.

“Well obviously, she begins, “as in any organization, tone is set by leadership.  We can do nothing about those around us who seem to be missing a ‘humanity toward humanity’ gene.  But we CAN show support of one another — not for any reason except because we care about each other.” Here her rhetorical strategy is clear; auger unity and solidarity among classifieds (who are notorious for backbiting, in-fighting according to Ma) in order to empower the bottom of the hierarchy.  “I am asking you to help take back our spirits,” my mom pleads,”and set OUR tone.  Let’s come together, maybe at first in subtle ways.  Never underestimate the power of ‘subtle’.”  The “subtle” statement of solidarity my mother goes on to propose is “together on Wednesdays,” which entails classified staffers choosing and wearing the same color one day each week.

“Let’s see if Admin even notices.  Even if they don’t, it will be a symbol and reminder to us all that we are all in this TOGETHER.  And let’s continue to brainstorm about other ways to show our unity.”  Clearly, my mother – and the nearly 100 district employees who have been participating each week – are using their available means to “voice” their grievances to an administration who may not notice.  Subtle?  Not so much.  Rogerian, yes.  The method of using list serve emails to organize a clandestine protest (each week a different woman chooses the upcoming color to wear and “if [she] chooses wisely, maybe we’ll all have to go shopping — a sure-fire spirit lifter!”) and clothing to increase visibility of numbers is far less adversarial than, say, marching into Principal Jerkface’s office with union code under your arm. It is also particularly feminine – note the shopping joke. And apparently, it gets the job of change done as well; according to my mother, “Steve and Lee (the principal and vp respectively) are wearing the colors now – Tammy (their secretary) showed them the email when they asked why we were all in burgundy.  And they are just being so, so respectful.  To all of us!”  The original email has been CC’d and forwarded all the way to Santa Barbara County – where the county school board president commented on its positivity and activism.  “I like this gal” he said of my mother via email to her supervisors.

My inbox is currently filled with the rhetoric of this tiny, working class story – the email exchanges, initial backlash (from two administrators threatened by the movement), and emotional responses of gratitude my mother has received.  She has sent me everything at my request – because as she has related the story of her pink-collar, Norma Rae rhetorics – I have continued to express my pride and excitement over her intelligence, her strategy.  She proves to me everyday that what we study is completely usable and undeniably necessary.  Smart, sassy working women like my ma are using multi-modal, Aristotelian, performative, public rhetoric everyday – and for many of them, that rhetoric changes the workplace, disrupts the hierarchy, and gives voice to the “little gals”.  Academics need to be in awe of this more often.  Thanks for the material, Mom.  And thanks for being the kind of woman who has always lived a faith in her own smarts, no matter what “certified” folks have to say.






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