I am an obnoxiously proud Rhetoric major. Though most ask me “what is rhetoric?”, I am not fazed by their confusion. To answer simply, I study how language is used as a tool. To answer with all the nuance I have come to love, rhetoric is symbolic action. Language shapes how we interact in our society, how we make interventions on a daily basis, and how we lay the foundation of more “tangible” change. Rhetoric is everywhere. Every choice we make, from our outfits to our political views, is rhetorical. Our choices symbolize to others who we are, how we identify, and why; creating and understanding these symbols is rhetorical. Though my major is obscure, I am madly in love with the theory and practice that are blended in my studies. I love that I can abstract my thoughts into something unrecognizable, and then find a real world example of my idea. Rhetoric is a major where I can think dynamically.
I initially chose the Rhetoric major after taking one class with Professor Heather Hayes. As she introduced me to the field of Rhetoric, I quickly developed an academic role model. Professor Hayes loves speaking about hip hop as protest and music as a political act. She additionally studies drone warfare and the rhetoric of violent subjects. Professor Hayes integrates violence, race, and social justice using language as the primary tool for understanding why the world looks the way it does. One class with the campus rockstar and I was hooked.
Whitman College has also created a department that plays to my strengths. Each of my classes is primarily discussion based. While Whitman’s average class size is 16, I have been in Rhetoric classes of 8 or less. Everyone must participate to create the lively and engaging discussion needed to understand our sources fully. Students bring a plurality of perspectives, and they all have the chance to share. The large majority of our classroom time is spent on talking through ideas. As a verbal thinker, this classroom experience compliments my style of learning. Outside of the classroom, we spend our time reading scholarly articles, writing argumentative papers, and even looking at pop culture for rhetorical inspiration to bring back to the classroom.
Additionally, my studies within the Rhetoric department have been the most innovative and pioneering classes I have taken at Whitman. In 2016, the Rhetoric department began a class on the Rhetoric of Incarceration. In this class, we worked with 20 incarcerated felons in the Washington State Penitentiary to discuss the criminal justice system. This radically unique program groups a pair of rhetoric students with a pair of inmates to work through issues relevant to incarceration. In my working group, we discussed how the power of the prosecutor radically affects the criminal justice process. This course has shattered the walls of the classroom by shedding light on realities of the world that often go unnoticed. No other class offered at Whitman or (to my knowledge) the United States does such hands on social justice critiquing. During the election of 2016, the Rhetoric department also held a class on Campaign Rhetoric. This class dug through the messaging of presidential campaigns to understand which messages were working and why. The course took place while the election was underway, meaning we had a constantly evolving object of study. We watched as our rhetorical theories were tested in live time. Campaign Rhetoric put my academic interests into the arena of the real world. The Rhetoric department also offers classes on Hip Hop, visual culture, gender, violence, the Arab Spring, and the 47%— demonstrating the scope of rhetoric as a field of study.
I love my major because it is intellectually rigorous, vocal and argumentative, and wholly contemporary. I am grateful that a liberal arts education means that I can learn from various fields; however, I am entirely satisfied with the field I have chosen to focus on.