Basic Information on Course


Basic Info

Office Hours
Weekly Schedule


Orientation to Course

So you want to be a critic? That is what this course is about. As much as possible, I want to provide that experience of thinking like, writing like, grinning like, a critic. So, what does being a critic entail? First, being a critic is scintillating encounters with the rhetoric that fills your world. The critic hears (and reads) rhetoric on many levels simultaneously. It is information, attitude, strategy, and social force. The hearing triggers his/her curiosity. The critic marvels, and critical juices flow in pursuit of the power of rhetoric. There will be lots of opportunities to exercise your curiosity this semester.

Second, being a critic is continually trying to increase your sensitivity to rhetorical decisions and the power of language. A critic makes connections – critically. S/he is a kind of sleuth of connections. Over time, a critic learns new vocabularies and schemes to increase sensitivity and ways of expressing connections. We will be studying some such techniques during the semester.

Third, being a critic is reading the criticism of others with appropriate envy and critique. We will read some criticism and talk about what we like about it and what we don’t. Does that sound like I want you to demonstrate your knowledge of criticism? Well, I suppose I do, but ultimately that is not the point. I want you to react to criticism as human action, not criticism as knowledge building. Trust your instincts a bit, then query them. Why do you like or dislike it? Then envision your own criticism basking in such understanding.

Fourth, being a critic is being a skeptic. A critic resists – counter-reads – the rhetoric of the world; that is, evidence of meaning is bracketed and other meanings sought. In addition, however, a critic always questions his/her own assumptions – deconstructs himself/herself. Being a critic is matching curiosity and bold assertion with doubt.

Finally, being a critic is focusing on writing. Criticism is at least one-half writing and probably more like eighty percent. The struggle of a critic is to use the resources of language to reconstruct rhetorical events as s/he envisions them. Understanding an experience, the critic seeks to reconstruct the experience for the reader. The critic’s approach to writing is problem-solving: sensing the problem, naming it, researching it, solving it. A critic reads the writing of others and understands it as technique, reads his or her own writing and envisions its improvement, and works daily through problems in writing and pursuit of their solution.

Oh, my! All I have done is describe the joys and pains of criticism. I haven’t even gotten to the dusty shelves of an archive. I want you to get a sense for the thrill of paper dust in your nostrils as you finger (through your white gloves) the paper on which Abraham Lincoln or Franklin Roosevelt scrawled their inaugural addresses. I also want you to learn to time-travel, to appreciate how critic/historians have to put themselves into another moment in history with different sensitivities, values, beliefs, and ideas about rhetoric. History is an act of careful, disciplined inquiry and an act of imagination. It is standing where the cranes stand today in the shadow of the capitol in the afternoon sun, watching Abraham Lincoln deliver his inaugural address with the Civil War just over the horizon, and cringing at a breaking tree branch mistaken for the report of a rifle. Rhetorical history is hearing that speech, not with the assumptions and from the commonalities that we read it today, but with the assumptions and the commonalities of that time.

Altogether these are the characteristics that make up a critic’s and a historian’s life. So they will compose the texture of our semester. Above all, I urge you to enjoy the experience. A good critic grins a lot; a good historian’s heart races with a never-before-realized discovery.

Who is the course for?

Well, you should be critics and historians. I have always thought that COMM 711 is good for everyone; but COMM 712 is a special enclave for us critics and historians.

Obviously this is not a first course in criticism. If you have had COMM 711, you are ready. If you have not had 711, we will have to fill in some missing pieces including the basic philosophy of criticism, what it is about, and how to perform a basic critical act.

This course is also for those for whom writing is a public rather than a private activity. That is, you have to remember that writing is what we do for a living. We talk about it openly, sharing it with others, and seeking to improve it. Having your writing publically examined and "turned over" is normal and appropriate. Pride of private authorship must be replaced with the joy of improvement.

What will the course be like?

You will be writing a lot. I recommend some writing every week. Your writing should be somewhat public; that is, identify problems with the writing and bring them to class. Writing in this seminar is not the quiet, private, recording of thoughts, but the central focus of the semester. As a result your writing will be a major focus for us all.

You will also be working with rhetoric a lot. There will be your major project, of course. In addition, we will be turning our class eye on discourse as the semester goes along. Particularly early in the semester, I want to work up your analytic eye.

Finally, you will be reading, but not a lot. You probably won’t believe that early in the semester. But over the course of the semester, reading will take a back stage. When you do read you will read some “how to”-ish sorts of things, and some criticism. In reading the how-to’s be certain and take them to your own work. When reading the “how I did it” contemplate your own praxis. When reading the criticism, concentrate on how the critics are facing their task.

How should I prepare for seminars?

The syllabus below will give you an outline, but there is a lot it does not say. We will have two other contributors to our agenda. First, if you find interesting rhetoric, bring it in. I will do the same. We will be doing analysis on the fly from things that we encounter. Second, bring in your writing problems. We will be working on specific writing problems. I will be working on criticism this semester too and between the bunch of us we should have enough material for a good writing workshop late in the semester.

A note on being a writer

Part of what I want to communicate to you this semester is what it means to be a writer. Research for critic and historians is writing. Four things are important to this.

First, it is important to realize that being able to express your insight is not the end of your research like it is in social science. In fact, the end of your criticism is to allow your reader to experience your insight. That means that writing is not expression to you, it is rhetoric – it constructs a meaning. So, you need to think of your research this way.

Second, it is important to have habits of a researcher. I recommend that you have a particular time each week when come hell or high water you are working on this course. Set a time when that makes the most sense to you, but discipline yourself to do it. Then have a place where you will work on the course. I will elaborate this.

Third, get used to research being a group activity rather than a private one. I get the impression that our graduate students often think of their work as something they do in the privacy of their own world, eventually producing – Ta! Ta! – a paper. Instead, confess your insecurities and doubts. Bring those to the class and let me or other seminarists give advice. Old critics: offer your advice in the seminar to young ones. Young critics: ask for help.

Fourth, writing is misnamed; it is really rewriting. You should not be working on your first draft the night before something is due. You should be ashamed if something you hand in has not been revised three times. But you should also be ashamed if it has been revised more than five times. Excessive revision leads to loving your work too much and never submitting your work for the review of others in your writing community.

In short, I don't just want to teach you stuff; I want to apprentice you as critics.


Obviously this is a seminar and your attendance is assumed. I would also add that in a seminar like this – with a rather constant commitment to writing – absences are usually a symptom of a greater problem – keeping up – that is of even more concern.

Last Revised 14 January 2009