My Research

I am a rhetorical critic. I am interested in using my powers of inquiry to expand understanding of people using their voices to alter their public lives.

How my research connects with the field:

My research objectives take me toward four research traditions in Communication:

Contemporary Rhetorical Criticism.  I study the ways in which discourse shapes our public lives.  This work leads me study ways discourse is used to achieve and resist social change.  I am particularly interested in critique of current political discourse practices and their impact on our democracy.  My coauthored book, Making Sense of Political Ideology: The Power of Language in Democracy (Lanham: MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 2006) is available from the publisher, Barnes and Noble or Borders.

Contemporary Rhetorical Theory: I am an authority on the work of literary critic Kenneth Burke. If you would like to read a recent essay on Burke's theory of hierarchy with an application to the speaking of Martin Luther King, press here. In addition, I am reading and working to understand a group of theorists known as "the Continental Theorists" including Jürgen Habermas, Michel Foucault, and others. My interest in contemporary rhetorical theory is not simply to master the work of others, but to enhance our understanding of rhetorical action to aid our critical power.

History of Public Discourse: The study of the history of public discourse is in somewhat of a renaissance. My participation in that renaissance is grounded in a regrounding of the study of public discourse from political history into social history. I am interested in the strategies that historical communities have chosen to guide their public life. My current book project is a history of moments when American political discourse took shape. To read an example of this work focusing on the American Declaration of Independence, press here.  I am the coeditor of the largest anthology of American speeches now in print, American Rhetorical Discourse (Long Branch IL: Waveland, 2005), available from the publisher, Barnes and Noble, or Borders.

Argumentation: I have had a long-term interest in the use of the powers of argument to influence public life. I have edited Argumentation and Advocacy, the leading journal in the field, and was Director of the field's most important conference, the SCA/AFA Summer Conference in Argumentation, for 1997. I was the keynote speaker at the 2005 NCA/AFA Summer Conference in Argumentation and will be the keynote speaker at the 2010 conference of the International Society for the Study of Argumentation. I will receive their lifetime achievement award at that conference.  My first co-authored book, Public Policy Decision Making was an important work in modernizing the theory of argument in policy debate. To read an example of my theoretical work in argument, a consideration of the place of argument in dramatistic rhetorical theory, press here.

My current projects:

The State of Public Discourse in America: Through my powers as a critic, I am committed to working on the quality of public discourse in America. That today's public discourse is decayed is now a commonplace, realized by those inside the structure of power as well as their critics. My work seeks to explore the character of current democratic discourse and locate the characteristics of the discourse and their implications on democratic practice.

Part of this work focuses on the stylistic characteristics of American political discourse. In a series of projects I seek to highlight the closed character of modern American political discourse. I argue that the problems reside in the errors of particular politicians, but in the style of discourse that dominates the political system. Thus, my work seeks to elaborate on that style and its impact. A summary of this indictment is in my essay on statist rhetoric which you can read.

I also believe, however, that the key to a healthy public discourse rests not in government, but in the non-governmental sector. So my criticism extends beyond governmental discourse. I am committed to enriching public discourse by highlighting the variety of voices that enrich a healthy public sphere, and to identify the sites in which democratic discourse can occur. Some work in this line, co-authored with Patricia Riley and Thomas A. Hollihan of the University of Southern California, is available for you to read here.

The Rhetorical Republic: My interest in the quality of civic discourse extends also to understanding the historical roots of our current style. This project traces the genealogy of current American political discourse. You can read the treatment of the Declaration of Independence.

Dialectic in the work of Kenneth Burke: My interest in Kenneth Burke is to understand the place of discourse in community formation and development. I believe that Burke's rhetorical theory helps us most in understanding the way in which communities evolve through their discourse. My work on hierarchy in Kenneth Burke was a part of that project. I am now working on Burke's treatment of dialectic reasoning as a key to his understanding of rhetoric in communities.

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