Constraints in the Rhetorical Situation

At the Interdisciplinary Program Fair on March 26, faculty and students representing the various programs offered at Elon stood by to answer questions about their respective programs as students wandered around the room, looking for guidance and inspiration concerning their next academic pursuits. With the end goal of recruiting students to participate in their programs, faculty members had to employ some level of rhetorical strategy in their presentations to persuade the prospective students. Some programs were more successful in their attempts to be rhetorically sound than others, and while the rhetorical strengths and weaknesses were easy for me to recognize as a student of rhetoric, I was more interested in another realization I made while observing the event.

Of the tables I stopped at during the fair, I was most impressed by the International Studies Program’s presentation. As a critic, especially of all things rhetorical, I saw room for improvement, but overall they seemed to be doing all the right things. There was appropriate visual rhetoric incorporated into their presentation in the form of handouts and posters, designed to supplement the faculty member’s discussion of the program and its requirements. The presence of the International Studies student at the table was especially useful as he supported the program’s ethos. Through speaking about the positive experiences he’s had that are associated with the program, he helped establish the program’s reputation.

The faculty member was also influential in the program’s effective presentation. His knowledge about the program specifically and visible knowledge of several other fields allowed him to emphasize the comprehensive nature of interdisciplinary programs and the way it manifests itself in International Studies. Recognizing a need to address the his audiences’ goals specifically, he asked prospective students what their majors are and then tailored his description of the program to incorporate the students’ identified interests and current coursework.

After discussing the general course requirements, he mentioned the mandated study abroad requirement, which I’m sure he believed would be enticing for most members of his audience considering studying abroad is very popular at Elon. Unfortunately, for my friend who had been persuaded by their presentation up to that point and was very interested, hearing of that requirement dissolved all of her support for the program. She does not have the financial means to study abroad, so, no matter how persuasive the faculty member and student were, there is nothing they could have done to convince her to choose their program.

As a student of rhetoric, witnessing this exchange was very discouraging. The faculty member and students had essentially followed Aristotle’s teaching. They reasoned logically, pointing out the program’s flexibility and why the skills taught are helpful in today’s society. They applied an understanding of human character, developing the program’s ethos through speaking of positive experiences. They understood student emotions, as they knew to speak of the students’ interests as means of moving their spirits. Aristotle may be right in asserting that “most of the things about which we make decisions present us with alternative possibilities [and] hardly any of them determined by necessity;” however, that was clearly not the case in this situation. Application of the various means of persuasion is not always sufficient. In some situations, there will inevitably be constraints, whether they are financial restraints or something else, which prohibit the audience from acting as the rhetor intends. It may be no fault of the rhetor but merely an undeniable limitation that cannot be overlooked.

I don’t think this situation suggests by that incorporating rhetorical strategies should be deemed any less important. One must still consider all of the situations in which strong rhetorical techniques will have the effect of swaying the audience because, more often than not, they will have that desired effect. We can all find comfort in Quintillan’s assertion when speaking of the ends of rhetorical discourse, saying that it is “Not necessarily to persuade; when he has spoken well, he has attained the full end of his art.” Final outcome aside, when you are developing a presentation and then when you are presenting it, as yourself, am I speaking well? If you can answer yes, you should be satisfied with that.

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