Why We’ve Started with Rhetoric

About this time in the semester it’s natural to start wondering why we’ve spent so much time on rhetoric in a class on writing for sciences and technology, wondering why I’ve asked you to write a synthesis paper that argues for the importance of rhetoric in scientific and technical discourse, and wondering why we’re going to keep reading about how genres work even as we begin to explore some of the major genres of the scientific and technical workplace.

The purpose of these readings in the rhetoric of science and the work you put into the rhetoric of science essay is to help you develop a good understanding of how meaning — effective expression — is made in science and technical fields. If nothing else, I hope that what we’ve covered so far gives you a response to any professor who tells you that you should not use rhetoric in a scientific paper. 1) Really, when a professor tells you that you shouldn’t use rhetoric in a scientific paper what they mean but don’t have the language to explain is that you have not used rhetoric effectively enough in shaping your discourse for the task at hand. Ideally, readings such as Graves’s “Rhetoric, Knowledge, and ‘the Brute Facts of Nature'”; Campbell’s “The Polemical Mr. Darwin”; Gross’s “On the Shoulders of Giants”; and Gopen and Swan’s “The Science of Science Writing” have demonstrated that effective scientific and technical discourse is never arhetorical but is deliberately and consciously crafted in order to become effective expression: the intentionally shaped (invented) suasory use of symbols (including numbers, charts and graphs, and illustrations as well as spoken and written language), presented in a reasonable manner that is addressed to a particular audience for a specific purpose, to paraphrase Prelli.

We have spent a fair amount of time on this subject before diving into some of the major genres of the scientific and technical workplace precisely because there is an assumption that scientific and technical writing is arhetorical, and that all one needs to do is present the “brute facts of nature.” The failure of Newton’s “New Theory about Light and Colors” relied upon the brute facts of nature to make its case, and as we saw from our readings, Newton’s “New Theory about Light and Colors” had so little impact he had to repackage his ideas in a new publication. The difference between the failure of Newton’s “New Theory” and the success of his field-changing Opticks was not the ideas — Opticks is “New Theory” repackaged — but how he used (or failed to use) rhetoric well. Without understanding how rhetoric works, especially how rhetoric works within scientific and technical discourse, the best we can hope to do from looking at exemplar texts is to mimic them point for point, and if effective expression is indeed invented expression — shaped for specific context and audience at hand — then the strategy of mimicry is only so effective. You might be able to produce a sucessful NSF Doctoral Dissertation Improvement Grant proposal by mimicking a sucessful NSF Doctoral Dissertation Improvement Grant proposal, but you might not. The further afield your topic and the greater the difference in the purpose of your research, the less likely an arhetorical mimicking of that proposal will be effective.

The reason why we’ve started this course by exploring the rhetoric of science, and the reason why we’ll continue to explore genres as activity systems, rather than simply study model documents are write our own is give you the toolset required to understand the strategies and moves such examples make, to understand them not simply as examples of successful effective expression but to understand how they are crafted in response to a set of constraints such audience; situation; purpose; genre; accepted discourse practices of the audience and genre; the lines of reasoning and evidence the audience will find acceptable and reasonable for the given situation; etc.). I hope from our  readings so far that it is clear why Newton couldn’t have used Darwin’s On the Origins of the Species as a model for repackaging the ideas presented in his failed “New Theory about Light and Colors” (assuming Newton could have had access to Darwin’s book), or why Watson and Crick’s “A Structure for Deoxyribose Nucleic Acid” isn’t going to serve as a model for your paper on inhibiting iron uptake in pathogens such as Bacillus anthracis. Sure, most of us have some innate understanding of this because we have all learned to communicate effectively, but how effectively could we explain the reasons in detail without a conceptual and practical understanding of rhetoric and its terminology? The purpose of the first third of this course is to give you a (consciously) conceptual understanding of rhetoric (and rhetoric of science in particular), a language in which to identify and describe to yourself and others this conceptual understanding, a basis from which to analyze model texts, and, most importantly, the ability to analyze and understand any given rhetorical situations so that you might put what you know into practice rather than find yourself a model text to mimic and hope it will work well enough. (Likewise, the purpose behind the Bazerman readings on genre is so that we can understand how to analyze a genre we’ve never used before as well as consider how we might be able to push at, play with, and otherwise manipulate a genre’s established conventions to better meet our specific needs.

For some of you, the rhetoric of science essay may very well be the last time you write something of its sort, although I doubt it. What I asked you to write was an argument intended to persuade an undergraduate such as yourself as to rhetoric’s importance to scientific and technical discourse. I asked you to writes such an argument because it’s a genre you all know even if you’re out of practice with it, and it’s a genre that requires you to synthesize and apply concepts you’ve just learned. However, if you recall our earliest lecture on rhetoric, you’ll remember that rhetoric is a meta-discipline, a “universal art” to quote Aristotle, or an “architectonic productive art” to quote McKeon, a subject that exists to help us make meaning and knowledge in other fields of study. That is, to keep repeating the same idea, while you will apply rhetoric differently when you write a NSF grant proposal, a job application letter, a progress report seeking to convince your boss not to kill your project even though you’re well over budget and well behind schedule, or the journal article that eventually wins you a Nobel Prize, you will be applying rhetoric. The principles used in your rhetoric of science essay are the same principles you will apply in each of these contexts.

And while I may be wrong in saying that it is unlikely that your rhetoric of science essay will be the last time you write such a piece, can any of you truly say that you do not ever expect to persuade someone about the importance of science? About the importance of your research and how it will benefit all of us? Or, at least, that it is worth the continued funding? Again, the while the occasion will be different, while the audience will be different, and while the facts and rhetorical strategies that you shall marshall will be different, the principles you use in order to determine your most effective means of producing effective expression will remain the same. And in each and every one of these occasions you can articulate your expression, effective or not, as an enthymeme. Whether you are writing a NSF grant, a conference proposal abstract, a progress report updating your funders or managers of your project’s progress, a letter to city hall in support of a STEM summer camp, opt even a new resume for a job, at the heart of each of these documents is an enthymeme.

Seriously, as you put your job application together, stop and think about the fact that your even your resume is a rhetorical act that relies upon an enthymeme which states: you, potential employer, should hire me because my experience listed here makes me a good fit for the job you wish to fill. An successful resume is an act of effective expression; it is, in short, an example of an intentionally shaped suasory use of symbols presented in a reasonable manner that is addressed to a particular audience for a specific purpose. The idea behind starting our course off as we have is that you should have a growing knowledge and ability to explain how and why a specific resume, grant proposal, progress report, or scientific article has successfully or unsuccessfully used rhetoric to achieve its ends and, more importantly, how you can apply your own knowledge of rhetoric in order to shape a resume, a grant proposal, a progress report, or a scientific article into an act of effective expression.

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1. Really, when a professor tells you that you shouldn’t use rhetoric in a scientific paper what they mean but don’t have the language to explain is that you have not used rhetoric effectively enough in shaping your discourse for the task at hand.