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Interview with David Zarefsky


The Writing Center recently had the opportunity to sit down with David Zarefsky, Visiting Professor of English (Northwestern University). Professor Zarefsky teaches two courses this semester, English 174: The Rhetoric of Abraham Lincoln, and English 175: Great American Speeches and Speakers. Below is the transcript of our interview.

 Q: You just retired from Northwestern?

Professor Zarefsky (Z): That’s right.

Q: And you’re visiting Harvard to help us incorporate rhetoric and public speaking into our curriculum better, right?

Z: Well, to explore whether that’s something that Harvard would like to do, and if so, what are some of the possible ways to do it, and along the way teaching a couple of courses that attempt to illustrate how it might be done.

Q: So my first question is, what is rhetoric?

Z: Well, that’s the hardest question of all, of course. People have struggled with the definition of rhetoric for twenty-five hundred years, and there are all different ways to go about answering it. I think the simple definition that makes sense to me is it’s the study of the ways in which messages influence people, so that what’s fundamental to it is the relationship between a message, a text, a discourse, and audiences who understand it, respond to it, create it – and that’s, sort of, the central concern: the relationship between messages and audiences.

Q: What is the relationship between rhetorical skills and writing skills?

Z: Well, you can think of writing as a subset of rhetoric in that you deploy a certain set of skills when you write, just as you can think of speaking as a subset of rhetoric, or some kinds of visual representation as subsets of rhetoric. So if you see writing as a subset of rhetoric, well, you would say that the skills are rhetorical skills. But we usually think of rhetorical skills as centering around argument and narrative; so they’re skills of presenting a clear argument, presenting claims and the reasons for them, and skills in telling a story, and seeing how things fit together to make an evolving narrative. Now there are all kinds of other writing skills, of course – the skills of poetry, the skills of creative writing  – and those are not foreign to rhetoric, but it’s usually not what we think about centrally when we think about rhetorical skills.

Q: One of the classes you teach is on great American speeches and speakers – what rhetorical themes do you think are uniquely American, or what is the place of rhetoric in American history in particular?

Z: I think the thing that if not unique is at least highlighted about American history is that oratory has played a larger role than it has in the history of some other countries – that, in a sense we were an oral culture before we were a literate culture, and oratory was thought about as the kind of literature of the masses, as opposed to the literature of high culture. So we didn’t start off with the assumption that oratory was somehow a weaker form of literature; we didn’t start off with the assumption that there was something vulgar about oratory. It was the primary means of public discourse from the earliest years of the country, and it continues to play a prominent role – so, I think that makes it a little bit different.

Now there’s also an argument to be made that rhetoric and oratory have an especially large role to play in societies that are created as republics or as democracies, because there’s the need for space in which to deliberate about public matters, and that’s done through public argument and public exchange. In a sense you could say that monarchies or other kinds of societies don’t have the same fundamental need for rhetoric that a republic or a democracy does, and in fact have developed the rhetorical sensitivity more recently for other kinds of reasons. Now, you can push that too far – there’s a long British rhetorical tradition, for instance, that goes back much further than America’s – but there is a certain kind of republican, little-“r”, or democratic, little-“d”, cast to rhetoric and oratory that probably explains why it’s played a larger role in the history of the United States.

 Q: Moving more specifically to writing, in general, what is the most common mistake you see in student writing for your classes?

Z: Well I have to say the student writing I’ve seen in my classes this spring has in general been very good, but where there’ve been mistakes, and, sort of, across all the writing I’ve read, I think the most common mistake is un-clarity about what the argument is that the writer is trying to make, so that it becomes very hard to extract from the paper, what’s the claim here? What’s the thesis that the writing is trying to develop?

And if you can do that, then it’s not clear how the development is proceeding – how the paper adds up to support for the thesis or the claim that’s been advanced.

Q: I’m glad you said that, because that is something we work with specifically in the Writing Center, so that’s a good plug for the Writing Center. What do you wish students would do more often in their writing?

Z: Well, sort of the flip of what I just said – to be clear and to the point, and have a claim that is understandable. I guess the thing that goes beyond that, then, is a claim that is interesting in a way that it states something new or it takes a new point of view on something, or it doesn’t simply repeat what is already known – not that there’s no value in that. But I’d like to see more writing where it’s easy the answer the question, “What’s the news here?” Because that becomes writing that’s not just clear, but compelling – that draws the reader in and makes you want to follow along the way the argument is developed.

Q: And if I could go a little Oprah here – what was your own “aha moment” about your own writing?

Z: I had just an outstanding high school English teacher my junior and senior year, and that’s really when I learned to write in an organized and clear fashion. So the “aha moment,” I don’t know that it was one moment, but it was, you know, having questions raised about what does this really mean, and why is this here, and what’s this saying, and being forced to revise and revise and re-write, and sharpen – to the point where I could begin to compose in such a way that I could see pretty clearly how the thing was playing out: how the argument was developing, how the narrative was all fitting into place. I think that’s really when I had the greatest growth in my ability to do that.

Q: And, lastly, are there any books on rhetoric or on writing that you recommend for people who want to follow up on these ideas?

Z: There are loads of ‘em, and it’s hard to know what to single out. I’ve mentioned argument several times, and it’s partly because my own interest is strongly in the study of argumentation in both writing and oral discourse, and partly because I think writing is so central to argument. There are a number of good books on argument that explain parts of the argument, and how one is put together – I’m reluctant to single out one in particular but I guess that would be the kind of book that I would go look for if I were looking for something that would have practical suggestions about how to improve writing.


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