Core Competencies in the Rhetorical Arts

Core Competencies in the Rhetorical Arts


Many years ago, historian William Cronon described the ten characteristics of a “liberally educated” person. It’s a really good list. You should read it.

Here is my own list, focusing on the core competencies of the rhetorical arts. As I see it, the following are the most critical skills for successful writing and thinking in an academic context. None of these things is particularly easy to master, if such a thing is actually possible. But practice and experience can yield results. We will spend much of our time this year learning about and practicing the complex skills described on this list.


What are the characteristics of someone educated in the rhetorical arts?


  1. They analyze. Analysis involves breaking a complex thing down into smaller parts so that you may understand how those parts work together to form a whole (or fail to do so). Students should be able to expose the weaknesses or strengths of an argument’s construction by tearing it down to the studs, thereby revealing a text’s underlying purpose, structure, and support. This practice involves identifying a text’s thesis, claims, evidence, reasons, allusions, and assumptions (among other things). Students should also be able to bring this same sort of critical analysis to bear on images, art, spaces, advertisements, memes, cultural artifacts, and performances of various sorts.

  1. They read actively and think critically. Students should not be passive consumers of texts, but active and critical interrogators of what they read. Students should be able to think critically about the arguments and evidence presented by other writers by assessing their value and suitability. Students should recognize specious reasoning and sophistry when they see it. They should ask probing questions of the ideas and arguments they encounter, insisting that each argument earn its conclusions. Active, critical readers imagine the experience of reading as a dialogue, a conversation that we have with other people through the medium of text.

  1. They accurately re-present the thinking of others. Students should be able to accurately re-present the ideas and arguments of other writers in their own writing. This competency is more complex that it appears as it encompasses several discrete skills: reading comprehension, paraphrase, summary, and quotation.

  1. They synthesize. Students should be able to explain to a broad audience how two or more distinct arguments or ideas relate to each other, a practice known as synthesis. A synthesis involves discovering the various questions, ideas, and arguments two or more texts have in common, then presenting those things in an organized, meaningful, and original way. Thus, synthesis seeks to bring two or more distinct sources into a relationship by explaining to the audience the various ways in which the sources are in dialogue.

  1. They make sound arguments. Students should be able to make effective arguments that use claims, evidence, and reasoning to support a thesis that is convincing to a particular audience.

  1. They use theories. Students should be able to make use of the arguments made by others by applying these found ideas to new contexts. This is often referred to as “theoretical” argumentation or a “lens” essay.

  1. They demonstrate audience awareness. Students should be able to think clearly about the audience they hope to address and persuade with their writing, then make appropriate rhetorical choices so as to make the best possible case. An awareness of the audience will often lead a writer to thoughtfully provide appropriate contextualizing information designed to help orient and prepare readers. This might involve defining obscure jargon, explaining the historical context, synthesizing elements of the larger academic conversation, revealing the credentials of a quoted authority, etc.

  1. They make connections. Students should be able to make connections between disparate things—across disciplines, texts, theories, cultural practices, religions, histories, etc. These sorts of connections allow us to see and understand in new, creative ways.

  1. They remain vulnerable to new ideas and information. Students should know that they don’t know everything—that there are other ways of seeing and knowing they are unaware of. Some of these ideas and views may be deeply challenging to their own deeply held ones. They may, in fact, be utterly incommensurable. Yet, students should be able to cultivate a spirit of openness, generosity, and understanding—an intellectual and emotional vulnerability to new ideas and the experiences of others. This is not a facile nihilism, but an openness to discovery and a recognition of one’s own fallibility and ignorance.

  1. They inquire. Good students are curious. They enjoy solving complex problems. They love learning for its own sake and view education as a process of exploration, discovery, and becoming. They seek truth and wisdom. They know that education is not a state of being—not something that we ever fully achieve. Rather, it is something that forever eludes our grasp despite our most dogged efforts.