On the Rhetorical/Pedagogical Triangle (Part One)

A while ago I presented a session at STLHE, in which I suggested that there was a parallel between the somewhat standard idea of the rhetorical triangle and what happens in the classroom. I’d like at this point to ramble on a bit about what those connections are and how they might work. None of this is particularly original, but please bear with me. This will take a few posts to shake out.

So: the model of the rhetorical triangle, as many have seen it, looks like this.

In essence, any form of communication has these three poles or apexes: the person creating the communication (writing, speaking, painting, etc.); the person(s) receiving it; and the content. The rhetorical aspect of this triangle — the area in which questions of power and agency come in — has to do with therelationship between the three apexes and how authority and activity shift between them.

Take for example a scientific research paper. In principle, the only source of authority therein is the content: the quality and quantity of the data, the soundness of the methodology, and so on. In science, so we are told, only the evidence itself has authority; neither the title of the scientist nor the whims of the public matter. This would be an example of a content-weighted act of communication.

By contrast, take a public statement by a dominating or dictatorial figure: a Stalin or a Putin. The authority in such a statement, backed up by the power of the state, belongs to that figure alone. This would be communicator-weighted communication and this would seem to be the most straightforward kind.

Finally, of course, we have the question of an audience-weighted act of communication, and here is where things begin to get strange. What exactly would that look like? The problem is more complex than it seems. One might at first think of something like the boos of a crowd at a baseball game, or the decision of a crowd to take over an assembly from a speaker of whom they disapprove. But that would not be accurate way of describing such an act of communication. When a crowd of people or a small group of people begin to articulate its will, vocally or otherwise, then that crowd ceases for the moment to be an audience and becomes instead a communicator in its own right. The concept of “audience” presumes the presence of a communicator – a different person or persons – who is articulating the message received. So, what would an audience-weighted act of communication be? One is hard-pressed to imagine anything other than a mere articulation of boredom.

Leaving this question aside, we can say that neither the content-weighted act of communication nor the communicator-weighted act of communication is truly rhetorical. This is because in principle there is no persuasion to be done in either case. If it is true that in scientific discourse the data and methodology are all, then acceptance of the truth of the scientific paper should come as a matter of course. The fact that neither human party in the act of communication has any role to play, or even a necessary presence or relationship with the other, demonstrates that this form of communication is meant to be purely impersonal. If the facts speak for themselves then rhetoric is unnecessary.

In second instance of communicator-weighted discourse, there is also no rhetoric. Rhetoric is in effect an alternative to force. The words of the dictator are backed up by the violence of the state; whether an audience is persuaded or not is irrelevant. The dictator is interested only in their obedience, not their assent.

The audience, then, is the essential element of rhetoric; not only its presence but its capacity to be affected, to talk back and respond, to exercise power in some fashion, is the sine qua non of a rhetorical situation. And in the rhetorical situation, it is precisely the exchanges of power among the three apexes that is at stake. Without this dynamic exchange, as we have said, there is no rhetoric. In fact, we can go so far as to posit a definition in which rhetoric is the process of exchanging power in the act of communication.

Again, this is not surprising; Bitzer said or implied as much in 1968, and the earliest rhetorical texts such as Gorgias’s Encomium make explicit appeals to an audience whose active response is expected or anticipated. This point is reiterated here merely for the sake of emphasis.

Now, consider a quite different situation from either the scientific paper or the despotic diktat: a teacher and students in a classroom.

The parallel structure should not really be surprising; teaching after all is a form of commnication, and any form of communication has these elements. But it is not merely the elements that are parallel; the structure/relationship of them is also. For just the rhetorical triangle is marked by the exchange of power among its three apexes, so also is the pedagogical triangle. And that has several implications for how we think about pedagogy, especially the often-spoken of distinction between lecturing and active learning.

End of Part One. Part Two is forthcoming.