Dr. Martin Medhurst, thanks so much for agreeing to this interview. Given that you’ve been very successful in academia for essentially your entire adult life, both as a student and currently as the Distinguished Professor of Rhetoric and Communication(1) at Baylor University in Waco, TX, Successful Student believes that your experience and knowledge will provide key insight into what it takes to be a successful student and professional.
Q: First, a bit about your biographical background. Where are you from, and is there anything about your adolescence that shaped your educational ambitions? You received a bachelor’s degree from Wheaton College in Wheaton, IL, a Master of Arts from Northern Illinois University, and a Ph.D. from Penn State University. What were the concentrations in these degrees, and what interested you in these? In short, what drove your desire for this education?
A: I was born and raised in Alton, Illinois, which is on the Mississippi River across from St. Louis, Missouri. I don’t think any of my early educational experiences shaped my ambitions. Most of my ambitions at that time were to be a great football and track star. I didn’t really become interested in rhetoric until the first year of my M.A. program at Northern Illinois University. I had gone there to study media, but ended up being more interested in rhetoric. So I pursued the Ph.D. in rhetorical theory and criticism at Penn State University. All of my degrees are in Speech Communication, though with different emphases. My B.A. was more performance oriented; the M.A. was in media studies; and the Ph.D. in rhetoric.
Q: You are an expert in communication, rhetoric, and logic, and your primary focus is in analyzing the rhetoric of presidential speeches. Please explain for our readers what is meant by a rhetorical study of presidential speeches, and what is involved in your approach of analyzing the speeches. If you were to mention briefly a few insights or interesting facts about presidential speeches over the years, what would you share? Is there anything unique or noteworthy in the rhetoric of President Barack Obama’s speeches?
A: Well, I wouldn’t include “logic” among my areas of expertise. Rhetoric is based in a sort of “psycho-logic”; it is quasi-logical. I became interested in presidential speech at NIU, where I wrote one of my first papers on an address that George McGovern, the 1972 Democratic nominee, gave at my alma mater, Wheaton College. I was in the audience for the speech and then later wrote about it. I was studying the rhetorical theory of Kenneth Burke at the time and used one of his concepts—the cycle of guilt-purification-redemption—to analyze the structure of the speech. I try to analyze each speech on its own merits. Some speeches invite attention to language or style or imagery while others draw attention to ideas or arguments or particular kinds of reasoning. I let the speech itself determine the analytical approach I will take. I’ve written about many different kinds of presidential speeches—from famous foreign policy addresses such as Truman’s “Truman Doctrine Speech” and Eisenhower’s “Atoms for Peace,” to campaign speeches such as Ike’s “I Shall Go to Korea,” and inaugural addresses such as Obama’s 2009 address. I discovered that Obama has a standard vocabulary that he draws upon repeatedly to produce a mythic discourse of journeying toward the land of our destiny, which he images as the quest for perfection.
Q: You have thirteen books under your belt that you’ve either written or edited.(2) These books deal mostly with the intersection of communication and rhetoric in politics—why concentrate on the rhetoric of politics in particular? What would you say is the most compelling and/or interesting aspect of how politics uses rhetoric? Are there any themes that are peculiar or specific to American political rhetoric throughout the history of our Republic?
A: Well, I guess I concentrate on politics because that is what I am interested in. I believe that politics is consequential—it has real effects on real people—and that makes it worthy of study in my book. The President of the United States is the single most powerful individual in the world. Surely it is important to understand one of the main sources of that power. All politics involves rhetoric. You can’t engage at any level in the political world without the aid of rhetorical discourse whether that is in the form of a speech, a press release, a debate, a position paper, a discussion among aides, an op-ed piece, or any other spoken or written piece of discourse meant to influence someone’s thinking or behavior. American political rhetoric has many standard themes and structures. Freedom is, of course, the main theme of American rhetoric at any given period. We have also developed some standard rhetorical forms such as the jeremiad that allow us to constantly renew the promise of America.
Q: Much hay was made about the differences in communication ability between George W. Bush and Barack Obama, when Obama first ran for the presidency, by popular media. What is your opinion of the rhetorical differences between these presidents? Is it as stark as the media portrayed?
A: George W. Bush and Barack Obama are two very different kinds of communicators. Bush was a tremendous campaigner. His campaign speeches were among the best, as was his ability to interact with the crowds. Bush was also better than average on major platform addresses—things like his nomination acceptance address, his inaugural addresses, and his September 20, 2001 speech on the terrorist attacks. He gave some pretty powerful speeches at times. But most of the time, in the day-to-day rhetorical activities of the presidency, he was rather glib and sometimes unprepared or unwilling to engage the issues. Obama was also a great campaign speaker, one who could rally the crowds to his cause. His major addresses have been mixed, with some of them being landmark speeches—his “More Perfect Union” campaign speech of 2008 and his Nobel Prize lecture of 2009 come immediately to mind. Both Bush and Obama are adequate, but not great debaters. Each has his strengths and weaknesses.
Q: To what degree does modern rhetoric shape how we think and/or what we believe in modern culture at large? Is it significantly different than, say, the WWII generation? Does it tend to shape our modern society in any unique way, i.e., that truth is now relative, science has final authority, Happy Holidays instead of Merry Christmas, the only thing that matters is your own personal journey, etc.? Are there always buzz-words that loom large and carry a lot of currency in an age’s thought?
A: Rhetoric is one of the forces that shape culture because the driving force of any culture is its animating ideas, and ideas are conveyed rhetorically. Clearly rhetoric has played a part in “normalizing” such ideas as same-sex marriage, sexual liberation (such as living together before marriage), and the general idea that if it feels good, do it. As you can tell from my examples, I am a conservative. I draw my ideas about rhetoric and culture largely from the writings of Richard M. Weaver, one of the foremost rhetorical theorists and critics of the twentieth century. He wrote about “god-terms” and “ultimate terms,” terms that demand sacrifice and whose invocation authorizes belief and action. What do you think are the “ultimate terms” of our age? They are continuously changing from one generation to the next.
Q: You’ve written and currently write for many academic journals in the field of communication(3) and you’re the founder and editor of the journal Rhetoric & Public Affairs. Would you shed some light on what is involved in being such a prolific writer as a professional academic? Does it mean constantly staying abreast of the latest state of the art, reading other communication academics’ writings, considering new theories, etc.?
A: First, it means wanting to become a publishing scholar and following a pathway toward that end. Not all college professors are interested in publishing. I became interested at an early age (22) when one of my professors at NIU suggested that I submit one of my term papers for publication consideration. I did, and it was accepted for publication. And ever since then I have been submitting my work for publication, not only to journals in communication but also such interdisciplinary outlets as Presidential Studies Quarterly, Armed Forces & Society, and the Journal of Church and State, among others. Second, it means being willing to risk yourself by exposing your ideas to professional criticism. Seldom is any article accepted exactly as it is submitted. You have to take the criticism into account and revise the piece until it meets the standards of the referees and the journal editor. Third, you have to be persistent and confident in the worth of your product. If you don’t believe in your ideas why should anyone else? While I am still publishing, I now spend most of my time editing other people’s scholarship. This past year (2013) Rhetoric & Public Affairs received 134 submissions. I’m responsible for making sure all of those essays are properly processed and that the authors receive useful feedback so they can improve their work. I also edit 4-5 book manuscripts per year in my capacity as a series editor at Michigan State University Press.
Q: Can you explain generally what is involved in getting an undergraduate and graduate degree in communication? What advice would you give to students in pursuing a degree in communication? What are some common careers that communication degree holders can look forward to upon graduation?
A: Like all liberal arts degrees, communication requires the completion of a core set of courses and then anywhere from 30-36 hours in the major itself. Courses range from interpersonal and group communication, to organizational communication, to rhetorical theory, to persuasion, to argumentation and debate, to rhetorical criticism, and, in some departments, courses in media as well. My advice to communication majors is the same as I would give to any undergraduate—make the most of your college years because they only come around once in a lifetime. Find some teachers who inspire you and take their courses. Pursue your loves. Try not to be overly concerned with what “job” you’ll get when you graduate. An undergraduate degree is meant to “educate,” not necessarily to be preparation for a specific career. This is especially true of the communication degree. It is wonderful preparation for a long list of careers that require human communication skills, from sales, to personnel, to teaching, preaching, advertising, marketing, and the list goes on and on. But we don’t teach people how to preach or how to sell. We teach them rhetorical precepts that can be applied across a wide range of careers.
Q: What are the mediums of communication, such as writing, radio, television, film, oral communication, etc., that are taught in a communication degree? What can a student expect to learn in pursuing this degree, such as, will students learn logic, methods of persuasion, argumentation and debate, etc.?
A: The specific media to which students will be exposed in a communication department vary from one department to the next. There is no one-size-fits all communication department. They are all different. Some include broadcast media, some don’t. Some include journalism, some don’t. Some include film or theatre, some don’t. Almost all departments will include interpersonal, group, and organizational communication courses, and most will have courses in persuasion and rhetoric. Beyond that, it is hard to give generalizations. A good communication degree should teach students to think clearly, reason rationally, analyze systematically, and speak and write clearly.
Q: Would you please explain generally how a study of communication and rhetoric is also very beneficial in life outside of politics, such as in law, teaching, business, the ministry, etc.?
A: Any field that requires either speaking or writing on a regular basis is benefitted by the study of rhetoric. Lawyers prepare briefs and argue cases. Teachers prepare lesson plans and then delivery them orally. Business professionals, especially those in sales, advertising, marketing, and personnel use persuasion on a daily basis. Preachers prepare and deliver sermons and spend countless hours counseling parishioners. Learning to think rhetorically benefits a large number of professions.
Q: What would you emphasize as important for students in general, studying in any discipline? What do you like to see in your students, that you regard as making a complete, well-rounded successful student, not only in grades, but also in the entire college experience, shaping them for the future?
A: Being well-rounded is important and there are many different ways to become so. Certainly participation in extra-curricular activities is important, whether it is a campus club of a religious or political nature, or volunteering for service projects, or participating in intercollegiate or club sports, or being a peer counselor. Your resume should reflect that you’ve done more than just go to class and (hopefully) earned good grades.
- (1) Dr. Martin Medhurst is the recipient of several honors and awards, including the Julia T. Wood Teacher-Scholar Award (2011), Michael Osborn Teacher-Scholar Award (2007), the Religious Communication Association Scholar of the Year Award (2006), the National Communication Association Distinguished Scholar Award (2005), the Paul Boase Prize for Scholarship (2004), the Marie Hochmuth Nichols Award for Outstanding Scholarship (1995 and 1997), the NCA Golden Anniversary Monograph Award for Outstanding Scholarship (1982, with Michael A. DeSousa), and the RCA Publication Award (1983). Dr. Martin Medhurst has lectured widely throughout the United States and his work has been supported by grants from the Lyndon B. Johnson Presidential Library Foundation, the Texas Committee for the Humanities, the George Bush Presidential Library Foundation, and the National Endowment for the Humanities.
- (2) Including: Rhetorical Dimensions in Media: A Critical Casebook (1984 and 1991, with Thomas W. Benson), Cold War Rhetoric: Strategy, Metaphor, and Ideology (1990 and 1997, with Robert L. Ivie, Philip Wander, and Robert L. Scott), Communication & the Culture of Technology (1990, with Alberto Gonzalez and Tarla Rai Peterson), Landmark Essays on American Public Address (1993), Dwight D. Eisenhower: Strategic Communicator (1993), Eisenhower’s War of Words: Rhetoric and Leadership (1994), Beyond the Rhetorical Presidency (1996), Critical Reflections on the Cold War (2000, with H.W. Brands), Presidential Speechwriting (2003, with Kurt Ritter), The Rhetorical Presidency of George H. W. Bush (2006), The Prospect of Presidential Rhetoric (2008, with James Arnt Aune), Before the Rhetorical Presidency (2008), and Words of a Century (2009, with Stephen E. Lucas).
- (3) Including: The Quarterly Journal of Speech, Communication Monographs, Critical Studies in Mass Communication, Communication Education, Communication Quarterly, Communication Studies, Western Journal of Communication, and the Southern Communication Journal, among other disciplinary outlets. He has also contributed to such interdisciplinary journals as Armed Forces & Society, Journal of Church and State, Studies in Visual Communication, and Presidential Studies Quarterly. He has published more than 85 articles and chapters. Professor Medhurst is the founder and editor of the journal Rhetoric & Public Affairs and of the scholarly book series of the same title, both published by Michigan State University Press. From 1987-1989, Dr. Martin Medhurst served as the Book Review Editor of The Quarterly Journal of Speech. He has served on the editorial boards of Communication Monographs, Quarterly Journal of Speech, Critical Studies in Mass Communication, Western Journal of Communication, Presidential Studies Quarterly, Communication Quarterly, and as a special guest editor for Communication Education. From 1996-2007, Dr. Martin Medhurst served as general editor for the Presidential Rhetoric Series at Texas A&M University Press. He currently serves as the general editor of the ten volume series, A Rhetorical History of the United States, published by Michigan State University Press, and as series editor for the Rhetoric and Religion Series at Baylor University Press.