About Rhetoric

Image credit:
Keegan Houser

Rhetoric is a unique program that is at once interdisciplinary, multidisciplinary, and metadisciplinary, with faculty and students participating in an ongoing interrogation at the boundaries of existing and emerging fields of knowledge. This makes for a rigorous, exciting, and unpredictable intellectual environment; it creates a space where the state and stakes of research across the humanities can be explored as nowhere else on the Berkeley campus and, very likely, in the world.

Rhetoric is not a discipline but a hub of inquiry and experimentation. It is not bounded by objects of study, by chronology, or by any other single factor. In Rhetoric, we train our students to keep one eye on extra-disciplinary thinking while simultaneously mastering traditional disciplinary methods and approaches. The fruits of our success are visible in our exceptional placement record, which includes tenure-track jobs and postdoctoral research fellowships in traditional fields such as English, Comparative Literature, and History, but also a broad range of less conventional, often emerging fields, such as law and legal studies, diaspora studies, media studies, digital humanities, gender studies, ethnic studies, postcolonialism, globality, diversity, history of science, critical theory, philosophy, religious studies, medical anthropology, and creative arts and writing.

Unlike conventional disciplines, and given the special circumstances of its formation at Berkeley, Rhetoric has no predefined center, nor does it gravitate around some pre-established consensus as to what defines a “rhetorical” approach. This lack of predictability, far from disabling inquiry, serves as a constant incentive to define and re-define our methods and commitments and to reassess the value of our interventions in the humanities and in the sciences more broadly. The question “What is Rhetoric?” reverberates productively through every aspect of our program. No single answer satisfies: the question is kept permanently open.

Rhetoric provides an open forum and a maximum of freedom to students and faculty alike, who understand that their role is is to facilitate, to disrupt and disturb, and to challenge the status quo. Students at both the undergraduate and graduate levels are given license to produce their own clusters of interests, and they do so by discovering problems that typically have no official designation in the humanities. They are encouraged to raise fundamental questions about how matters of truth, knowledge, and public discourse come to be framed, constructed, embedded, and remapped in ever-changing fields of application in the world.

As a result, Rhetoric tends to attract an extremely high caliber of self-selecting students who do not need the assurances of conventional pathways to inquiry and who are eager to navigate around existing disciplines as they search for alternative methods and untried combinations of approaches. The success of the program, which has been considerable, owes everything to this high risk/high rewards calculus. Our classrooms draw students from across the humanities. A vibrant experimental departmental culture takes the place of a disciplinary core. Each new course-offering is an adventure in knowledge production that builds on our sequence of courses, even though (or perhaps because) there are no preordained ways forward and no default settings to fall back onto.

Rhetoric at Berkeley is a refuge for students who concentrate in traditional fields and a home for others who would prefer disciplinary promiscuity to disciplinary monogamy. We partner with adjacent programs on campus, both at the departmental level and in such Designated Emphases as Critical Theory, Gender and Women’s Studies, Jewish Studies, The Berkeley Center for the Study of Religion, The Center for New Media, and Science and Technology Studies.

Students at all levels go on to have successful careers precisely because they stand out against their peers when they enter the job market. And faculty, energized by this environment, go on to be leading contributors to their own areas of expertise and often generate new expertises that as yet have no name. In a word, Rhetoric fills an extremely important function in the university ecosystem. It does what disciplinary concentrations cannot do on their own: it opens spaces, it creates breathing room, it is interstitial, and it mediates between existing disciplines. These are our principal commitments and our sustaining impulses. They have brought us to where we are today, and they will allow us to continue to contribute to the fast-changing academy of the future.