2016 Keynote Speaker - Carl R. Burgchardt, PhD


It is fitting (and we are honored) that this year we should have Dr. Carl R. Burgchardt as our Keynote Speaker.  Dr. Burgchardt is one of RMCA’s first committee members and historians.  He teaches rhetorical criticism, critical methodology, history and criticism of United States oratory, and film criticism at Colorado State University.  He received his bachelor’s degree from Penn State, and his master’s and doctorate degrees from the University of Wisconsin-Madison.  He has published essays and book reviews in the Quarterly Journal of Speech.  His book, Robert M. La Follete, Sr.:  The Voice of Conscience, won the Outstanding Scholarship Award from the Colorado Speech Association.  And his edited collection of essays on rhetorical criticism, Readings in Rhetorical Criticism, is largely considered a standard in the field.


An Interview with Carl Burgchardt
(from Emily Stones, RMCA Vice-President, Jan. 2016)*

1. Drawing from your years of service and involvement with RMCA, in what ways has RMCA changed or remained the same? What benefits do new scholars and seasoned faculty still reap from attending this conference?

Colorado was (and still is) something of an island, geographically. Isolated from major population centers and institutions of higher learning, surrounded by mountains and high plains, it was only natural for the schools in Colorado to band together. When I arrived in July of 1982, the state organization reflected largely the concerns of high school teachers. There was certainly nothing wrong with that, but college and university instructors wanted an organization that would center more on the challenges of post-secondary education. Thus, the Colorado Speech Communication Association was born in 1985-86. Over the past thirty years, our organization changed formats, emphases, names, logos, schedules, and locations. In addition, the organization reached out to colleges and universities in Wyoming and New Mexico, forming what I think of as a mini-regional association--and the name evolved to the Rocky Mountain Communication Association.

Despite these changes, I believe the basic benefits and opportunities of our organization have remained essentially the same. It is still a great place for young academics to gain experience presenting papers, meeting and exchanging ideas with teachers and peers from other schools, and having an opportunity to perform professional service. As a young, untenured assistant professor, I appreciated just how easy it was to get involved. In the 1980s, the CSCA was organized much like NCA. We had separate interest groups, each with a chair, who planned the programing for the annual conference. If you showed up for an interest-group meeting and even looked like you might be willing to help out, you would soon be elected chair. This happened to me, and it was wonderful training for more demanding offices later on, including president of the organization. Even though RMCA no longer has such formal divisions, I think it is still the case that anyone seeking service will soon find themselves with a meaningful job. In addition, younger scholars continue to find RMCA a great place to meet prominent scholars from around the region in a relaxed setting.
If young academics benefit from taking on leadership positions, more experienced faculty have the joy of comradeship with colleagues from around the region. They can establish professional relationships that may last decades, and I certainly treasure the longstanding friendships I have found in the RMCA. Established academics can also compare notes about common problems (think tight budgets) and participate in programs that provide practical advice on teaching or administration. In addition, more seasoned faculty have an opportunity to serve as reviewers and panel chairs.  As a reviewer, I am always impressed by the quality of papers, and I especially enjoy watching undergraduates present their research. Related to that, RMCA is an excellent way for faculty involved in graduate programs to recruit students looking for an MA or Ph.D. program, and, conversely, undergraduate participants can meet faculty members with whom they might wish to work in the future.

2) Rhetorical studies seem to be ever-changing as the public adapts to new forms of digital and visual communication. What are some of the most important shifts in the field, as you see it? How do you think that the field will continue to evolve?

When I was attending graduate school at the University of Wisconsin-Madison in the mid-to-late 1970s, rhetorical criticism was in a time of ferment. After the implosion of the neo-classical or neo-Aristotelian model, which had been dominant for thirty-five years, Communication scholars developed a variety of methods and perspectives for evaluating rhetoric, which, at the time, was largely regarded as extended, verbal, persuasive discourse.

Shortly after beginning my career as an assistant professor, Philip Wander published “The Ideological Turn in Modern Criticism” (1983), which was followed by Raymie E. McKerrow’s “Critical Rhetoric: Theory and Praxis” (1989). These articles, along with others, formed the foundation for a new paradigm that is now dominant in our field: Critical Rhetoric, or Critical/Cultural Studies. As editor of Readings in Rhetorical Criticism, I survey as many examples of recent rhetorical criticism as I can. In fact, my co-editor Hillary Jones and I are in the final stages of completing the fifth edition. Based on this experience, I believe that the vast majority of current essays that fit in the category of “rhetorical criticism” are influenced, if not guided, by the precepts of Critical Rhetoric. Over the past thirty years, I would have to say that the focus on power, race, class, gender, and sexuality has coalesced into a discernible perspective that is every bit as dominant as neo-Aristotelianism was in its heyday.

Interestingly, at the same time that most Communication scholars were coalescing under the perspective of Critical Rhetoric, others worked to greatly expand the kinds of objects that were legitimate to study. Moving from a predictable emphasis on speeches, editorials, books, pamphlets, and the like, rhetorical critics pioneered the analysis of non-verbal artifacts such as visual images, as well as the material manifestations of rhetoric, as reflected in path-breaking articles that analyze museums, streetscapes, architecture, monuments, and other cultural sites.

Unquestionably, the advent of Critical Rhetoric, as well as the expansion of what types of artifacts can be legitimately analyzed as rhetoric, have made significant contributions to Communication studies. Along with the benefits, however, I think contemporary critical trends have elided certain intellectual endeavors that are necessary for a complete art of rhetoric that will stand the test of time. For one thing, Critical Rhetoric tends to present a negative view of persuasive communication. It focuses on how human symbolic interaction silences and oppresses powerless groups of people. Identifying injustice is no doubt a legitimate function of scholarship, but, in my opinion, at least, this perspective is incomplete. While there is abundant evidence that rhetoric can be used to deceive and oppress, it also has great potential for positive social change. I believe Critical Rhetoric would be improved if it systematically addressed how communication can be employed to improve the lot of oppressed or aggrieved audiences. What are the techniques and strategies that would allow dominated groups of people to redress their complaints through the art of rhetoric? My colleagues who study public deliberation, as well as interpersonal, intercultural, small group, and organizational communication, often pursue precisely this kind of pragmatic and socially useful knowledge. I would like to see rhetorical criticism turn more in this direction.

Second, in a closely related point, because contemporary analytical practice often holds that a critic should construct “texts” out of diverse and scattered fragments, Critical Rhetoric fails to provide positive examples of recognizable, public discourse that promotes reliable decision making, defuses social tension, or promotes empathy. Indeed, contemporary criticism can be openly hostile to the very concept of a “canon” of texts that everyone should know. Historically, an important part of a rhetorician’s education was the study and imitation of persuasive masterpieces from the past. I believe that rhetorical criticism as a discipline would be strengthened if scholars could point to contemporaneous texts worthy of imitation. Here, I am not talking about advocating a single canon that would be relevant for everyone, but, rather, a variety of canons that would change over time and according to the needs of different audiences. Indeed, a major function of criticism might be articulating and defending reasonable criteria for including rhetorical artifacts in a particular canon.

Finally, the expansion of rhetorical criticism to visual or material objects has led to its own kind of absence. When rhetorical criticism concerned primarily speechmaking, teachers could instruct their students on how to actually construct an ethical and effective message that had the potential to influence audiences. Broadly speaking, scholars who now study museums, monuments, images, and so forth, are not teaching their students how to build positive examples of these artifacts. In my mind, a complete art involves history, criticism, and theory—but also practice. When rhetorical criticism embraced an ideological approach and expanded greatly the types of artifacts worthy of analysis, the pedagogical value of practicing the art of rhetoric, as well as critiquing it, has been forgotten.  However, I see no reason why rhetorical criticism of the future could not attend to this pedagogical function, which is validated by 2,500 years’ of productive experience.

In thinking about how rhetorical criticism might change in the future, I am aware that my recommendations point towards restoring some sensibilities and pedagogical commitments from the past.  At the same time, to borrow the language of Thomas Wolfe, “You can’t go home again.” Future generations of scholars will make new and valuable contributions to our field. Whatever path criticism may follow in the years to come, however, I trust that the enduring rationale for rhetoric will be a powerful force in shaping this scholarship. As things stand in 2016, the entire world sees the need for an art that can reduce conflict, contribute to cultural understanding, inculcate positive values, promote empathy, and point the way towards solving the seemingly intractable problems of the twenty-first century. Having said that, however, any new directions in rhetorical criticism will not supplant the valuable contributions of the current paradigm. Just as classical rhetorical theory continues to serve as the foundation for our art, Critical Rhetoric will rightfully assume its place as an important underpinning of the communication discipline.

3) Much of your research focuses on political oratory and rhetorical criticism. As we gear up for the next election cycle, what rhetorical insights would benefit us as we consider our candidates?   

In my view, the United States is currently in a period of intense ideological conflict between a divided electorate. There are large gaps in worldviews, values, and economic interests between, say, urban dwellers and those who live in small towns and rural areas. Moreover, there are important issues at stake that are vitally important to each of these constituencies. The United States has had similar eras in history where discourse was marked by incivility and stridency. An obvious example is the period leading up to the Civil War. While our nation does not appear to be in danger of a serious secession movement, I think it is fair to say that, similar to the decades before armed conflict in 1861, opposed groups of citizens neither like nor trust each other, and the quality of political communication reflects that. Based on my somewhat informal observations about the 2016 election, I think that the campaign speeches and televised debates of the major candidates appeal to the low motives of rival constituencies. Both Republicans and Democrats rely on negative emotions such as anger, fear, resentment, and envy. Because the electorate is so deeply divided, winning elections depends on turning out the base. Hence, the discourse is not designed to unite, but rather to vilify the other side.

Teaching about the Lincoln-Douglas debates last semester provided some useful points of comparison with the political communication leading up to the 2016 primaries. As many readers of this interview already know, in the 1858 campaign for a US Senate seat from Illinois, Lincoln and Douglas participated in seven debates, in which they argued about serious issues in a sustained way. Each debate lasted three hours, and journalists were present merely to report on the debate or offer editorials later on. I am not saying that Lincoln and Douglas were angels—far from it. There were hard-hitting “zingers,” just like today, but the overall intellectual content, seriousness of purpose, national vision, and sheer debating skill should serve as an embarrassment to contemporary politicians and their handlers. The so-called debates that have transpired this election season strike me as a kind of bad talent show in the form of a joint press conference. I find it disappointing that most politicians today lack the impressive rhetorical skills that were practiced in the nineteenth century.

Having presented a negative judgment on the political communication of 2016, I am nonetheless optimistic that our country will pass through this period and eventually arrive at a workable consensus, keeping in mind, of course, that there will always be opposition groups for whatever policies and values emerge. My take on the contemporary political situation is linked to my previous assessment about what the academic discipline of rhetorical criticism should be doing in the future. Communication scholars need to find ways to build community and reduce suspicion. It takes talented leaders to foster an atmosphere of trust and inclusion, and we, as instructors, can do our part to develop future leaders by educating students on how to cultivate a better, more socially productive, kind of political communication. In considering this pedagogical goal, Kenneth Burke’s theory of Identification, I.A. Richards’ study “of misunderstanding and its remedies,” or Mikhail Bakhtin’s writings on Dialogism are all promising examples of the contributions communication scholars can make to improving the tone and quality of political discourse.


*excerpts from interview also available in January 2016 newsletter here.