Academic journal article Argumentation and Advocacy

Applications of Rhetorical Criticism: An Analysis of Individual Event Speeches (1993-2000)

Academic journal article Argumentation and Advocacy

Applications of Rhetorical Criticism: An Analysis of Individual Event Speeches (1993-2000)

Article excerpt

Andrew C. Billings, Jonathan Birdnow and Caroline S. Parsons (*)

Within competitive individual events, no category of speaking has the same history as rhetorical criticism. Often the least-entered event at a tournament, rhetorical criticism remains an invaluable type of speech, joining the fields of communication studies and competitive forensics in a unique way. While the event is not the most popular among students and some judges, presumably from a lack of understanding of what rhetorical criticism entails, many coaches and educators argue that rhetorical criticism--when performed properly--can be a powerful heuristic for the understanding of the communication discipline.

This study addresses how students apply their knowledge of rhetorical criticism within individual event competition. Through in-depth analysis of national finalist speeches, significant findings can be determined within the areas of student understanding of (a) method, (b) artifact, and (c) argument construction. Additionally, researchers and educators can gain a pedagogical glimpse as to how undergraduate students are conducting rhetorical criticism, and, if traditional criticism and competitive speaking criticism fail to correlate, scholars can begin a discussion as to whether such inconsistencies constitute problems within the activity.


Since its inception as a forensics event, competitive rhetorical criticism has followed an evolutionary path similar to its academic counterpart. Scholars and coaches have raised questions concerning pedagogical influences, methodological limits, student participation, and the coaching of rhetorical criticism. Each of these issues plays a large role in the constant renegotiation of rhetorical criticism. In order to better understand how rhetorical criticism is practiced in today's forensic competition, one must gain an understanding of the literature surrounding this event, constructed in two veins of knowledge: first, the pedagogical implications of rhetorical criticism and second, the coaching and application of the event.


Concerning the pedagogical implications of competitive rhetorical criticism, critics have highlighted the use of prefabricated methods as a tool for analysis as a valid problem. A cursory glance at the endnotes of the majority of articles written on competitive rhetorical criticism illustrates the long, rich, and often colored history of this activity within academia. Authors consistently reference Aristotle's definition of rhetoric as a search for the "available means of persuasion" (Aristotle, 1960). From this foundation one easily proceeds to Wichelns (1995) and the Neo-Aristotelian critic. Wichelns helped solidify the study of rhetoric by employing Aristotle's canons as a method. Within competition, many argue that Wichelns' methodological underpinnings have transformed into the .notion that a critic can create a quick list reference guide, sending students and coaches on a hunt for a "cookie-cutter" method. Ott (1998) explains that students read recently published criticisms with an eye on phrases and ta g lines that can then be used as a framework to study their artifact. In the search for applicable methods, many models of communication are adapted, including the Aristotelian Model of Persuasion, Toulmin's Model of Argument, Burke's Dramatism, Fantasy theme analysis, and apologia (Bartanen, 1994).

Many critics believe that the constant use of pre-set methods, or the tendency to only draw terms and catch phrases from previous criticisms, has created a paradigm of competition that harms the educational value of the event. Current speeches often miss or ignore the context of the artifact (Ott, 1998). Instead of fully exploring the rhetorical act, students simply search the artifact for quotations or illustrations that best fit into their framework. This style of criticism places importance upon the method rather than the artifact, creating a method-driven examination (Givens, 1994). …

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