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Seminar 4: Rhetoric in Dark Times

Primarily Synchronous (May 24-May 28)

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Seminar Leaders:

Patricia Roberts-Miller, The University of Texas at Austin: patriciarobertsmiller@gmail.com
Ryan Skinnell, San José State University: Ryan.Skinnell@sjsu.edu

Following the defeat of the Nazis in 1945, the world should have learned a fairly clear lesson concerning political discourse—to whit, democracies should avoid the toxic combination of narcissistic populism, scapegoating, racism, and binary thinking that enabled the Nazis’ systematic destruction of Weimar democracy. Unhappily, that wasn’t the lesson the US learned. Less than a decade after V-Day, the same toxic reasoning used by the Nazis to destroy Weimar was being used by Americans to support segregation, the House Un-American Activities Committee, and various forms of domestic authoritarianism.

The spectacular failures of democratic deliberation in Nazi Germany and Cold War America provided scholars of public discourse with ample opportunities to study what we are calling “Rhetoric in Dark Times”—times in which demagogues, dictators, and despots gained and maintained power through rhetoric. Among the questions this seminar poses are: How do motivated rhetors support the destruction of democratic discourse? How does rhetoric enable and sustain dark times? How can it prevent or heal them? What are rhetoricians’ responsibilities in dark times? And how can we strengthen democratic deliberation?

In this seminar, we will consider these questions by revisiting important rhetoric and public discourse scholarship that has tried to explain some uses and abuses of rhetoric in dark times, particularly following Hitler’s rise. The seminar’s readings will be organized around common explanations for the failures of public deliberation in the 20th century, including the rise of factions, the destabilizing effects of social change, the emergence of new information technologies, the perils of too much democracy (a.k.a., rabid populism), and the rise of income inequality. We intend to draw lessons from the past to help us reflect on and imagine our work on public discourse and democratic deliberation in the 21st century.

Each day will be divided between (1) whole-group discussions of assigned readings, and (2) workshopping participants’ research interests that engage with public discourse and/or democratic deliberation. Participants will be expected to submit a working draft of a research project in late-April to be shared with other seminar participants. These projects may include a range of genres, from scholarly (e.g., book projects, dissertations, or journal articles) to popular (e.g., books, essays or articles for public outlets, or op-eds grounded in academic expertise).

Patricia Roberts-MillerPatricia Roberts-Miller, Professor Emerita in the Department of Rhetoric and Writing at UT-Austin, was formerly Director of the University of Texas University Writing Center. A scholar of train wrecks in public deliberation, she is the author of Speaking of Race: Constructive Conversations about an Explosive Topic (2020, The Experiment). Rhetoric and Demagoguery (2019, SIUP), Demagoguery and Democracy (2017, The Experiment), Fanatical Schemes: Proslavery Rhetoric and the Tragedy of Consensus (2009, U of Alabama P), Deliberate Conflict: Argument, Political Theory, and Composition Classes (2004, SIUP), and Voices in the Wilderness: Public Discourse and the Paradox of the Puritan Rhetoric (1999, U of Alabama P).


Ryan Skinnell Ryan Skinnell is Associate Professor of Rhetoric and Writing at San José State University. He is author or editor of five books, including Reinventing (with) Theory in Rhetoric and Writing Studies (Utah State, 2019) and Faking the News: What Rhetoric Can Teach Us About Donald J. Trump (Societas, 2018). His current research focuses on authoritarian, demagogic, and extremist rhetoric. In 2019, he co-edited a special issue of Rhetoric Society Quarterly called “Rhetoric’s Demagogue | Demagoguery’s Rhetoric.” Dr. Skinnell also writes about bureaucracy, institutional rhetoric, and histories of rhetoric and writing. He has published numerous essays in academic and popular outlets on rhetoric, writing, and politics.

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