Author finds rhetoric coming full circle for digital age

News Release Date: 

Published Jan. 10, 2012 | Written by Kurt Moore
The Marion Star

MARION - The study of rhetoric is perhaps one of the oldest academic disciplines of the Western world.

The art of using language effectively includes how words are delivered, such as in ancient times how people had specific hand gestures they would use when they spoke.

As the printing press was invented and people began paying more attention to the printed world, associate English professor Ben McCorkle of The Ohio State University-Marion said, that study of delivery "falls off the map," becoming "the wicked stepchild of rhetoric."

Now he's seeing a resurgence of interest thanks to digital communication.

McCorkle's research into these trends and how they relate to modern technologies is the backbone of "Rhetorical Delivery as Technological Discourse: A Cross-Historical Study." The book will be published this winter.

He teaches English at Ohio State at Marion, including freshman writing and digital media composing. His interest in how rhetorical delivery meets technology springs not only from his profession, but the interest he has had in computers and technology since childhood.

McCorkle said the study of delivery had kind of faded away as people paid more attention to reason and logic, what it takes to make a convincing argument rather than how the body and voice can help convey it. Printing added to this because people didn't see who was making the argument or the point; they only saw the argument.

He said theorists have started paying more attention again to the delivery of the message, thanks to digital communication. That delivery includes what typefaces someone uses, what colors they choose and what other elements they use and see on blog sites, e-readers, in digital photography and so on.

While such things as a book cover could always influence emotion and so on, he said these weren't really considered part of the delivery until recently as scholars saw the effect digital communication was having. It has fostered renewed interest in not only what's being said, but how it's being said.

His book traces rhetorical study and how it has been influenced by technology throughout its history. He pulled out another book that included only hand gestures that people used in ancient times to help them make a point.

"We've kind of come full circle," said McCorkle, suggesting that some time in the future there could be people studying how to effectively gesture and make an argument in front of a web cam.

"I could totally see that happening."

He works with his students to help them understand methods to communicate.

There are boundaries to the different spaces - printed page, website, video frame, etc. - that require consideration to make an effective debate.

"It's not just the words. It's how I package them on the page," McCorkle said.

This renewed interest in rhetorical delivery has led to a "surplus of job offerings" for those studying it, he said.

It also leads to more diversity among English departments that nowadays include such things as film and digital media studies in addition to literary works.

He said he could see such job opportunities as someone who studies rhetoric working with graphic design specialists to help hone their message.

McCorkle also hopes the resurgence will foster a general acceptance of rhetoric, which he said has a negative connotation because many just believe it is the science of trying to trick someone into believing something. He said everyone uses rhetoric every day, every time they try to make a point.

His own research has helped his career path as McCorkle, who had been an assistant professor for five years, recently was promoted to associate professor and received tenure. For English department faculty, he said, promotion and job security usually relies on writing books and papers to share their research and reach.

He complimented the strength of Ohio State Marion's English department and said that drew him to teach there. He also likes having the chance to get to know his students better because of the the smaller size.

Reporter Kurt Moore: 740-360-2570 or