Class Notes: "Rhetorical History of the U.S." with Professor Sery

Last week we profiled our new class “Environmental Communication” with Professor DeLaure. This week, we are profiling an as-good-as-new class! Why is it as-good-as-new? Because although this class has been taught in the past, it has been so long that it is like new! What class is as-good-as-new? COMS 373: Rhetorical History of the U.S. with Professor Sery! If you are still a little bleary-eyed from watching the election returns and speeches last night, this just might be the course for you! I asked Professor Sery to give us the details…

“This course is a survey of some of the great discourses and rhetorical moments of U.S. history. Beginning with the Colonial period and ending with the new social movements of the 20th century, we will work our way through U.S. history examining the moments that have defined and redefined American identity. Puritan sermons, the American Revolution, the debates around the Constitution, the westward expansion, the abolitionist movement and their states’ rights counterparts, the Civil War and national reconstruction, the ratification and enduring influence of the Civil War Amendments, the emergence of the only distinctly American philosophy: Pragmatism, the Progressive movement, unionization and worker’s rights, two world wars, and an array of civil rights movements (new and old) – these moments elicited some of the most powerful discourses and heroic characters that continue to shape our shared political, economic, social, cultural, and moral lives. Our task is to unpack these rhetorical moments and examine the ways in which the rhetors shape their arguments in order to motivate judgment or action. Moreover, we will also examine the ways in which these discourses are continuously evoked and serve as complex rhetorical memories that continue to shape American identity.

We will approach American national identity and U.S. history as contingent and evolving rhetorical constructions.  In other words, we will examine how American identity and U.S. history have been shaped through persuasive, public discourse.  This may seem an odd focus for a course—part historical and part rhetorical; yet we will come to realize, throughout the course of this semester, that understanding American society is impossible to do without turning our ear to the echoes of historical American public address. Throughout the course, we will consider recurring arguments that continue to reverberate throughout U.S. history. Who is a person? Who is an “American”? What is the role of faith? What are the limits of individualism? Who judges the law? How do we negotiate between local and national authority? What can we do about war and diplomacy? How can we form a “more fair and perfect union”? With a panoramic view and a humbled sense of self-awareness, we will trace these recurring rhetorical themes throughout U.S. history. Some of these themes include:

  • Tracing several influential and enduring rhetorical and ideological lineages in the history of American political, social, and cultural discourse, including puritan millennialism, civic humanist republicanism, early federalism, manifest destinarianism, classical liberalism, social Darwinism, pragmatism, etc.
  • Understanding the rhetorical situations contextualizing important moments throughout US history including colonial Puritanism, the American Revolution, ratifying the Constitution, western expansion, the abolition movement, the Civil War and reconstruction, the progressive movement, women’s suffrage, WWI, early socialism and anarchism, the Great Depression, WWII, and the various civil rights movements in the latter half of the 20th century.
  • Examining the role of rhetorical theory and practice in the constitution, maintenance, expression, criticism, transformation, suppression, and decimation of various American cultural and ideological forms over time.
  • Investigating the “American Exceptionalism” dispute and some of its social/political implications.
  • Investigating several traditional and contemporary “paradoxes” (dilemmas, dialectics, bipolarities, etc.) of complex American culture and speculate upon their origins and social functions.
  • Comparing the rhetorical/cultural structure and relative efficacy of several types of historical and mass-mediated rhetorical and ideological interventions into traditional and contemporary American society and culture.

In the tradition of a liberal arts education, this course has both a practical element and a broader focus.  You will develop skills for the critical reading, analysis, interpretation, and evaluation of public discourse.  You will also gain a broader knowledge and appreciation of U.S. history and the very important role of rhetoric within it.”

Wow! All of this in one semester! Yes!

COMS 373: Rhetorical History of the U.S. counts as an upper-division Communication Studies major course and has a pre-req of COMS 202.


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