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 March 24, 2000 Volume 7, Number 13


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Rhetorician applies timeless wisdom to modern contexts

By Sigrid Klaus

Can Aristotelian rhetorical theory be relevant in this Age of Deconstruction?

According to Dr. Jennifer MacLennan, the first occupant of the D.K. Seaman Chair in Technical and Professional Communication, in the College of Engineering, the answer is a definitive ‘yes’.

And it turns out that her students – undergraduates, graduate students, and professional engineers – agree with her, often telling her that their exposure to rhetoric changed their lives.

But she says her courses, which analyse everything from Aristotle to advertisements, are not as exotic as they sound.

Dr. Jennifer MacLennan
Photo by Wayne Eyre

"Rhetoric is the study of how human beings use symbols, usually language, to influence other people. And when you think about it, the essence of communication hasn’t changed all that much since Aristotle’s day. He discussed ethos, pathos, and logos appeals, and when we communicate today – whatever the medium, whatever the message – we deal primarily with how to say what we want to say to whom."

She says she’s even seen an Internet site offering Aristotelian advice for modern sales and business practitioners entitled "Ancient Wisdom for Modern Professionals".

As much as showing interest in Aristotle’s words themselves, students are, she finds, intrigued at getting "under the message".

"So much of what we say puts up roadblocks to understanding. This includes the excesses of propaganda, political "spin-doctoring", multi-syllabic technical writing, jargony bureaucratese, and politically correct skewing of language. It’s important to be aware of what motivates what is said and written."

MacLennan was appointed to the Seaman Chair in the fall of 1998. Before that, she completed her PhD in rhetoric at the University of Washington and taught for six years at the University of Lethbridge, where she developed a comprehensive program in rhetoric and communication and piloted a variety of experiential learning projects in her field.

Because most communication theory – and textbooks – come from the United States, she says, finding Canadian sources can be frustrating.

"While everyone knows lines from speeches by American presidents – Kennedy’s "Ask not what your country can do for you...", Reagan’s "touch the face of God", even Bush’s "thousand points of light" – I’m often struck at how difficult it can be to find the texts of Canadians such as John Diefenbaker or Tommy Douglas. We owe John Robert Colombo a debt of gratitude for preserving our discourses in his many collections of Canadiana."

Meanwhile, however, MacLennan herself has been adding to the non-American body of material on rhetoric. In addition to a dozen articles on the subject, she’s published three textbooks: Effective Business Writing (1990 and 1995), re-titled Effective Business Communication in the 1998 edition; Public Speaking Strategies for Success (1997), which she co-authored with David Zarefsky, of North Western University; and Effective Communication for the Helping Professions (1999). Last year, she also published Inside Language: a Canadian Language Reader, with G.J. Moffatt.

A look at the list of her speaking engagements indicates how widely her skills and message are sought.

She told a recent conference of chemical engineers how they can communicate technical data to the non-expert, held forth on the nature of persuasion with a group of veterinarians, let the Surveyors Association of Saskatchewan in on how to recognize hidden agendas, advised the Association of Professional Engineers and Geological Scientists about writing strategies that work, and gave a number of professional development workshops on how to be an effective teacher.

What are some of the areas of communication she gets asked about the most?

"Many people are intimidated by all the technical advances out there. For example, many believe that if they’re not using Power Point, they may as well give up. Too many speakers use technology as a buffer between themselves and their audiences, forgetting that the main point is to connect with the people they’re addressing. Audiences want eye contact and human connection."

And it’s not just Power Point that speakers hide behind.

"One of the first rules of teaching should be: Where possible, throw away your notes. On my way to an orientation for new teachers on campus recently, I asked students what their advice would be. After thinking for a moment, one replied, ‘Don’t be old.’ He didn’t mean that literally, of course. But his advice holds: look for new ways of communicating your enthusiasm, and don’t let notes and overheads lessen contact with your audience."

MacLennan says it’s this kind of inability to connect that makes job interviews and resumés such minefields.

"If you’ve sent out 120 resumés and not got any results, there’s something wrong. One big problem is that most people follow recipes instead of highlighting the reasons why they should be hired."

If there’s a dominant problem in how we communicate today, she says, political correctness is a good contender.

"Just as we find the language of 100 years ago quaint, so too will future generations find that we have too often allowed political correctness to strangle our language and thinking."

MacLennan also sides with the Noam Chomsky notion that consent in our society is increasingly manufactured.

"Despite all the devices we have that supposedly enhance our ability to communicate, the individual has lost most of the input he or she had to influence the political system, since the ‘news’ is ever more tightly controlled by powerful political and corporate agendas."

Meanwhile, she says it’s entirely predictable that the College of Engineering has embraced her area of expertise.

"They’re impressed by a hands-on discipline. People often ask me how I can survive in what they see as a male bastion, but they’re often operating on misconceptions. I’ve been made very welcome here, and that includes my office neighbor personally building extra shelf space for me."

In her spare time – when she has any – she often relaxes by reading books and attending plays and movies.

She says she particularly likes screenplays or scenes that feature a banter of dialogue between two or three characters – and cites Tom Stoppard plays, Remains of the Day with Emma Thompson and Anthony Hopkins; and 84 Charing Cross, starring Hopkins and Anne Bancroft as among her favorites.

She says her reading has moved primarily to non-fiction – such books as Trivial Pursuit, by Knowlton Nash, Ad Busters, a magazine published by the Media Foundation; essayists such as Joseph Epstein and George Orwell; works by Canadians such as Margaret Atwood and Bill Casselman; and "anything by Noam Chomsky."

On Campus News is published by the Office of Communications, University of Saskatchewan.
For further information, visit the web site or contact communications@usask.ca

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