Should we call it business rhetoric?

In response to my last post, a colleague offered up “rhetoric” as the field of theory that gives shape to what we do in business communication. This is a notion that has occurred to me before.

But with the little goad from my colleague, I got out my rhetoric books and spent a bit of time with them. In a nice little introductory text called The Essential Guide to Rhetoric, the authors draw a distinction between communication and rhetoric.

All rhetoric involves communication, they write, but not all communication is rhetoric. Communication theory really came into its own in the 20th century. Classic works like The Mathematical Theory of Communication laid the groundwork for information science. Scholars funded by government research developed theories of mass communication and would later establish the study of communication as a university discipline. The classic models tended to — at the most general level — break down communication into messages, senders, receivers, and media.

But the key point in The Essential Guide to Rhetoric is that “communication” happens any time a sender of any kind sends a message to a receiver. So, for instance, my stomach sending hunger message to my brain via nerves is a form of communication. The remote control sending a change channel signal to the TV is communication. So is the stop light flashing red as I approach it.

Communication also includes the president giving a speech or a college professor lecturing. In these situations, the outcome of the act of communication is contingent on the response of the audience. A garage door opener — when working properly — always responds in the manner we expect. It is not free to disagree or draw mistaken conclusions. The president’s audience is free to reject him, which is why he uses a variety of strategies to persuade his audience.

For the authors of the essential guide, this is what differentiates rhetoric and communication. Rhetoric is always contingent and it is always strategic. Its outcome depends on the audience response to the rhetorical situation. And it is carried out with the intention of moving the audience toward a desired belief, feeling, or action.

So back to my question: Does calling what we do business communication mislabel our field? Does it imply that we deal with a broader range of issues than we really do? Should we call it business rhetoric instead?

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2 thoughts on “Should we call it business rhetoric?

  1. The related fields of “Communication” and “Rhetoric and Composition” contain many different sub-fields. In composition and rhetoric departments, you will often find people researching and writing about “professional writing.” In fact, many universities are now offering major and minors in professional writing and some are even offering PhDs and MAs in the field. Might I suggest that we simply call our field what everyone else already does (“Professional Writing”) and that we think of it as a part of both Rhetoric and Composition AND Communication. (After all, some universities house their Composition/Rhetoric folks in English departments. Some have them in Communication departments, and some have their own Composition and Rhetoric departments.) “Professional Writing” as a field of inquiry has been on the rise since the 1990s. I think the first book I read about it was called “Writing Workplace Culture: An Archaeology of Professional Writing.” But there are many more.

    The reason that my department (and maybe yours) is called “business communication” and not “professional writing” is, I think, for two reasons. One is simply a lack of knowledge on the part of administrators and faculty in business schools to the existence of the field of Rhetoric and Composition (and that field’s interest in professional communication and writing). This happens, in part, because faculty in business often have non-academic backgrounds (which, after all, makes sense), but it also happens, secondly, because of the determined desire to find some innate difference between the business school and the schools of liberal arts.

    Maybe this is for financial reasons (to keep business students’ tuition dollars within the B-school and not going to the English Department), or maybe for reasons of control (to give business students a different type of education than they might get if the B-school wasn’t in control of their communication/writing instruction), and maybe it is because people who teach business communication need to be primarily teaching (since communication doesn’t count towards accreditation, our research isn’t valued by the various business schools) and maybe because those who teach professional writing in departments of English or Composition or Communication don’t want to primarily teach business students, since they are, after all, interested in studying the field academically or analytically and not just giving students practical skills. And, maybe it is for silly inter-departmental reasons of which we are all aware.

    So, to answer your question: you are part of a field of inquiry that has labels of “Rhetoric and Composition,” with a subfield of “Professional Writing.” You are also involved in the fields of “Communication,” “English,” and “Writing.” The big composition conference is CCCC (four-Cs. The journal is CCC…), and there are lots of good journals and resources in the field of composition.

    1. Thank you, CN. Your observations sound well-grounded to me. I feel a bit like Dorothy in Oz as I consider that I’ve come a long way not to actually know where I am.

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