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312 pages

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Sarah Kornfield
Hope College


Contemporary Rhetorical Criticism invites students into the art of rhetorical criticism by showcasing its social and practical value. For my own courses in rhetorical analysis, I wanted a book that would not only show students how to use critical methods and approaches, but also why they would want to use rhetorical criticism—a book that demonstrates how rhetorical criticism helps students understand, navigate, and improve social and public life. Moreover, I wanted a book that would help them choose their critical methods and approaches, guide them in their use, and help them resist cookie-cutter analyses. Through my conversations with colleagues, I discovered that other people teaching rhetorical criticism had similar needs.

The book is organized around major critical methods and approaches, both traditional and contemporary, and encourages students to choose and combine them, as needed, according to their research questions and their texts. After the introductory chapters, which provide a framework for engaging in rhetorical criticism, each chapter includes a section on “Choosing This Method,” followed by a section on the “Strengths and Weaknesses” of that approach. These sections guide students in selecting approaches that are appropriate for particular texts.

To illustrate how rhetorical criticism can help students understand their own lives and the rhetoric they encounter, Contemporary Rhetorical Criticism incorporates a wide array of examples drawn from politics, popular culture, and media. Longer research examples—summaries of published scholarship from a diverse array of scholars—show how critics use and combine rhetorical approaches in order to explicate their texts and explore a vast array of political and social concerns.

Contemporary Rhetorical Criticism is intended for courses that lead students into the critical analysis of public discourse. I use it in a rhetorical criticism course titled “Rhetoric & Public Culture.” Colleagues who reviewed the manuscript in progress also said they would find the book useful in courses that study rhetorical analysis, or that analyze public and popular culture. To meet my own and others’ teaching needs for such courses, the book attempts to (1) introduce students to the theoretical underpinnings of rhetorical criticism; (2) enable students to craft their own rhetorical analyses; and (3) help students grasp the social and practical utility of rhetorical criticism.

Ultimately, Contemporary Rhetorical Criticism is designed to show students that rhetorical criticism is fascinating, refreshing, and intellectually stimulating. Accordingly, I have attempted to write in a clear and lively prose and to choose examples that would resonate with students’ own interests and lived experiences. It is my hope that this book will be a valuable resource for students and teachers of rhetorical analysis.


  • Organized around critical methods and approaches, the book explores the principles and uses of traditional methods as well as very recent critical concepts.

  • Sections on “choosing this method” and “strengths and weaknesses of this approach” help students understand the distinctions among critical approaches, select, and, as appropriate, interweave methods in order to best explicate their texts.

  • Guidelines for approaching critical analysis (Chapters 1 and 2) and writing a critical essay (Appendices A and B) guide students in exploring their texts and writing their own essays. Using examples from significant scholarship, the book shows students how to build strong rhetorical arguments.

  • Research examples explore selected works from the literature, translating them so they are accessible for undergraduate students and pointing out how scholars have used (and sometimes combined) methods to reveal the workings of their texts.

  • Examples from a wide range of scholarship, contexts, and topics, from historical to very current rhetoric, were chosen for their clarity and their ability to connect with students’ own lives. I have also attempted to showcase a diverse array of scholars and scholarship, reflecting critical engagement with numerous public issues and controversies.

  • Discussion questions at the end of each chapter invite students into thoughtful explorations of key concepts.


Contemporary Rhetorical Criticism consists of eleven chapters organized into four parts, plus two appendices. The first two chapters introduce rhetorical concepts and criticism. Each subsequent chapter begins with a theoretical framework, moves into a “how-to” section, provides two or three research examples, explains the strengths and weaknesses of that critical approach, and concludes with a discussion of how a student can discern whether to use that method for a particular rhetorical analysis.

Part I, “Introduction,” provides a framework for understanding the goals and practices of rhetorical criticism.

Chapter 1, “Introduction to Rhetorical Criticism,” provides foundational perspectives on what rhetoric is and why critics analyze it. Defining rhetoric as the arts of address, this chapter explains the concepts of symbols, meaning, and social construction, and ultimately argues that rhetorical criticism is fundamentally concerned with insight, judgment, and ethics.

Chapter 2, “Rhetorical Analysis and Critical Essays,” explains how students can practice rhetorical criticism. This chapter introduces the key tenets of close textual analysis and Lloyd Bitzer’s rhetorical situation. It then provides detailed explanations of how students can organize and craft their own critical essays.

Part II, “Orienting Methods,” includes four chapters, each focusing on a traditional rhetorical method that elevates a single aspect of a text’s symbolic form as the entry point for assessing the entirety of that text. These chapters provide a framework for students as they learn these foundational methods of rhetorical criticism and see the connections and fault lines that run among them.

Chapter 3, “Narrative Criticism,” is grounded in Walter Fisher’s theory of narrative reasoning. It explores the concepts of narrative probability, narrative fidelity, cultural archetypes, myths, and narrative transportation. It also demonstrates how to identify and analyze a narrative’s story and discourse and assess their role in storytelling.

Chapter 4, “Dramatistic Criticism,” introduces Kenneth Burke’s theory of dramatism, exploring the concepts of terministic screens, worldviews, symbolic action, and motives. The main focus is on pentadic analysis, but the chapter also introduces the guilt, purification, and redemption cycle.

Chapter 5, “Genre Criticism,” builds on Carolyn Miller’s definition of genres as fusions of formal and substantive elements that accomplish specific symbolic actions, then helps students understand that genres are constructed through textual features, audience practices, and industry norms. It guides students through the process of choosing generically representative texts, analyzing the genre of a text in relation to its context(s), and assessing the symbolic action.

Chapter 6, “Metaphor Criticism,” is grounded in I. A. Richards’s conceptualization of tenors and vehicles. It goes on to explore “dead,” “entrenched,” and “novel” metaphors, and, through a sequence of principles and interpretive questions, explains how to use metaphor criticism.

Part III, “Ideological Critique,” contains two chapters that demonstrate how all rhetorical criticism is ideologically engaged, and yet how ideological criticism is distinct from more traditional methods.

Chapter 7, “Ideological Criticism,” is grounded in Gramsci’s theory of hegemony and explores the concepts of dominant ideologies, the second persona, and ideographs. This chapter explains how to engage in ideological criticism through an exploration of the stylistic features, power hierarchies, and ideographs of a text.

Chapter 8, “Feminist Criticism,” provides a specific example of ideological critique. It introduces students to feminist theories, demonstrates how students can participate in feminist ideological critique, and discusses the types of questions feminist critics typically ask.

Part IV, “Rethinking Rhetorical Texts,” contains three chapters on recent approaches to criticism. It is intended to help students rethink what counts as a rhetorical text and how critics might analyze that text.

Chapter 9, “Audience Rhetoric,” explores audience-generated rhetoric as a text and the unique aspects of analyzing it. Drawing on media and cultural theory, this chapter discusses ways to gather audience rhetoric—including rhetorical fieldwork—and to analyze audience rhetoric within its context.

Chapter 10, “Visual Rhetoric,” connects visuality to its ancient conceptualizations and then draws students into a present-day understanding—including visual metaphors, visual narratives, and visual ideographs. The chapter frames interpretive questions that help students explore how visual rhetoric functions in its interaction with the audience and the cultural context.

Chapter 11, “Material Rhetoric,” explores how materiality itself can function rhetorically—for instance, through the rhetoric of architecture, memorials, works of art, and corporeality. This chapter helps students make sense of spaces, places, and the things within them. It concludes with a set of interpretive questions that help students assess material rhetoric.

Two Appendices take students through the process of writing a rhetorical essay.

Appendix A, “Writing a Critical Essay,” focuses on articulating the argument. It outlines the structure of a critical essay, including the requirements of evidence, thesis statements, and the literature review.

Appendix B, “Analyzing a Single Text or Multiple Texts,” guides students in understanding the differences between analyzing a single (seemingly) discrete text and analyzing multiple texts. The second part of the appendix is intended to help students avoid cherry-picking evidence in analyses of single or multiple texts.


This book has been brewing for some time; as such, many people have played a role in bringing it to fruition. I am grateful for their advice and support and would like to take this opportunity to acknowledge their help and thank them.

I teach a course in rhetorical criticism almost every semester. This has provided me with the opportunity to test examples and explanations, and solicit the reactions of students on a continuous basis. I would like to thank the students of Rhetoric & Public Culture at Hope College, whose partnership in learning has improved the quality of this book.

As this book took shape, it did so within a rhetorical community and has benefited in every way from the thoughtful recommendations made by colleagues from a number of colleges and universities across the country. While I received their advice anonymously, I am extremely grateful for the time, effort, and wisdom they contributed to this project and would like to express that gratitude. My thanks to Meredith M. Bagley, University of Alabama; Jeffrey A. Bennett, Vanderbilt University; Lawrance Bernabo, University of Minnesota Duluth; Jason Edward Black, University of North Carolina at Charlotte; Kathryn Cady, Northern Illinois University; Dana L. Cloud, independent scholar; Pamela Conners, Gustavus Adolphus College; Jason Del Gandio, Temple University; George Dionisopolous, School of Communication, San Diego State University; John Dowd, Bowling Green State University; Tasha N. Dubriwny, Texas A&M University; Daniel Grano, University of North Carolina at Charlotte; Andrew Hansen, Trinity University; Stephanie L. Hartzell, California State University, Long Beach; Rebecca A. Kuehl, South Dakota State University; Ron Lee, University of Nebraska–Lincoln; Nancy J. Legge, Idaho State University; Peter Marston, California State University, Northridge; Joan Faber McAlister, Drake University; Angela M. McGowan-Kirsch, The State University of New York Fredonia; Martin J. Medhurst, Baylor University; Charles E. Morris III, Syracuse University; Hillary Palmer, University of Georgia; Jay Self, Truman State University; and Anne Marie Todd, San José State University. Additionally, early in this project, I sought the advice of Rosa A. Eberly (Pennsylvania State University), Stephen H. Browne (Pennsylvania State University), Theon Hill (Wheaton College), and Mark Hlavacik (University of North Texas); thank you for your advice, support and friendship. And an endless thank you to Kristin Mathe Coletta (Pennsylvania State University), whose friendship has shaped my life, research, and pedagogy in countless ways.

The Hope College Communication Department has fully supported this project, providing material support in addition to my colleagues’ boundless collegiality. Moreover, the Division of Social Sciences at Hope College supported this work, as did Hope College’s Jacob E. Nyenhuis Faculty Development grant program. I would like to express my gratitude to my colleagues, Scott VanderStoep; Isolde Anderson; Dawn DeWitt-Brinks; Jayson Dibble; Marissa Doshi; Choonghee Han; Lauren Hearit; Deirdre Johnston; Rob Pocock; and Linda Koetje.

A special thanks goes to my retired colleague Jim Herrick (Guy Vander Jagt Professor of Communication, Hope College), who first recommended that I write this book—and then recommended it again after I dismissed the idea the first time. Moreover, it was Jim Herrick who recommended I work with Strata Publishing; this was extraordinarily good advice. Which brings me to my thanks for Kathleen Domenig of Strata Publishing. Kathleen Domenig’s thoughtful attention to this project has been instrumental in its development, and her coaching and literary jokes have made my work all the more possible and enjoyable.

Finally, my thanks to my beloved spouse, Matt Roberts—a software engineer who believes in the importance of rhetorical criticism enough to (1) listen while I work through examples and distill theories, (2) gamefully rearrange schedules when I’m in the zone, and (3) prioritize this work so it met its deadlines. Likewise, my thanks to my sons, Jacob and Geoffrey whose boundless enthusiasm that I was writing a book has meant the world to me.




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