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Rhetoric and Public Culture

This interdisciplinary program of study addresses the question of how to understand discourse and other media in public contexts, which are themselves contingent upon a range of factors including, but not limited to, economic, social, cultural, and political formations. “Rhetoric” refers to systematic study of how texts, images, and other media operate as a mode of action. It comprises a civic art, a hermeneutical method, and a continuing challenge to all systems of classification. Historically, this study has ranged from reflection on the practice of public address within the first democratic societies, to a tradition of technical craft and instruction in civic, clerical, and literary composition, to a general theory of the discursive constitution of knowledge and power. Because of the scope of the linguistic turn in the human sciences during the 20th century, “rhetoric” also provides a pertinent basis for reflection on the discursive and organizational conventions of contemporary scholarship.

“Public Culture” delineates a fundamental feature of modern civil society: the constellations of media and social practices that shape opinion formation and act in concert with the state and the market as primary institutions of modern civilization. The term “public” emphasizes relatively unrestricted communication across civil society regarding governance and other matters affecting the general welfare. The term “culture” emphasizes that public identity, thought, and action depend on contextual factors that emerge through multiple media and embodied responsiveness.  These considerations provide a basis for analysis of distinctively modern relationships between civil society, media technologies, and political action in a global context.

Three basic assumptions guide scholarly study of public culture: First, publics emerge through the interplay of a wide range of arts, media, and other modes of performance. Second, public identity involves specific habits of audience response and social interaction that have contingent relationships to other forms of power. Third, public agency operates through both political institutions and other communicative practices that are more vernacular, nomadic, or transitory. Because they are at once distinctively modern, inherently pluralistic, and inevitably contested, public cultures have become vital political forms in an increasingly interconnected world.

Thus, “rhetoric and public culture” denotes study of the communicative media, genres, and practices by which public cultures are created, sustained, modified, and challenged. The program welcomes students who wish to undertake this program of study while being oriented toward cross-disciplinary conversations within a broad field of social, cultural, and political theories.

Program Structure

The program in Rhetoric and Public Culture offers two tracks for graduate study: a program of study toward a PhD in communication studies, and a cluster and certificate program for students preparing for a degree in another discipline. All classes and other academic events in the program are open to students in both tracks.

  1. PhD Program: Students must be admitted through the Graduate School and observe all Graduate School requirements for maintaining normal progress and completing the degree. Scholarly training and inquiry in the program is distributed across four areas; (1) Three required seminars to be taken in the first two years of study, including: a) the Proseminar; b) Modes of Cultural Analysis; and c) Classical Rhetoric and its Afterlives. (2) An individual plan of study comprised of additional courses offered by faculty within the program and elsewhere, as needed to comprise a total of 27 courses for students entering with a BA and 18 courses for students entering with an MA. This plan is created by the student with the advice and approval of the temporary adviser and, later, the dissertation adviser. (3) Preparation for qualifying examinations and the writing of the dissertation. (4) Conferences, seminars, workshops, and public forums.
  2. Cluster and Certificate Program: Coursework consists of either three or five seminars; more information is available at The Graduate School Rhetoric and Public Culture Cluster and Certificate pages.  Students also are expected to participate in some program conferences and other events.


RPC Handbook 2021-2022