Eloquentia Perfecta and Rhetorical Flexibility at Seattle University

By Jeffrey S. Philpott, Ph.D., Director, University Core & Assistant Professor of Communication, Seattle University

Jeffrey S. Philpott, Ph.D. (photo by Seattle University)

Jeffrey S. Philpott, Ph.D. (photo by Seattle University)

When the Jesuits began their educational mission, they inherited and, thankfully, preserved the rhetorically-focused Isocratean educational tradition that had developed in the Greek and Roman worlds to prepare students for effective and wise civic leadership. In the Ratio Studiorum and other foundational documents of the Jesuits, the rhetorical focus and civic rationale was maintained and strengthened under the banner of Eloquentia Perfecta. Time, our students and our curricula have changed, of course, but Jesuit colleges and universities still emphasize civic engagement and leadership through effective communication. At Seattle University (SU), we rarely use the label Eloquentia Perfecta. Instead, we speak of “rhetorical flexibility”: the ability to thoughtfully adapt messages to different topics, situations, audiences and purposes.

In the SU University Core, the learning objective for communication emphasizes the ability “to communicate effectively in a variety of genres and for different audiences and purposes through writing, speaking and visual expression.” Students are called to understand both the complexity of rhetorical situations and be able to produce effective communication in different genres and for different purposes.

Our introductory Academic Writing Seminar teaches students to think strategically about who they are writing for and why, and gives students practice in developing both essays and speeches for varied purposes. In particular, that course covers traditional academic essays, argumentative prose, reflective writing, and a brief introduction to public speaking. Students aren’t experts in any of these genres after one course, but we’re seeking to provide a solid foundation and instill in students the understanding that good communication is always tailored to its situation.

Those early lessons are reinforced in subsequent courses in the Core, where writing is infused across the curriculum, with an emphasis on “writing in the disciplines.” Students take three Inquiry Seminars, one each in the Humanities, Natural Sciences and Social Sciences. While the primary focus in these courses is engaging students in the questions and methods of inquiry appropriate to the field, each also incorporates writing and speaking assignments. Faculty in those courses are not charged with teaching writing in general, but instead are focused on helping students think about what good writing is in the particular discipline being studied.

We want students to learn that a good lab report is different than a good review of literature, which is different from a good critical essay. As they move though these courses, faculty reinforce the importance of writing (and speaking) that fit the topic, audience and situation. Faculty who were initially concerned about “teaching writing” (something that many of us are not trained in) are much more comfortable teaching the more familiar writing in their own disciplines. This emphasis on rhetorical flexibility extends into courses such as Quantitative Reasoning (mathematics) where students learn to make effective arguments with numbers and Creative Expression (art) where students critique works of art and present – and explain – their own artistic work.

This emphasis on adapting to different communication contexts continues in upper division courses in the Core. Philosophy and Theology/Religious Studies courses combine reflective and argumentative academic writing. In our 3000-level Global Challenge courses, students continue to practice reflective and academic writing and add writing and/or speaking for civic situations. Our University mission calls for our graduates to be “leaders for a just and humane world” and these assignments are designed to help them translate their scholarly studies into persuasive texts that will make a difference in the public sphere. Finally, in their capstone courses, students engage in a major reflective writing assignment where they consider their own strengths and weaknesses, how they have grown in their time at SU, and their emerging sense of purpose and vocation.

The scaffolding of these assignments reflects data we’ve collected through assessments. For example, a reflective writing assignment has long been a part of our capstone in the Core. However, assessment work on those assignments revealed that many of our students were unfamiliar with and unpracticed in reflective writing. That finding made perfect sense: this course was the only place that required reflective writing, meaning that it was a completely new genre to seniors. As a result, when we redesigned the curriculum several years ago, we made sure to introduce and incorporate reflective writing instruction and practice much earlier in the curriculum, helping to prepare students for this final assignment.

Outside of the Core, majors have also worked on strengthening students’ rhetorical flexibility, using Susan Peck Macdonald’s concept of “expert insider prose.”* With funding from the Teagle Foundation, we conducted a series of workshops with most departments on campus, helping them engage in a process of backward design of their writing instruction, identifying first the qualities of disciplinary prose they expect of their graduates and then helping them design the building blocks of those genres into their curricula.

This work is far from complete, of course. We want students to be able to communicate in new media, whether that be through Twitter or a blog, and while there are courses that include relevant assignments, those skills are not yet systematically incorporated into the Core. Similarly, campus discussions on information literacy have raised the importance of infographics and interactive media, and questioned whether we’re doing all that we can to prepare students for these emerging contexts.

The need for effective communicators to be flexible and strategic about their choices remains a central pillar of Eloquentia Perfecta and is, in this fast-moving world, more important than ever. One style of writing or speaking does not fit every situation, audience or topic and new rhetorical situations will continue to spring up throughout the lives of our graduates. At Seattle University, we are thinking hard about how to continue to prepare our students with the mindfulness and skills to adapt to and lead in those new contexts and opportunities.

*MacDonald, Susan Peck. Professional Writing in the Humanities and Social Sciences. Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois UP, 1994.