Carnegie Mellon University

CMU Rhetoric Founders Reflect on Program's 40th Anniversary

May 06, 2021

CMU Rhetoric Founders Reflect on Program's 40th Anniversary

By Harry "Quincy" Nolan


2020 marked the 40th anniversary of the Department of English’s Rhetoric program at Carnegie Mellon University. In December, the English Department threw a virtual celebration to recognize the dedicated scholars whose work paved the way for the flourishing program we have today. Following the event, founding members, Richard Enos and Richard Young, shared some of their experience and answered some questions about their time with the program;

Q: What pushed you to want to start this program and what vision did you have for it?

Enos:  Rhetoric had lost its place and important role in higher education. We believed that having a researched-based doctoral program in Rhetoric would be a productive, systematic response to the needs of literacy.

Young: The shaping of the program took place over twenty years. It all started in 1956 when I began my PhD work at The University of Michigan teaching both writing and speech to engineers; I quickly realized that I was utterly unprepared to do either well. And I started reading anything that seemed relevant, initially relevant to speech since I had absolutely no knowledge of the discipline or how to teach it. That led me first to Cicero and Aristotle, then to Speech Monographs, The Quarterly Journal of Speech, etc., all of which was an eyeopener: there was a rich intellectual tradition stretching back to ancient Greece about which I had known next to nothing and which I found had immediate practical value for me. 

In the early 1960s I began working with Kenneth Pike, a brilliant linguist whose method for the rapid analysis of unfamiliar languages suggested to me the possibility of a modern art of rhetorical invention, important because without an art of invention rhetoric dwindles into little more than a concern with usage and rules of thumb about style, as it had in Europe and this country since the 18th century. I later held a half-time appointment in the Center for Research on Language and Language Behavior where my colleagues in psychology showed me both the relevance of their work to rhetoric and the relevance of empirical research to many of its problems. 

I also taught for several summers in a program for people who were working as professional and technical writers; and I saw that they were kind of seat-of-the-pants rhetoricians working by and large without a strong theory and art and in an area considered not quite respectable as an intellectual endeavor by academicians. The reason for such a long-winded answer is that it helps to explain basic features of the program: most notably its insistence on the necessity of interdisciplinary research and methodological pluralism; its ecumenical view of other disciplines--particularly linguistics, psychology, speech communication and philosophy--as useful to the development of our discipline; its view of invention as fundamental to the discipline; its expansion of rhetorical genres to include those in technical and professional writing.

Q: Did you ever imagine that the program would grow to what it is today?

Young: Short answer: I never imagined it.

Long answer: Like many others at the time, I knew that there was a huge need for changes in the way writing had been taught since the latter part of the eighteenth century and that it was important we do it better. And I knew that we needed to know a great deal more than we knew about rhetoric, literacy and the teaching of writing if we were going to improve things. And I also knew that we had begun something good and useful at CMU. In general, if there is a strong need and a promising way of addressing it, you have good reason to hope it will be successful. But our attention, at least my attention, was focused more on the day-to-day problems of the program. You also need to remember that the program today is not the program that was begun in 1978. I am pleased that we set something in motion that we can be proud of, but many have had a hand in its success.

Q: Is there a particular moment of your time with the program that sticks out to you?

Enos: I was thrilled to see the November 1983 issue of College English where Carnegie Mellon was ranked—along with The University of Chicago andThe University of Texas at Austin—as having one of the stellar doctoral programs in Rhetoric across the country. We dutifully followed the activities of other peer programs and our analysis convinced us that we were developing a program that would sustain and thrive over time. One of the reasons for this belief is that the Rhetoric Program faculty worked well as a group and functioned as a team. Each brought a different perspective but all had mutual respect for one another.

Q: What are you most proud of?

Young: I can think of several things we did that turned out reasonably well and that I’m proud of, but two things stand out: During the recent 40th-year Zoom conference, when I heard what our graduates have accomplished, I was moved. I suspect that the others who had a hand in the program would say that that has to be our most admirable achievement. But I also am intensely proud of the group of faculty members who helped get the program up and running. The program was not defined simply as the sum of the interests of the individual faculty members; rather there was a plan for a coherent program and the faculty had roles in it. For example, any discipline has a history which must be understood if the present situation is to be understood, hence Rich Enos, a historian of classical rhetoric. Many of the problems the rhetoric program was intended to address could only be answered by empirical research, hence Dick Hayes, and so on. We all worked together with a sense of common goals. And we worked together uncommonly well. 

Q: What advice would you give to Rhetoric students?

Young: Never forget what rhetoric is for. Throughout its complex, 2500-year history, rhetoric has always had one foot in the academy and one in the world of affairs: politics, law, religion, commerce, moral issues, what Kenneth Burke called the "wrangle and scramble of the human barnyard." And sometimes those working in the discipline tend to treat whatever problem they are working on, whether academic or more worldly, as an end in itself. But, for me at least, rhetoric's "ending end," to borrow Sir Philip Sidney's useful term, is the creation and maintenance of community. We need to keep this great moral end in mind whatever we choose to do in the study, teaching, and practice of the art. It helps to give us a durable sense of purpose.

Enos: In a very simple way, I would remind both students, and even the current faculty, to always remember what initially earned the reputation that the Rhetoric Program at Carnegie Mellon University enjoys today and that while academic needs and responsibilities may modify over time, the core values endure and need to be re-confirmed over time.