December 10, 2018
"Nothing Less than Stellar": Rhetoric Alumna Robin Reames Discusses Professorship and Publishing
By Angela Januzzi
Following her graduation with a Ph.D. in Rhetoric (2009), Robin now teaches graduate and undergraduate courses at the University of Illinois at Chicago, in contemporary and ancient rhetorical theory, language theory, rhetorical criticism, political rhetoric, writing, as well as courses in literature and literary theory. Her most recent major publication, Seeming and Being in Plato’s Rhetorical Theory (University of Chicago Press, 2018) examines how Plato used rhetorical theory to forge the distinction between seeming and being — the grounds of the opposition between true and false.*
What are you working on right now? What's a project that you're particularly excited about and why?
For the last several years, my work has focused on defining rhetoric’s place in the development in Western metaphysics. My edited volume Logos without Rhetoric: The Arts of Language before Plato (Columbia, SC: 2017) was intended to clear the ground for that work by addressing some of the historiographical problems that had to be dealt with before the larger research project could be cultivated. My book Seeming and Being in Plato’s Rhetorical Theory (Chicago: 2018) examines how Plato used rhetorical theory to forge the distinction between seeming and being (or appearance and reality) that was definitive for the development of Western metaphysics.
The next book will be a second volume related to that same project. It is about the role of sophistic negation and contradiction in the definitive split of being and becoming—or what is as opposed to what is in the process of coming to be—in the history of Western metaphysics.
But that won’t be for another year or so. My current project editing the third edition of The Rhetorical Tradition with Patricia Bizzell and Bruce Herzberg is keeping me pretty busy for the time being. James Murphy once quipped that the history of rhetoric is a history of “a thousand neglected authors.” While that is still true to a large extent, I’m excited that there will be slightly fewer of them once the third edition comes out!
How did the Rhetoric Ph.D. program help you prepare for the work you are currently doing?
My training at CMU taught me a great deal about how to pursue ambitious interdisciplinary research. Paul Hopper, Andreea Ritivoi, and Michael Witmore were my dissertation committee members, and as scholars they come from dramatically different disciplinary orientations. They challenged me to think about the ways that my research would be articulated differently to linguists, philosophers of language, rhetoricians, and intellectual historians.
When you first came to do your PhD, what did you hope to get out of it? Did those goals change over your time here?
I really had just two goals when I entered the Ph.D. program at Carnegie Mellon. One was that I wanted to answer some nagging questions about the relationship between language and religious belief that had plagued me from a young age. Although the form of the question changed over time, as did my strategies for answering it, the goal remained the same. In fact, it was only in writing my book on Plato that I realized that previously I’d been asking the question the wrong way. As a graduate student, I was seeking a historical model that might make it possible to articulate a nonrepresentational or non-signifying theory of language. Ultimately I realized that the question I needed to answer was how the representational, signifying understanding of language developed in the first place—it developed precisely through Plato’s distinction between seeming and being, as my book explains.
The second goal was more practical: I wanted to be employable when I graduated. I didn’t fully appreciate while I was completing my coursework just how employable I would be due to the training I received in the rhetoric program. I remember discovering in some of my very first job interviews, to my own astonishment, how well prepared I was to answer all kinds of questions I didn’t anticipate being asked. This was thanks in large part to the training in writing pedagogy, the history and theory of writing instruction, the history of ideas, philosophy of language, argumentation, rhetorical criticism, sociolinguistics, and discourse analysis I received in classes I took with Paul Hopper, Andreea Ritivoi, Mike Witmore, Danielle Wetzel, Karen Schnakenberg, David Kaufer, Chris Neuwirth, and Barbara Johnstone. Teaching at other universities has helped me appreciate even more fully the thorough and well-rounded training offered at Carnegie Mellon, and the leg up it gives students when they enter the academic job market.
Is there anything you think current or prospective students should know about the Rhetoric program that’s not immediately apparent?
My best advice to graduate students is to dig deep into the history of the discipline. It’s a treasure trove of lost ideas. Carnegie Mellon’s program is a unique place in that it affords students the rare opportunity to be trained in ethnographic fieldwork methods, cutting edge technological innovations, contemporary rhetorical theory and philosophy of language, and the longue durée of history.
I think it’s also important for undergraduate students to know how unique the opportunities in the rhetoric program are. Undergraduates at peer institutions like Stanford and M.I.T. simply don’t have the same kind of access to the depth and breadth of training in rhetoric as what’s offered at Carnegie Mellon. While there are outstanding individual rhetoric scholars at these competitor institutions, undergraduates don’t have quite as many opportunities to take rhetoric courses beyond what’s offered in an advanced writing course.
At Carnegie Mellon, by contrast, undergraduates are offered a broad array of rhetoric courses in discourse analysis, argumentation, rhetorical analysis, the rhetoric of science, the history of rhetoric, rhetorical criticism, and more. It’s probably also worth mentioning that graduate students in the rhetoric program are often invited to design and teach many of these classes, which seasons them as teachers and gives them an important edge when they apply for jobs. The same praise could probably be extended to many of the programs in the Dietrich school of Humanities and Social Sciences. Although Carnegie Mellon is commonly thought of primarily as an engineering and technology school, its educational offerings in the humanities and social sciences are likewise nothing less than stellar.
* Interview has been slightly edited. Photo credit Rob Walsh.