Rhetoric & Performance 

A Course Guide



“Thus, the performing body presents itself as a shock wave of affect, the expression-event that makes affect a visible and palpable materiality.”
-Elena Del Rio

I am offering this piece as a course guide for my Rhetoric & Performance course in the Department of Communication Studies at Creighton University. It is meant for students, colleagues, interested parties, and anyone with a passing interest in rhetoric and/or performance studies. Below you will find some background on why the course was developed, what we will be reading, and the course units themselves. This course is designed so that students do not need a background in rhetoric to take it. Please comment here or seek me out on twitter (@acaguy) with questions and suggestions.

Why This Course Exists
This course exists for Three primary reasons:

  1. The overlap of rhetoric and performance studies is a research specialty for me and I was hired to teach special topics courses in my area of expertise. For example, my research examines the rhetorical/performative aspects of airport security.
  2. The Department of Communication Studies at Creighton University emphasizes communication practices in addition to our attention to the theoretical and methodological areas of communication. For example, our department’s mission statement situates communication as an everyday practice, “Within our program, students will analyze, craft, and evaluate communication messages and understand communication as a set of everyday practices that are mindful, purposeful, and strategic.” This emphasis is supported in a number of courses, but most clearly in a required course called Communication Practices which states students with being able to “articulate, enact (individually and in groups), and evaluate various forms of communicative practice-including oral, written, visual, and technological-in interpersonal, organizational, and public realms of communication.
  3. Rhetoric is one of the core areas of study in our Communication Studies curriculum and this course offer an elective in that area for students.

As such, this course helps to satisfy our department’s mission and allows me to use my research expertise to deepen our rhetoric curriculum.

What is meant by Rhetoric & Performance?
A course in Rhetoric & Performance is designed to study issues of experience, aesthetics, and practice in the study of human communication. This course examines the relationship between politics and bodies, the dramatic nature of society, and the shared and public nature of culture. This course emphasizes the role different modes of communication play in a variety of contemporary social issues. This course emphasizes the mediated nature of communication and the importance of our encounters with communication in your everyday life. Moreover, this course tasks students with considering the ways in which their bodies and communicative acts subvert, support, and ignore structures of domination in society. In this course students read theory and criticism from of rhetoric, performance studies, and cultural studies to gain a theoretical appreciation for rhetoric & performance in anticipation of designing a final performance-based project.

Course Objectives
While each person will acquire something different from the class, there are three primary objectives:

1) Students will enhance their knowledge of rhetoric and performance studies. Specifically, they will be able to:

a) analyze texts, performances, or practices from a rhetorical perspective,

b) articulate how rhetoric, performance studies, and cultural/studies influence the study of human communication

c)articulate theories of rhetorical practice,

d)recognize their role in contributing to/constructing public discourse.

2) Students will develop their analytical skills. Studying rhetoric and performance requires sharp analytical skills. Analyzing the role of rhetoric and performance in social issues requires sharp analytical skills. We will spend much of the semester on writing and performance and means to communicate positions on social issues.

3) Students will practice communication. This class involves both written and oral communication skills. Class discussion, oral presentations, and written essays will reinforce these skills.

Required Texts
Gencarella, Stephen Olbrys and Phaedra C. Pezzullo. Readings on Rhetoric and Performance. State College, PA.: Strata Publishing, 2010.

Highmore, Ben. The Everyday Life Reader. New York: Routledge, 2007.

Course Format
This course is set up to take place in eight weeks over the second half of the spring semester. The course meets one night a week for four hours. Meetings include lecture at the start of class, a piece of media to help anchor our discussion, and discussion of the day’s reading. Breaks will happen throughout the block.

In addition to course readings, each meeting students are given an artifact of performance (a film we will watch in class, an additional reading, a collection of images to look at) that will serve as a specific example of performance tied to our topic of discussion. You will see those artifact listed below.

Course Units
Because I am hoping this guide may be useful for others working in this area (and start a conversation), I am listing the course units below without a formal schedule. That way they can be adapted to other academic calendars. Also, the reading is a bit heavy at times right now and will probably be cut back some for the final syllabus.

Unit 1: Culture as Ordinary, Culture as Extraordinary
Read: Raymond Williams, “Culture is Ordinary” in Highmore
Read: Ben Highmore, “Preface” in Highmore
Read: Stephen Olbrys Gencarella and Phaedra C. Pezzullo, “Introduction” in Gencarella and Pezzullo (G&P)
Artifact: Read Ngugi wa Thiong’o, “Art War with the State: Writers and Guardians of a Post-colonial Society”
Purpose: This unit introduces students to the function of culture in our everyday lives and emphasizes a perspective of culture as doing.
Key Concept(s): Rhetoric, Performance, Culture, Everyday Life, Hegemony, Art, the State.

“In history the appearance of art in human life precedes the emergance of the state. . . In every absolutist state the holder of the pen, which forces words on paper, is seen as the enemy of the holder of the gun, which enforces words of the law. Penpoints and gunpoints thus stand in confrontation.” -Ngugi Wa Thiong’o

Unit 2: Performing Nationhood/Nationality
Read: Diana Taylor, “Acts of Transfer” in The Archive and the Repertoire
Read: David Campbell, “Introduction” in Writing Security
Read: Diana Taylor, “The Theater of Operations: Performing Nation-ness in the Public Sphere” in G&P
Artifact: Watch “the 2008 Beijing Olympics Opening Ceremony” in class.
Purpose: While the notion of a nation is large and complex, it is enacted through a series of ritualized performances that enact rhetorics of national identity. This unit examines how the concept of performance connects to national identity and the construction of citizens and/or others.
Key Concept(s): Nation, Nationality, Other, Border, Security, Identity, Archive, Repertoire, Performativity.


Unit 3: Performing Resistance
Read: Gerard A. Hauser, “Vernacular Dialogue and the Rhetoricality of Public Opinion” in G&P
Read: Phaedra C. Pezzullo, “Resisting ‘National Breast Cancer Awareness Month’: The Rhetoric of Counterpublics and their Cultural Performances” in G&P
Read: Jeffrey A. Bennett, “Passing, Protesting, and the Arts of Resistance: Infiltrating the Ritual Space of Blood Donation” in G&P
Artifact: Watch Exit Through the Gift Shop in class.
Purpose: Just as citizen and nation can be contextualized via performance and rhetoric, resistance is a concept that ought to be contextualized via study on rhetoric & performance. This unit examines how dominant performances are resisted through counter performances.
Key Concept(s): Resistance, Hegemony, Counterpublics, Space, Place, Vernacular Discourse, Public Screen.
Assignment: One persistent and difficult question we will encounter throughout this semester is: What is performance? Based on our readings to date, and through your own research, define performance. Your essay should do this in three parts. (1) Define performance using the literature we have read and your own research (avoid lay research and dictionary definitions). (2) Explain how performance connects to rhetoric. (3) Explain one key social issue you envision rhetoric & performance can help you explore.


Unit 4: Performance Studies as an Embodied Research Method
Read: Michael K. Middleton, Samantha Senda-Cook, and Danielle Endres, “Articulating Rhetorical Field Methods: Challenges and Tensions.”
Read: TBA—autoethnography.
Read: Dwight Conquergood, “Ethnography, Rhetoric, and Performance” in G&P
Read: D. Soyini Madison, “Staging Fieldwork/Performing Human Rights” in G&P.
Read: Della Pollock, “Performing Writing” in G&P
Artifact: Read David Shields, Reality Hunger pages 1-11
Purpose: Taking up research in rhetoric and performance is a challenging task. This unit asks students to consider performance studies as a method of conducting research and examines issues fo doing research and the politics of writing research. We will have two guest speakers, one who works using rhetorical field methods and one autoethnographer, during this unit. Students will have an assignment addressing these guests.
Key Concept(s): Rhetorical Field Methods, Autoethnography, Subjectivity, Objectivity, Subject, Object, Other, Othering, Plagiarism, Institutional Review Board, Poesis, Kinesis, Mimesis.
Assignment: Based on your reading of Middleton, Senda-Cook, and Endres and Shuler, and in preparation for our visit from Professor Senda-Cook and Professor Shuler, respond to the following three questions in no less than 750 words. How do you imagine these scholars conduct academic research? What can they learn from our conversations about performance studies? What can they learn from our conversations about Rhetoric?

“Every artistic movement through the beginning of time is an attempt to figure out a way to smuggle more of what the artist thinks is reality into the work of art.” -David Shields

Unit 5: Performance and the Visual
Read: Debra Hawhee, “The Visible Spoken: Rhetoric, Athletics, and the Circulation of Honor” in G&P
Read: Bernadette Marie Calafell and Fernando P. Delgado, “Reading Latina/o Images: Interrogating Americanos” in G&P
Read: Dan Brouwer, The Precarious Visibility Politics of Self-Stigmatization: The Case of HIV/AIDS Tattoos” in G&P
Artifact: Browse “Selfies at Funerals” (http://selfiesatfunerals.tumblr.com) and reflect on the images given the readings in this unit.
Purpose: The visual is a key element of performance. Visuals are rhetorical and the ways they are presented, framed, and contextualized is at the heart of the overlap of rhetoric and performance.
Key Concept(s): The Visual, Studium, Punctum, Public Screen, Gaze, Panopticon, Selfie.

President Obama’s suposed funeral selfie via Selfies at a Funeral

Unit 6: Locating the Everyday
Read: Interview by Peter Osborne and Lynne Segal, “Gender as Performance: An Interview with Judith Butler” in G&P
Read: Betty Friedan, “The Problem that Has No Name” in Highmore
Read: Michel de Certeau, “General Introduction to The Practice of Everyday Life” in Highmore
Read: Leon Trotsky, “Habit and Custom” in Highmore
Read: Pierre Bourdieu, “The Kayble House or the World Reversed” in Highmore
Artifact: Watch Paris is Burning in class.
Purpose: With this unit the class begins to interrogate everyday life more directly. Specifically, we focus on gender, life in cities, and customs.
Key Concept(s): Gender, Sex, Performativity, Habit, Ritual, Routine, Feminism, Poesis, strategies, tactics.


Unit 7: Everyday Things
Read: Siegfried Kracauer, “Boredom” in Highmore
Read: Roland Barthes, “Plastic” in Highmore
Read: Jean Baudrillard, “Structures of Interior Design” in Highmore
Read: Lynn Spigel, “Installing the Television Set” in Highmore
Read: Daniel Miller, “Making Love in Supermarkets” in Highmore
Artifact: As a class take a walk on campus at the start of class.
Purpose: This unit focuses on the performative nature of things that we rely on in our everyday life. The goal is to examine their roles in our lives as ordinary and extraordinary objects.
Key Concept(s): Object, Subject, Objectivity, Subjectivity, Simulacra, Simulation, Strategies, Tactics, Performance, Rhetoric.

Image via Creighton.edu

Unit 8: Student Performances
Assignment: For their final essay students have two options:

  1. Students will submit an argumentative essay that discusses the role of communication in a significant social issue. Each student will then choose a performative medium (art, song, theater, multimedia, photography, and/or many, many others) to perform the main thesis of their essay for the class. In short, absent traditional modes of academic communication (essay writing and formal class presentations), students are tasked with taking what they learned about performance and using it to present the research they performed this semester.
  2. Using the embodied research methods we discussed in Unit 4, students can conduct a research study in their community using rhetorical field methods, auto ethnography, and/or other performance based research methods. In addition to writing the results of their research students are tasked with performing their main findings using a performative medium (art, song, theater, multimedia, photography, and/or many, many others).

Drafts of papers are due ahead of the final draft and we will begin taking time in class during Unit 4 to consult about final projects.

Concluding Thoughts
This course aims to capitalize on the immense overlap between rhetoric and performance. It is not meant to be a comprehensive course on this topic, but an introduction to various topics in this area. There are many other ways of organizing this course:

  1. One could work only on Judith Butler’s ideas for a semester.
  2. Elizabeth Bell’s Theories of Performance could be used to organize a similar course.
  3. My affinity for Diana Taylor is fairly clear early on and her work could also be used in a more dominant way.
  4. Text and Performance Quarterly’s recent special issue on rhetoric and performance would also make an ideal place to begin organizing a course like this.

Regardless, this is how I am organizing this class. I do, however, encourage feedback. Please leave comments here or reach out to me via twitter and let me know how you organize similar courses or any omissions you find.

Dr. George F. (Guy) McHendry, Jr. is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Communication Studies at Creighton University He received his Ph.D. in the Department of Communication at the University of Utah. Guy studies rhetoric and cultural studies within the discipline of communication. His research currently focuses on public performances of security in airports and the relationship between the public and the Transportation Security Administration.




Associate Professor in Communication Studies. Rhetorical Critic.