Graduate Program in Communication Studies

Rhetoric and Public Culture

This interdisciplinary program of study addresses the question of how to understand rhetorical practice 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 network of media and social practices organized around political participation. 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 practices by which public culture is created, sustained, modified, and challenged. The program welcomes students seeking both to attend to rhetorical specificities and to engage with important intellectual,political, and ethical discourses that cross the disciplines and other institutional boundaries.

Program Structure

The program in Rhetoric and Public Culture offers two tracks for graduate study: a program of study toward a Ph.D. in communication studies, and an affiliate 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. Ph.D. 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. Affiliate Program: Students from other departments are admitted to the program directly by vote of the faculty. Coursework consists of four seminars: Rhetoric as an Intellectual Tradition, History of Public Discourse, one other core seminar offered by program faculty, and any other seminar offered in the program. Students also are expected to participate in program conferences and other events. Students may elect to participate at the appropriate time in the dissertation seminar.


  • Kate Baldwin, Department of Communication Studies and Program in American Studies
  • Dilip Gaonkar, Department of Communication Studies
  • Robert Hariman, Department of Communication Studies
  • Janice Radway, Department of Communication Studies and Programs in American Studies and Gender and Sexuality Studies (Program Convener:
  • Angela Ray, Department of Communication Studies
  • Irving Rein, Department of Communication Studies
  • David Zarefsky, Professor Emeritus, Department of Communication Studies


RPC students and their research