On the night of Friday, July 18, 1969 at 11:15p.m., just two days shy of the Apollo 11 moon landing, U.S. Senator Teddy Kennedy drank too much and then proceeded to take a drive in his mother’s convertible with a beautiful girl sitting in the front seat beside him—a girl, we should note, who looked nothing like his wife. On that drive, Kennedy lost control of the car in what would come to be known as the "Chappaquiddick Incident." The car hurtled over the Dike Bridge and into a tidal pond. While Kennedy was able to save himself by swimming ashore, the girl, Mary Jo Kopechne, died at the scene of the accident. Kennedy, acting in fear or delusion, fled the scene. Throughout the country, there was much debate as to whether or not Kennedy should remain in office. Given the situation, it would even be reasonable to charge Kennedy with involuntary manslaughter in the death of Kopechne. However, a week after the incident, having just plead guilty to fleeing the scene of an accident, Kennedy gave a speech in front of a national broadcast audience in which he put on a masterful display of rhetoric. Somehow in that speech, Teddy Kennedy climbed himself out of that brackish mess, his clothes dry and gleaming white.
But how did he do it? In “A pentadic analysis of Senator Edward Kennedy's address to the people of Massachusetts,” Ling (1970) examines Kennedy's speech showing how Kennedy minimizes his own personal agency in the episode and how he deflects any agency he might have to his audience as regards his decision to remain in the U. S. Senate. To explain how this was done, Ling refers to Burke’s (1969) pentad, a rhetorical tool for analyzing the scene of communication to understand the different relationships of the agent in relation to the scene, agency, act, purpose. In Kennedy’s case, Kennedy emphasizes that he was himself was powerless at the scene. His focus on the agent-scene ratio framed him as a victim of circumstances, especially having lived in a family that had suffered so much tragedy. In a subsequent move in the speech, Kennedy masterfully transfers the little agency he possesses to his audience, and by doing so, offers them little choice: if his audience believes his version of the tale to be true, then they must support his bid to keep his seat in the U. S. Senate. As the Kennedy example shows, rhetoric is indeed a powerful tool that might be used to persuade an audience.
It is also a powerful tool that we might use heuristically, as a way to think up and create projects that persuade our audiences to not only go along with what we think, but to act on our behalf. This is, I argue, the most powerful thing that rhetoric can do.
I want my students to give their audience powerful tools to make Clemson a better place.
As rhetors, it is helpful to look at any communication in a dramatic sense using Burke's Pentad…that is, as rhetors we must establish a dramatic scene for our audience by considering the agent, scene, agency, act, and purpose.
While my students obviously focus on different outcomes in their own projects than Kennedy, Ling’s explanation provides an excellent example of how the Pentad works, and also how my students might motivate their own audience to act. Different audiences are motivated by different ratios in Burke's Pentad. In our case as makers of the Clemson APP, we want to emphasize agency and purpose ratios for our audience. That is, after we establish the scene and why our message is important, we want to transfer a sense of purpose and power to our audience. They can make a difference. In a digital medium of the Better Clemson App, I want my students to give their audience powerful tools to make Clemson a better place. In the digital medium, we should expect that any shift in our message towards audience agency and purpose should be accompanied by tools. This is why digital communication is so powerful. It is through tools that we make possible the realization of agency in our user.
The most popular technique my students use to provide tools for their audience is to set up an email form within their web-based document that emails a person of importance in a given situation. This is easily done through an Adobe Muse widget, but such forms are also available on the web as HTML code.
Additionally, students in my class have created links to petitions that were already being promoted by third parties. For example, a group that was studying football ticket distribution created a final link to a petition that intended to revise the system.
I have also had students gather feedback from their audience to create a discourse community. However, in that I challenge my students to create app development that does not require constant rebuilding of the webpage, I want any discourse tools to be built into the system. For example, students trying to problem solve how they could make better food choice options in real time by reporting the food offerings at our different cafeterias needed to think about how they could create a tool to accomplish this end.
The easiest solution in this case was to gather responses using a Google Form that students embed in the app and then publishing the response data by embedding the corresponding Google Sheet on a subsequent page. Now my student's audience would know what was being served where and how to make the healthiest food choices.
When we make a digital document, we need to create a scene that draws in our audience. Then we need to figure out how we might transfer agency in our user to act, giving them the tools to do so.
Stephen Quigley is a PhD student in Clemson