The Ebb and Flow of Rhetorical Output

Young adults in conversation

Conversational rhetoric (From "img_5070" by bpsusf on Flickr with Creative Commons license)

If you’re a person who writes and speaks full time, like myself, have you ever wondered why there seem to be dry periods when you’re not very productive at the kinds of writing or speech that “count” the most to yourself or the people who evaluate you?

Well it bothers me.  I know I am not the only professor who notices that during Fall and Winter terms while I focus on producing the rhetoric required by my teaching roles, I don’t seem to be as productive in aiming my rhetoric at broader public audiences: conference presentations, blog-writing (!), and publication in journals.  The month of May comes around sooner than it should, and I feel like I haven’t accomplished “anything”– other than teaching, of course.

Average rhetorical output

Although there may be many reasons for this apparent dryness, I have one potential cause in mind.  It’s not necessarily that we aren’t producing at a normal or good rate, it is often that we wish we’d produce more rhetorical output of a certain type.

Maybe as we go about our daily or weekly communication labor, there’s an average amount of words or thoughts that we express, a personal habit or production “quota” of sorts.

What I am theorizing here is that our rate of rhetorical output is not merely based on the amount of time one spends, but the amount of words or thoughts one is required to spend or has the urge to spend.

We might not realize where all our rhetorical coin is going, and it may be a good idea to add it all up.  Once the a weekly average rhetorical output has been reached, there may be little left over in the budget.

Physical bodies operate by intake of calories and output of energy.  Our rhetorical selves may also have an input and output system. In this blog article I’m not considering the input, but focusing on the output: how it flows and where it goes.

Rhetorical urge, or rhetorical capacity?

Maybe our rhetorical output is not just defined by a limit or maximum, but a natural inward urge or a social outward requirement, a minimum rate as well.  Lloyd Bitzer in his article “The Rhetorical Situation” theorized “exigence” as the social circumstances that call forth rhetorical action.  There seems to be an inward exigence as well.  It seems to me that if I haven’t spent enough of my rhetorical coin during “normal working hours,” I will find some way or other to spend it on evenings and weekends.

When I was a little girl spending my weekly allowance, I would spend my last coins as if they were burning a hole in my pocket, and I’d hunt around for a bubble gum machine to use up my last dime or quarter.  Maybe I’m unusual among people, but there’s a feeling of frustration, unease, or generally “something’s not write [sic] with the world” if I haven’t said or written enough in the past week.  Urges like that confirm that I’m in an appropriate profession that provides many outlets for rhetorical expression.

Like a stream coming down from the mountains, maybe we have an average rhetorical flow-rate, more or less dependent on precipitation and underground water levels.  Generally some people are big rivers and others are little streams, and the width of our stream and our flow rate may be  based on things like temperament, training, and occupation, and the variety of genres one uses.  Once you have a given flow rate, under good conditions you can direct it this way or that to various genres and audiences if you’re a good engineer or beaver.

Rhetorical choices, or circumstances?

But it’s not just about choice.  Our rhetorical output is socially constrained.  I am talking here of my professional experiences as a professor, but it could be a phenomenon that crosses the “wordy” professions and social roles.  Maybe lawyers, social workers, doctors, engineers, CEOs and parents also experience a similar demand to redirect their rhetorical flow elsewhere than in the places it “counts” for various audiences.

During a given week of Fall or Winter term (September to end of April), I tend to use up the majority of my rhetorical quota — or more, since I’m often fatigued — writing and replying to emails, grading and writing comments on students’ assignments, writing chat messages, planning and giving lectures in classes, and conversing with student teams in my office who consult with me on their drafts. On top of that I still have committees and associations that require rhetorical output.  Usually there’s a little trickle left over for some research output, so that publication bucket takes a while to fill up during those months.

Writing in a notebook

Writing or speech, what will it be? and to whom? (Image from "046Doug Block" by Uniondocs on Flickr, with Creative Commons license)

I wonder… if I had less to say in those situations, would I have more to say when it comes to the published writing that is supposed to count toward things like promotion and biannual assessment? When do I have the choice of audience and genre, and when do I not?  To what degree can I redirect my rhetorical flow?

Value for output

Certain rhetorical outputs are weighed more than others by society, students, and employers, but in reality they come from the same source and take just as much time and effort to produce.

When I’m feeling rather unproductive, it’s not usually based on the fact that I’ve failed to be rhetorically productive, it’s that I have produced a lot of rhetoric for smaller audiences or less highly valued genres.  Some goes into interpersonal communication situations like emails and conversations with colleagues and students.  Some goes into more mass-communication teaching situations as I give advice and instruction and encouragement to a whole class of students.

The urge vs. the urgency

There’s an urgency about a teacher’s rhetoric.  My words are needed constantly and have an almost immediate impact on at least some of my audience, and the stuff I say or write that does not sink in now may actually be very important to some of my students and their audiences years down the road.  Teacher’s rhetoric is socially valuable, but its value is not easily measured by my administrators and colleagues who evaluate me bianually and for promotion — all they see is that I taught a certain number of courses and a certain number of students were enrolled, and what the student satisfaction ratings were.

Students and parents and average citizens may see things from the other point of view.  They wonder why we get the “summers off.”  No we do not get summers off!  Sigh. People who think that all professors do is teach are forgetting that we have other rhetorical duties that are just as important as teaching. We do most of our published written rhetoric and our scholarly conference presentations during the summer months when we are not teaching.  It is only then, when we are not ruled by the “tyranny of the urgent,” that we can make investments into longer-term and more widespread rhetorical influence and contribute to the reservoir of rhetorical assets in the public domain.

Seasonal flow, rhetorical blocks

Sometimes Words Escape Me

From "Sometimes words escape me" by Zoethustra on Flickr with Creative Commons license

If the mountain stream analogy holds for rhetorical output, I also wonder if we also go through seasonal fluctuations, like a rhetorical winter.  During the winter months, there is just going to be less flow because of the circumstances you’re in: maybe your rhetoric is still happening in your mind but less externally — it’s there just waiting to gush once the circumstances are right.

There are certain circumstances that cause blockages and freeze-ups.  Maybe the rhetorical climate is rather cold on one side of the mountain, where audiences are distant and aloof, or perhaps even hostile.  Maybe there’s a steep cliff where the cascade takes a frightening new path of beauty and potential danger.  Or maybe there’s a dam, or a physical block: illness, technical problems, lack of access to venues or materials.

Priming the pump: Advice and encouragement

This is my concluding message to blog audiences as well as myself:  don’t beat up on yourself when you can’t produce a certain quota in a certain genre for a certain audience.  There are some things you can do to redesign where your flow goes, but you don’t have control over all the factors such as your flow rate or the climate or the blockages.  There’s nothing wrong with you intrinsically — the river is still there.  It will flow again or will flow in different ways. There’s more where it came from.

Regardless of your recent “record,” you still have that potential to have a meaningful quantity and quality of rhetorical output.  Don’t force it or rush it beyond what’s reasonable, or it will likely seem forced or careless to your audiences as well.  The time will come, and your natural rhetorical urge will also carry you along on its current.  You can and should be on the lookout for healthy and meaningful outlets for good rhetoric. … and where there’s a rhetorical will, there’s a way.

But spend wisely.  Don’t be like my younger self and hunt around for a bubblegum machine to spend your first available spare change.  Consider more worthy causes.  Your rhetoric won’t just float away like hot air if you are able to give it weight by means of sending worthwhile, truthful messages to audiences that need them.  It’s not just a game of quantity output and performing for treats and points.   Ideally we should ensure our rhetorical gifts and talents are well spent on communications that benefit people now and in the long run.


One thought on “The Ebb and Flow of Rhetorical Output

  1. I’d like to add that as of June 2011, a month after finishing Winter term grading, I was able to complete & submit a 300-page edited book manuscript to a publisher and also complete & submit a co-authored journal article to a journal.

    These two projects were completed within a week, but the book took me 3 years to complete (even with 1/2 of its content contributed by other authors). The co-authored article took us about 5 months, but 9 months from the date when the initial data collection was complete.

    It feels great to affirm that “the river is still there.”

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