New BA in Writing, Rhetorics and Literacies Lets Students Have Their Say

Is it all in the name?

Thomas Buchanan is a sophomore at ASU. He changed his major a couple of times prior to this year, but he wasn’t sure that a degree in education was the exact right fit for him either. Then he learned about the Department of English’s new concentration in WRL (Writing, Rhetorics and Literacies), launched in spring 2015.

While Buchanan was intrigued by this new option, the terms in the name threw him off a bit.

“When I first heard of the program, I didn’t know what literacies meant at all and all I knew about rhetoric were basic definitions of ethos, pathos, and logos.”

Jacqueline Wheeler, a Lecturer in English who teaches in the WRL concentration, has done her share of trying to clear up confusion on the terms. “People say, 'I don’t know what this is,' or 'I sort of know what these terms mean,' and in class we start immediately problematizing those definitions of rhetoric,” she says.

“There is no one definition of rhetoric, so I say, ‘here are some historical ones.’ They are useful, but they exclude some important things—like the politics of the definitions.”

Wheeler admits that allowing for complexity and change does not make the terms necessarily easier to understand. However, she sees this as a teaching moment. “There’s not one neat way to define these terms,” she says. “That’s good. It’s important to accept the complexity.”

The openness and personalization is something that interests many students in this program. For Buchanan, it was a big plus. “I was drawn to the Writing, Rhetorics and Literacies program by the interdisciplinary aspect of it,” he said. He is looking forward to making this program his own.

Imagine the possibilities

Though the terms may be difficult to define comprehensively, the students who graduate with this degree will have an extensive knowledge base honed by creating and participating in compelling conversations. In a focus group conducted to test phrases and ideas related to the WRL major, several students latched onto the communicative value that was readily apparent in the course list and internship possibilities.

The 2015 Ruffalo Noel Levitz National Freshman Attitudes Report articulates the aspirations of incoming college freshman. According to the white paper, today's college freshman are “highly career-motivated with 77 percent reporting they have found a potential career.” In addition, 61 percent of the freshman want to be an “entrepreneur rather than an employee.” The WRL degree specifically teaches the kinds of skills that students will need to be self-sufficient in business and to communicate clearly and effectively in written texts.

Edward Derbes is a first year Master of Fine Arts student in the Department of English at ASU. He holds a bachelor’s degree in rhetoric from University of California, Berkeley.

“I loved the degree in rhetoric,” he says. “I thought it was the best choice I ever made. It’s definitely the one major, I think, that can allow you to see everything differently.”

This specific skill set will pay dividends in many ways. Based on his experience as a rhetoric major who worked outside of the academy after his degree, Derbes says that the skills earned in these degrees are applicable in many fields, specifically law schools and nonprofits. 

Wheeler agrees with this assertion. “Students here are interested in community engagement,” she says. “Some are in traditional avenues like law or politics or teaching or related fields. There are also some students in completely different fields with interests in community activism and sustainability, and social justice.”

Buchanan was one such teaching major. The variety of possibilities going forward in WRL is one of the main factors that drew him to the degree.

“I would like to teach English but, since I’m not sure, I don’t want to be in a program where, regardless of how true it is, I feel like that is the only option,” he says. Derbes also sees this major as interdisciplinary, drawing on “history, literature, philosophy, and critical theory.”

The possibilities open to these graduates are endless. They will acquire tools in understand, analyzing, and creativity, allowing them to hold persuasive conversations, write socially aware compositions, and grow both personally and professionally.

The value added

Grayson Kelly is another sophomore who's recently decided to switch to the English WRL major. His reasoning did not indicate dissatisfaction with his previous major but eagerness for the possibilities that were apparent to him in this new major.

“With the WRL degree you do graduate with a strong portfolio of work,” Kelly says. “You have a required internship and take all these classes... It’s really exciting.”

Wheeler also sees enthusiasm about the options available to WRL students through both the courses and the required internships.

“Students are jazzed,” she says. “They haven't been exposed to subject matter like this before . . . there’s also an internship with WRL, which can be customized depending on what the student wants to do.”

She sees the openness and possibilities for students as endless. Wheeler knows that students are excited about where they can take the major, and she is optimistic about the growth of the degree.

“I love the idea that the major is potentially starting to draw folks from all over the university. They bring different perspectives and ideas,” she says. “That is one thing that is so great about it—that students are most intrigued by discussions about sustainability and applicability.”

Not only is the WRL major exciting, it is also extremely useful. In this election season, the study of language and rhetoric can teach students how to decode the messages all around them. It also evidences how this kind of decoding work can be used in careers and other advocacy work.

The degree tends to interest students who feel a draw to action and advocacy. There is strong value to being “hooked” into the social and civil rights movements on campuses, and this degree can add language and education to that passion. Whether a student is attending a political rally, leading a social media writing campaign, or addressing a crowd of people, this degree will teach the necessary language, audience awareness, and analytical ability.

Participating in conversations where students and professors alike are eager and motivated will have a lasting impact on the students, as will the subject matter and opportunities offered to them. Students have the opportunity to find their voices in this space that invites collaboration, discussion, and innovation, as well as prepares them to move into meaningful career and lifestyle choices.

“Studying rhetoric helps with the ability to identify brand voices,” Derbes says. “It’s good to learn your own voice more than just what you’re saying.”

Students are invited to test out and refine their thoughts, ideas, and convictions as they advance through this program and then graduate with the WRL degree.

Buchanan sees the possibilities for where this degree can take him as he switches over.

“I’ve liked all the English classes I’ve taken so far—so I knew I wanted some sort of English program—but the ones focused on writing are much more fun for me,” he says.

Wheeler has interacted with students who are interested in all of the above. “Students can make their own program here,” she says.

The sky's the limit.

—Kayla Bruce

Story images: Participants in ASU's celebration of the National Day on Writing 2015 on Oct. 20 articulated their thoughts about "Why I Write" on squares of origami paper, which were later assembled in a colorful paper "quilt." Students discussed everything from personal empowerment writing to writing for advocacy. / Photos by Bruce Matsunaga.