As a teacher of rhetoric and writing, I believe that words create worlds.
One of the foundations of rhetorical theory is Aristotle’s artistic proofs, or means of persuasion. According to Aristotle, audiences are persuaded by ethos, pathos, and logos. In The Rhetoric Aristotle is teaching his students the power of words. In ancient Athens, as in contemporary America, words shape policy and change minds. Words matter. The word logos appears again in the opening verses of the gospel of John, often translated as “the Word:” “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God […] Through the Word all things were made.” Just as God speaks the world into existence in Genesis, John reminds us that when the Word became flesh the world profoundly changes. Words matter.
When Elizabeth Cady Stanton claimed in the Seneca Falls Declaration, that it was self-evident “that all men AND women are created equal,” she was part of the creation of a world that more fully valued women.
When Martin Luther King, Jr. declared to “ have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character,” he was part of the creation of a world that worked to dismantle racist structures.
When my students walk into my writing classroom, I want them to learn that their words have the power to create worlds. Their words matter. While they aren’t speaking at the Seneca Falls Conference or on the National Mall, they can reimagine their own communities for the better. Of course, this task is much easier said than done. Students walk into class doubtful of their own writing ability and their own sphere of influence. They’re not sure they can craft a complex sentence, much less create worlds.
So we start small. We look at the media students consume daily and begin to question the assumptions and worldviews that media creates: what does it say about objectification of humans? About how we should spend our time and money? We begin to examine at the ways that words can destroy. One does not have to look very far to see that ways that contemporary media has distorted beauty, success, and even the idea of what it means to be human.
Then we begin to look at the world around them: what frustrates them? What would they change? Sometimes the students start small, hoping to change a meal plan or campus parking, but I challenge them to imagine even more substantial change in their communities: changes that address how classmates are treated, how their buying practices affect others, or how their chosen vocations might make an impact for good.
Now that students have begun to imagine new worlds, I challenge them to return to Aristotle’s proofs. How can they create writing and media that persuades audiences to see the world in new ways? How can they share their ideas with others? What stories need to be heard? How can they begin to add flesh to their own words? How can they convince others that words matter?
Dr. Laura Carroll is Director of Faculty Development and Associate Professor of English at Abilene Christian University. She holds a Ph.D. in Discourse Studies and has taught English at ACU since 2001. Laura’s research addresses the rhetoric of silence in a variety of contexts, including public memory, the Holocaust, and the Civil Rights Movement. Laura and her husband, Dr. Bill Carroll, have two daughters, Jane Anne and Molly.