Jennifer Burg, Ph.D. Chair, Associate Professor, The Hunter Division of Humanities Convocation Address
May 6, 2014
“Rhetoric, the Oprah Philosophy and Knowing Better”
Presented by Dr. Jennifer Burg,
Hunter Division of the Humanities Chair,
Honors Convocation, April 30, 2014
Good afternoon everyone, and welcome to our honorees and their friends and families, and to my SVC colleagues. It’s really a privilege to be invited to talk with you today, and I am grateful for the opportunity.
Last year at this event, I was almost finished with my first full semester on campus here as a professor and Division Chair in Humanities, and I was just getting to know all of you. That seems like it was a lot longer than one year ago, in that this place and this campus and all of you feel like home to me now.
I really love being here, and getting to work with all of you, and especially teaching here. I’ve taught students from Hawaii to New York and back again, and here at SVC I’ve had some of the most interesting and inspiring students of my career – some of whom are in this room right now.
Now when I started my career path, I didn’t know that it would lead me here today, or that it would lead me to the academic love of my life, which is – some of you know what I’m about to say...
– the study of rhetoric. When I started my PhD program at Washington State University, I knew nothing about rhetoric, but during my years there it changed my life. Rhetoric, in short, is the ancient art of persuasion. It is “the grand art of communication, not of ideas only, but of sentiments, passions, dispositions and purpose”; it is the “art or talent by which discourse is adapted to its end." Rhetoric is “equipment for living.” It is The Force. It is the sway.
For my dissertation, which is the book I wrote to get my PhD and to eventually get here, I wrote about rhetoric, and American politics, and Oprah Winfrey.
That's right, Oprah Winfrey. I'm not sure how many of you recall, but back in the mid-nineties, there was a moment when lots of people in this country were really scared about mad-cow disease. During that time, Oprah went on her talk show and said she'd never eat another hamburger, and so some cattlemen in Texas sued her for lots of money—a good reminder of the power of words. Eventually, Oprah won.
And since then, she has said a lot more memorable things on her talk show-- like “read this book!” and "you get a car!" and “we’re all going to Australia!” And more recently, "I think Lindsay is doing really OK."
But for me, the one thing that Oprah has said that means the most is really something that her pal, the great poet Maya Angelou said, and that is: “Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better.”
Let me say it one more time:
“Do the best you can until you know better.
Then when you know better, do better.”
This comes up a lot in my Introduction to Rhetoric class, and I refer to it there as “the Oprah philosophy.” It comes up because we talk in that class about a lot of awful things that people have done to each other. We talk about racism, and sexism, and war, and the holocaust, which seems to come up almost every class session.
We talk about these things because rhetoric is what persuades and moves people, and without the ability to do that, to convince people of certain ideas, we could never discriminate against or bully or even kill one another. And what we begin to realize over the course of the semester, looking over the course of human history, is that bad things don’t happen because of rhetoric, and most people aren’t bad because they want to do bad – not knowing is bad. What’s bad is not knowing better, and how to do it.
We can only be expected to do what we know, and to do the best that we can with it. You all here today have certainly done that, and you’re going to have the certificate and the degree to prove it. But more important than those pieces of paper is that you now know, hopefully, more than you did when you came to SVC. You have learned so much and accomplished so much. You have excelled and achieved and you have made us all proud. You should be proud of yourselves. You have done the best that you can, and today we honor that. And, now that you know better than you used to know, what you will go on to do after today is better.
And that will make us all better. It makes everything better. And that, I think, is the best thing that there is.
Tom Redden, Professor of History and Politics