On the Rhetoric of “Fit” and Being Seduced by PhD Programs

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In my personal blog, I wrote about how crazy it was for me during the past two months as I received the acceptances from a handful of doctoral programs I applied to and visited two of the universities before heading to Indianapolis in mid-March for the annual Conference on College Composition and Communication. After weeks of sleeping on the options for which programs to attend, I finally made the call and sent out my decisions to all the programs in the final week of March.

It didn’t take long before my emails were replied by graduate program directors extending their congratulations and understanding for my decision. Many of them, however, have asked me to share which program I will be attending and what the deciding factors were for me in this process.

Instead of replying to all of the inquiries, I thought it’d be more helpful to flesh out my experience here so those who are interested in recruitment in the future may be able to access and share this with their colleagues.

I called it the rhetoric of “fit” because: 1) I don’t know how else to frame it, and 2) I have been advised to only go somewhere I feel my scholarly interests match with the faculty of the program and where I have the opportunity to challenge myself intellectually through courses, teaching, researching, and other professional activities. A program that fits should be a program that allows me to excel. But in all honesty, I was just like a hungry consumer shopping for the right restaurant, and the way different programs “sold” themselves to me had had a huge impact on my decisions.

First Contact

I thought it was a nice gesture for some program directors and professors from the recruiting program to phone me and deliver the news about my acceptance through their voices rather than texts over emails. The programs that did call were the University of Minnesota, Iowa State University, and the University of Arizona (in that order). To me, it was more personal to hear someone’s voice. It also shows they cared about getting the right details to the prospective students and allowing them to ask questions. Yes, it was pathos: the appeal to the prospects’ emotions. Beyond rhetoric, I have also considered the psychological impact of these calls. Though I am not sure how much the psychology of recall was factored into my decision, the primacy effect suggests a person may have a cognitive bias towards information that are presented to them first than those presented later on. Since the University of Minnesota was the first to call me (in first weekend of February), I might have had an unconscious bias for them to begin with.

Campus Visit

The University of Minnesota and Iowa State University were the two programs I visited in late February and early March. They paid for all of my transportation expenses and meals, and provided me with really comfortable lodgings during my stay. Their hospitality has definitely added points to their appeals. More importantly, being able to meet with the faculty members and PhD students in the department has helped to establish a bond that I consider critical in making my final decisions later in the process. Being able to see the physical buildings where the department is housed and classes are conducted also helped me to choose my preferred working environment for the next 5-6 years. I consider this as part of how the programs boost their ethos: by showing off their campus architecture and traditions, not to forget the resources available for the prospectus student to consider for their research purposes.

During both visits, I was also given a chance to experience how being a PhD student in those programs would be like. The current graduate students put together a small colloquium and presented their research. At Iowa State, I even had the opportunity to sit into one of the grad courses and one undergrad course taught by a PhD student. This kind of immersion, though rather brief but sweet, made me feel like a part of the scholarly community of the program. Both universities I visited also held a closing reception for all the prospective students where the entire department was invited to come and speak to the prospects. One was less formal than the other.

Program Requirements & Opportunities

The last, and most crucial, deciding factor for me was the coursework and program specifications for the degree. As each program is unique in its own way, I spent a good amount of time comparing and contrasting between the programs I’ve been accepted into, and shortlisting the ones I felt would benefit me the most given my aspired trajectories. Among my top three choices, I had to choose between rhetoric & composition, rhetoric and professional communication, and rhetoric and technical communication. Being the Type A control freak that I’ve always been, I needed clear overviews on what I am getting myself into. So, overall, I think how the programs explained their courses, qualifying exams and defense requirements, and other particulars of the program had had a huge effect on my decisions.

Another deciding factor for me under this section was the assurance that someone in the program had my back, in terms of my research interests and possible dissertation project. The University of Minnesota gave me this affirmation by assigning an advisor to me right off the bat. This scholar is also someone who I have great interests to work with, as indicated in my letter of intent. Together with the clear description of program, there was a distinction of the rhetorical logos, which enabled a reasoned discourse to help the prospective students to identify what works best for them and what not. (Or at least that was the case for me.)

Other Considerations, i.e. Funding & Location

Most of the times, funding is out of the control of the PhD-granting departments, just as how they can’t choose where the university is located either. Fortunately, for most of the programs I was accepted into, I was given complete funding through teaching assistantship and tuition waiver, on top of health benefits. It so came down to the teaching load for PhD students. It is 1-1 at the University of Minnesota, 2-2 at Iowa State University, 2-2 at the University of Arizona, and 1-2 at the University of Texas-El Paso. Teaching loads for George Mason University and the University of South Florida were not specified to me.

As for the location, I factored in my preferred lifestyle and opted for an urban area while being conscious that the living cost would be significantly higher in the cities. But I think it’s time for a change. Clearly, this has nothing to do with the programs on their end.

To sum it all up, I think my experience was enriched through the campus visitations and that really helped me to make up my mind about joining the programs. Though I could have visited the other campuses as well, I simply didn’t have the resources to do so. As such, I think future recruiting teams should really consider investing into bringing their prospects to campus as it would give them an edge in entrancing the students through the various rhetorical appeals we are all so familiar with.

To spell it out, I will be joining the PhD program at the University of Minnesota this fall.

P.S.: If you’re reading this and were one of the graduate directors/professors of the programs that admitted me, please know that I am very grateful for your support and acknowledgment. I only wished I could attend all of the programs I got into… but I am not yet a ninja. I do hope we could continue the relationship by collaborating on scholarly projects in the near future. Also, I would also like to meet with you in person (if we haven’t already did) at conferences to come. Just leave me a message.

The Rhetoric and Design of Course Syllabus

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It’s that time of the year when professors and instructors squeeze their brains and put together their hopefully-comprehensible course syllabi for respective classes. As I enter my fourth semester of teaching a freshman-writing course, I realize there’s a constant urge to put more and more into my syllabus: maybe I should tell my students not to use their cellphones in class, maybe I should tell them I hate chewing gums, maybe I should tell them to bring their textbooks, maybe…

However, as Barbara Fister complained (quoted by Jason B. Jones), the syllabus is becoming less of a resource for the students, but something they skip “without reading-Terms of Service agreements”:

When you add all those rules to the traditional stuff – course description, the list of assigned texts, the class-by-class schedule, and information about major assignments – these documents get incredibly long and complex. … We traditionally go over syllabi on the first day of class, and then we’re annoyed when students miss an assignment or fail to adhere to a rule because “it was in the syllabus.”

So, this semester, I challenged myself by changing my approach to creating the syllabus for my freshman-writing class. By referring my students to all detailed information put on the course website, I reduced the dreary document into a 2-page course overview and added some colors to the layout. I have come to realized that a course syllabus should articulate only the gist of the course, which attracts students to find out more by redirecting them to other more-suitable avenues that contain detailed information about the course.

See the PDF of my syllabus here.

In this Information/Digital Age, I believe teachers, especially instructors of rhetoric and communication, should recognize how information is acquired and digested, and thus consider the more appreciate outlets to communicate with new-age students. Here are more examples of non-traditional syllabus:

Do you have a creative syllabus? Link it in the comments!

Updated: Came across this humorous post by College Humor today and so I decided to add it to this entry.

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Points made. Period.

Ph.D. Finder for Rhetoric and Composition Programs

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Earning a higher educational degree is a notable pursuit. This pursuit usually starts when one has developed an interest around a certain area of study and began looking for universities and programs that meet his/her academic needs. Yet, as a graduating master’s student and Ph.D. applicant, I cannot rant enough how frustrating the process of school-finding can be. My first instinct was to speak with my advisors about possible programs to look into, and then go on Google to find out more about these schools – about their department culture, Ph.D. dissertations written by students, faculty members’ research areas, criteria for admittance, etc. Miserably, I felt luck was a huge, integral part of the search process.

To help Ph.D. applicants narrow their searches, Rhetoric Review conducted its fourth Survey of Doctoral Programs in Rhetoric and Composition in 2007 and published a print article in RR 27.4 (2008). Later, a Wikia site was set up to allow program directors update their department or program information. However, if you take a look at both the original site and wikia, you may find it challenging to navigate through the sites for a comprehensive outlook across the programs reviewed.

This is why we designed and launched Ph.D. Finder – an interactive app that allows users to find Ph.D. programs in Rhetoric & Composition that most closely match their admittance aptitude and research interests.

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Our algorithms are designed to rank programs based on the user’s selection of research interests and self-ordered strength in the criteria commonly used by Ph.D. admission committees for candidate evaluation. We aggregated data from the Rhetoric Review Survey and picked out programs that currently offer a Ph.D. degree in Rhetoric and Composition. Users will be able to see real-time adjustment on the program ranking as they select their area(s) of research and order their admittance aptitude.

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As this app is still in its infancy stage, we realize there are rooms for improvement and look forward to add more programs to our existing database. Since this app is a startup-like project created by two college students, we are, nonetheless, looking for fundings to help us expand this endeavor. Please contact us if you are interested in a partnership or backing us up.

At the meantime, check out the app and let us know what you think!

Ph.D. Finder is created by Ivan Okhin and Jason Tham, both social entrepreneurs (wannabe) and technology enthusiasts based in St. Cloud, Minnesota.

The Lost Charm: Why the Latest Apple iPhone Keynote is Rhetorically Deficient

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I have been a faithful Machead since I bought my first Apple product, an iPod shuffle, during Thanksgiving of 2009. I must admit that Apple got me at first touch. The sleek designs, the incredibly minimalistic interface, and genius branding – all have sucked me into the infinite loop of Apple fanaticism.

Soon after getting my first iPod, my love for Apple grew unstoppably. Like most Macheads, I fantasize to own all Apple devices. I requested from my parents an iPad 2 for my 21st birthday, won a 5th generation iPod Nano from a graphic design competition, and bought a MacBook Pro after my bachelor’s degree completion in 2011. Just last year, I signed a 2-year contract with AT&T to purchase an iPhone 5. I took pride being an Apple user and try to make the most of my devices.

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I am also a follower of Apple special events. As a writing and communication scholar, I have always been interested in the art of public speaking and the use of rhetorical appeals in presentations. Regardless of my passion for Apple, I must confess that I am disappointed by how Apple did in recent public appearances. Since the passing of ex-Apple CEO Steve Jobs, I notice a huge drop in the quality of keynote presentations put together by Apple board members. No matter how hard presenters like current CEO Tim Cook and SVP Phil Schiller try to relive Jobs’ charisma, the charm of authenticity and Apple’s “Think Different” philosophy seem to have faded from recent keynotes.

From a rhetorical standpoint, I argue the following are obvious blunders Apple has committed in its keynote today.

Ethos Deficiency: The Absence of the Actual Products

I was anticipating to see the actual iPhones when I was following the keynote today. I mean, you are selling a new product but all I get to see are nice photographs and videos of the phone, come on! As a means for comparison, I choose Steve Jobs’ 2010 and 2011 introductions of the iPad/iPad2. Even though Steve Jobs was introducing to the world a whole new post-PC device in 2010, it took him less than 10 minutes to describe the then-new tablet PC and held in his hand the brand new iPad on which he did some real-time demonstrations. Similarly in 2011, during the launch of iPad 2, Steve Jobs introduced the new device at about 15 minutes into the presentation and SVP of iOS Software Scott Forstall did a live demonstration with the actual iPad on stage at about 34 minutes into the keynote.

In today’s keynote, the first (and only) time the audience/viewers get to see the new iPhone 5S was when the Infinity Blades brothers do a demo to show how nice the graphics get on the new A7 chip. It’s a shame that Apple has to reveal a new product through another company’s hand. It just doesn’t make sense. And it demoralizes the company’s image. Tim Cook/Phil Schiller could have just hand-passed the new product to the Blades brothers instead of getting them the first-hand advantage. Such a gesture reflects ownership on the product.

Plus, we don’t see the new iPhone 5C either. I suppose it’s a strategy to not showcase 5C since the main pitch really is 5S. But before I talk about the poor business rationale, I would like to point to the biggest flaw of the keynote – poor presentation.

Pathos Deficiency: Great Demo Videos, Mediocre Presentational Skills

Steve Jobs seemed to be the only person in Apple who knew how to use slide presentation to his advantage. As with all keynotes Apple does, visual complements are a big component in the presentation. The sad thing about a presentation is when the visual aids are better executed than the speech. I understand that it is not right to compare Steve Jobs to everyone else at Apple. But the company should at least keep up with the momentum set by its processor. Except for SVP for Software Engineering Craig Federighi, the rest of the presenters in this afternoon’s keynote lacked genuineness and passion in introducing the new phones. Craig Federighi is gifted with a friendly, non-threatening smile while Tim Cook and Phil Schiller don’t, in my humble opinion as a viewer. An annual event like this needs more energy and excitement, something that Steve Jobs never failed to accomplish.

In short, do away with the jargons, be more personal.

Logos Deficiency: Poor Product Rationale

The idea of introducing two new iPhones in one keynote is just bizarre. In fact, it feels awkward because the audience aren’t really looking forward to iPhone 5C – you can tell from the reaction of the crowd when the new phone was introduced (awkward silence). One can surely tell there is a white elephant in the room. The atmosphere only became less tense when iPhone 5S was finally revealed – the cheer was way louder, almost done due to relief. While I am not a business expert, I speak from a marketing perspective that pushing two similar products that eventually result in conflict of interest is absurd. I mean, people are not going to buy both iPhone 5C and 5S. The truth is a typical customer will only choose one. Why launch two products that will hurt either of the sale?

In terms of surprise at the launch – close to none. Most rumors around iPhone 5S and 5C on the web turned out to be very accurate.

When it comes to finishing – the craftsmanship of the new iPhone 5C – the design fall-short of its competitor’s product. The new 5C looks pale and cheap-ass. The sleekness in Apple’s brand image is singlehandedly destroy by this new launch. In fact, it wouldn’t be that bad if the colors were exactly the same as the current iPod Touch series, which suggest vibrance and energy.

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Nonetheless, I believe the quality of engineering and manufacturing remain in the new “forward-thinking” devices. I just hope that Apple would buckle up and rethink their marketing strategies. Since Steve Jobs’ vision for the Apple to be Different from other brand names has been blighted, descriptions like “revolutionary” and “cool” have lost their place in Apple’s brand association. If Apple’s marketing and PR teams remain blunt, there should be no surprise when Microsoft becomes the next hippy, especially with its latest purchase of Nokia’s handset division.

What do you think? Are you an Apple fan? What do you think of the keynote today?