Writing Your Grad School Personal Statement: 3 Quick Tips


Tis’ the season of love and jingly things… and also when grad school applications are due!

If you are applying to a research program and are still finalizing your application, I have three tips here that might be of use:

1. Align your research interests with the faculty members’ in the program

It is often made obvious in graduate program applications that the applicant should mention which faculty member they would like to work with as part of their graduate education. Before writing your personal statement, do a thorough search on the program’s people page, such as this page that’s housed in our Writing Studies department. Include the faculty member’s specialty areas as keywords in your letter as a rhetorical move to show that you have done your homework. As part of the UMN RSTC program, applicants are asked to select a professor to be his/her desired academic advisor. It would be smart for the applicant to get in touch with one or two current grad students in the program to get a sense of the “advisee-load” that the desired advisor has already had to avoid choosing someone who are already occupied and so are not able to undertake anymore new students.

2. Showcase your research trajectory, past and future

Include a trajectory of your scholarly works as well as future directions (where you came from and where you want to go), including past or present seminar research topics and classroom/teaching workshops. This will help the admission committee to see your scholarly agenda and give them confidence that you are self-motivated because you have clear goals in mind. Remember, the grad school application is also similar to a job application; while admitting new students, the program or department is looking for individuals who are competent in conducting research (in and out of lab, classroom, etc.) as well as teaching (some are even looking for applicants with certain specialization to teach specific classes).  

3. Define your scholarly identity

This last advice should be taken with a grain of salt. While it is good to exhibit excitement and flexibility as a graduate applicant, I think it is equally important to define one’s scholarly identity. Especially for PhD applicants, the individual should have already had a sense of what it means to be a part of an academic discipline or community, and what it means to contribute to the development of that community. By defining one’s scholarly identity, one is performing a(nother) rhetorical move that situates him /herself in an ongoing conversation–thus increasing the credibility of the application. For a program with multiple tracks (such as RSTC and programs like Arizona’s RCTE and Iowa State’s RPC), I think it would be helpful to define yourself as a rhetorician, compositionist (basic writing, first-year writing, advanced composition, etc), or technical  or professional communication scholar (scientific writing, tech or business comm, technology and culture, etc), or somewhere in between these (but you have articulate how you fit in such a niche). 

There are certainly many other factors that concern the admission committee and these are just my two cents. If you are reading this and are interested in applying to the RSTC program at the University of Minnesota (Twin Cities), feel free to leave me a message and I’d be glad to help!

Rhetorical Web Design

CCCC 2015 Tham Jason

Tham, Jason. “The Problem of Ease: Risks and Rewards of Template-Driven Web  Development.” Conference on College Composition and Communication (CCCC). Marriott Waterside, Tampa, FL. March 20, 2015.


Recently, programming and web-writing courses have observed an exploded enrollment of young professionals and students who are eager to learn how to program and develop code literacy. Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) such as EdX and Codecademy are set up to accommodate this high demand from the public. Additionally, many open-source communities and individual developers are creating open-access frameworks, code libraries, and a wealth of customizable plugins that aid young developers to get their work done. While the rewards of creating and using such frameworks are of ease and efficiency, novice developers risk relying too heavily on the prefabricated works of others, allowing themselves to focus more on ease than skill. Such a practice may also misguide developers to becoming unaware of the larger cultural and functional contexts within which the technology was developed. Similarly, novice web designers may risk losing the opportunity to experience context-based web building when they rely on available design templates in developing their websites. The overall ease of usability strips away the developer and designer’s ability to exercise rhetorical agency over the development of an interface.

To explicate the concerns central to the use and misuse of “easy,” readymade templates, I will examine website templates from WordPress.com to evaluate their design flexibility. Situating interface design and technical communication in the rhetorical tradition, I draw from the concepts of agency and techne, and look at templates as rhetorically designed spaces that can potentially limit a designer’s agency in constructing arguments, verbally or visually, based on the contexts within which they traverse. By not producing the design themselves, designers have little control over a large part of their representation on the web, and they are forced to compromise their autonomy in full self-expressions and identity on the web.

The purpose of this presentation is to challenge the validation of ease in using prefabricated applications and ready-made web templates – teaching users to analyze specific audiences and rhetorical situations in the design of websites, and to apply the principles of information architecture in the creation of a seamless user experience.

Please contact me directly for more information about this presentation.

Link to this presentation on YouTube: http://youtu.be/vszkXGuWI3U

PR Talk at #NCA14: Rhetorical PR and Postmodernism

PR PPT cover1

Tham, Jason. “Approaching the Rhetorical Enactment Rationale to Public Relations in a Postmodern World: A Hybrid Model Manifesto.” National Communication Association 100th Annual Convention. Palmer House Hilton Hotel, Chicago, IL. November 23, 2014.

See presentation deck here.

The Rhetorical Enactment of PR

Robert Heath, editor of the Handbook of Public Relations (2001) says that, at its core, public relations is discourse management. He believes that PR can be approached from a rhetorical perspective that studies PR discourses as symmetrical, dialogic actions that add value to the scientific assumptions that are commonly used to explain the processes of communication.

Entering a postmodern condition

As technology constantly evolves, changing the way in which communication is made, acquired, classified, and exploited, our society is in a state of advancement, with “citizens having access to unprecedented computer and media connectivity” (Radford, 2012, p. 50). In 1979, French sociologist and literary theorist Jean-Francois Lyotard recognized that such technological and cultural development has moved the society forward into a new form of “postmodern condition” in which “forms of knowledge and information, and the citizen’s relationship to these forms, are fundamentally different from those that came before (Best and Kellner, 1991, p. 3, qtd. Radford, 2012, p. 50).

As Heath and other critical scholars noted, public relations holds a significant role in the creation and dissemination of information in the contemporary world. According to Derina Holtzhausen, public relations today remains in “management practices based on modernist principles of command and control” (2000, p. 93). Following this statement, Holtzhausen seemed to suggest that public relations practice today is “out-of-step” in the postmodernist society, which constitutes multicultural, multiethnic, and multi-gendered publics (2000, p. 93; Radford, p. 50).

The rest of my presentation will discuss the implications of framing discussions of public relations in postmodernist expectations and explore ways in which Heath’s rhetorical enactment rationale fits into a postmodern understanding of the publics.

The postmodernist expectations of public relations

To distinguish postmodernism from its predecessor, we need to take a closer look to the characteristics of modernist principles. Lyotard (1989) claimed that a modernist society operates with assumptions based on universal principles and reality. For better illustration of the modernist assumption, Radford (2012) elaborated how contemporary practices of public relations are like those of science:

The knowledge claims of PR work with a modernist sense of a singular reality that can be described, understood and ultimately exploited. Practitioners must work on the assumption that human behavior is the result of rational thought and irrational drives, and that the appropriate manipulation of those faculties will produce responses desirable to the sender. (p. 55).

Theoretically speaking, the assumptions of a positivist scientific method to practicing public relations contradict with the expectations of a postmodern society. According to Radford (2012), in the postmodern condition, as societies become more pluralistic, messages experience stronger competition across aspects of communication in the society.

Due to the contrast between the modernist world where public relations professionals operate and the postmodern society, a communication gap is formed between the sender and the receiver. In an information-dense postmodern society, Lyotard (1989) argued that people experience “a profound awareness of the competing narratives.”

Framing public relations discussions within a postmodern perspective means to forgo the modernist principles of command and control. A postmodern treatment of public relations is not prescriptive, but rather transcend the interests of the practitioner to play interests in the society’s metanarratives. A postmodern treatment of public relations “must self-reflectively stop privileging the notion that PR is about the management of communication and the search for best practices that inevitably lead to some idealized best solution” (Radford, 2012, p. 64). This context of prioritizing metanarratives that structure social and cultural environments opens up a new space for implementing Heath’s rhetorical enactment of understanding public relations. Based upon the notion of postmodernism, a hybird model for approaching public relations is created to outline how and where postmodern expectations and the rhetorical enactment rationale intertwine.

Postmodern rhetorical enactment of public relations: A hybrid model

The hybrid model consists of three postmodern-rhetorical conditions derived from Heath’s rhetorical contexts. These conditions seek not to generate a list of techniques for enabling public relations practitioners to be more effective, but to shed light unto a discursive world that differs from a modernist perspective. 

Negotiating a shared understanding of meanings through metanarratives

In postmodern principles, metanarratives serve to make the message recipient aware of the fictionality of the message and sometimes the presence of the sender. A postmodern assumption of public relations is there are competitions among narratives. A postmodern treatment to the rhetorical enactment of public relations assumes the messages created and distributed by practitioners “are inevitably received and interpreted in the context” of competing perspectives and interests (Radford, 2012, p. 60). It thus forces practitioners to consider critical counteractions to better understand their diverse audience and competition, and to create a shared understanding of meanings.

Forging a participatory culture in the ever-evolving marketplace relationship

As the rhetorical perspective presupposes the importance of building and maintaining marketplace relationships, the postmodern enactment takes it a step further by urging public relations scholars and practitioners to move beyond the notion that public relations is about managing communication and communities. A postmodern view of society agrees with Heath’s perspective of a “multipublic, multimarket, and multiaudience” community (2001, p. 47). With advancing technologies and passage of time, a postmodern view assumes that these active groups are constantly growing and diversifying. A postmodernist expectation further challenges public relations practitioners to fabricate a participatory culture among the ever-evolving groups in the society.

Considering cultural constructs and hyperreality

Cultural constructs are the essence of public relations practice. As culture informs the basis of a society’s shared meaning system, “it provides the classification schema we use to make sense of our world, making culture, meaning, and language inextricably linked” (Curtain and Gaither, 2007, p. 36). Additionally, a postmodern condition of a society is its shifting identities and subjectivity. Identities in postmodern assumptions are “social constructions emerging from discursive practices (speech acts), and they form in relationship to something else” (Curtain and Gaither, 2007, p. 168, elaboration added). And because each individual member of the society interacts within a number of social systems, identities are never stagnant; people assume different social roles and cultural classifications, subjecting themselves to various representations of the self. Due to such fluid identities, the experience of a subject in a postmodern condition, surrounded by multiple realities and information coming at them from a myriad of sources, is “seduced into a hyperreality” that is constituted by mixed texts and representations (Radford, 2012, p. 60). A postmodern-rhetorical model for public relations assumes that representation of an event is just as important as, if not more so than, the actual event. A key distinction in this insight compared to a modernist principle of control and command is that it no longer matters what the messenger says, but it is what has been heard and perceived by the audience that counts.

Applying the hybrid model

To better understand principles underlying the postmodern-rhetorical model and how it can be used to guide discussions in public relations and its practices, I will use an award-winning campaign to introduce each condition described before to show the hybrid model in action.


In 2010, American Express created Small Business Saturday, a new shopping day between Black Friday and Cyber Monday, to support small businesses nationwide (Facebook-studio.com, 2012). In 2011, the brand decided to turn this grassroots campaign into a permanent fixture on the American calendar. The first step to achieving this goal was for American Express to situate itself among the metanarratives about holiday shopping and small business entrepreneurships. Since meanings are presupposed to reside within the discourse community, American Express needed the marketing to come from the people, not from the brand. They did so by launching a marketing campaign that included social media strategy and media relations to articulate the reasons and means to activate various local audiences to carry out the marketing for them. This strategy leveraged the American Express’s brand voice from its competitors. As a result, the holiday generated over 1.5 billion earned press impressions, and according to Facebook Studio (2012), three times on November 26, 2011, “#SmallBusinessSaturday” became a national organic trending topic on Twitter.

Participatory culture

Using social media tools such as geo-targeted Facebook Ads and digitally activated storefronts with customizable QR-enabled signage, the public audience was empowered to join the ongoing conversations in the campaign. According to Facebook Studio (2012), the campaign measured 350% increase in social buzz from 2010, and public awareness nearly doubled to 65% from 37% in 2010. As the grassroots campaign was made to promote local shopping, more than 500,000 small business owners felt they have more skin in the game and so leveraged the promotional tools American Express provided to advocate for their business and spread the word about the big day. So while American Express established a hub for the movement, it was really its participants who made it a success.


In the Small Business Saturday campaign, American Express augmented social actions to scale. From Facebook to YouTube to Foursquare, American Express put out online and offline platforms to amplify small business voices for their audiences. The key of this campaign was to decentralize and mobilize shoppers to make them feel as though they were shopping for a cause together, but in their own local business communities across the country. A website was set up to ask Americans to pledge to make a purchase at a local business. Consequently, 103 million Americans shopped on Small Business Saturday 2011, including President Obama and his daughters. American Express also saw cardmembers transactions increase 23% at small merchants on the day (Facebook-studio.com, 2012). More importantly, a resolution supporting Small Business Saturday was passed by the U.S. Senate unanimously.


The overview and the case have illustrated how the postmodern-rhetorical enactment model can inform public relations practices. Some clear lessons emerged from this case study include: 1) there’s a need to situate an organization’s voice in a leveraged field to rise among metanarratives; 2) the most rewarding relationships are ones that directly involve the participants, not just the decision makers; and 3) pseudo-realities can lead to spikes in community participation if they are managed delicately.

The framework presented here is meant to provide an alternative, theoretical model that suggests critical evaluation of current public relations practices and invokes different approaches to discussing public relations in a postmodern world. The hybrid model seeks to promote an appreciation for postmodernist expectations in our society.

What is Postmodernism? Watch this:

Visual Rhetoric: Negotiating Meanings in a Colorful World

It doesn’t take a genius to realize that we’re living in a world full of signs and symbols. These signs and symbols serve several functions: they guide our actions, warn us about potential dangers, among many other purposes. As a society we are moving rather quickly into a visual-driven culture. Cultural studies scholars, rhetoricians, and researchers from arts, history, anthropology, and even philosophy are interested in how citizens of the 21st century world negotiate meanings, locate information, and connect with one another through various visual means and technology.

In a writing class, it might sound silly at first to make visuality as one of the main learning units. But one would soon realize that we cannot detach the visual from the composing process (which is often only thought of as only textual). Take for instance when one writes using a word processor on the computer: the writer is constantly influenced by the tools, functions, the constraints of the “page,” and other visual aspects presented on the writing platform. An immediate example to turn to is the blogosphere. Blogging spaces providers have, over the years, made significant improvements to their writing dashboards so to give writers a more comfortable canvas to write. They do so by carefully crafting the look and feel of the writing interface; some even remove action buttons and toolbars altogether to give bloggers a distraction-free writing zone.

Given my interests in visual culture and rhetoric, the third unit of my University Writing course is dedicated to exploring the roles and impacts of visual composition in the realm of persuasion. My aim is to facilitate discussions on how meanings are/get constructed via visual design and arrangements. One easy, and perhaps most important, element to go to is color. One can think of so much impact colors have on our lives and how we relate to colors. To explore the role of colors in visual composition, I introduced an activity called the color association exercise, inspired by a professor in my PhD visual rhetoric seminar. This activity is simple yet fun and engaging.

Part A

  1. Break students into groups of 2-3.
  2. Give each group a color. (For my class, I assigned 8 colors to 8 groups.)
  3. Ask each group to generate as many associations (things, events, people, emotions, etc.) as possible with their assigned color.
  4. After few minutes, ask each group to finalize their top 2 or 3 associations for the color.
  5. Have the students report back to the class as a whole. The instructor may pull up a spreadsheet (as below) to fill out the chosen top associations as students report them.
  6. Once the table is filled, ask the class if there are any discrepancy. If so, ask for amendment recommendations. (I also made the groups defend their top choices.)

Part B

  1. Ask the class if each color meaning they came up with is identified by local, regional, national, or global citizens.
  2. As the instructor moves down the table, discuss why some color meanings are hard to decide their relevance to a larger population.

Below is a snapshot of the table generated in my class today. It serves as a springboard to a fruitful conversation on how we perceive colors, consciously or otherwise, to generate meanings in life. As my students are working on a visual analysis project, this activity sought to expose them to different ways of looking at images — a rather more critical perspective on how images are composed to make certain arguments.

Screen Shot 2014-10-22 at 10.08.12 PMAs I am deeply intrigued by how visuals are woven into our daily discourses – public speeches, PR events, advertisements, telecommunications – I think visual literacy has become an importance part of verbal and intellectual development to allow us deeper understandings of representation and meanings.

Are you interested in visual rhetoric? Check out these free massively open courses:

Cover image from Galleryhip.com

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


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.