Foundations of Rhetoric: Ethos

“Among the rhetorical precepts that found applications in the study and teaching of identity in writing was Aristotle’s notion of ethos, which ‘is concerned with the character of the speaker as portrayed in the speech itself’ (Cherry, 1988, p. 253)” -P.K. Matsuda “Identity in Written Discourse”

The bulk of what I do at NYU Shanghai (上海纽约大学) is to teach writing-related courses—usually, I teach 2-4 such courses every academic year. And, in every course, I introduce my students to the foundations of rhetoric and the appeals of ethos, pathos, and logos. Ethos, pathos, and logos are the three main rhetorical appeals that are used in persuasion.

Ethos – Creating authorial credability

Pathos – Creating emotional connections

Logo – Creating logical links

Students tend to enjoy these lessons because it allows for some fun class activities like watching how marketers use pathos to sway our opinions of brands and products to building an argument based on as many logical fallacies as possible. It’s also easy to have extended conversations about Pathos and Logos. Ethos, however, tends to be neglected, at least in my practice. Part of this may be, because when it comes time to talk about ethos it’s often tied to notions of creating credibility—which often just means using reliable sources and citing them correctly. This means that lessons on ethos tend to fall flat with students. In part, because it gets glanced over about the more fun appeals; and in part, because understanding intertextuality and effective sourcing take time to develop. However, after reading Matsuda’s recent article in the Annual Review of Applied Linguistics, I can’t help but wonder if a slight shift in how we view ethos might lead to a more effective way of teaching about it in the classroom. The result being that we can better help students as they acquire academic literacy and lifetime critical thinking skills.

By using the angle of identity to grapple with and better understand ethos, I believe that we can come to a more effective way of talking about it with our students and thinking about it in our own writing. In the past, this key term was often defined as:

How we build credibility as a writer.

Using the lens of identity, however, ethos’ definition would necessarily change to:

How we use language to craft a projected self to encapsulate our authorial wisdom (phronesis), moral character (arete), and good will (eunoia) to facilitate argument and meaning making with the reader (Cherry; Matsuda).

This definition gives us multiple ways of understanding and thinking about ethos. It instantly shifts the focus to language use and our precise control (agency) over it. By tying it to a projected self (identity), we give student-writers an easy access point, as identity is something at the forefront of students’ minds when they write. Usually, it’s the desire to be identified by their instructors and readers as intelligent, engaged, and wanting high marks (although there are certainly subversive identity positions as well). Focusing on wisdom, character, and good will gives us a tripartite taxonomy to organize lessons and thinking. We can encourage students to consider the knowledge and wisdom (or, knowledge + experience) that they bring to the classroom with them and how they can bolster that by working with the knowledge and wisdom found in primary and secondary sources. Allowing educators to create a space for students to begin to take agency over their learning and to personalize it. The angle of phronesis also allows us to talk to students and show them the different ways that we manipulate language to project wisdom and knowledge in contextually proper ways. For example, I didn’t talk to my mom (non-specialist) about my dissertation in the same what that I spoke about it to my dissertation supervisor (specialist). Granted, I think I managed to put them both to sleep at one point or another. Moral character gives us a chance to fall back on traditional discussions of ethos and how good sources and good citing practices are important. Good will, or eunoia, is the interesting one to me. For Aristotle, eunoia connected to family life and the healthy emotional connections between spouses—kindness and goodwill (Provencal). He viewed these as the foundation for healthy life and society. So, ethos would also involve teaching novice writers to use language and their authorial self in ways that don’t alienate their audiences; in a way that create connections through shared experiences, worldviews, etc. to better facilitate the uptake of their messages.

Source Articles

Cheery, R.D. (1988). Ethos versus persona: Self-representation in written discourse. Written Communication, 5(3), 251-276.

Provencal, V.L. (2001). The family in Aristotle. Animus, 6, 3-31.

Matsuda, P.K. (2015). Identity in written discourse. Annual Review of Applied Linguistics, 35, 140-159.

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