harvard English Class Email

Dear Writers and Speakers,

Thank you so much for your interest in this course. Our world is saturated with images and visual seductions, with photos, feature movies, and films online. They’re immensely powerful. We all watch them, and so do I.

Yet, we still legislate with sentences and paragraphs, we debate with language, we worship with words, we teach by talking, and we conduct trials, town meetings, and neighborhood associations with dialogue and persuasion.

You’re about to begin study of a subject that is 2,500 years old and shows no sign of aging. It has lasted that long because it’s effective. It works. It gets things done in the real world.

Properly conceived, rhetoric—which embraces both written composition and public speaking—is not some hired gun, some way to persuade no matter what. It’s a practice—both systematic and artful—that asks us to consider questions of value, of right or wrong, guilt or innocence, knowing or ignorance. Good writing and speaking prompt us to consider these questions through ethical and sincere self-awareness, not only of our own views, but also of the views of those with whom we might disagree, even if we disagree strongly. Good rhetoric lives in the civic bedrock of democracy and social discourse, in the foundations of any organization or society that wants to hear the views of all of its members in order to decide how to act.

I hope that you find this course valuable. I hope it adds to the skills, awareness, and enjoyment that you bring to whatever activities and careers you are pursuing.

With warm best wishes,

James Engell
Gurney Professor of English
Harvard University


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