Rhetoric and Media studies split allows expansion of interdisciplinary courses, greater student specialization

Shelly Le

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Illustration: Emily Johnson

Josh Goodman contributed reporting.

On Wednesday, Jan. 25, Whitman faculty voted to split the Rhetoric and Media Studies Department into two new departments. The change is effective immediately. The new rhetoric studies department will offer two majors, a general rhetoric studies major and a political and legal rhetoric major. The film and media studies department will offer one major, which will be advised by two faculty members and will include interdisciplinary courses.

According to Professor of Forensics Jim Hanson, the split was made possible because of a new rhetoric tenure-line, and the reinstatement of a film media position that had been cut in recent years for economic reasons.

“Students seem to be a little more specialized in their interests these days, so this was a great opportunity to go from a workable department to something that is truly ideal and meets the needs of the students,” Hanson said.

The Rhetoric and Media Studies department was created when the opportunity arose for Hanson to collaborate with retired Whitman professor Bob Withycombe to offer a combined field of studies. Although both fields had similar elements, Hanson said that combining them has been difficult for students looking to specialize specifically in one area.

“It somewhat has worked to have the two together, but it’s not been ideal,” said Hanson. “Now students can really get the major they want.”

Junior film and media studies major Nate Lessler agrees.

“I’m really looking forward to [the switch] because I’m really more interested in film and media over the rhetoric element,” he said.

Current seniors will not be affected by the switch, but subsequent classes will be asked to choose between the two departments. The departments plan to allow students who have taken previous courses in the old Rhetoric and Media Studies department to count these courses as part of either new major.

“[The departments] are being really accommodating in terms of credits counting for our majors if you’re transitioning from [the old] major to another,” Lessler said.

Hanson notes, however, that students who have declared their major and prefer to keep a rhetoric and media studies major are welcome to do so.

“I think there’s one person who wants to continue keeping both components of the major, but most students are overwhelmingly in favor of the change, as far as I know,” he said.

While Lessler is excited for the split, he noted that having a rhetoric component in his field of study has been helpful in broadening his academic experience at Whitman.

“There’s some cool rhetoric courses that I took, that ended up being really interesting and fun, that I wouldn’t have taken otherwise, if they hadn’t been required,” he said.   “But it’s just really nice to have the simplicity of [the major] on my résumé.”

Lessler also noted that having the simplicity of one field of study rather than two may make it easier for future employment and graduate school programs.

“Last summer, when I was applying for jobs, in interviews I was always asked ‘what is rhetoric and media studies?’ rather than just one,” he said.

Sophomore Alyssa Goard, who is considering one of the majors in the rhetoric department, agrees.

“I have heard students say who’ve gone through the major that they’ve been confused in how rhetoric is paired with some of the more film-specific classes,” she said.

According to Hanson, this has been a major question for years among graduating rhetoric and media studies majors and their employers.

“The thing I’ve heard over and over from students is ‘I’m applying to film graduate school and my diploma says rhetoric; this is not good,'” he said.

Goard hopes that the split will allow the college to dedicate funding to both departments and allow professors to grow their course load.

“If [professors] were allowed to add specificity to their research by allowing them to pursue things that are pertinent to their study, it would allow the departments to grow stronger,” she said. “The department could change in a way that I couldn’t have anticipated by the time I graduate and that’s kind of exciting.”

 Overall, Hanson and Lessler agree that the split will be better for the future of the college and graduating students.
“Ultimately, I think it can make the college more attractive. I know that I would have come here even faster had it just been film and media,” Lessler said.
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