ASHR Interview: Ned O’Gorman

In the latest ASHR interview, I speak with Professor of Communication Ned O’Gorman (University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign) and new editor of Journal for the History of Rhetoric (formerly Advances in the History of Rhetoric). Professor O’Gorman is the author of Politics for Everybody: Reading Hannah Arendt in Uncertain TimesLookout America! The Secret Hollywood Film Studio at the Heart of the Cold WarThe Iconoclastic Imagination: Image, Catastrophe, and Economy in America since the Kennedy Assassination, and Sprits of the Cold War: Contesting Worldviews in the Classical Age of American Security Strategy. In addition to discussing his interest in the history of rhetoric, I also spoke to Professor O’Gorman about the change of our journal’s name to Journal for the History of Rhetoric, as well as what first-time submitters can expect from the review and publication process.  

Jordan Loveridge: Thank you for taking the time to speak with me, Ned. I always like to begin by asking our interviewees about how they found themselves in the field. Can you tell me about how you became interested in the history of rhetoric? What initially drew you to the field?

Ned O’Gorman: You know, I never really heard of “rhetoric” as a field until the first year of my M.A. program in literature at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville. I was an English and Economics undergrad, and eventually decided to go to grad school to study literature. When I showed up, almost all the grad literature seminars were full, but there was one classical rhetoric seminar still open. It was taught by Janet Atwill. Mind you, I had no idea what classical rhetoric was. I just showed up and we started reading the Loebs – Plato, Aristotle, Isocrates, Cicero. I was pretty dazed and confused, but at the same time I found something extremely appealing about it all. I think it melded my literary sensibilities with my pragmatic ones.

JL: I actually had a bit of a similar experience. I started out studying medieval literature and languages. But through that I discovered rhetoric and was interested in how it informed composition and argumentation. Why did rhetoric strike a chord with you? Or, perhaps, why do you think the history of rhetoric an important area of study for rhetorical theory, communication, rhetoric and composition, etc. more broadly? Why does the history of rhetoric matter today?

NO: I am a shameless humanist. I believe we invent the future out of the materials of the past, and I am deeply skeptical of any approach to addressing social problems that is fundamentally rooted in paradigms of engineering. For me rhetoric offers a flexible but still relatively grounded way of doing life with others, especially others who are perfect strangers to us.

JL: What are your current research projects? Do they relate to or build from your previous work? 

NO: I am not very good at having a focused research agenda. I am typically juggling 3-4 projects at a time, and they tend to be quite different from one another. The thing I am most excited about right now is a book I have coming out in March 2020 on Hannah Arendt. It is called Politics for Everybody: Reading Hannah Arendt in Uncertain Times. It is a very rhetoric-inflected, and of course Arendt-inflected, defense of politics at a moment when many people who are not in the professional academy just want to tune politics out. I wrote it for such people; but it also doubles as introduction to the political thought of Arendt—great, I hope, for the classroom. The gist is that politics is not mere partisanship or policy; it is an ancient and invaluable art for getting along with others who are different from us, sometimes way different. It’s a defense of politics as a phenomenon—something wonderful that can happen between and among people—and a concerted attempt to get us to stop assuming that politics comes down to the question of who gets to control the state. 

JL: What advice would you give to a graduate student beginning work in the history of rhetoric?

NO: If they are beginning studies in the history of rhetoric and want to continue on, I would say that while you don’t have to master other languages, I do think it is important, if you want to continue to study the history of rhetoric, to at least have a working ability with the languages relevant to your study. So, though language study is tedious, it is a good thing to try to do. 

JL: What do you like best about ASHR? Why should someone become involved with the organization?

NO: As long as I have been around ASHR – some 15+ years now—it has always been a super friendly group of people, and I really appreciate that about it. And they are smart! 

JL: Ok, my favorite question: who is one of your favorite figures from the history of rhetoric?

NO: One? Just one? If I must choose one, even though my dad’s family is Irish, I’d say John Milton. He was a revolutionary and didn’t know it, and he could be wildly confident in the capacities of people to do civic life together. On top this, he obviously had a thick moral and metaphysical sensibility, and one hell of an imagination. He’s a great figure to study in an age of lots of crass, opportunistic, thoughtless appeals to “the people.”

JL: Let’s move on to discussing your role as editor at ASHR’s newly-renamed journal. What are some of your editorial priorities for JHR? 

NO: I want to publish some of the best scholarship in our field, period. And I want the journal to be inclusive. These two goals are mutually reinforcing, of a piece.

JL: Could you talk about the new name? Why do you think the name change of the journal is important? 

NO: I think the pronoun “for” that we added to the title speaks to how we want the journal to be “for” rhetoric—to function as an advocate for rhetorical study and scholarship, not just a publication venue.

JL: Say I am someone new to the field. What advice would you give to a scholar interested in submitting to JHR? 

NO: Look at articles Advances published over the last several years. Look at RSQRhetorica, or QJS. What you will see in all these places are sustained, original articles that do more than tell us about a new topic or person, or introduce a new term, but make a sustained argument about something of interest to at least some people in the field. Journal articles are arguments. Make an argument. That’s the most important thing.

JL: Can you describe the general process for an article submitted to the journal? What should potential authors know? 

NO: The first thing I do is read it to see if it meets the basic requirements for a JHR submission—most importantly, I look to see if there is a sustained argument that is made in the essay, if it has some sort of historical dimension (even very recent history), and if its argument is at all relevant to rhetorical studies in the broadest sense. If it meets these basic requirements, then I send it out to 2-3 reviewers (I use 3 when I feel like the essay needs a range of particular areas of expertise). Then I see what the reviewers have to say. No one reviewer has the last word, but I take their reviews seriously and try to make a decision based on their feedback as well as my own sense of the status and potential of the submission for JHR. In some cases, I will not accept the article—but here the author or authors at least get some feedback. In other cases, I ask for revision and resubmission. So far, I have not accepted an article outright, but I guess that could happen. I think most of the folks who have submitted to JHR would say that, even if the essay was not accepted, they got some constructive feedback.

JL: I published my first article with Advances, and I would definitely say I got great feedback from the reviewers and the editor at the time, Art Walzer. I am sure you will continue that tradition. Thank you again for agreeing to this interview! 

About the Interviewer: Jordan Loveridge is Assistant Professor of Communication and English at Mount Saint Mary’s University in Emmitsburg, Maryland. He earned his Ph.D. in Rhetoric from Arizona State University, focusing specifically on medieval rhetoric. His work appears in venues such as Rhetoric Society QuarterlyRhetoricaPhilosophy and RhetoricCommunity Literacy Journal, and Advances in the History of Rhetoric.