Rhetoric vs. Reality

Below are excerpts of a letter to fellow members of the Columbia community, from Lee C. Bollinger, President of Columbia University

I am writing today to announce a new University Gender-Based Misconduct Policy for Students and related procedures for responding to such misconduct. This can be accessed at http://www.sexualrespect.columbia.edu. Our goals underlying the new policy are principally these: to strengthen confidence in the University’s handling of reports of sexual assault and other gender-based misconduct, to ensure fairness for all parties involved, and to provide more assistance to students in need. The changes we’ve made also reflect recent guidance from the White House, the U.S. Department of Education, and federal legislation, as well as our own community’s recommendations…

So, today’s new policy is one among many reforms we have initiated to try to deal with what is most certainly a national issue and—of greater importance to us—a Columbia University issue.  I have always said, and will do so again, that our responses to this (or any other serious matter) should be guided by our own internal standards of character and basic norms of proper conduct, consistent of course with the law and public policy, but always seeking far more of ourselves than what may be commonly asked.


When I read about Columbia University student, Emma Sulkowicz, dragging her mattress around not only to make a statement but also as her thesis, in the form of an art piece, I knew I found a strong “video aid” for the power of rhetorical devices in the context of mass communication.

For last week’s class blog posting assignment, I asked for a reflection on/discussion of Sulkiwicz’s use of rhetorical devices in the context of politics, justice and higher education.  We have been studying the relationship and/or conflict between the rhetoric used by universities and reality.  Does what a college proclaims or advertises correspond with the college’s reality.  The class and I together defined this “reality” as what they witness daily, what they experience, what they observe.  To branch from the Observation paper I assigned them, which included conducting and documenting an on-campus observation, they had to post a rhetorical analysis of Sulkowicz’ project once they viewed a video of her explaining the project’s amibitions.

As the professor, I was looking for strong rhetorical analysis, but I was also curious to see how they would handle such a heavy subject in the frame of rhetoric usage.  As I read through the posts, pleasantly, I found, overall, a balanced discussion which carried the elements of respect, symbolism, humility and objective analysis.  I even was introduced to new angles of vision regarding the Sulkowicz project by some of the posts.

The assignment, with its required objectivity and rhetorical analysis, was a challenge for me too.  My comments to the posts also had to remain in terms of rhetoric and literature, while I contained my own strong and personal opinions on the matter.

I found that Sulkowicz’ language choices and comprehension of symbolic rhetoric as a tool for mass communication fulfilled my academic preferences in the usage of media in class, while it locked down the interest of the students.  She looked like them, talked like them, dressed like them in neon green shorts and a tank top, yet she asserted bravery, precision, intellect and passion about her project.  They catch a glimpse of the power they are gaining in an English Composition class.  Would Sulkowicz have the ability to effectively illustrate her thesis in such a concrete way had it not been for intellectual skills she has gained throughout her higher education?

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