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Rhetoric and Public Culture (Cluster and Certificate)

The Rhetoric and Public Culture cluster and certificate address foundational problems in both the practice of democracy and the conduct of inquiry.

“Rhetoric” refers to systematic study of how texts, images, and other media operate as a mode of action, with particular attention to democratic politics. It comprises a civic art, a hermeneutical method, and a continuing challenge to all systems of classification. Due to the scope of the modern linguistic turn, rhetoric provides a pertinent basis for reflection on the discursive and organizational conventions of contemporary scholarship. Such reflection is becoming increasingly necessary as scholarship and democracy alike adapt to new communication technologies and related elements of globalization defining the 21st century.

“Public Culture” delineates a fundamental feature of modern civil society: the network of media and social practices organized around political participation. Because they are at once distinctively modern, inherently pluralistic, and inevitably contested, public cultures have become vital political forms in an increasingly interconnected world.

Thus, “rhetoric and public culture” denotes reflexive study of the communicative practices by which public culture is created, sustained, modified, and challenged. The program welcomes scholars who wish to be both attentive to rhetoric and engaged with important intellectual and political discourses that cross the disciplines and other institutional boundaries.

Core faculty of the Rhetoric and Public Culture Cluster:

  • Dilip Gaonkar, Professor, Communication Studies, Culture and Communication; Director of the Center for Global Culture and Communication
  • Robert Hariman, Professor, Communication Studies
  • Jan Radway, Professor, Communication Studies, American Studies, and Gender Studies
  • Angela Ray, Associate Professor, Communication Studies

Affiliate faculty:

Programs and events

Cluster students are invited to attend all academic events associated with the Ph.D. program in Communication Studies/Rhetoric and Public Culture.  In addition, there are occasional dinners for cluster students.

Who should apply?

Doctoral candidates from any field are eligible to apply to join this intellectual “home” outside their department. Past participants have come from the following programs:

  • African-American Studies
  • Art History
  • Communication Studies
  • Comparative Literary Studies
  • English, French and Italian
  • German Literature and Critical Thought
  • History
  • Music
  • Performance Studies
  • Philosophy
  • Political Science
  • Religion
  • Slavic Languages and Literatures
  • Sociology
  • Spanish and Portuguese
  • Theatre and Drama

How to apply

Prospective PhD students interested in participating in this cluster should indicate their interest when they apply to their respective graduate programs.

Current students interested in participating in this cluster should contact Professor Robert Hariman at

Who to contact

Please contact the program director, listed below, with questions about this program.

The following requirements are in addition to, or further elaborate upon, those requirements outlined in The Graduate School Policy Guide.

The program in Rhetoric and Public Culture offers two tracks for graduate study: a program of study toward a Ph.D. in communication studies, and a cluster and certificate program for students preparing for a degree in another discipline. All classes and other academic events in the program are open to students in both tracks.

Student who wish to pursue a degree in communication studies should review the School of Communication department and program information prior to applying for admission through the Graduate School.


Students from other departments who wish to complete the cluster in Rhetoric and Public Culture should meet each of the following requirements:

  • Contact Professor Robert Hariman,, who will serve as or assign the student’s cluster program advisor.
  • Complete three program seminars while in graduate study at Northwestern, to be selected in consultation with the cluster program advisor.
  • Attend periodically some of the scholarly events (lecture, symposia, or conferences) sponsored by the program.


The Certificate in Rhetoric and Public Culture consists of five graduate seminars selected in consultation with and approved by the Cluster Director; students also are expected to attend some of the lectures, reading groups, and other academic events sponsored by the Rhetoric and Public Culture program.  Course selection should adhere to the guidelines provided below.

  • Required Courses for the Certificate:  The five seminars should include the core course in classical theory and four additional courses.  Three of the courses should be from faculty in the Department of Communication Studies, and two may be from affiliate faculty in the RPC Cluster program.  No more than two courses can be counted towards the certificate from the student’s degree program.
  • The core course is Communication Studies 404: Classical Rhetoric and Its Afterlives. This core course provides an introduction to major texts on the art of rhetoric from Greek and Roman antiquity, as well as representative appropriations and commentaries from the early modern period through the contemporary era.  Students are expected to develop hermeneutical strategies for productive use of the historical legacy in respect to contemporary theoretical interests, institutional practices, and research problems.  Assignments emphasize reading the classical texts in translation, using the secondary literature, and integrating the classical tradition into the study of public culture.