Rhetorical Strategies In David Foster Wallace's And Mark Edmundson's Commencement Speeches To A Graduating Class

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One of the most important decisions in one’s life is their response to this question: “What do you want to be when you grow up?” It’s already a common question to ask children in elementary school but as years go by, more factors come into play as you decide what you want regarding your future. Does it follow your interest or are you doing it just for the money? Are you aware of what you’re doing? Do you even care? Said with powerful rhetorical strategies, David Foster Wallace and Mark Edmundson talks about their take on this subject in their commencement speeches to a graduating class and an incoming class respectively.

David Foster Wallace’s commencement speech at Kenyon College urges the class of graduating students to be aware of the way they live their lives, whether it be how they perceive a situation or how they make their decisions, because this consciousness will give them vitality and a peace of mind. Mark Edmundson attempts to convey his message of persuading students that it’s important to follow your interest and passion in college and most importantly, fight for your education. Both Wallace and Edmundson addresses the audience in an informal tone. However, with one preaching and one lecturing, they utilize it differently to get their message across. Both Wallace and Edmundson also appeals to pathos and ethos but they establish their credibility differently, which in the end, influences their word choice.

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Wallace starts off with a parable about two young fish coming across an older fish who asks them “How’s the water?” This was used to demonstrate how unaware we can be of the very thing that is right in front of us. He then proceeds to reassure the audience that he doesn’t intend to be the “wise old fish.” Wallace is attempting to undermine his authority and build a common ground between him and the audience. In a way, he’s building up his ethos, his credibility. This frankness, in turn, allows the students to put their guard down and trust Wallace, knowing that he’s not pretentious. In fact, he once again establishes this informal relationship when he says “Again, please don’t think that I’m giving you moral advice…” and continues to build this relatable connection between himself and the audience though out the speech.

One of the most impactful elements of his speech is how informal he sounded, conversational even. His diction makes his speech more accessible to the audience because he wanted them to really hear him out. With such a high reputation of being a writer, it’d be normal to expect confusion every once in a while. It’d be normal to expect complex language similar to that of Toni Morrison, where you need to take some time to think about what the message is. That is not Wallace’s strategy. He uses everyday words; some might even consider his words to be comedic, harsh, or explicit. Words like “slow old people”, “ADHD kids”, “ugliest most inconsiderate and aggressive drivers”, “stupid god-damn people”, and “how stupid and cow-like and dead-eyed and nonhuman they seem” were used to describe a hypothetical situation in which he tries to convey that self-centeredness, which is a bad mentality to have, will result in a bad life. He even used terms like “crap” and “bullshit” in his speech. This established the informal and personal tone, allowing the audience to relate to his ideas. Again, this was another building block for his appeal to ethos because the audience doesn’t view this as a complex lecture, but as an informal conversation, gradually closing the gap between audience and speaker and in turn, allows the audience to trust his words.

Throughout his hypothetical situation, he not only used common terms but he was also guilty of using several run-on sentences. At some point, a whole paragraph consisted only of one sentence with “and then” and “but then” popping up constantly. Why? He used his sentence structure to further express the boring routine and petty frustration of the situation, creating a more powerful sense of imagery for the audience and allowing them to put themselves into the shoes of that person. This helped him get his point across about everyone’s “unconscious beliefs” that they’re the “center of the world”, that they “determine the world’s priorities.” Wallace also used parallelism to appeal to pathos when he says “If you worship money…you will never have enough…Worship your own body…you will always feel ugly…Worship power — you will feel weak…Worship your intellect…end up feeling stupid.” This part was so powerful because the repetition of “worship” places great emphasis on it. Everyone is going to worship, but they have to choose what. It was also humorous in that people end up with the opposite of what they worship. Money, beauty, power, intellect — they are all appealing to the listener’s emotions. He uses this to build up his claim that these forms of worship are unconscious and that this “default setting” will eat them alive.

Edmundson starts off his speech using a second person point of perspective when he says “you’re to be commended” or “you now may think that you’ve about got it made.” By doing so, he attempts to establish a more familiar relationship with the audience by talking directly to them. In addition to this, he also speaks informally throughout his speech in order to make the audience feel comfortable. For example, he says “occasionally even piss off some admirable people” or “buy yourself a lifetime supply of your favorite quaff, crank up the porn channel, and groove away.” He also tries to be humorous when he says “big players with big bucks” and “buttering their toast.”

Regardless of the informality, Edmundson quickly establishes his trustworthiness by including a personal story of the time when he had to decide what he wanted to pursue in college. This lets the audience know that he’s experienced this first hand and not just giving a speech on a topic that was unrelated to him. He then proceeds to reveal all sorts of information on professors and administrators; professors are teaching to advance themselves whereas administrators would do anything to prevent “bad publicity, scandal, and dissatisfaction.” How do we know that his words are reliable? He reveals that he himself is a professor and therefore, further establishes his credibility. He also “borrows” ethos when he talked about Emerson and Freud. Edmundson uses them to advance his argument because he talked about how Emerson encouraged him to trust his own thoughts and that conformity isn’t always the best thing to do. As for Freud, he’s all about challenging human ideals and Edmundson was inspired by that. Through his appeal to ethos, he successfully establishes his knowledge, allowing the audience to trust him and what he has to say.

In this speech, diction plays an important part in trying to reach out to the audience’s feelings. He uses explicit and highly imaginative words like “servants” and “slaves” to paint a picture in the listener’s mind. He says how “people leave school as servants” and that professors “slave for a year or two on a single article…” to describe life outside college. Edmundson also uses diction to be inspiring by using phrases like “you will have to be tough” or “to be aggressive” to influence the students to fight for an education that’ll be of value to them. The phrase “life is elsewhere” is repeated several times throughout the speech because he wants to put emphasis on the colorless and wearisome life in college if someone doesn’t “throw his heart and soul” into their classes and the education that’s being offered. All these approaches to appeal to pathos aimed to persuade the students to follow their passion in college and value their education.

Although Wallace and Edmundson both appeals to ethos, they do so differently. Whereas Wallace undermines his authority to let the audience know he’s not being pretentious, Edmundson establishes his credibility through his occupation and historical figures. Their diction is also different since Wallace uses everyday terms so that the audience won’t feel puzzled throughout any part of his speech, but Edmundson uses a more advanced selection of vocabulary. This has to do with how they decided to appeal to ethos. Since Wallace wanted to undermine his authority, he used simple words but Edmundson wanted to let the audience know that he is knowledgeable, so he dressed up his vocabulary. Their tones are quite similar since they’re both speaking informally to ensure that the audience is at a comfortable place and therefore, will listen more carefully to what they have to say.

It’s intriguing that both Wallace and Edmundson uses repetition in their speech to appeal to pathos. Wallace repeats “worship” to inform the audience of the materialistic forms of worship that everyone seems to value because of their “default setting” while Edmundson repeats “life is elsewhere” to show how dull one’s life in college would be without enthusiasm towards school.

The main difference between these two speeches is that Wallace is preaching but Edmundson is lecturing and I think the reason behind this is because Wallace is speaking to a graduating class while Edmundson is speaking to a class of incoming freshmen. Wallace’s approach is the most effective one considering that the graduating class is probably tired of unexciting lectures. They’re about to make their mark out in the real world and therefore, not want to be bounded by a lecture at their graduating ceremony. By saying “please don’t think…you’re “supposed” to think this way,” Wallace gives the audience a feeling of relaxation because no one wants to be obligated to think the same way someone else does. Edmundson’s approach to reach out to a group of incoming freshmen is also effective because in a way, he’s mentally preparing them of how the next four years of their lives will be like. Giving too much flexibility to a group of incoming freshmen could harm them just as easily as benefitting them. Both Wallace and Edmundson succeeds in giving inspiring advice and insight about the big questions of the future.


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