Learning and pedagogy – pragmatics

An appendix to my learning manifesto – [Link]

Michael Shanks

Rhetoric and Design Foresight – guidelines for learning and pedagogy, project and research management and evaluation 

See also now – creative pragmatics – [Link]

Make to learn

Focus on opportunities for participants to make something (an academic paper, a report, a review, a critique, a presentation, a lecture, a piece of creative writing) as a learning experience, to pursue a project that connects with personal broader learning programs, and in so doing to build skills and proficiencies in those competencies that are important to personal goals and beyond.

Focus on methodology, as sets of skills and competencies, as processes or modes of production, explored and practiced through case studies, or, better, by building scenarios.

What are the key components of setting up and managing a research and authoring project, in an academic class, or indeed as a personal challenge, in an organization or company?

How might we research, find out, learn, and then act to deliver a report, a response, a product of some kind, an intervention?

My answers to these questions are pragmatic, and I connect them to the age-old field of rhetoric, and to design foresight (my studio’s and research network’s next generation design thinking, which I take as a contemporary manifestation of rhetoric as project management.

Methodology – rhetoric

Rhetoric is a most sophisticated theory and praxis (systematic and theorised practice) of engaged, located/site specific communication, discourse and production.

Rhetoric is performative, time-based and site-specific mediation. Key components include scripting, staging/scenography, dramaturgy, choreography (the arrangement and movement of bodies), props, performers and audience.

The connections between rhetoric and performance are radical and foundational, though they will not be dealt with in this post.

In working on any project, be mindful of the key components of rhetoric.


To accept that you always are located somewhere with a standpoint is a key component of a rhetorical mindset. As is being mindful of process, of working to an end, with and for others, according to constraints and potentials (time and resources, technical possibilities, institutional limits, for example).

Embrace uncertainty and ambiguity (there are no final answers for any significant challenges). There is always more to say and do, and so embrace vulnerability as a key foundation for learning.

With respect to communicating a message (or not), one should ask, and keep asking, three basic questions:

What do we have to say?

So what? Why would anyone be interested in what we have to say?

What’s next? What are the implications of what we have to say?


Where to start? This is a pragmatic question. It depends on context – always. We can try to wipe the slate clean and start from scratch, but even this is a response to a particular context (of complexity, puzzlement, frustration perhaps).

So accept where you are, in an organization with a mission/vision and budget, at a stage in your life, in a class or seminar, and plunge in medias res, into the middle of things, deep dive into circumstances, select a focus, follow the connections in what you are seeking to do (deliver an assignment, develop a new company product), according to the guidelines set out below.

Rhetoric – components

(Named traditionally, though somewhat loosely)

Inventio – Discovery, research, invention,  creation

Research is meant in a broad sense, as sourcing, choosing, gathering, preparing, researching the components of an argument, locating and retrieving data and information, illustration, case studies, visuals. Inventio, following its etymology, is both discovery and invention – more and less passive and active in gathering and creating, inventing resources and materials with which to work.

Encounter and engagement with a subject/object/place/event.

Choice of standpoint and theoretical orientation, of thesis/proposition (implicit or explicit), or neither. Concept – the overarching unity of the project, the relationship of the project to a higher level purpose, meta narrative, case, scenario, attitude or stand. 

Origins in and relation to debates, and (secondary) literatures.

Choice of commonplaces (standard arguments), paradigm (framing), topics (what in rhetoric are sometimes also called topoi).

Dispositio – arrangement and manipulation

Argument and/or narrative – the arrangement of the components of an argument, building a case, telling a story (narratio), or any other kind of arrangement. Matters of clarity and coherence (see also elocutio), presentation and manipulation of evidence, categorization and sequencing. Development of thesis or proposition, or neither. Linkages in a case, through plot, parataxis, itinerary, syntagmatics and paradigmatics (melodies and harmonies). Metaphor, allegory et al – references beyond the argument.

Elocutio – style

Style, formal and detailed, impersonal or personally motivated, readerly or writerly (Barthes), florid/literary or journalistic, or snappy and provocative, for example. Appeals to reason, emotion or ethics. Mobilizing a scholarly apparatus, or not.

Memoria – documentation

The documentation of a case, argument, or narrative, so that it might be shared and published. The classification and organization of basic data into an accessible format, for example. 

How one records and mobilizes information and any resource using notes and notebooks, for example, mobilizing instrumentation and technology.

Libraries, museums and archives, their organization and accessibility. Matters of agency, institutional and individual, of capacity to publish and be heard.

Matters of mobilizing, as well as conserving, stored items – animating archives.

Actio – delivery

Choice of medium (spoken or written text, image, infographic, for example). Craft and production values. Interaction design. Dialogics and relation to audience. Liveness, presence and mediation. Matters of resolution (high or low, polished or rough and ready, for example).

Logos, pathos, ethos – embodied practice

As well as appeals to and through reason (logos), rhetoric may invoke or evoke emotional factors (pathos), and norms, cultural and/or behavioral values, matters of rights and wrongs (ethos).

In this rhetoric is embodied practice/experience, involving cognition, perception, and evaluation – thinking, sensing, feeling.

Kairos (opportunity)

Sensitivity to the temporal context of rhetoric – figuring out the right time or opportunity to engage, deliver, intervene, for example.

Design Foresight (next-generation Design Thinking)

Design Foresight, a development of the human-centered design that gets called design thinking at Stanford and beyond, is a particular manifestation of the pragmatics of project management exemplified by rhetoric.

Design Foresight offers toolkits that mobilize and complement traditional rhetoric. Skills and competencies include:

  • researching people and community needs and designs, establishing empathy;
  • framing issues and topics;
  • synthesizing research into actionable insights;
  • creative amplification of how to intervene and make a difference with an innovation;
  • modeling and building prototypes that can be shared with people and evaluated;
  • acting on feedback through iterative cycles of learning, insight, and response.
  • articulating hindsight with foresight
  • a futures literacy orientation, foregrounding techniques of scenario building

Design Foresight is pragmatic in reconciling three key components of any design project:

  • what people want and need, whether they realize it or not
  • material resources available to a project – the matter of viability
  • the technical feasibility of a project

Evaluating Rhetoric and Design Foresight

The broad scope of rhetoric and design suggests many grounds on which a particular project may be evaluated:

  • Is the project viable, feasible, desirable?
  • Evidence tabled?
  • A case well made?
  • Engagement with clients/community/ audience?
  • Appropriate and well-executed production values?
  • Satisfactory delivery?
  • Too much pathos?

All such grounds of evaluation depend upon the pragmatic context of a particular rhetorical/design project: where, when, by and for whom, to what ends, how much, how many, according to plan, appropriately adapted according to contingent and changing circumstances?

Digression: orthodox methodology in the social sciences

Conventional method in the social sciences can be treated as a particular mode of rhetorical practice. 

The typical stages are:

  • explore a field and its concepts
  • establish questions and propositions
  • develop a (hypo)thesis/proposition
  • establish relevant data and sampling/gathering strategies
  • gather data
  • organize, categorise and process data into information
  • establish pattern/regularities in relation to the (hypo)thesis or proposition
  • propose a link between patterned information and (hypo)thesis/proposition
  • evaluate and report/publish to peer review

Key components are:

  • abstraction – explain particular cases by connecting them with law-like generalizations
  • procedure – method is procedural, that is separable from any particular practical application
  • pattern – seek patterns/regularities in experience/data, distinguishing key factors from noise
  • essentialism – establish the essential attributes that make something what it really is

Evaluation of orthodox method

Again, the grounds of evaluating a project in the social sciences involve focus on particular rhetorical aspects:

  • is the research systematic, logical and rational, rooted in reasoned argument and mobilization of evidence (not grounded in norms, values, emotion, subjective opinion, dogma)?
  • are the research findings are repeatable/replicable?
  • can the findings be confirmed – are they verifiable, testable?
  • are the findings open to transparent review?
  • do the findings have predictive power beyond a single case: are they related to general propositions about the way things are?

Digression: rhetoric and the academic essay/thesis/dissertation

The following is a summary of the features of an orthodox academic thesis and the grounds for its evaluation. It will be clear that, again, these features are a set of rhetorical features considered to define a particular mode of rhetoric as research, building an argument, delivery and publication.

  • An essay or dissertation is centered upon a thesis or proposition which the author argues for, while handling actual and possible counter arguments.
  • The essay/dissertation needs to clearly communicate a coherent and worthwhile thesis/proposition, answering the query — so what? — why and for whom does this thesis/proposition matter?
  • The essay/dissertation needs to show that the author can develop an argument around a thesis/proposition.
  • In so doing the dissertation needs to be founded upon a coherent and well-understood body of clearly presented data appropriately processed into tractable information.
  • The dissertation needs to have a methodology that is connected to a body of theory. This means the author needs to establish and define key concepts and explain/account for how data are secured and manipulated to deliver information that can be used as part of an argument. This can include modes of synthesis, analysis, explanation, interpretation, narrative. Methodology is often subsumed under particular short-hand descriptions (such as systems modeling, semiotics etc), but doesn’t have to be. The key is that the dissertation should be systematic and consistent, accounting for the gathering and processing of data, and the incorporation of information (processed data) into an argument in and around a thesis/proposition.
  • A dissertation should supply context for the thesis/proposition by discussing secondary literature and debates in relevant (orthodox and institutionalized) disciplinary fields, and perhaps beyond.
  • The style of the dissertation should be academic — showing that the author has developed competency in the apparatuses of scholarship, even though they may choose to interpret such conventions in different ways and offer grounded critique.

Dissertation rubric – a checklist

A dissertation is about competency and pragmatics rather than adding to a body of knowledge.

Here are some simple grounds, in the ay of a checklist, for evaluating a dissertation:

  • Is there a coherent thesis/proposition?
  • Is the proposition relevant to debates in a disciplinary field?
  • Are such debates (secondary literatures) adequately covered?
  • Does the dissertation handle a coherent body of data?
  • Are the data adequately controlled and managed?
  • Is there adequate articulation and transformation of data into workable information and an argument related to the thesis/proposition?
  • Is the argument coherent?
  • Is the argument mindful of method and theory?
  • Is the argument delivered through a scholarly apparatus (involving the likes of transparency and clarity, acknowledgement of sources, use of citation)?
  • Does the dissertation draw appropriate conclusions?
  • Does the work hold future potential relevant to a knowledge/research community, disciplinary field, program or project?
  • Is the dissertation an appropriate result of three to four years of research. This is an essential pragmatic basis of evaluation.

Research and creativity

Subsuming conventional academic research methodology and media (the journal paper, dissertation, monograph et al) under rhetoric emphasizes that they are practices and products associated with particular institutional contexts and purposes (summarised in the concept of discourse): producing text and media to be considered candidates for institutionally secured knowledge and debate (summarized in the concept of paradigm).

More importantly, invoking rhetoric emphasizes that all methodology is creative and productive. Knowledge is not discovered but produced in creative practices.

This means that there are other ways of conceiving and managing projects that may not conform to current convention and orthodoxy. I argue that it is the responsibility of the academic as rhetorician, or anyone who takes their productive practice, their “design thinking” seriously, to explore alternative modes of production (of academic knowledge) in any creative project, embracing experiment in and around the processes and skill sets of rhetoric.

Accepting the rhetorical and located character of discourse and paradigm opens up space for different voices – diversity and polyvocality.

Resources (in development)

Methodology for the humanities and social sciences:

SAGE research methods – online at  [Link]

Patricia Leavy. Handbook of arts-based research – [Link]

The Oxford Handbook of Qualitative Research –  [Link]


I am uncomfortable with the narrow approaches taken to rhetoric in contemporary descriptions. Nevertheless see

Jennifer Richards. Rhetoric. 2008.

Richard Toye. Rhetoric: a very short introduction. 2013.

Richard Lanham. A handlist of rhetorical terms. 1991.

The most fruitful discussions are technical and may appear too abstract for most  practical purposes. I particularly like

Thomas Rickert. Ambient rhetoric: the attunements of rhetorical being. 2013.

For a broader scope

Richard Buchanan. Declaration by design: rhetoric, argument and demonstration in design practice. In Design Discourse. 1989.

Design Thinking

Michael Lewrick, Patrick Link, Larry Leifer (eds): the design thinking playbook. 2018.

Stanford d.school. Bootcamp Bootleg. 2010. The design thinking method card deck from Stanford d.school offers concise introduction to a particular version of human-centered research and design.

Tamara Carleton, William Cockayne, Antti-Jussi Tahvanainen. Playbook for strategic foresight and innovation. 2013

Inspiring works on creative methodology

Mike Pearson. Site specific performance. 2010.

Ellen Lupton. Design is storytelling. 2017.

John Law. After method: mess in social science research. 2004.

Connie Svabo, Conni, Performative Schizoid Method: Performance as Research. PARtake: The Journal of Performance as Research 1.1 2016. [Link – http://scholar.colorado.edu/partake/vol1/iss1/7]

MS on methodology

All the following and many more are available in PDF at at my web site @ academia.edu – [Link]

Methodology for (Classical) Archaeology:

Classical archaeology of Greece. 1996.

Art and the early Greek state. 1999. Particularly Chapter 3.

Both are still very relevant for a field that has changed little over the last few decades.

Archaeological method:

Experiencing the past: on the character of archaeology. 1991.

with Bjørnar Olsen, Tim Webmoor, Chris Witmore. Archaeology: the discipline of things. 2012.

with William Rathje and Chris Witmore  Archaeology in the making. 2013.

Research creation:

With Mike Pearson. Theatre/archaeology. 2001.

With Connie Svabo. Scholartistry: integrating scholarship and art. Journal of Problem-based Learning in Higher Education. 2018.


Liberal arts