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Rhetoric class analyzes lyrics from ‘Hamilton’

| Monday, September 25, 2017

Saint Mary’s students are not going to miss their shot to take communication professor Terri Russ’s introduction to rhetoric course this semester, which examines the musical “Hamilton.”

Russ said the study of rhetoric can be taught in many ways, and she wanted to make the class enjoyable.

“The study of rhetoric can be really dry, and sometimes the approaches to these classes can be less than ideal, and I get that,” Russ said. “I knew it would be something that would appeal to students, even students who weren’t necessarily familiar with ‘Hamilton.’

Russ said she decided to teach the course around “Hamilton” partly because of her own obsession, but also because she finds it critical to examine all elements of popular culture through a rhetorical lens.

“I’m really interested in pop culture, but I’m also interested in taking a critical exploration of pop cultural,” Russ said. “A lot of times we’re exposed to things in media, and we think we’re being critical, but we’re not.”

All musicals can be subject to rhetorical exploration, and since “Hamilton” is so popular it makes sense to look at it critically, she said. However as popular culture changes over the years, Russ said the course could change as well.

“For now I’m going to stick with ‘Hamilton’ because it’s fun, and I think there is still more to be explored, so I think I’ll do at least one more time,” Russ said. “But in two years, who knows what will be popular?”

Russ said “Hamilton” is unique because it teaches about history in a special way. The creator of the musical, Lin-Manuel Miranda, added some special twists to the original story of the founding fathers, which makes the musical important and relevant, she said.

“Lin-Manuel Miranda took white history and added this twist through these very direct hip-hop and rap influences and references throughout the play,” Russ said. “Also, in the performance, having actors of color playing the founding fathers, that’s something we have to grapple with in the this era of extreme acting up by white supremacists and other groups.”

Russ said the students in her class learn a lot from each other because those who are familiar with the musical and those who aren’t bring different perspectives to the subject matter.

“We’re developing a whole new language,” she said. “We have the ‘Ham Freaks’ and the ‘Ham Newbies.’ The ‘Ham Newbies’ are actually teaching our ‘Ham Freaks’ a lot because they’re coming at this fresh and they see thing we have forgotten.”

Terri said she continues to be excited for this course because every class there is more to dive into and learn about.

“I’m a word nerd: I love language, I love playing with language and I love the nuanced ways we can use language to not only impart meaning but to really interpret the world in different ways,” Russ said. “Everyone in the class has had a moment when they realize one word and all the multiple meanings that word has, changed the way they understand everything.”

Russ said the ultimate goal of centering the course around Hamilton” is to engage students in the study of rhetoric.

“I know that rhetoric, in large, sometimes has a bad reputation, and so one of goals is to create a whole new generation of word nerds, which is happening,” Russ said.

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