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(Design) Thinking About Bernard L. Brock

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Years ago in graduate school I had the honor to study with Bernard L. Brock, a profound critic and theorist who was passionate about rhetorical criticism — the process and methods for conducting comprehensive and systematic analyses of persuasive communication. Dr. Brock cultivated, in me and countless other students, a deep appreciation and disciplined approach for analyzing rhetorical acts, simple to complex, to evaluate their “dramatic” impact on our attitudes, beliefs and behaviors. Many of his students, friends and colleagues referred to him as Bernie. But, despite the fact that I felt a personal connection and sincere appreciation for his scholarly devotion and guidance as my advisor, I referred to him as Dr. Brock.

Dr. Brock is the reason why I devoted most of my mid-twenties seeking to understand the symbolic actions that drove the fatal struggle between the Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People in Nigeria and the Royal Dutch Shell oil and gas company; or conducting a dramatistic analysis of news coverage surrounding the “500-year flood” (now one of many) to argue that the widespread use of the “unjust war” metaphor could ultimately impact our attitudes toward the environment; or applying experiential criticism as a lens to describe the  Grateful Dead concert experience and the profound lessons that Jerry and the band taught us about the power of community.

Dr. Brock is the reason why I continue to share my passion for rhetorical criticism by mentoring students on the St. Joseph’s University speech team as they analyze and articulate answers to critical questions about The Onion’s deliberate use of political satire during the mournful days after 9/11; or David Horowitz’s controversial act to denounce reparations for slavery; or the socio-politico impact of the LA Gang Tours.

Dr. Brock would often repeat: Describe, Interpret, Evaluate… Describe, Interpret, Evaluate during our round table discussions about rhetorical criticism. As a lifetime scholar of Kenneth Burke, he favored the Burkeian approach as a theoretical framework through which to analyze communication as symbolic action. He believed that a dramatistic analysis of human motives and the forms of thought and expression, conveyed through language, could help us understand and respond strategically to the situations around us.

In many ways, Dr. Brock was a Design Thinker. Design is rhetoric – it is symbolic, motive-driven, representative and persuasive. It has consequences. It serves as a narrative of our social reality, is driven by our belief systems and spurs collective action. It demands our descriptive and interpretive judgments about its effectiveness so that we may respond accordingly. Rhetorical theories can serve as our lens and provide us with the language and structure to dig deeper and draw conclusions that go beyond the obvious – to make more informed decisions in the future based on a better understanding of its impact on the human condition.

Sadly, Dr. Brock passed away on March 31, 2006. It had been years since I last spoke to him and it wasn’t until years later when I had learned of his passing. I’ve thought of him often since my mid-twenties and always intended to express my sincere gratitude but life got in the way. Something I’ll always regret.

So, to Dr. Brock –thank you, thank you, thank you for sharing your wisdom, your passion and your critical impulse. It was contagious and the experience design community can learn immensely from your thinking. I intend to help further that cause.

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