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December 9, 2004

Exploring the Connection Between Rhetoric & Ancient Greek Athletics

She looks like a basketball player.

Standing 6’1″, Debra Hawhee is noted for her long distance jump shot with a preferred range of 16 to 18 feet. But it’s her writing about rhetoric and its relationship with ancient Greek athletics that’s keeping this new Pitt assistant professor of English buzzing these days. The University of Texas Press is set to publish Hawhee’s next book “Body Arts” in January.

The former basketball star, who played on the 1989 and 1991 NCAA Championship Tennessee Lady Volunteers basketball team, looks at her work, whether in athletics or academe, as a blend of learning and performing. And the hours of studying or training are judged by performance, by the game, by the test and class participation, by the interest in the book, by the students.

“The pressure to perform is always there,” said Hawhee, who credits athletics for teaching her how to prepare for a variety of performances. “When I got into more organized sports and had to put in many, many hours in at practices and summer camps, I didn’t just learn about time management, I learned how to do something when I didn’t feel like doing it,” she said. “You couldn’t coast by in practice – everybody would get in trouble. There was a lot at stake. That experience makes it easier for me to wake up at 6:30 a.m. and start working on that academic article that I’ve been working on for two months.”

Yes, Hawhee appreciates her athletic past and all of its lessons, but it was also through athletics that she hit intellectual pay dirt: She noticed the parallels between athletic and rhetorical performances.

In the early 1990s, Hawhee was splitting her days between master’s degree work at the U of Tenn. and basketball practice. During some of those practices, the coach put 10 minutes on the clock and told Hawhee and her teammates to “play it out.” That is, play like “we got an 8 point lead and we’ve got to protect it.” Hawhee described the drill as “situational kind of training.” She noticed that she was learning the same concepts in the ancient Greek texts, which she was reading for a history of rhetoric graduate seminar.

“In order to learn how to become a great speaker or political leader, you need to stand up in front of the class and just do it over and over again,” she said. Rhythm, repetition and response – the three Rs – applied to ancient athletic instruction and rhetorical training.

In her new book, Hawhee examines how athletic practices overlap with rhetorical ones – described as the “twin arts” by Isocrates – in teaching and philosophy of the ancient Greeks.

Hawhee’s conclusion: “When rhetoric started as an art, the ancient teachers – in order to create an art that was valued and respected — glommed onto athletics, because that what was valued and respected at the time.”

She argues that scholars have not played up this connection because rhetoric has become “this mostly cerebral art, like a brainy thing.”

Hawhee explores the impact of philosophers’ and orators’ infiltration into the Greek gymnasiums. Her premise: On any one day, Demosthenes or some other Greek orator would speak and seek students at the gymnasium. But the twin arts intertwine even more – orators and athletes shared the same space at festivals.

“The orators found ways to teach these students by drawing from the methods of the wrestling training and boxing teachers – the use of repetition, situational training, and competition.”

According to Hawhee, ancient Greek icon Demosthenes was unhappy that athletics got so much public attention. “He made an argument in a speech that athletics shouldn’t get a great amount of attention because political rhetoric is where the nation’s future lies. And he said that although everybody watches athletes throwing each other around, the orators can throw around words. According to Hawhee, the Greeks borrowed terminology from wrestling like the word “scheme.” It’s a rhetorical term to describe how a sentence is put together and it is also the name of a particular hold used in wrestling.

Hawhee points to Plato, a former wrestler. “His dialogues are great because there are several scenes in the gymnasium — scenes with young boys who had been training, running around outside the gymnasium. They come in to listen to the sophists give their speeches. And the orators would model the speech by watching and observing the boys.”

This connection seems apparent to Hawhee, in no small part, because of her life-long mix of athletics and scholarship.

And even though she’s a college professor these days, the athlete within is prominent. For example, when Hawhee talks about the excitement of winning the NCAA championship, she also remembers — because she’s a competitor — the times that she lost.

She doesn’t regale visitors with talk of a basketball game. Rather, she tells of losing a rhetorical exchange with President George H. Bush, when the Tennessee Lady Volunteers were honored for their NCAA victory at the White House in April of 1989.

“He gave a speech and mentioned how academically strong the team was,” Hawhee said. Bush named Hawhee and her 3.95 GPA as an example. “And with that GPA, it was clear that I made one A-minus,” she said. And so, with the backdrop of the White Hose Rose Garden, President Bush asked: “What in the world did she get an A-minus in?”

Hawhee remembers: “I sort of looked embarrassed and said ‘English.'” Bush replied, ‘that’s right, you speak Tennessean there.” The comment struck a chord – Hawhee said: “I vowed never to get another A-minus again.”

-Mary Ann Thomas

Filed under: Feature,Volume 37 Issue 8

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