Mini-Module: Knowledge, Belief, and the Role of Rhetoric

Note: Revised version updated 6/7/19.

While revising the “Three Ways to Persuade” module to fix some serious problems with the writing assignment, I ended up writing a lot of new material that I ultimately decided not to include in that module. These “outakes” eventually became a new module that is designed to be a follow-up to “Three Ways.” It deals with rhetoric’s age old epistemological questions: What can we know and how can we know it? The problem is, sometimes there is no way to be certain, yet we still have to act. That is where rhetoric comes in.

This new module has the following learning goals:

Students will be able to

  • Make distinctions between certain knowledge, belief, and opinion
  • Understand the role of rhetoric in matters where we do not have certain knowledge
  • Assess the effectiveness of different rhetorical appeals in different situations
  • Surface assumptions in their own thinking and in that of others
  • Write a list of rhetorically effective “talking points” regarding a specific issue or problem that demonstrates their understanding of the previous outcomes

Most of the activities involve charts to fill out. First,after exploring the concepts of persuasion, knowledge, belief, opinion, and probability, the students or the teacher select a current controversial event such as a murder, a scandal, a celebrity divorce, or other prominent news item. Then they fill out a chart and share it with a partner:

HowIknow-chrt-1

Because their charts probably differ, they explore the differences by filling out this second chart and discussing the assumptions they made:

Assumptions-chrt

Note: I took the following section out of the revised version of the module.  These ideas are still important, but I felt that as a mini-module was getting too conceptually complex.

Then, we discuss Aristotle’s statement that “The duty of rhetoric is to deal with such matters as we deliberate upon without arts or systems to guide us, in the hearing of persons who cannot take in at a glance a complicated argument, or follow a long chain of reasoning” (Book 1, Part 2). This translates into two main functions for rhetoric:

  1. Rhetoric is useful when we don’t have certain knowledge, but we still feel that we must do something.

  2. Rhetoric is also useful in cases where we have certain knowledge, but the meaning of the knowledge has to be explained to the audience to make it persuasive.

After the initial activities about knowledge and belief and the assumptions we make when reading or listening, I present the three Aristotelian appeals–ethos, logos, pathos–as strategies for controlling the assumptions made by the audience. Then students explore different uses of rhetoric by filling out a chart like this for different situations. In this example, one student makes a claim that his favorite song is better than his friend’s favorite song:

RhetoricalEffectiveness-chrt

For each situation they rate which type of appeal is likely to be most persuasive, though they also see that they work together.

Finally, they take all of this rhetorical practice and write a list of “talking points” for an issue they have chosen. Here is the assignment:

For this assignment you are going to think about a community problem. This could be a problem at your school, in your neighborhood, or something on a bigger scale, such as your city, your state, or the whole country. If you can’t think of a problem, you could use the Flint, Michigan example from the previous activity.

When a leader has to speak or write publicly about a problem, he or she will have a member of the staff write up a bulleted list of “talking points.” The purpose of the list is to help establish the message and help the leader stay on that message, no matter what questions he or she is asked. This list should have the following:

  • A clear purpose. What are we trying to accomplish?
  • Arguments that support that purpose, expressed in clear language, short and simple enough to memorize. These arguments should address all three appeals: ethos, pathos, logos. (Just like you have been doing in the charts above.)
  • Anecdotes (personal stories) that people can relate to that support the arguments are very useful. Keep them brief, however!
  • Points of common ground that both sides can agree on.
  • A proposed call to action.

With your issue or problem in mind, imagine that you are a staff member working for a community leader. You have been asked to come up with talking points for an upcoming press conference. Write a one-page list of talking points for your boss.

This is a challenging module with lots of important concepts. It builds on what they learn from the article “Three Ways to Persuade: Integrating the Three Appeals.” I think high school students can do this, however. You may disagree. Please leave a comment if you have feedback, positive or negative, or have a suggestion.

Download the latest draft of the module in a Word document or as a .pdf.  Here are some handouts that might also be useful:

Activity 5: Applying the Concepts

Activity 6: Clarifying Assumptions

Activity 10: Talking Points Assignment

2 thoughts on “Mini-Module: Knowledge, Belief, and the Role of Rhetoric

  1. Pingback: An Update to the “Three Ways to Persuade” Mini-Module – Teaching Text Rhetorically

  2. Pingback: Was Shakespeare A Woman? – Teaching Text Rhetorically

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