Why Do Rhetorical Analysis?

In my writing courses I teach a lot of rhetorical concepts and assign a great many rhetorical analysis activities and papers. However, instead of analyzing what a writer is trying to do and how they are doing it, many students respond by agreeing or disagreeing with the position the writer takes. For example, I recently asked students to find three op-eds taking different positions on an issue they were interested in and analyze the way each writer talked about the issue, how they framed it, what terms they used, etc. They found the articles, but many of them crafted a thesis statement on the issue and used the articles to support their own positions. My instructions were detailed (perhaps too detailed, when many students misunderstand an assignment it is almost always the instructor’s fault), but in this case disregarded.

In part, I think this happened because students did what they had been taught to do. They had an issue, so the thing to do is take a position and support it, something that at this point (a junior-level course in college) they had done many, many times before. They thought that they already knew how to do this.

Taking Things Apart

When I read drafts of application essays by engineering students, they almost always talk about how when they were kids they took everything apart to see how it worked. It’s such a cliche that I usually advise them to take that part out. However, why don’t English majors want to take texts apart to see how they work? That is essentially what rhetorical analysis is. And just as when you take a machine apart, you need wrenches, sockets, screwdrivers, pliers, and other tools, rhetoricians have their tools too.

Tools from Classical Rhetoric and Beyond

Aristotle’s three appeals allow us to investigate the role of the writer, the nature of the arguments, and the effects of emotions on the attempt to persuade the reader. The concept of the enthymeme helps us break down the arguments into premises and tease out hidden assumptions.

The sophistic concepts of “mythos” and “nomos” help us think about the big narratives we all share and the unwritten expectations for behavior that guide every community and shock us when they are transgressed.

Stasis theory and Toulmin argumentation help us figure out where the parties disagree and how well their claims are supported. Dissoi Logoi helps us see who benefits and who is hurt by whatever policy we choose. The concept of “exigence” helps us define the rhetorical situation and our reasons for responding to it.

Descriptive outlining updates the classical concept of “arrangement” and helps us see how a text is organized and how the parts work together.

To move to modern rhetoric, Kenneth Burke’s “pentad” helps us Look at the same situation from different perspectives and track different sources of motivation for acts. We can think about, for example, whether it is just to blame an individual or a particular environment for an act. His concept of “Terministic Screens” can help us see how the language we use affects the world we see. His concept of “identification” can help us see how groups form and re-form and how the terms and symbols they use to signal membership relate to arguments and persuasion.

The Right Tool and the Right Attitude

Selecting the right tool for the text and the purpose is a skill gained through practice. Students will gravitate toward the tools they find most useful to them, but they need lots of practice.

They also need to cultivate what might be called “a moment of neutrality.” They need to step back from the issue and analyze what is really going on in the text at hand. If we really disagree with the writer, but the text also seems very persuasive, our question is “How do they do that?” To combat the opposition, we need to understand their moves. But it is also the case that if we can cultivate this moment of neutrality, we may be able to understand where they are coming from and find some common ground.

Finding common ground is the most effective persuasive strategy of all.

Sophistic Appeals: Mythos, Logos, Nomos

Note: This post is also available as a .pdf for classroom use.

In Rereading the Sophists: Classical Rhetoric Refigured, Susan Jarratt argues that the ancient Greek sophists existed at a time when human society was shifting from mythos, an uncritical acceptance of tradition as represented in myths and stories, to logos, a system of logical analysis allowing access to certain truth, as represented in Plato and Aristotle (31). Jarratt introduces nomos, or “custom-law,” as a third term (41). She sees the sophists as using logos (words and logic) to challenge traditional mythos in order to renegotiate nomos (cultural values and beliefs). Her model for this process is found in Gorgias’s “Encomium of Helen,” in which he argues that Helen of Troy is blameless because she acted as she did for one of four reasons: she was fated by the gods, abducted by force, persuaded by speeches, or conquered by love. Gorgias invokes the myth of Helen and uses words and arguments to challenge her bad reputation among the Greeks, influencing social attitudes toward women in general at the same time.

This sophistic triad of terms–mythos, logos, nomos–can be a productive alternative to the better known Aristotelian appeals of ethos, logos, and pathos. The advantage of the sophistic perspective created by these terms is that it directly addresses social values (nomoi), a factor that the Aristotelian terms tend to obscure.

mythos-logos-nomos-chart-color

Nomos

Nomos (the Greek plural is “nomoi“) encompasses the unwritten social rules, expectations, and values of a local community concerning behavior, responsibilities, boundaries, rights and other social customs. Nomos is what everybody thinks is proper, a set of agreements that may be in part unspoken and unconscious. Of course, even in a local situation, nomos is always open to renegotiation and change. In the past, such change was slow.

Today, technology has made it possible for individuals in widely separated communities to write, speak, and see each other with great immediacy, across cities, states, countries and continents. This immediacy could lead to greater understanding of different communities and cultures, but it has also led to clashing nomoi. We are in a world that has gone from isolated tribes and nations to global civilization in a handful of decades. Electronic media, cheap air travel, and disparities in economic opportunity ensure that we keep crashing into each other with vastly different languages, religions, morality, values and traditions, so that one can succumb to culture shock in one’s own country. The sophists were really the only ones in ancient Greece who experienced this kind of clash, because they were itinerant and traveled from city-state to city-state.

So people today are shocked by what they read and see from outside their community. They think, “How can they do that? How can they think that? Are they even human? Something must be done about them!” The problems our world faces are more related to clashing values than to misunderstood facts. Logical argument succeeds only when there are shared values.

Mythos

Nomos is rooted in mythos. The sophists had Greek myths in mind–the Iliad and the Odyssey, stories about Greek gods such as Zeus, Hera, Apollo and Athena, and Greek heroes such as Hercules. Today, we know those myths, but they are not the ones that are relevant to our own culture. Instead we think about such things as the Founding Fathers, the Frontier, the American Dream, and Santa Claus. We also have movies, such as Star Wars and The Lord of the Rings, that create their own mythology. For the purpose of utilizing the concept of mythos in a modern context, I want to define it broadly as “A story that nearly everyone in a community knows that serves as a reference point for community values and behavior.”

Logos

Aristotle uses this term to refer to logical argument, but it literally means “words.” For the sophists, any kind of persuasion that used words was logos. That would include logical arguments, but also stories, images, poetic language, incantations, etc. In this context, logos is the bridge between mythos and nomos. A typical move is to invoke a mythos (such as Helen of Troy) then use words to change the audience’s perception of the myth for the purpose of altering how the community feels about a particular issue. So it’s 1) invoke mythos, 2) deploy logos, 3) change nomos.

Applying the Concepts

This mythos-logos-nomos pattern is actually quite common in modern speeches, op-eds and other articles. In a review of David Silverman’s This Land Is Their Land: The Wampanoag Indians, Plymouth Colony, and the Troubled History of Thanksgiving, Philip Deloria writes

The challenge for scholars attempting to rewrite Thanksgiving is the challenge of confronting an ideology that has long since metastasized into popular history. Silverman begins his book with a plea for the possibility of a “critical history.” It will be “hard on the living,” he warns, because this approach questions the creation stories that uphold traditional social orders, making the heroes less heroic, and asking readers to consider the villains as full and complicated human beings. Nonetheless, he says, we have an obligation to try.

Both Silverman, the writer, and Deloria, the reviewer, invoke the myth of the first Thanksgiving, describe the historical record and the history of the transformation of the holiday to serve particular ideological purposes, and then recommend a changed view. Deloria’s review is titled, “The Invention of Thanksgiving: Massacres, myths, and the making of the great November holiday,” Deloria asks, “So how does one take on a myth? One might begin by deconstructing the process through which it was made.”

Deloria points out that almost none of the traditional Thanksgiving story is true. However, the real point is not to confront a myth with the facts. Rather, it is to change attitudes toward Native Americans in the present. Deloria notes that current politicians want to treat Native Americans as a racial group and disavow the political relationships established by treaties. That is the part of nomos that Native American groups are trying to change.

Different Myths of Love

In “Romantic Regimes,” Russian-born Polina Aronson describes coming to the United States as a young exchange student and learning about American ideas of love from a stack of Seventeen magazines. She realized that the American concept of love was entirely different from the Russian concept. Later she became a sociologist and characterized the American version of love as the “Regime of Choice” and the Russian version as the “Regime of Fate.” She writes,

The Seventeen girl was trained for making decisions about whom to get intimate with. She rationalised her emotions in terms of ‘needs’ and ‘rights’, and rejected commitments that did not seem compatible with them. She was raised in the Regime of Choice. By contrast, classic Russian literature (which, when I was coming of age, remained the main source of romantic norms in my country), described succumbing to love as if it were a supernatural power, even when it was detrimental to comfort, sanity or life itself. In other words, I grew up in the Regime of Fate.

She writes that these romantic regimes are “systems of emotional conduct that affect how we speak about how we feel, determine ‘normal’ behaviours, and establish who is eligible for love – and who is not.” In other words, a myth of love determines nomos, what the society thinks is normal for love. Different myths create different norms. Clearly if a Russian girl and an American boy fall in love, they are going to have trouble negotiating this difference.

Possible Writing Assignments

  1. Select an article that follows the mythos-logos-nomos pattern and write an analysis of how the myth is represented, how it is connected to a particular aspect of nomos, and how the writer develops arguments that might change the attitudes of the community.
  2. Choose an aspect of the nomos of your community that you think should be changed, invoke a myth that supports this attitude, and use stories and arguments to debunk or reinterpret this myth to support the change you have in mind. Examples of nomos might include attitudes toward same sex marriage, attitudes toward LGBTQ people, racial stereotypes, gender discrimination, etc.
  3. Research the history and background of a common current myth. How did it begin? Why did it develop in the way that it did? What effects does the myth have on current society?

Works Cited

Aronson, Polina. “Romantic Regimes.” Pocket, https://getpocket.com/explore/item/romantic-regimes?utm_source=pocket-newtab. Accessed 9 Jan. 2020.

Deloria, Phillip. “The Invention of Thanksgiving: Massacres, myths, and the making of the great November holiday.” The New Yorker. 18 Nov. 2019, https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2019/11/25/the-invention-of-thanksgiving. Accessed 9 Jan. 2020.

Jarratt, Susan C. Rereading the Sophists: Classical Rhetoric Refigured. Carbondale: Southern Illinois Univ. Press, 1991.

Writing a Rhetorical Analysis

Note: This post assumes you are familiar with Aristotle’s terms, ethos, logos, and pathos. If you are not, you may want to read “Three Ways to Persuade” first.

A rhetorical analysis paper is a common assignment in university writing courses from First Year Writing to graduate courses in rhetoric. The assignment offers an opportunity for the writer to see rhetorical concepts in action, doing real work in real contexts. It is an exercise in critical thinking, pulling the curtain of language aside to look at the rhetorical machinery at work behind it. It is also a step toward being able to put these concepts to use in one’s own writing. However, many students struggle with this type of analysis. Some end up merely paraphrasing the text they are examining. Some go on a search for strategies to identify, pointing out that the author “uses” ethos here and pathos there, but without connecting the strategies to a purpose or an audience. Others make arguments about what the author is doing, but don’t support those arguments with evidence from the text.

This is not really surprising. Most students have been trained to do literary analysis in a close reading, non-theoretical way. Rhetoric is both intuitive and counter-intuitive. It is intuitive in that we are all natural rhetoricians using rhetorical strategies every day. It is counter-intuitive in that thinking deeply about rhetorical strategies makes us see that what at first seems obvious is in fact quite complex and perhaps even devious.

A good starting point for a rhetorical analysis is to produce what is called a “rhetorical précis.” This strategy was first presented in a 1988 article by Margaret Woodworth in Rhetoric Review. The rhetorical précis, as designed by Woodworth, is a paragraph that answers four questions:

RhetoricalPrecisChart-cropped

This semester, my Professional Writing class looked at a resignation letter written by Kelly Mehlenbacher, who was State Operations Director for the Kamala Harris presidential campaign. The letter was published in an article in the New York Times.

A rhetorical précis of the letter might look like this:

Kelly Mehlenbacher, State Operations Director for the Kamala Harris campaign for President of the United States, wrote a resignation letter (dated November 11, 2019, published in the New York Times November 29, 2019) stating that she is resigning because she has never seen a campaign treat its staff so poorly. She supports her argument by describing the lack of a plan to win, laying off staff without notice and without regard for personal consequences, low morale, and divided leadership. She says that she writes in order to cause serious consideration of the structure, goals, internal communications, and values of the campaign. Her immediate audience is the campaign leadership, though once it was published in the newspaper, the audience expanded greatly to include newspaper readers and most importantly, potential campaign donors (Harris dropped out of the race on December 3).

The rhetorical précis is only the beginning of a full analysis. Though it doesn’t go into specific rhetorical strategies, it establishes the basic context–the author, the thesis, a summary of the support, the purpose, and the intended audience. Anyone doing a rhetorical analysis should solidify their grasp of these basic elements first.

The First Paragraph

Now we are ready to start looking at the actual language of the text. One of the books I sometimes use in the professional writing course recommends making a “mental movie” of the reader reading the text. This is a moment by moment imagining of the reader’s responses. This letter starts out

It is with a heavy heart that I submit my resignation as State Operations Director at Kamala Harris for the People, effective November 30, 2019. This is my third presidential campaign and I have never seen an organization treat its staff so poorly.

Often there will be an ethos move in the beginning of a document like this. However, the phrase, “It is with a heavy heart,” cliche or not, signals an emotional state, or an appeal to pathos. The reader knows that bad news is coming. The writer doesn’t like what she is about to do, but she is going to do it. We don’t know whether this letter is a surprise to the reader, or expected, but it is not good. The ethos move comes in the second sentence, with “this is my third presidential campaign.” She is a seasoned campaigner. And then she complains, not about how she herself is being treated, but about how the campaign is treating its staff in general. She is sad, she is experienced, and she is principled and trying to stand up for her people. There is a lot going on in those first two sentences.

After establishing herself as knowledgeable and principled, she delivers the devastating payload of this letter. She writes,

While I still believe that Senator Harris is the strongest candidate to win in the General Election in 2020, I no longer have confidence in our campaign or its leadership. The treatment of our staff over the last two weeks was the final straw in this very difficult decision.

She states that she still believes in the candidate, but not in the campaign or its leadership. The poor treatment of the staff is not the real issue, but a symptom of poor leadership. As we move into the logos of this letter, we have two possible enthymemes. One might be

  • Successful presidential campaigns require dedicated and talented staff.
  • Successful presidential campaigns treat their staff well.
  • The Kamala Harris campaign does not treat its staff well.
  • Therefore, the Kamala Harris campaign is not a successful campaign.

That makes it all about the staff. The implied recommendation would be to treat the staff better to have a better result.

The Second Paragraph

However, at the end of the second paragraph, a paragraph that resonates with the word “unacceptable,” she writes,

It is unacceptable that with less than 90 days until Iowa we still do not have a real plan to win. Our campaign For the People is made up of diverse talent which is being squandered by indecision and a lack of “leaders who will lead.”

We might write this enthymeme as follows

  • Successful presidential campaigns require decisive leaders with a real plan.
  • Decisive leaders with a plan use their staff resources well.
  • The Kamala Harris campaign does not use its staff well.
  • Therefore the Kamala Harris campaign needs decisive leaders.

The rhetorically interesting issue here is why focus on the issue of the treatment of the staff when the real issue is about leadership? This is the kind of issue that is often missed when a student is simply focused on finding instances of ethos, pathos, and logos. The writer is using a sub-issue to get at the more difficult issue from an indirect perspective. The text provides one enthymeme, but another is lurking behind it.

The Third Paragraph

The third paragraph continues to focus on staff morale, trusting in the expertise of the staff, and listening to honest feedback. But mixed in are references to the campaign manager and the campaign chair (the candidate’s sister Maya) who have not addressed the staff “to explain, apologize, or reassure us of the decisions being made and the path forward,” and have refused to confront mistakes.

The Fourth Paragraph

In the final paragraph, the writer says that she hopes that her departure “might result in some serious consideration of our structure, our goals, our internal communications and what our organizational values are.” She does not say who should be doing this consideration. The letter is addressed “To whom it may concern,” not to the campaign manager or chair. She has already indicated in the first paragraph that she does not have confidence in their leadership. It is unlikely that she thinks her resignation will change their capabilities. I think a case could be made that the actual intended audience for this letter is the candidate herself, Kamala Harris, and that this is a plea that she fire both Maya Harris, her sister, and Juan Rodriguez, the campaign manager. What happened instead is that Kamala Harris ended her campaign.

Conclusions

What comes out of this analysis is a tension between what the text says and what it does. This tension is designed into the document. The concern for the welfare of the staff is an acceptable theme. A direct attack on the competence of the campaign leadership is much less likely to provoke the desired result. It’s all about rhetorical strategy. Notice also that the rhetorical précis doesn’t get at this. The précis is about the surface, while the in-depth analysis gets at what is really going on. But the précis is a good starting point.

In this analysis, I have been using Aristotle’s three appeals and the concept of the enthymeme, which is the main component of logos, at least for Aristotle. I also noted the repetition of variations of “it’s unacceptable” in the second paragraph, a kind of anaphora or repetition.

However, we could also invoke kairos at this point. This resignation comes at a crucial point in the campaign, a point that comes in most campaigns, where things are not going well and money is short. Money for a campaign is a chicken and egg sort of problem. More money can mean more success, which can lead to more money. However, this campaign is in a downward spiral in polls and in donations. Drastic measures and brilliant leadership will be necessary to turn things around. Kelly Mehlenbacher doesn’t see that happening. It’s time for her to leave.

Works Cited

Martin, Jonathan, Astead W. Herndon and Alexander Burns. “How Kamala Harris’s Campaign Unravelled.” New York Times, 29 Nov. 2019, https://www.nytimes.com/2019/11/29/us/politics/kamala-harris-2020.html. Accessed 18 Dec. 2019.

Woodworth, Margaret K. “The Rhetorical Précis.” Rhetoric Review 7 (1988): 156-64. Print.

Dissoi Logoi (Two Arguments)

Dissoi Logoi” is a document associated with the famous sophist Protagoras, though the writer is unknown. The sophists were often criticized for arguing both sides of the question and for making the worse appear the better and the better appear the worse. This document is part of the reason why. It argues that what is bad for one person is good for another, that what is socially acceptable in one part of the world is shameful in another, and that what is just and unjust depends on the situation and the perspective. This looks like moral relativism and it fits with Protagoras’s statement that “Man is the measure of all things.” However, Aristotle himself argues that rhetoric is morally neutral and should look at arguments from all sides.

The document itself is incomplete. It appears to be speaking notes or perhaps a practice exercise. It is somewhat incoherent, and at times reads like it was written by someone who is crazy, or having fun at our expense. However, the writer is right that any position we take on an issue will have good and bad consequences and will affect different people differently. Our arguments will be stronger and more persuasive if we consider multiple perspectives. “Dissoi Logoi” is good intellectual practice.

Students given an issue or problem to consider and write about will often start with the following questions in mind:

  • What is my thesis?
  • How can I support it?

With the practice of Dissoi Logoi in mind, we start in a different place:

  • What are the possible positions?
  • What are the advantages and disadvantages of each one?
  • Who is helped and who is hurt by possible policies or solutions?

These questions can be used in group brainstorming sessions so that individual students don’t have to come up with all of the possible positions and consequences themselves. This usually leads to lively discussions. I have a worksheet that I update every time I use it so that the issues it raises are somewhat current. Here are the first two groups:

Group 1
Choose one of the topics below and work out all of the arguments on each side of the issue. If you run out of arguments on one, begin on another.

  • Drones (Remote-controlled pilotless aircraft)
  • Internet Tracking Cookies
  • Food Stamps

Group 2
Choose one of the topics below and work out all of the arguments on each side of the issue. If you run out of arguments on one, begin on another.

  • Free Community College
  • Statewide Educational Testing
  • Organic Food

I give each group three issues to choose from in case they have no knowledge or interest about one of them. However, you could take a single issue that the class is exploring and have the groups brainstorm all the possibilities. After they have done this, they are ready to consider the questions I started with:

  • What is my thesis?
  • How can I support it?

However, because they have explored beyond their own position and understand why people take opposing positions, their arguments are likely to be much more developed and persuasive.

Pathos as Inquiry Rewrite

In response to feedback from teachers I have rewritten the “Pathos as Inquiry” mini-module. The mini-module itself has become an official ERWC module and is still going through an editing process, so I don’t want to post it here. However, I have extensively revised the accompanying article, and I do want to share that.

The original version was a pretty good summary of Aristotle’s views. However, it didn’t do enough to help students apply the concepts. In addition, the language of the original version was unnecessarily complex. It is quite ironic. I am trying to teach about audience and I was not considering my high school student audience at all! I have sentences like “As noted above, the root cause of negative emotions according to Aristotle is disparities in social standing.” I have worked to dial that back a bit.

The revised version of “Pathos as Inquiry: Knowing Your Audience” is available here. The original materials are in this post.

Teaching History of Rhetoric

Book-HistoRhet-crop

I was first introduced to classical rhetoric in a seminar by Lawrence Greene at the University of Southern California. I have been teaching a similar seminar since the mid 1990’s, first at Cal State L.A. and then later at Cal Poly Pomona. This fall, I am about to teach it again. The seminar is called “History of Rhetoric,” but in my hands it is mostly about ancient Greek and Roman works.

My students are mostly high school language arts teachers and prospective composition teachers, so my approach is very practical. Classical rhetoric is not esoteric or arcane. The strategies are designed to help students become more effective speakers and writers. They are mostly simple, but powerful, rules of thumb.

The course will have five basic sections:

  1. Plato versus the Sophists
  2. Aristotle’s Response
  3. A Postmodern Turn
  4. Roman Rhetorical Insights
  5. Beyond Classical Rhetoric

Plato versus the Sophists

We start with two sophistic texts. First, “Dissoi Logoi” (two arguments), a text associated with Protagoras that demonstrates that any outcome has at least two sides. For example, it notes that death is bad for the deceased, but good for the undertaker. This sort of rhetorical practice is what caused sophists to be accused of “arguing both sides of the question” and so having no principles. However, this sort of thinking is excellent for students to engage in. We can ask of any policy decision, “Who does this benefit and who does it hurt?” It is a rare policy that benefits everyone equally. Thinking about all the possible consequences broadens both the discussion and the mind.

The second text is the “Encomium of Helen” by Gorgias. Gorgias is trying to demonstrate that he is such a good rhetorician that he can defend even Helen of Troy. He argues that Helen went to Troy because she was either fated to do so by fortune or the gods, abducted by force, persuaded by speech, or conquered by love. This is an example of the rhetorical strategy of division. Gorgias offers four causes for her behavior, none of them leaving Helen any agency, and then proceeds to show that whichever one it was, she was helpless before it, and so blameless. The trick here is to get the audience to accept the premise that there are only four possible causes.

The most doubtful argument here is that Helen was helpless before persuasive speech. Gorgias argues that speech is like a powerful lord or a drug. He further argues that because it is impossible to know everything about the past, present, and future, we are all forced to rely on opinion rather than truth to make decisions, and opinion is necessarily unreliable and subject to persuasion.

There are some big ideas about truth, epistemology, and the role of rhetoric in these two texts. These are the very ideas that Plato will attack in dialogues such as the Gorgias and the Phaedrus. In the Gorgias, Socrates argues that rhetoric persuades to belief rather than knowledge. Gorgias readily agrees, believing, as I noted above, that there is no other way it could be. In the Phaedrus, Socrates comes around to imagining that a form of rhetoric that was about leading the soul to truth using words might be acceptable.

Aristotle’s Response

The Rhetoric is essentially Aristotle’s response to Plato’s arguments in the Gorgias. He says that rhetoric is an art because some people are better speakers than others and we can study why. He famously defines rhetoric as “the art of finding the available means of persuasion.” And he finds a role for rhetoric that is not about deception. He says, “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).

Aristotle’s three “appeals,” ethos, pathos, and logos, allow us to think about the complex interactions and relationships between the speaker, the audience, and the arguments in more clarity and depth than in Plato’s analysis. Plato is more interested in rhetoric’s deficiencies, while Aristotle is more interested in why we need rhetoric and how to use it.

The Postmodern Turn

At this point in the course, I usually take what I call a “postmodern turn.” We read “Plato’s Pharmacy” by Jaques Derrida, an essay that takes one word that appears twice in the Phaedrus, “pharmakon,” and attempts to read the entire dialogue through that lens. “Pharmakon,” depending on context, can mean either remedy or poison. Derrida argues that writing itself is a pharmakon, and that the Phaedrus is really about the dangers of literacy. Because we have already studied the Phaedrus in detail, students feel capable of responding to Derrida’s reading. At the end of this part of the course, they know the Phaedrus even better and they are also much more comfortable reading Derrida.

Then we move to Rereading the Sophists by Susan Jarratt. Jarratt argues that Plato and Aristotle conducted a smear campaign against the sophists, who were actually more democratic and egalitarian than they were. After all, Aristotle grew up in the court of Phillip of Macedon and was tutor to Alexander the Great. Most sophists were arguing that lineage didn’t matter, what you needed to be an effective leader was speaking ability, which they could teach you, for a price. (By the way, by that definition, all English teachers are sophists. Don’t we say that we can make our students more successful with our teaching, and don’t we get paid for it?)

This time I am also trying out John Mucklebauer’s The Future of Invention: Rhetoric, Postmodernism, and the Problem of Change. The purpose of this section of the course is to engage classical concepts from a point of view closer to our own time.

Roman Rhetorical Insights

Now we come to the Roman part of the course. I used to assign translations of Cicero and Quintilian, but this time I am relying on the summaries and outlines in James Murphy’s A Synoptic History of Classical Rhetoric, which also has apparatus to help with Aristotle. Probably the most classroom friendly concepts from the Romans are the six-part speech and stasis theory. (I have linked to posts about those concepts in the previous sentence.)

Beyond Classical Rhetoric

If we have time, we will get into Renaissance rhetoric briefly, mostly with Peter Ramus, a controversial figure who had an outsized influence on how classical rhetoric came down to us. And if we have a few moments more, we might get into George Campbell, whose Philosophy of Rhetoric, published in 1776, had a big influence on rhetoric as it developed in American schools. But classical rhetoric is the heart of this course. By the time they have finished, the students will be well-prepared for deploying concepts from classical rhetoric in their classrooms and for taking the next course, “Modern Rhetoric.”

Student Presentations

Update: I forgot to mention one feature of this course. Each student will choose from a list of journal articles and prepare 15-minute presentation. (Download the guidelines here.) Many of the articles for this course are included in this collection:

Connors, Robert J., Lisa S. Ede, and Andrea Lunsford. eds. Classical Rhetoric and Modern Discourse. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1984. Print.

However, one of my colleagues pointed out to me that my reading list left out rhetorical traditions outside of Greek and Roman, and that comparisons with other rhetorical traditions would make for interesting research projects. For this reason, I have added the following articles:

Halldén, Philip. “What Is Arab Islamic Rhetoric? Rethinking the History of Muslim Oratory Art and Homiletics.” International Journal of Middle East Studies, Vol. 37, No. 1, 2005, pp. 19-38.

Liu, Yameng. “To Capture the Essence of Chinese Rhetoric: An Anatomy of a Paradigm in Comparative Rhetoric.” Rhetoric Review, Vol. 14, No. 2, 1996, pp. 318-335.

Mao, LuMing. “Introduction: Searching for the Way: Between the Whats and Wheres of Chinese Rhetoric.” College English, Vol. 72, No. 4, Special Topic: Studying Chinese Rhetoric in the Twenty-First Century, 2010, pp. 329-349.

These articles all make comparisons with the classical tradition and raise questions about how scholars working within that tradition have misunderstood other traditions. Each also includes more sources to  explore and paths for possible new research.

Designing a Reading/Writing Course

I wrote this for the composition TAs I am supervising, but the questions are relevant to anyone designing a reading/writing course. (Edit: I just realized that I have another post with a similar title that has additional information.)

Here are some questions to consider in designing your reading/writing course.  Thinking about these questions is good preparation for writing a syllabus and a schedule of assignments. 

Who are your students?

  • What are their needs?
  • Are they native speakers of English?
  • Are they ethnically and linguistically diverse?
  • Do they have books in the home? Do they like to read?
  • Are they new to the institution?
  • Do they have jobs?
  • What goals do they have?
  • (You may want to do a survey to answer some of these questions.)

What are your learning goals?

  • What will students be able to do at the end of the course that they were unable to do at the beginning?
  • What skills and abilities will they be able to improve? (You may need to consult program guidelines.)

What will the students read?

(Hint: It is usually a mistake to assign your favorite story/poem/article because your students are unlikely to love it the way you do and you will be disappointed. Also, articles that you find hilariously witty will probably be puzzling at best to a diverse student audience.)

  • How will these materials help develop your reading and writing goals?
  • How will they connect to the writing assignments?
  • How will you prepare students to do the reading?
  • What kinds of prewriting activities will help them understand why they are reading and what they are looking for?
  • How will they use the materials?
  • Will you have a theme that connects multiple readings?
  • Will the texts serve as models, discussion fodder, argumentative foils, sources of information to support arguments, or in some other way?
  • What policies will you deploy to encourage students to do the reading?

What rhetorical concepts and strategies will you teach?

  • Will you teach strategies from classical rhetoric, such as ethos, logos, and pathos, stasis theory, kairos, or the Roman six-part speech? 
  • Will you teach modern prewriting strategies such as brainstorming, clustering, scratch outlines, or freewriting?
  • Will you teach strategies from modern rhetoric such as the Kenneth Burke’s pentad? 
  • How will your students use these strategies in their work? (Hint: Don’t teach strategies that you don’t expect students to use multiple times in the course.)

What is the arc of the course?

  • How will the beginning be different from the middle or the end?
  • Will students have a sense of progress, that they are going somewhere?
  • Will strategies and concepts introduced early in the course be practiced and mastered later?
  • How will you sequence the reading and writing assignments?

What written genres will you teach and why?

  • What genres do students know that you can build on? (Hint: Texting and social media posts.)
  • What writing process will you encourage?
  • Will you respond to rough drafts? Will you have portfolios with multiple drafts?
  • How will you respond to the writing?
  • Will you have a rubric or other scoring system? Will you have a point system or percentages?

How will you deal with grammatical, mechanical, and idiomatic problems?

  • Will you have mini-lessons?
  • Will you do “minimal marking”?
  • Will you attempt “consciousness-raising” by focusing on a limited number of problems to facilitate language acquisition?

Will students do research?

  • How will they learn research techniques?
  • How will you address matters of quoting, paraphrasing, and documenting sources?

What policies will you enforce about attendance, tardiness, and late papers?

  • How will you deal with plagiarism and other forms of academic dishonesty
  • (Hint: Include a link to the institutions policies on such matters.)

What will you actually do in class?

  • (Hint: Having a reading for the day is not enough.)
  • Will you lecture? (Don’t do this too much, but sometimes it is the best way.)
  • Will you have a class discussion? (Have some questions ready.)
  • Will you have a quickwrite to get things started?
  • Will you have in-class writing? (Often a good idea at the beginning, middle, and end of a course.)
  • Will you have a quiz on the reading? (Sometime the threat of a quiz is enough. Another strategy is to ask, “What was your main takeaway from the reading?)
  • Note: The Expository Reading and Writing Program (ERWC) recommends that every reading/writing assignment go through the following process: Preparing to Read, Reading for Understanding, Questioning the Text, Responding to the Text, Writing about the Text, and Revising the Writing.

Finally, what sort of ethos do you want to project in your class?

  • Do you want to be the student’s best buddy? (Probably not.)
  • The authoritarian taskmaster? (Probably not.)
  • The approachable coach? (Possibly.)
  • Don’t be too self-deprecating. You were offered this course because you have certain accomplishments.
  • Also, resist the temptation to be a despot in the small fiefdom that is your course.

This post is also available as a Word document.

What about the Five-Paragraph Essay?

I remember the first time I taught the five-paragraph essay. It was in 1979. I was a brand new composition instructor and I had been told what book to use and that I needed to teach this formula. It was strange to me because I had never encountered it in my own education and it had not been part of the “Writing in the Schools” course I had taken. However, I did as the program commanded me to do.

I remember two students from the course. One was a Chinese girl who wrote short gem-like pieces that were more like prose poems than essays. They were unconventionally beautiful. The second was an African-American clarinet player who wrote like he was taking a free-form solo in a jazz tune. He wrote pages and pages in a rapid scrawl on any assignment, but it was pretty much free association without any coherence. On the day that I introduced the five-paragraph essay, some instinct was telling me that the Chinese girl shouldn’t listen. I was right. Her attempts to write this sort of essay were short, formulaic and vacuous. Within a couple of weeks, she disappeared from the course.

The clarinet player came up to me and said, “I think I need six paragraphs.” I said, “Go for it.” His writing became coherent after he had a form to pour it into. He went from being an unintelligible writer to a pretty good one.

So, the first time I taught this format, it hurt one student, helped one student, and left the rest pretty much unchanged. It might have helped some others too, though their writing didn’t change significantly. But the one it helped the most realized right away that he had to modify it to suit his purposes.

Build on What They Know

Now the five-paragraph essay is ubiquitous. It is often all students know how to do. When they get to college, some composition teachers teach it, some accept it, and some hate it. What is clear, however, is that to be effective writers at a higher level in any discipline, they have to outgrow the five-paragraph essay.

However, most students have been so thoroughly drilled in producing five-paragraph essays that we can’t simply eliminate this persistent format. After all, it is possible to write a good five-paragraph essay and, of course, no one wants to be told that everything they know about something is wrong. What we have to do is build on what they know, help them write better essays, and help them grow out of the restrictions of the format.

Without the Romans

I have been suggesting that the Roman Six-Part Speech is a good alternative to the five-paragraph essay (also see the mini-module, “The Classical Pattern of Persuasion“). I think it is, but for the reasons outlined above, we can’t just perform a switcheroo. Here are three principles that I think will help students write better five-paragraph essays without getting the Romans involved:

  • Don’t obsess about the number of paragraphs.
  • Think about your audience.
  • Think about your purpose in writing.

If taken seriously, those three directives will go a long way toward producing better essays.

With the Romans

If we do get the Romans involved, they really do have some insights that will generally fit inside the five-paragraph format, although they put pressure on the five-paragraph limit. I have created a comparison chart:

5para-RomanSpeech-Compared-chartimage

Each section in the Roman pattern has a rhetorical purpose.  These are all purposes and functions that writers of five-paragraph essays should also consider.

I think it is key to move students away from the five-paragraph format step-by-step. The first step might be to include a paragraph of narrative about how the issue developed to the point that we have to do something about it. That is introductory material that might create a need for six paragraphs. Students might think about these questions:

  • What background information does the reader need to know to understand the issue I am writing about?
  • What is the story behind the issue?
  • How did things get this way?

The second step might be to introduce a need to refute counter-arguments. This could take the form of questions such as

  • What will people who disagree with me say?
  • What are the arguments against my position?
  • How can I respond to them?

Putting more emphasis on these concerns, which are not generally part of the five-paragraph essay format and which are likely to expand the essay into six or more paragraphs for reasons that are pretty clear to the writer, will put students on the path to growing beyond the rigid five-paragraph format without having to abandon what they already know.

A Podcast on Stasis Theory

As an experiment, I am putting up some audio of me talking about modules.  My first effort is a 15-minute talk about my mini-module, “Stasis Theory: Asking the Right Questions.”

In discussing stasis theory, I reference two other posts on this blog:

Stasis Theory: A Mini-Module

Modifying Stasis Theory for the Classroom

If I get good feedback on this, I will do more.

Update: One of my friends told me that the touch of reverb I had added to this was distracting, so I took it out.  Now it is just my voice, plan and simple.

The Declaration of Independence as an Argumentative Essay

The first paragraph of the Declaration of Independence (hereafter called the “Declaration”) is the hook that announces to the reader what the document will do. It argues that “when in the course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another,” responsible people will explain why. This is an interesting way to establish ethos at the very beginning, as the writers have been called “the ringleaders of the American revolt” and “a few ambitious, interested, and designing men,” and worse, by such figures as George Campbell, who also called their supporters “deluded fellow subjects.” If responsible people who have “a decent respect to the opinions of mankind” should explain their causes, and they are explaining their causes, they must be responsible people. It is only logical.

It is the second paragraph, however, that is most famous, and deservedly so. It introduces what Aristotle would call an “enthymeme” with five tightly linked assumed premises. However, while assumed premises are often tacit and hidden, in this case the assumptions are overtly and boldly admitted with the phrase, “We hold these truths to be self-evident,” simultaneously acknowledging that they are not going to try to prove these claims, but also challenging the reader to dispute them. These assumptions are

  • that all men are created equal
  • that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights
  • that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness
  • that to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed
  • that whenever any form of government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the right of the people to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new government

These are pretty grand assumptions. If we accept them, it follows that what they have to do is show that the British government is destroying the unalienable rights of the colonists to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. And this is exactly what they try to do, in 29 paragraphs that read like the whereas clauses of a committee resolution. Though most of the disagreement is with the British parliament, the writers and signers of the Declaration choose to focus their anger on the king, George III. They document a multitude of grievances, including

  • refusing to pass necessary laws
  • dissolving legislative bodies that don’t agree with him, or causing them to meet in difficult, inaccessible places
  • preventing population increase by obstructing the naturalization of foreigners
  • appointing judges and other officers that work for him instead of the people
  • keeping a standing army in the colonies in peacetime and making the colonists provide food and lodging for soldiers
  • preventing the colonies from trading with whomever they want to
  • taxing the colonies without their consent
  • depriving the colonists of jury trials and sending them to England for trial on false charges
  • forcibly recruiting American sailors into the Royal Navy
  • and more

Blaming George III for all this is clearly a rhetorical move. The king becomes a convenient scapegoat for all this misery, whereas parliament is a more diverse and complex foe. Another reason is that the American revolution pits Enlightenment values against feudal monarchy. In Britain, the parliament provides aspects of democratic rule, but the system still includes the House of Lords and a monarch. The Enlightenment and feudal trappings coexist. The Americans, however, are declaring themselves no longer to be subjects of the king, as well as declaring that “all men are equal,” denying nobility as a concept. This is a big deal.

Having made these arguments, the Declaration concludes that the united colonies are absolved of any allegiance to the British crown and henceforth have all the rights and responsibilities of free and independent states.

Strictly speaking, the argument is perhaps proven, but the initial premises are not. Of course, Englishmen immediately asked how men who owned slaves could believe that all men were created equal. However, charging hypocrisy is not the same as arguing against the premise. One can also argue in favor of tradition and preserving the monarchy, but even at the time, that sounds like arguing against progress and history. Stating that the premises are “self-evident,” which initially looks like an argumentative weakness, turns out to be a rhetorical trap and a brilliant move. It is a very interesting document.

Update: Here is a much more detailed rhetorical analysis of the Declaration with lots of historical context:

The Stylistic Artistry of the Declaration of Independence by Stephen E. Lucas