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

Teaching Literature Rhetorically: Transferable Literacy Skills for 21st Century Students

As a follow-up to her popular Stenhouse book, Teaching Arguments: Rhetorical Comprehension, Critique, and Response (see review here), Jennifer Fletcher has published a new book, Teaching Literature Rhetorically: Transferable Literacy Skills for 21st Century Students. This new book is even more jam-packed with classroom-tested teaching strategies, graphic organizers, handouts, and big ideas. Literature teachers are guaranteed to find something immediately useful in this book. Like the previous volume, it is written in first person with lots of classroom anecdotes and a passion for teaching and learning.

Fletcher-TeachingLiteratureRhetorically

What exactly does it mean to “teach literature rhetorically”? Teachers who are used to teaching close reading, analyzing figurative language, and exploring themes and motifs may be initially puzzled. They may ask, “Does this mean I would be focusing on ethos, pathos, and logos and analyzing arguments?” Actually, both sets of techniques apply in combination. At its core, rhetoric is about how language affects audiences and this is true whether we are looking at aesthetic or persuasive effects. Jennifer puts it this way:

From literature, we learn about the transformative power of stories, the gifts of the imagination, the pleasures of reading, and the importance of craft. From rhetoric, we learn about critical reasoning, the structure of arguments, the tools of persuasion, and the significance of context. Combining the two gives students the best of both worlds. (xiii)

However, this new book does far more than combine the techniques of literary criticism with strategies for rhetorical analysis. The key claim of this book is that a rhetorical approach will “promote the kind of deep and transferable learning that prepares students to be adaptive thinkers and communicators who thrive across the diverse contexts of their lives.” And it does this without diminishing the aesthetic experience of literary texts.

As an example, lets look at what Jennifer does with the familiar “Say, Mean Matter” activity that originally came from Sheridan Blau’s book The Literature Workshop.

  • What does it say? (A quotation)
  • What does it mean? (A paraphrase or close reading)
  • Why does it matter? (A connection to a theme of the work)
  • What does it do? (Effect on the reader; rhetorical function or move)(35)

The addition of the “What does it do for the reader?” question connects the literary questions to questions about their rhetorical effect on the audience. It makes us think about who the readers are and why authors do what they do.

I should note here that in asking these questions, we are boldly engaging in two perspectives that the New Critics (1940’s through the early 1970’s) called fallacies: the “Intentional Fallacy” (focusing on what the author intended) and the “Affective Fallacy” (focusing on the emotional response of the reader). As a critical focus, New Critics were not interested in authors or readers, only texts, and some of their prejudices have been passed on to us in one form or another. However, as teachers, we want our students to learn how to do things with words, so of course we are interested in authors and readers, as well as texts.

Immediately after the “Say, Mean, Matter, Do” activity Jennifer introduces another of her own inventions, the “Descriptive Plot Outline.” This combines the “descriptive outlining” that is common in ERWC (and was originally developed by Ken Bruffee) with the standard plot outline in order to create something new and very useful. Students draw the line for the plot chart with its depiction of rising and falling action. Then on the outside they describe the events of the plot and on the inside they describe the impact that each event has on the reader, the character, or the theme. This very effectively combines literary and rhetorical approaches, while also enhancing the student’s understanding of the work.

Chapters in the book deal with integrating skills and knowledge, close and critical reading, analyzing the rhetorical situation, analyzing genres, negotiating voices and meaning, developing and supporting a line of reasoning, communicating with yourself and others, and reading and writing with passion. The appendices contain more than 20 pages of graphic organizers, handouts, charts, sample texts, and other useful materials designed to implement the activities in the book.

Jennifer says that the final chapter, “Reading and Writing with Passion,” is about “changing the measure for postsecondary success from academic proficiency to intellectual passion, from workforce preparation to liberal learning, and from diploma or degree completion to a life well lived” (220). In that sense, she is going against the grain of our time. But I think she is selling herself short here. The approaches delivered in this book may change the focus, but I think they will accomplish all of those goals, both the practical and the ideal, with passion.

An Update to the “Three Ways to Persuade” Mini-Module

The feedback from teachers on my original “Three Ways to Persuade” mini-module was substantially negative.  Most teachers liked the article and the first half of the module.  However, the writing assignment dealt with issues of knowledge versus belief and whether rhetoric was good or bad.  It also asked the students to paraphrase quotations from Aristotle.  All of this turned out to be too challenging, as well as diverting students away from learning about ethos, logos, and pathos.  A few teachers found that their students were capable of dealing with all of these challenging questions and activities, but most complained.  I thought that these complaints were quite well taken.

I ended up moving most of that material to a new mini-module: “Knowledge, Belief and the Role of Rhetoric.”

That worked, but now I had to come up with a new writing assignment for the original module.  I decided to have the class create an annotated list of rhetorically interesting websites that might be used to help outsiders understand what “rhetoric” is and how ethos, logos and pathos work together to persuade.  Each student would create a paragraph for this list.  Here is the assignment:

Many people don’t know what “rhetoric” is. Some people who do know have a bad impression of it. They think it is all about deception. However rhetoric is everywhere. It can be used for both good and bad purposes. You and your fellow students will create a list of rhetorically interesting websites that will help people understand how rhetoric works, or at least how ethos, logos, and pathos work together to persuade people to do or believe things. You will write a short paragraph that will become part of this list.

Choose a website that focuses on an issue, problem, or cultural trend that you consider important or interesting. Explore the website carefully. Then write a paragraph answering the following question:

How do ethos, logos, and pathos work together (or not work together) in helping to achieve the writer’s purpose?

Activity 8 contains some questions that will help you gather information and ideas for this analysis. Remember that you are doing a rhetorical analysis, not arguing for or against a position on the issue.

The next activity includes some questions to help students do this analysis:

The following questions will help you in your rhetorical analysis of the website. In answering the questions, in addition to the words and sentences, also consider images and other visual aspects of the site.

Purpose

1. What is this document or web site about?
2. What is the writer of the document trying to accomplish? Why is he or she writing?
3. What kind of ethos or image does the writer project? What are some of the elements that create this ethos? Is it believable?

Audience

4. Who is the primary audience for this document or web site? What are their characteristics? Is the document well-adapted to this audience?
5. Who else might read this document? (This is called a “secondary audience.” If the website was not created with you or your classmates in mind, you are a secondary audience.) What are their characteristics? Does the document work for them too?
6. What arguments and evidence (logos) does the writer use to persuade the audience? Are the arguments convincing? Is the evidence true and reliable? Summarize the main points.
7. Does the writer try to create an emotional response (pathos), or keep the reader’s emotions in check? What are some examples? If the writer does not try to engage the reader’s emotions, what is the effect of this emotional neutrality?
8. Do all of these elements work together to achieve the desired response from the reader? Why or why not?

The student version of the new version is available here. There is also a somewhat revised version of the “Three Ways to Persuade” article.

Aristotle’s Poetics in the Classroom

In this blog, I have written a lot about Aristotle’s Rhetoric. However, I have not written about his literary criticism, which he develops in the work called the Poetics. The Poetics has had a great deal of influence on literary thought and practice for many centuries, especially on drama. Though Aristotle was mainly concerned with the dramatic form of the Greek tragedy, his principles can be usefully applied to other art forms, including novels, short stories, and movies, and perhaps even poetry. The principles are simple, easily understood, and useful for students.

Perhaps the genre in our own time that is closest to Greek tragedy is the dramatic movie, perhaps even a horror movie.  Analyzing a movie is probably the best vehicle for introducing students to Aristotle’s ideas.

Aristotle, like most ancient Greeks, thinks that art is about imitation of life. The Greek word is “mimesis,” which we find in “mime and” “mimic.” He thinks that humans are natural imitators and that we enjoy representations, even of things we would not like to see in real life, such as dead bodies or fearsome beasts. This literary theory is pretty easy for students to apply. Is the work realistic? Is it lifelike? Does that mean it is good? They can also easily disagree with it because they often enjoy fantasy and other things that are abstract or unrealistic. Disagreeing with Aristotle is fun, and it gets them thinking. They can have a dialogue with Aristotle.

Aristotle argues that tragedy has six components. I have created a simplified chart, with questions for students:

AristotlePoeticsChart-Simple-1a

A more detailed version of this chart with more extensive questions is available here.

Plot

Aristotle argues that plot is the soul of tragedy and that while there could be a tragedy without character, there could not be without plot. Simply relating the events of a tragic plot should create pity and fear in the hearer. Students appear to agree with Aristotle on this in that when they write about a novel or a short story, they tend to summarize the plot. However, such summaries rarely analyze the plot in terms of Aristotelian plot elements such as reversal, recognition, and what he calls the “scene of suffering,” the climatic scene in which the different strands of the plot come together for the greatest emotional effect.  The plot itself creates emotions, for Aristotle pity and fear, in the audience.   The questions in the chart linked above help students analyze the plot from such a perspective.

Character

Aristotle’s views on good character are probably more at odds with the students’ views than on any other aspect of literature.  He believes that the protagonist should

  • Have good moral values
  • Be above average in nobility and birth
  • Behave appropriately according to his station in life
  • Be realistic and life-like
  • Be consistent in behavior
  • Have a flaw or other characteristic that causes him to experience a dramatic change in fortune

Today we are used to viewpoint characters and heroes who are quite unlike Aristotle’s ideal.  The disjunction between Aristotle’s views and the students’ should provide lots of interesting discussion.

Thought

When Aristotle discusses “thought” in tragedy, he refers to his work on Rhetoric.  He says, “Under Thought is included every effect which has to be produced by speech, the subdivisions being: proof and refutation; the excitation of the feelings, such as pity, fear, anger, and the like; the suggestion of importance or its opposite” (XIX)  Clearly arguments are part of thought, but also emotional and ethical appeals, the full range of ethos, logos, and pathos.  Themes, philosophical questions, and exploration of moral and ethical choices are also included here.

Diction

Under “diction” Aristotle discusses formal and informal language, the use of strange and unusual words, and other aspects of style.  His concern appears to be mostly about the effects of word choice on the audience.  Some of the factors that we might assign to style, such as the creation of emotional effects, Aristotle sees as belonging to Thought.

Song and Spectacle

Song and Spectacle are considered to be the least important factors in Aristotle’s scheme.  For students, they may be the most important factors.  Some movies rely on exciting music and spectacular visuals, often created by computers, to become big hits, while neglecting plot, character, and thought.  Can the musical score and cinematic effects successfully make up for a lack in other categories?  This is an interesting question for students to discuss.

Conclusions

Aristotle has two big disadvantages in relating to current students: 1) he is analyzing an ancient dramatic form that is no longer produced, and 2) his analysis reflects the cultural values and customs of Athenian Greeks in the fourth century B.C.  However, looking at current cultural productions, such as movies and novels, from an Aristotelian point of view, produces what Kenneth Burke calls a “perspective by incongruity,” that allows the student to have insights into Aristotle, current artistic work, and their own perceptions and values.  It is a worthwhile discussion.

Works Cited

Aristotle. Poetics. Translated by S. H. Butcher. The Internet Classics Archive. Accessed 16 Feb. 2019.