Inspired by the mythos of the Greek and Roman rhetorical traditions, this drawing of "Team Rhetoric" greets my first-year-writing students at the top of the syllabus. Wisdom holds a staff with a mirror on it, representing self-knowledge. Charity holds a lantern as she seeks to care for others. Justice holds a sword as she fights for equity. An octopus represents crafty adaptability. And a bee represents work ethic and broad research. The emblems remind us that we practice skills--writing, reading, critical thinking--in the hope of becoming certain kinds of people and creating certain kinds of societies.
In this course, students draw on their own experience and interests to develop their sense of the rhetorical situation. Early assignments focus on stylistic sensitivity, flexibility, and freedom. Assignments from the middle of the semester add a focus on the analysis and invention of arguments. Later assignments focus on translating those verbal skills into other media and impressing upon students their power to make changes in public discourse. We pursue four general learning objectives:
Linguistic felicity. By felicity I mean both dexterity and intense happiness. Students are able to vary their constructions; to articulate the persuasive implications of stylistic choices; to structure cogent paragraphs and apt sentences; to articulate how certain stylistic choices contribute to their personal ethos.
Argumentative skill. Students are able to adapt their persuasive tactics to specific occasions and audiences; to invent, identify, and respond to common logical, emotional, and ethical argument forms; to gather and marshal authoritative sources.
Cross-modal copiousness. Students are able to render similar arguments in different media; to choose media appropriate to their persuasive purpose; to learn new media quickly.
A sense of agency in rhetorical culture. By agency I mean both power and responsibility. Students are able to identify avenues for change at the local and regional level; to articulate the necessary political conditions for productive dialogue; to organize group efforts in public advocacy.
An Example of Student Work
The sample project below embodies many of these learning objectives. The "redefinition" assignment asks students to argue for a new understanding of a word that has been misunderstood or misused. This student's video uncovers the power plays at work in attempts to control the meanings of words. In the process, she redefines the notion of definition itself.