Learning Module 2: Rhetoric and Public Argument

June 23 — June 27

Writing assignments due this week

Reading assignments due this week

Participation due this week

  • June 26 — Comment on at least two blog posts from other students.  You are welcome and encouraged to comment on more.  The comments have to be writing focused rather than topic focused.  In other words, is something not clear or not rhetorically effective in the student writer’s Blog 4 post?  Did the writer do a good job of assessing the rhetorical situation of the public forum posts?


This week is an introduction to rhetoric, what Aristotle called the counterpart to dialectic (argument).  Rhetoric (how something is said) works with argument (what is said) to make the argument (and the speaker) more persuasive.

Rhetoric has a long history, going back to the earliest of democratic societies in Greece.  As I explain in the PowerPoint, rhetoric was conceived as a heuristic or method for persuading an audience.  Because it is over 2,000 years old, there are a lot of variations on the goals and methods of rhetoric, and you will get to see a contemporary sense of this when you watch the Cialdini video, the Science of Persuasion, which makes no mention of classical rhetorical terms, but in fact, is really repurposing some rhetorical theory.

Your key concepts to take away are rhetorical situation and rhetorical appeals.

As many of you mentioned on your “What is Good Writing?” blog posts, audience is important in the rhetorical situation.  Audience is one of the key components of rhetoric. Without knowledge of an audience, persuading them of anything would almost be impossible. There is a strain of philosophy called symbolic logic that attempts to do away with rhetoric and language altogether in presenting argument, but take a look here and you will see why it’s not that effective.  Tailoring an argument towards audience is the most important thing that you should recognize in any communication activity (and I hope it is the one thing you take away from this class–know your audience).

The next thing to recognize is the writer in the rhetorical situation.  We like to think of ourselves as a unified whole, but we really are many identities.  Just think of who you act as when you are with friends, or at a job, or in school, or with your family.  We subconsciously shift into different roles as a way to present the most persuasive “author” to our audiences.  Who we “present” to the audience in a rhetorical situation matters in whether we can persuade them or not.

Finally, there is purpose.  Purpose is usually defined partly by exigence.  As you will see in the PowerPoint, exigence is the motivation for a particular text.  For example, I’m assigning you an essay due at the end of the week–that’s an exigence that you want to modify by fulfilling it to receive a grade.  You can ignore it, but then you wouldn’t get a grade, and there would be consequences.  Your specific purpose would be persuading me that you understand the course concepts that I have outlined this week.  In school-based work, sometimes rhetorical situations can get confusing.  For example, you might think that your purpose in an assignment is to persuade a professor that the current inclusive excellence initiative at DU is ineffective, but what the professor really cares about is whether you understand the social justice concepts covered in class.  Aligning purposes is an important first step in persuasive arguments.  So, as preparation for this week’s essay assignment, I don’t care about gun control, technology in school, Miley Cyrus, or the civil war in Iraq–I care whether you understand how to rhetorically analyze the arguments that are made for each.

In addressing the audience, three often utilized appeals are logos, ethos, and pathos. These common terms might seem confusing if you haven’t run into them before, but they are fairly useful once you recognize how they are used.  Logos, or a logical appeal, is when rational evidence is used.  Things like facts, statistics, and reasoned conclusions are logical appeals.  Ethos, or an ethical appeal, is using the character of the author or appealing to the values of the audience to persuade.  Although we call them ethical appeals, that doesn’t mean “morally pure”–it means authority, credibility, and values. Barrack Obama, Mitt Romney, Darth Vader, and Mother Theresa each have authority, credibility, and values; whether we agree with those qualities contributes to how likely each would be in persuading us.  Finally, there is pathos or an emotional appeal. Pathos is powerful.  Why else would we care so much about what Brad Pitt ate for lunch or who Jimmy Fallon was voting for?  Because these celebrities have made us cry or laugh, we tend to want to identify with them.  Using humor, sadness, or frustration can be powerful motivators.

As you will see with the readings this week, rhetoric is immensely important because the reach of the public sphere on the Internet makes us not only more persuasive to others and responsive in a representative democracy, but it also makes us more susceptible to being persuaded ourselves.

Learning Objectives

  • Develop practical knowledge of rhetorical situations
  • Recognize logos, ethos, and pathos as rhetorical concepts that can better help you communicate.
  • Practice writing in novel situations.
  • Differentiate audiences by analyzing how their values shape what evidence they might best respond to.
  • Critically analyze your own work and the work of your peers