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Teaching from the Headlines

posted: 9.16.11 by Donna Winchell

The fun part of writing an argument text is compiling the readings to illustrate the concepts I teach. The challenging part is keeping the readings timely. The time it takes for a book to go from final manuscript to finished book is about the same as the gestation period for humans—nine months. That means even the essays I slip in just under the wire could be outdated before the book appears in print or before the next edition if I don’t choose carefully. All it takes is a look back at recent events in Egypt, Libya, Syria, or Japan to remind us how much can happen in a matter of months. I was in Cairo in May of 2010. The streets were a mass of cabs moving with total disregard for traffic lanes or even for the fact that two other cars were trying to occupy the same space at the same time. A few months later, the cabs were gone from Tahrir Square, and the streets were a mass of people summoned via social media to join a revolt against Moammar Gadhafi.

This social medium is my means of keeping discussion of argument up to the minute—or at least up to the headlines of the last week or two, which are such a rich source of discussion in a class on argumentation. Even before President Obama finished his speech on jobs last week, his claim of policy was the headline on Internet news outlets. He told Congress, “You should pass this jobs plan right away.” Republicans immediately came back with their own claims of value and claims of policy, and the battle was on. Interestingly, CNN contributor John Avlon, writing on CNN.com, pointed out Obama’s appeal to common ground, a technique crucial to effective argument. He wrote, “The biggest takeaway is that all the major policies the president proposed were rooted in past bipartisan support. That good faith effort to bridge the deep partisan divides in Washington deserves something more than predictable spin—and, in turn, the American people deserve some concerted action on the economy from Congress.”

Many Americans over the course of the last week have relived, through various media, the tragedy of 9/11. Much of the rhetoric surrounding the anniversary was what Aristotle termed epideictic rhetoric, or rhetoric designed to praise or blame past actions. Most contemporary rhetoric is designed instead to explain or evaluate the present or chart a course of action for the future. Today’s headlines are a useful supplement in teaching rhetoric. The biggest takeaway is that all the major policies the president proposed were rooted in past bipartisan support. That good faith effort to bridge the deep partisan divides in Washington deserves something more than predictable spin — and, in turn, the American people deserve some concerted action on the economy from Congress.

There were flashes of clear common ground. Among the policy proposals greeted with rare bursts of cross-aisle applause were proposals to form a public-private infrastructure bank, cut the corporate tax rate while closing loopholes, pass free trade deals with South Korea, Panama and Colombia, and institute tax incentives for corporations to hire veterans returning home from war. Stay tuned for future posts about them.

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Categories: Argument, Rhetorical Situation
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