Archive for the ‘Rhetorical Situation’ Category

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Humor as Rhetoric

posted: 5.4.12 by Donna Winchell

For those who like political humor, the White House Correspondents’ Dinner is a highlight of the year. Members of the media themselves have labeled it a prom for nerds. A friend of mine in communications refers to it as  “the one time all year that I DVR something on C-SPAN.” The bar is set higher each year as the President has to deliver a string of one-liners worthy of a stand-up comedian, and the stakes are even higher in an election year. Whether Obama outperformed Jimmy Kimmel this year or not, he played to his audiences.

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Categories: Argument, Rhetorical Situation
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The Uses of Visual Argument

posted: 4.27.12 by Donna Winchell

A look at composition textbooks these days shows how much the business of teaching writing has moved toward a teaching of the visual. Certainly in this day of sound bites and multimedia, the educated consumer has to be able to read a visual argument as well as a written one. The Trayvon Martin case brought this home in a powerful way when almost overnight the hoodie became a visual symbol of solidarity with the Martin family and others who saw Martin’s death as a hate crime. I’ve been trying to remember the last time I saw a symbol take hold so quickly and so widely.

I don’t know if it was a conscious decision to use the first pictures released of Martin and his shooter Zimmerman to slant the public’s perception of the two, but it certainly played out that way. The earliest pictures of Martin that the public saw showed him several years before his death—a little boy, really, in a football uniform. The one of Zimmerman that was reprinted in those first few days looked like a mug shot rather than like the much neater man who turned himself in to the police. It will be hard for prospective jurors to get those images out of their minds. [read more]

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Categories: Argument, Visual Argument
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Online Ethos

posted: 3.22.12 by Donna Winchell

217373332_54323d6ffc_mAny student who uses social networking media should sit up and take notice of the trial of Rutgers student Dharun Ravi, especially any student–or anyone else–who has ever posted online pictures of someone without that person’s permission. Ravi’s trial ended last week when he was found guilty on the charge of violating his roommate’s privacy and on at least one count of bias intimidation. The case has been widely publicized. Ravi secretly used a Web cam to record his roommate Tyler Clementi’s sexual encounter with an older man in their dorm room and shared it via social media with others.

Clementi’s sexual orientation was known to his family and close friends, but after Ravi’s Webcam video put it on display before a larger audience, he went into New York City and committed suicide by jumping off of the George Washington Bridge. Ravi was not charged with causing Clementi’s death, but had Clementi not resorted to suicide, the case might never have made it to court. It was the trial balloon for a recent New Jersey law that doubles the sentence if the violation of privacy is found to be motivated by hate. It could double Ravi’s sentence from five to ten years. [read more]

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Categories: Argument
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The Power of Public Outcry

posted: 2.10.12 by Donna Winchell

How could anyone disapprove of Susan G. Komen for the Cure? What more noble cause than an attempt to “save lives, empower people, ensure quality care for all and energize science to find the cures” for breast cancer, to borrow language from the organization’s Web site? Behind the pink visors, t-shirts, and headscarves is the moving story of how Nancy Brinker made a promise to her dying sister to do everything in her power to end breast cancer, and since 1982 the nonprofit Komen Foundation has invested more than $1.9 billion in the cause.

What’s not to like?

In January, a lot of people found something very specific to dislike when the Komen Foundation withdrew funding for mammograms from Planned Parenthood. There was an outcry in the news media and the social media as people threatened to—and did—withdraw their support from Komen. The outspoken critics were heard, and early this month the Komen Foundation reversed it decision, and founder and CEO Brinker issued a statement apologizing to the American public “for recent decisions that cast doubt upon our commitment to our mission of saving women’s lives.” She explained that the funds were withdrawn not for political reasons—i.e., because Planned Parenthood provides abortions—but because the organization is under investigation by a Republican congressman to see if tax money is used to fund the abortions. Komen’s new policy is to withhold grant money only if an organization’s investigation is “criminal and conclusive in nature and not political.” [read more]

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Categories: Argument
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Ethos and Politics

posted: 1.13.12 by Donna Winchell

Aristotle knew centuries ago the political power of ethos or ethical appeal. He knew the power of a good man speaking but also the power of impropriety or immorality to draw attention from a man’s words or ideas. It’s hard for logical appeal to overcome a bad reputation, and there is no better time to see this principle illustrated than during a presidential campaign. According to the official Monticello Web site,  as early as 1802, an unsuccessful and disgruntled office seeker published charges that Thomas Jefferson fathered children by his slave Sally Hemings. Although the truth3276256609_6e99895b20_m of that allegation has been the subject of debate for over two hundred years, it doesn’t seem to have hurt Jefferson’s reputation—then or now. Jefferson simply refused to respond. In our world of DNA testing and Internet research, it’s harder to hide skeletons, and simply refusing to respond is taken as an admission of guilt. Reporters might have looked the other way in the face of John F. Kennedy’s indiscretions, but now digging up the dirt on politicians seems to be part of the job. [read more]

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Categories: Argument
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Response to a Tragedy

posted: 12.2.11 by Donna Winchell

5849880406_9236b94440_mOne of my colleagues from the English department wondered, on Facebook, whether our colleagues in the math and science departments have spent any class time over the last couple of weeks discussing events at Penn State. Should those of us in the humanities be talking about these events with our students? Your answer may be a resounding no. You may believe that it’s not our responsibility to provide a place for our students to vent.

However, an argumentation class is the perfect place to examine the logic—or lack of logic—behind the reactions to the alleged crimes in what has been called the biggest scandal in college sports. Whether or not they are football fans, students should be able to examine statements related to the case, and identify them as legitimate statements or logical fallacies.

Consider the following statements. Is each valid, or does it illustrate a logical fallacy? (It may help to look at the indictment or at this lengthy Sports Illustrated article.)

  1. The sex scandal at Penn State is just like the sex scandal in the Catholic Church.
  2. Penn State’s last game should have been cancelled out of respect for the alleged victims.
  3. McQueary deserves to die for what he did!
  4. We are . . . Penn State! [read more]

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Categories: Argument
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Arguing with Myself

posted: 11.18.11 by archived

After nearly ten years of teaching composition, it’s depressing to find myself struggling with the many of the same issues semester after semester. Right now the issue is how best to handle argument. I’m not sure whether it’s my temperamental aversion to conflict or my creative writing background, but I chafe against the contention that all academic writing is (or should be) argumentative; at the same time, I do feel an obligation to “teach argument,” whatever I mean by that. I (sort of) know what I want out of student arguments, but there seems to be a yawning gap between what I’d like to see and what students are able to produce.

Here’s what I’d like students to do:

  • Engage with a topic about which they do not already hold a committed position.
  • Take on a fresh topic or offer a fresh perspective on a familiar topic.
  • Consider (in an open-minded, believing-and-doubting way) opposing viewpoints.
  • Recognize the limits of their own authority and the necessity for various sorts of evidence.
  • Understand something of the context and implications of their chosen issue.

As I pause to look over these goals, I notice that they involve not the actual drafting process and structure of the argument, but rather the thinking processes that occur before and during research. I remind myself that students’ development as writers and thinkers (if one can separate the two roles) is ongoing. I fully recognize the limitations my students face (as do we all) in terms of time and curiosity and investment in a course that for many is merely a requirement they must reluctantly hurdle. So are my goals foolishly ambitious? Should I settle for introducing students “merely” to the form that academic argument takes, with its thesis statement neatly shoe-horned into the end of the first paragraph, the skeleton of its reasoning laid out in clear topic sentences, its in-text citations conforming to some officially sanctioned format? [read more]

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Categories: Argument, Holly Pappas
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Rushing to Judgment

posted: 11.11.11 by Donna Winchell

3377783984_6a2cde6a79_mThe quality of news reporting began going downhill the day the first news network started broadcasting twenty-four hours a day. Let me rephrase that: the quality of commentary on the news began going downhill when someone had to keep talking about it twenty-four hours a day. However, in asking students to look at the headlines as subjects for argumentation, I am in danger of rushing the process and leading them to do what I see news commentators doing all the time: conducting some of their research on camera.

Think about it. A prominent and respected judge is suddenly revealed on YouTube to have beaten his sixteen-year-old daughter with a belt seven years ago. Was it illegal? Can he be prosecuted seven years after the fact? Cue the first lawyer or judge that CNN or Fox can get in front of the camera. This is research in the era of twenty-four-hour-a-day news. Not that these guests do not know the law. They can tell us that a law does not apply to a child over the age of fourteen. They can tell us a law has changed in the last seven years. They can discuss statutes of limitations. The smartest one, though, says that none of these laws can be applied to this specific case until the tape is examined to see if it is authentic. The daughter speaks on camera, as do the father and the mother. Lots of information bombards the viewer who has the time to watch hours of news. It becomes easy to rush to judgment. [read more]

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Elements of the Argument Puzzle

posted: 9.30.11 by Donna Winchell

2975322282_4137534801_mThe protestors’ signs were indirect claims of policy. The claim, simply put: Troy Davis should not be executed. In spite of last-ditch efforts that went as far as the Supreme Court, Davis died by lethal injection recently for shooting an off-duty police officer in Georgia in 1989. The possibility that he could have been innocent led to worldwide protests as his execution date approached and to the renewed claim that capital punishment should not be legal.

Capital punishment is one of those topics that most writing teachers put at the top of their list of topics to avoid. A discussion of why, though, can be fruitful. What support, for instance, would you offer to prove that there should be no death penalty? For some, it is as simple as the belief that all killing is wrong. A convincing argument? Not for all audiences. Does capital punishment seem justified in the case of  Lawrence Brewer, which was playing out in Texas at almost exactly the same time that Davis’s was in Georgia? Brewer was convicted of the dragging death of James Byrd, an African American, and the day before his death by lethal injection he made this statement: “As far as any regrets, no, I have no regrets. No, I’d do it all over again, to tell you the truth.” In contrast, among Davis’s last words was the statement “I am innocent.”

Consider the capital punishment debate in light of these elements of argument:

Definition. Edward DuBose, a leader of the Georgia branch of the NAACP, reports a conversation he had with Davis the night before he died in which Davis said he wanted his death to be an example “that the death penalty in this country needs to end. They call it execution; we call it murder.” Supporters of Davis called his death “the planned judicial killing of an innocent man.” [read more]

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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, 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.” [read more]

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