ENG-W 215: Intro to Rhetoric

Since its “invention” in the fifth century BCE, rhetoric—the study and practice of persuasion through language, signs, and symbols—has been a powerful force in public affairs, education, politics, and in the practice of civic life, even though today rhetoric is rarely studied outside of English and communication arts. This has always struck me as odd, since the impact that rhetoric and the study of persuasive language has had on Western societies really cannot be overstated. In fact, until around the middle of the nineteenth century, rhetoric dominated formal education in Europe and the United States. My overall teaching objective when developing and teaching ENG-W 215 was to show (and yes, persuade) my undergraduates that to study the history of rhetoric is to explore the evolution of ideas, politics, and—in short—ways of being together in the world as they have developed since the time of the ancient Greeks.

Learning Outcomes

To that end, I developed the following specific learning outcomes to guide my students’ exploration of the rhetorical tradition:

  • Develop a broad sense of what rhetoric means, what it is (and has been), and how it can intervene in the problems and issues of our time;
  • Apply your developing understanding of rhetoric to public life and what it means to be an engaged citizen of a democracy;
  • Speak and write intelligently about the historical, cultural, and political development of rhetoric;
  • Develop and support a compelling argument concerning the vitality and richness of rhetoric throughout Western civilization, from the Greeks to the present day;
  • Recognize and understand how an idea as complex as rhetoric has impacted multiple disciplines and sites of knowledge-production (history, cultural studies, literature and language, economics, political science, etc.);
  • Read and discuss challenging academic texts such as classical texts, philosophical treatises, and scholarly articles and monographs.

As a writing teacher, whether I’m teaching the history of rhetoric or a film class on zombies, my courses are always grounded in the Writing in the Disciplines (WID) dictum that to write about a topic is to explore that topic. In WID and in Writing across the Curriculum (WAC) circles, this is called “writing to learn,” and it is a foundational tenet of contemporary composition studies. Put plainly, “writing to learn” is the notion that students learn, retain, and use information best when they are consistently engaged in the recursive process of writing about, reflecting on, and discussing with others the materials and concepts they are learning. I believe this is especially true when students encounter challenging, difficult, and even frustratingly-opaque readings, such as the classical works of Plato, Aristotle, and others.

For this reason, I consciously designed this content-heavy 200-level survey of the rhetorical tradition as reading-intensive, with a special focus on active or engaged reading. Active reading calls attention to students’ own reading processes, prompting them to slow down and reflect on what they read, sometimes spending several minutes working through a single passage or even sentence. I supply handouts, guidelines, and we practice active reading in class. The difficult language of the primary texts of classical and modern rhetorical theory can be alienating in their difficulty, and thus require a kind of attentive, reflective reading process to which most of today’s students are simply not accustomed.

I also wanted students in this class to understand from the outset just how relevant a study of rhetoric and rhetorical history can be for their present circumstances, so we spent a great deal of time in class discussions and in writing projects exploring the interdisciplinary nature of rhetoric and persuasion. Rhetoric, as the ancient Greeks well knew, is probably the “interdisciplinary” discipline. No other single discipline encompasses so many disparate fields of knowledge or is as central to human understanding as is the study of the persuasive uses of language.

Finally, I wanted to make sure that students were learning how to develop as rhetoricians (i.e., persuasive and effective speakers and writers), so in addition to evaluating students’ mastery of the course content (i.e., the major figures and concepts in the history of rhetoric and rhetorical thought), my short writing assignments (or “SWAs”) were designed to allow students to form connections among and between various theories of language, politics, culture, power, social identities, and civic action.

Course Evaluation Summaries (Quantitative)

The highest possible score in each category is a 5.00 = “Strongly Agree”; the lowest possible score is 1.00 = “Strongly Disagree.”

ENG-W 215: Intro to Rhetoric Spring

2016 (31473)

1.)   The course was well organized. 4.50
2.)   The course objectives were clear to the students. 4.88
3.)   There was general agreement between announced course objectives and what was actually taught. 4.63
4.)   The instructor explained the subject clearly. 4.88
5.)   The instructor summarized the major points in lecture or discussion. 5.00
6.)   The instructor made effective use of class time. 4.63
7.)     The instructor was well prepared for class meetings. 4.38
8.)     The amount of reading was appropriate for the course. 4.75
9.)     In relation to other courses of equal credits and level, the workload in this course was appropriate. 4.63
10.)  The amount of material covered in the course was reasonable. 4.63
11.)  The course required more time and effort than others at this level. 4.37
12.)  The grading system for the course was clearly explained. 4.63
13.)  Grades were assigned fairly and impartially. 4.00
14.)  The instructor collected enough evidence for valid grading. 4.25
15.)  The exams accurately assessed what I have learned in this class. 4.75
16.)  The instructor showed a genuine interest in students 4.75
17.)  The instructor was readily available for consultation with students. 4.75
18.)  The instructor stimulated my thinking. 4.38
19.)  The instructor stimulated class discussion. 4.63
20.)  The instructor promoted an atmosphere conducive to learning. 4.88
21.)  Compared to other instructors I have had, this instructor is outstanding. 4.86
22.)  Compared to other courses I’ve taken, I learned more in this course. 4.83

Course Evaluations (Qualitative)

Spring 2016

“I liked how knowledgable [sic] the instructor is on the subject.”

“Dr. Cook knows a lot about the material he teaches. He passes on his knowledge very well.”

“[My least favorite aspect of the course was that] it was early.”

“[The most valuable thing I learned in this course was] how to critically read difficult texts.”

“[What I liked most about the course was] the open atmosphere for discussion and his availability for outside consult.”

“[The most valuable thing I learned in this course was the] history of rhetoric and the importance of it.”

“I liked discussing theorists the most (Nietzsche, Cixous, Burke).”

“At times the instructor made me feel ‘stupid’ or not good enough. Felt as though sometimes he forgot that we are taking more than just his class. Asked us to spend 6 hrs on 1 essay when we read 4 that week. The work load seemed way to [sic] big for an intro class.”

“[The most valuable thing I learned in this course was] time management.”

“I love Dr. Cook’s passion for the course and his enthusiasm for the topics. I like what I learned, I did not consider this a writing course, but I loved what I learned.”

“The instructor was not clear enough on grading or requirements for assignments. And the quizzes were not fair to me, the reading material is in a different language I need explained to me before answering questions about it.”

“[The most valuable thing I learned in this course was] the power of speech/persuasion…the philosophy of rhetoric…and feminism.”

“[What I liked most about the course was] discussions. They helped with my understanding of the information.”

“[What I liked least about the course was] all the reading.”

“I really enjoyed this course. I wish there had been more supplemental assignments. I think these would help understanding/add small ‘fluff’ to our grade.”

“[What I liked most about the course was that] the course material covered a broad timespan.”

“[What I liked least about the course was] sosososoooo much reading.”

“Everything [in this course] seemed really valuable.”

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