Thank You, Mr. Putin

Andy Warhol-style grid of four Putins


Cole Wehrle

Image Credit: 

Cole Wehrle

When I talk to fellow teachers about students in Rhetoric 306, the complaint is curiously uniform:  students struggle with limiting their engagement with a source to the level of rhetoric. Though the distinction between a particular argument and the subject of that argument can seem perfectly clear to teachers in the field, it’s a divide that continues to puzzle students, sometimes deep into a semester. I think the problem owes quite a bit to the structural design of most rhetoric classes, which initially emphasize summary and other descriptive modes over analysis: hey teach students to map then, shortly after ask them to hypothesize.

This semester, while teaching my 309: The Rhetoric of Independence, I opted for a somewhat different approach.  Because many of the students in 309 have tested out of the department’s Introduction to Rhetoric course, I wanted to be sure to provide all of the students with a basic background and vocabulary in the discipline before we moved on to our particular subject.  In order to do this I designed a heavily abridged version of that introductory class which fit into two 75-minute classes.    Of course, two class periods can hardly equal the scope and depth of 306.  Nevertheless, collapsing 306 into such a small space allowed me to experiment.

My first decision was easy.  Instead of moving from summary to analysis I would instead begin by glossing over the critical vocabulary (ethos, pathos, logos, etc) used in analysis and then move into their argumentation around their subject’s rhetoric.  We spent some time applying this vocabulary in a variety of exercises which asked students to engage deeply with advertisements (both political and commercial).  After about 45 minutes the students had a pretty good sense of what to look for and we moved on to the second step.  Here I began with a simple conceit.  After watching a Romney political add I announced to my students, “One rhetorical function is more critical than all the others.”  I then divided them into groups and had them work on figuring out which was the “correct” element.  Then, as the groups presented their findings, I put them in conversation with the discordant opinions of their classmates and allowed space for rebuttal.  By the close of the second day of classes, just about everyone had a strong sense of the elements of a work that were “fair game” and how to build an argument around those elements. 

Still, they had yet to put it into writing, and I was unsure what text I should assign them.  I knew I wanted it to be a print source.  Though videos, photographs, and print advertisements teach easily, they engage with a different subset of skills that can leave a student off-balance when he or she encounters a knotty print source. 

And then I read Putin’s op-ed in the New York Times (which can be found here).  With all the art of a first-year rhetoric student, Putin drowns his audience in panoply of argumentative ploys.  There is almost too much fodder to wade through, and, what’s more, it’s rendered in a crisp style that hardly makes it beyond its 2nd page.

What’s more, the ongoing crisis in Syria is so confounding, morally ambiguous (and frustrating) that forcing students to anchor their arguments at the level are argumentation comes as relief.  “Don’t worry guys,” I told them at the end of class, “you don’t need solve the problem on the ground, just on the page.”  


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