August 9, 2004

Understanding Arguments

This summer I'm teaching the University of Maryland's "boot camp" version of its freshman writing course. We meet two times per week for 3 hours and 15 minutes over 6 weeks. Each night is worth an entire week of regular semester class time. We're 2 weeks out from the finish of the semester, and I have mixed feelings about how things are going. I'm exhausted from preparing whirlwind lesson plans that require constant activity and depend on sucessful student contributions. I'm encouraged by students' ability to absorb complex concepts fairly rapidly. I'm confused by student's reactions to the workload, the course material, and the assignments.

In the first place, coming up with a lesson plan for 22 eighteen-year olds to keep them actively engaged in material is a challenge. I, luckily, realized early on that if we spent more than 30 minutes per night in straight "lecture" format that the class would fall flat. So, I've designed the class in such a way that I am constantly moving students (both physically and mentally) through the material and in-class tasks constantly. I believe that this has met with a certain amount of success. Although I still have students who refuse to become engaged with the material, I do find that students are so active for the 3 hours that they are unable to actively ignore what's going on. I'm not sure if that's necessarily a good thing... but I do know that even the most eager learner can begin to nod off after too much of the same thing.

One of the ways I've tried to reinvent the way I teach for this class is by adding a media component. After an introduction of the rhetorical appeals and common topics using the “Declaration of Independence,” I followed the discussion up with a multimedia project in rhetorical appeals, the rhetorical triangle, and the common topics of argument using Law and Order. During the past few months, I've had occasion to watch lots of 1/2 episodes of Law and Order. (That’s what happens when you’re still breastfeeding, but the baby is so distracted by the fact that you have a book in your hand that you can no longer read., because she wants to turn, or better yet eat, the pages. Occasionally, when the rest of the house is quiet, she’ll allow you to view ½ an hour of television—so long as the volume is down to a mumble and there aren’t too many flashing lights on the screen.) I realized that during the second half of the show is a smorgasbord of arguments made for various rhetorical situations. Each situation required a new approach to the same issue using multiple kinds of rhetorical approaches to constantly changing audiences. Additionally, the show demonstrated visually the way an audience responds to varying appeals. So, I decided to try to find a way to add it to the course.

What I did was to use the second half of the show (essentially the Law part) to teach students how good argument happens when rhetors adapt their appeals to the rhetorical situation. I divided the second half of the show into 5 scenes. Each scene had series of questions that asked students to reflect on the effectiveness of each appeal made given the rhetorical situation. What I’d hoped for, and what I think I achieved, is a sense that no good argument can be effective without first taking into account the purpose and audience for the debate. After viewing each scene and responding to the questions individually, students were divided into groups to answer the same questions collectively. This is, primarily, for pedagogical purposes… I wanted to prove to students that group activities are in fact more productive than individual activities because their score as a group was always higher than their scores as individuals (something I’ve also been working on for a long time which I think finally worked best with this assignment). In any event, students had completely discussed all of the intricacies of these 5 arguments by the end of an hour, and we simply had to confirm aloud what our discussions were about in small groups.

How do I know the activity was successful? Each time I’ve taught this course I’ve been dissatisfied by students’ ability to grasp that good rhetoric is audience-centered, not author-centered. This time, however, students have repeatedly demonstrated that they understand how integral the rhetorical situation is to successful rhetoric. Their “rhetorical analyses” (done in the form of a quiz) demonstrate this, as students note, without prodding, that the successfulness of an article’s argument depended on how well it met the values and interests of its audience (They were asked to comment on John Edwards’ “Two Americas” speech as delivered during the Iowa caucus).

That’s all I can write for now. The baby wants more feeding… so I’ll be surfing TNT to see if there’s any more Law and Order that I can use….

Posted by c_jane at August 9, 2004 11:18 AM | TrackBack

Very interesting approach. Do the students consider the facts of the case (the story of the episode) in order to understand how appropriate the arguments are for the situation?

And what's the rhetorical triangle?

Posted by: George at August 9, 2004 12:13 PM |

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Yes, they do consider the "facts" of the case, but they do so rhetorically. In other words, because of the episode that I selected, we also discussed the value of selecting the "best possible evidence." The two worked very well together. I’ll try to overview the assignment a little better.

Step 1: Directions. Students were to watch 5 excerpts from Law and Order and answer questions for each excerpt. They would read the questions for the first episode first. Then, I would play the scene for them. Next, I would rewind (or go back one chapter if you happen to have the DVD) back to the start of the scene and play it a second time while students answer the questions. After students answer the questions for that scene, they were asked to prepare for the next scene by reading the next set of questions. This repeated 4 times.

Step 2: Overview. I summarized the police investigation part of the show, explaining that it was not necessarily the facts of the case with which they needed to be concerned, but rather the selection of facts and the choice of presentation that they should focus on. In this particular case, the suspect had been charged with conspiracy to commit murder. She was a state senator who was charged for hiring a “hit man” to murder a journalist who, with the help of an unnamed source, exposed her for voter fraud in her column. The evidence used to gain the arrest warrants included sworn testimony by a known participant in organized crime and several unopened ballot boxes.

Step 3: The Scenes. It’s amazing how many arguments take place in the second half of the show. I included 5 scenes for students to watch. The first was a bail hearing in which the ADA requests bail. The audience is simply a judge who determines that the ethos of the defense (a known senator) outweighed the ethos of the ADA’s evidence (testimony by a known criminal). Students were asked to consider the rhetorical situation and determine what appeals the attorneys used and how effective that evidence in relationship to the rhetorical situation. Other scenes included: two ADAs arguing to the DA why they should proceed with the case and resolving that they would need “more credible evidence” in order to convince “a jury” –the ultimate audience, whose values they take into consideration; a hearing to “recount” the unopened ballots in front of a judge; a plea by “Jack” the ADA to the journalist to release the name of her source (his use of pathos and consideration of her “journalistic integrity” are interesting here); and then finally the final scene in which the “unnamed source” is on the witness stand.

So, the evidence is definitely important, but why it’s important is because of its credibility and its rhetorical weight. In addition to paying attention to the rhetorical appeals, I also asked them to consider the ways in which the attorneys generated their arguments using the common topics.

I think if I were to teach a longer class and one over the fall semester, I would take John Edwards’ acceptance speech and the forthcoming Cheney acceptance speech on video and present those as another “rhetorical analysis” exercise. I’d follow that up with a written form of the speech and discuss the significance of visual rhetoric.

If you’re interested, I can try to find my lesson plan and the “quiz.”

Oh, the rhetorical triangle is part of Aristotle’s Rhetoric. It refers to the relationship between the speaker, the audience, and the subject. It forms the basis of rhetorical theory—that no good argument takes place without careful consideration of each of these relationships. It also is what provides us with an analytical model for determining the successfulness of an appeal. (ie. We need to determine the ways in which the author accommodates the subject to the needs of the audience.) Of personal interest is that it is the rhetorical triangle that forms the basis for W.J.T. Mitchell’s ekphrastic triangle. In Mitchell’s theorization, however, he does not account for the triangle’s flexibility (speaker, audience, thing visually represented). It is interesting, though, to consider the way that works, the “visual artifact” becomes something manipulated at the hands of the speaker in order to accommodate his audience. But I digress….

Posted by: CJ at August 9, 2004 1:43 PM |

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