Course Meeting Times

Lectures: 2 sessions / week, 1.5 hours / session

Course Description

This course uses the study of rhetoric as an opportunity to offer instruction in critical thinking. Through extensive writing and speaking assignments, students will develop their abilities to analyze texts of all kinds and to generate original and incisive ideas of their own. Critical thinking and original analysis as expressed in writing and in speech are the paramount goals of this class. The course will thus divide its efforts between an examination of the subject matter and an examination of student writing and speaking, in order to encourage in both instances the principal aims of the course.

Rhetoric, broadly understood, provides a framework for achieving these goals. Rhetoric is traditionally conceived as the art of persuasive language, and this course will in part study how spoken and written language becomes compelling. Critically examined arguments are generally more potent than unexamined ones, so the emphasis on critical thinking will also improve the student's ability to formulate powerful arguments.

But rhetoric-which had for some years foundered as an intellectual and academic discipline-has taken on a broader set of meanings in its recent rebirth. No longer is rhetoric confined to the use of language, for it now admits representations of all kinds, beyond the linguistic, to include images, sounds, logos, architecture, and more. Though these forms are in some sense persuasive, they do not necessarily attempt to convince an audience of the correctness of a proposition; instead, they compel or provoke their witnesses without demanding a consensus of opinion or feeling. This class will investigate these and other media, noting the effects they engender, subtle and pervasive, on our lives and our habits of thinking.


The semester will begin with a brief introduction to the classical discipline of rhetoric, including a look at one of Plato's dialogs on the subject. We will next consider rhetoric in its quintessentially modern mode, as a tool of politicians and salespeople. But the influence of rhetoric is not confined to these most explicit and recognizable contexts, so we will also study the rhetorical dimensions of everyday objects and behaviors that we usually take for granted. Taking our cue from this investigation of "micropolitics," we will end the semester by looking at the rhetoric of technology and the ways in which technology shapes our rhetoric. Note that throughout the semester, the course will have an explicitly political content, and will engage substantially with philosophy as well.


As the subject of rhetoric offers a unique opportunity in the humanities to combine theory and practice, we will take advantage of this opportunity, practicing rhetoric throughout the semester in writing and speaking. Student presentations will occupy much of our class time, and peer analysis of student writing will be a frequent exercise. In-class debates will allow us to practice both critical skills and persuasive ones. In addition to the major writing assignments, short assignments throughout the semester will rehearse elements of the writing process and help students prepare for class discussion. Needless to say, student attendance and participation are utterly crucial for a successful and effective rhetoric class.


Bear in mind that drafts of writing assignments figure in to some extent as part of the grade for that assignment. Casual assignments constitute part of the Participation grade. Your grade will be determined as follows.

Writing Assignment 1 4
Writing Assignment 2 4
Writing Assignment 3 6
Speaking Assignment 1 2
Speaking Assignment 2 1
Speaking Assignment 3 4
In-class Debate 4
Participation 6
Total 31

In general, the highest grades will be earned by those students who present extremely original, highly critical ideas in distinct and lucid prose, taking care to avoid sloppy or lazy formatting, spelling, etc. In past semesters, 20 points has counted as a passing grade, while 24 points equated to a B grade.

Course Details

Your Role in this Class

This course requires your attendance and on-time production. You are expected to be prepared for each class (having read and thought about the assigned reading, having assignments completed) and to participate meaningfully and often in class discussions and workshops.

Responsibility as Student

This class is to some extent unusual in the humanities in that, in keeping with the subject matter, one of our primary modes is practice. Perhaps this will feel familiar to you scientists and engineers, since your laboratory work is similarly a practical application of theory you may have studied in lecture contexts. But this class remains unique in that the practice is not just an application of the theory, but is a demonstration, articulation, or elaboration of the theory. We do rhetoric about rhetoric. As such, your contributions will serve to substantiate the class, so that this class will likely be only as effective as the students are able to make it. There are frequent speaking assignments, as well as numerous writing assignments, which ensures, if all goes well, that your voices will be heard much more than the professor's. Though this course will have some reading, the texts are not our primary focus. Instead, you will be responsible for providing material for discussion, including your own written work, prepared and impromptu presentations, and examples of material brought in from "the real world."


I do not distinguish between excused and unexcused absences. Given the "hands-on" nature of the subject matter, to miss class is necessarily to miss out on the learning that this class provides.

  • There are two penalty-free absences that you should save for illness, religious reasons, job interviews, and the like. These absences are, for all practical purposes, "no questions asked," so that you need present no excuse for missing class. Note: In the last two weeks of class (the final four meetings), the "no questions asked" policy is suspended; missed classes during these last two weeks require a medical excuse and a doctor's note in order to count as a penalty-free absence.
  • The third absence is no longer penalty free: it lowers your final course grade by a whole grade (e.g., an A becomes a B), the fourth lowers it another whole grade (the original A becomes a C).
  • The fifth absence means automatic failure for the course; you should drop the course immediately to avoid its showing up on your transcript. This automatic failure occurs regardless of your average or the reason for the absences because you will not have fulfilled the course requirements - no exceptions.
  • You must be on time for class.  If other classes or labs will necessitate your arriving late or leaving early, do not take this class this semester. Being more than 10 minutes late or having to leave class early will count as an absence.
  • If you are absent on a day when you were responsible for part of class time (for example, you were giving a presentation or participating in a debate), you will likely receive a 0 for that assignment. This is unfortunate, but the busy schedules of your classmates do not allow for much post hoc shuffling.

Manuscript Formats

All major writing assignments are submitted as hardcopies, following the formatting requirements outlined below. Major writing assignments are also to be submitted by e-mail, as an attachment, due at the same time as the hardcopy (or just after). Minor assignments, when they are submitted, will be submitted sometimes as hardcopy, sometimes electronically, and sometimes both.

Essay manuscripts should be typewritten and double-spaced. Drafts can be submitted on two sides of the page, but the final revision must be submitted single-sided. Single-space your name, the course title, my name, and the number of the essay (or draft, e.g., "A2D") in the upper right-hand corner of the first page. Center your title about a third of the way down your first page, and begin your opening paragraph two double spaces beneath your title. Please do not underline your title or place it in quotation marks (except in special cases, such as a title that is a quotation). Number your pages, beginning on page two. You should use a twelve-point font, and margins of about an inch all the way around.

Electronic manuscripts should be duplicates of the hardcopy. Please submit electronic manuscripts as an attachment with the assignment number ("Draft 2" or "Revision 2") and your name in the subject line. (This last stipulation may seem unnecessary, since your name will also be in the "From" field of the e-mail, but it helps immensely with clerical issues at my end.)

All drafts and revisions must be word-processed and thoroughly proofread for typographical, grammatical, and punctuation errors. If you consistently make these kinds of errors, your grade will drop.

You are required to keep a copy, electronic or otherwise, of every assignment. You are strongly encouraged to save your document frequently, back-up regularly, and print your work-in-progress periodically. Computer errors are inevitable and do not excuse shoddy, incomplete, or late work.


Workshops allow you to help each other improve your current draft. They demonstrate the way in which writing is social, part of an ongoing community dialogue, and subject to change based on the responses of particular readers. As a responder to someone else's essay, don't waste time correcting grammar, spelling, or formatting; instead, focus on the ideas, pointing out places where ideas need to be developed more fully or need more support. As the writer, ask specific questions about your content and organization. The professor will provide additional details about workshop responsibilities when the workshop is upon us.


Each student must meet at least once with the professor during the semester to discuss the process of moving from a draft to a revision. More details of this meeting will be furnished when the time comes, but, in brief, it is the student's responsibility to set an agenda for this meeting.

Late Work

Oral presentations and speeches will receive a 0 if not given on time. Written work that is late reduces your final course grade by 1/3 (e.g., a B- for the course becomes a C+) for each class day that a paper is late. Work submitted late may receive no written commentary. Nevertheless, you are urged to submit all written assignments, even late ones, as non-submission has more severe consequences than does late submission. Note that some work is due not in class but on a day when class does not meet. These submissions are due at my office at the specified time. If I am not in my office at that time, please leave your submission in the "inbox" attached to the door of my office.

Writing Center

You are encouraged to consult the Writing Center at any stage of your writing process. They will also be happy to help you with speaking assignments. This is an invaluable resource so take advantage of it. Note that the Writing Center tends to get crowded at certain times during the semester, so it is best to schedule an appointment at least five days in advance if possible. See MIT's online Writing and Communication Center.


Plagiarism (e.g., copying and pasting sections from the web, paying for someone's paper, handing in someone else's paper as your own) results in academic disaster. So it's crucial to understand the concept.

  • Just as scientists demand complete and accurate information about experiments so they can duplicate and check those experiments and just as math professors demand complete and accurate work to show how you got the answer, so scholars and readers demand complete information so they can explore in more depth what your sources said (and, frankly, so they can check your accuracy in reporting what those sources said). In all academic writing, then, you must give citations each time you use:
    • someone else's ideas
    • someone else's words
    • someone else's phrasing
    • someone else's argument structure
    • someone else's unusual information
  • The bottom line is to give credit wherever it is due. When in doubt, cite.
  • Further, you show appropriate respect for other writers and thinkers by giving them credit for their ideas, their structures, their phrasings, and their information. In Western culture, not giving credit is an insult as well as an act of dishonesty.
  • In other words, never take credit for someone else's words, ideas, or style (this prohibition includes material found on the Web).
    • Remember, although the material on the Web is free, you did not create it; someone else thought it, researched it, wrote it, and that someone must be given credit.
  • There are four guidelines for using sources in your academic writing:
    • Unless a professor explicitly requests a paraphrase or unless you are translating a sophisticated technical source into language for the layperson, there is rarely a good reason to paraphrase a source-either summarize it in your own words or quote it exactly.
    • When you quote, quote exactly, use quotation marks, and cite the source.
    • When you use information that might not be considered common knowledge, cite the source.
    • When in doubt, always give a citation.
  • In sum, your essays should always be your own work (although you are encouraged to seek writing advice from the Writing Center and from your workshop groups). Your essays should always be your new work created specifically for this course. Do not hand in work written for other courses-neither from this semester nor from previous semesters, and this prohibition includes modifying or adapting your own work from other courses-doing so will result in an unchangeable zero.
  • If I so request, you must hand in hard copies of all the sources that you used for writing an essay, as well as your notes and rough drafts. If you cannot produce these materials when requested, the essay will receive a zero and will not be allowed to be replaced by another essay. Further, you may receive a failing grade for the class. Also, you are responsible for ensuring that others do not copy your work or submit it as their own.