modern rhetorical theory

rhetorics and rhetorical analysis

spring 2007
ryan moeller, ph.d.

t & th 3:00-4:15

rwst 214


rwst 312b

course description and objectives

This course will teach students to understand rhetoric as a method of cultural analysis and to employ that methodology toward understanding a variety of texts and cultural events. To this end, we will investigate rhetorical history, instruction, and theory in order to study the act of writing and the situations under which it is effective. Not quite as rigid and methodological as a science yet somewhat limited by situation and context in its artistic qualities, rhetoric has long eluded a precise definition from academics, writing teachers, and even the public. For example, rhetoric has been called "the study of persuasive techniques," "the ability to identify possible modes of persuasion in any given situation," "anything related to language or discourse," and when used in the popular media today, it often means "empty speech" or "lies." Our study will seek to reclaim rhetoric as an exciting and powerful methodology for creating persuasive arguments through writing. This course is designed to address the following objectives of the professional and technical writing emphasis area within the English Department:

  • select strategies to address unique clients/users/customers and situations.
  • understand theoretical issues in perception and reading.

Perhaps more specifically, upon completing this course, you should be able to

  • understand rhetoric as a situated practice of developing particular materials for specific audiences;
  • define rhetoric and outline a rhetorical methodology for analyzing texts and cultural artifacts;
  • understand written, visual, and auditory texts as complex, cultural artifacts;
  • rhetorically analyze a variety of texts;
  • identify rhetorical strategies and situations and their constituents;
  • demonstrate the ethical and educational dimensions of rhetoric;
  • demonstrate the effectiveness of rhetorical methods of analysis through
    • several short essays
    • peer critiques
    • a midterm exam
    • a longer, argumentative essay
    • a group presentation
  • demonstrate the value of constructive criticism through successful drafting and revision strategies; and
  • successfully draft and edit appropriately for grammar, mechanics, and diction.

In this particular course, we will be studying cultural artifacts of your choosing from a variety of rhetorical perspectives, including both ancient and contemporary forms ranging from the technical and literary to the ideological and cultural. The overall goal of the course is to produce a deep critique of a cultural artifact by subjecting it (and each of you) to a number of analyses and perspectives. Cultural artifacts may be chosen from the following list, and will need to be approved by me before any analysis may be generated:

web sites
controversial web sites are especially interesting (,, childcare action project—, but commercial sites can also be very productive: eBay, Amazon, products marketed to children, etc.
many will work, but films that take on the pulse of a particular era, such as The Matrix, work well.
computer games
these are rich sources of culture and rhetoric from their gameplay to their design and marketing; games that spawn lots of discussion like Grand Theft Auto work well.
often what's at stake rhetorically is not the organization itself but the practices, policies, and propaganda it produces: the Promise Keepers, Alcoholics Anonymous, the World Trade Organization, etc.
advertising campaigns
these are great sources of visual rhetoric as well—fast food or soda companies, fashion, technology (iPod, SonyStyle, or Dell), etc.
national events
like organizations, the events are often not as rich as the way they are treated by the media, their supporters, or their critics: the Columbine High School shooting, a Political Party Convention, or the "War on Terror."
legal cases
the government's antitrust case against Microsoft, or the music industry's legal battle with file-sharing software and peer-to-peer networks (Napster, et al).
objects, technologies
product packaging, advertising, and design are often rich sites for analysis: wireless phones, wi-fi networking products, personal digital assistants (PDAs), hardware computing platforms like the iMAC computer or the Sony Playstation, the iPod, etc.
museums (the Smithsonian), famous roads (Route 66), famous towns (Cedar City, Park City, etc.), national parks (Zion, Yellowstone), tourist sites (Las Vegas), famous locations (Area 51).
books and textbooks
books that are controversial or stimulate lots of discussion are good: Oprah's Book Club, The Davinci Code, etc.

Individually, you will be responsible for attending all classes, for completing several small analyses of your artifact and peer critiques, a midterm exam, for completing a longer term-paper, and a group presentation.