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English 388, Spring 2024

Rhetoric, Writing, and Society

University of Massachusetts Amherst

  • INSTRUCTOR: David Fleming, PhD
  • CLASS MEETINGS: MW 4:00 pm – 5:15 pm, South College W219
  • OFFICE: South College W351
  • OFFICE HOURS: T 2:30 - 4:00 pm, W 1:00 - 2:30 pm & gladly by appt.
  • EMAIL:

  •  Description  |  Assignments  |  Texts  |  Policies & Grades  |  Calendar  | Supplementary Resources  |  Rhetoric Links on the WWW


    This course is an introduction to the history, theory, and practice of rhetoric, defined here as the art of persuasion. For 2,500 years, rhetoric has been the central academic discipline for thinking about the adaptation of discourse to purpose, audience, occasion, medium, and subject matter. Early rhetorical arts were focused on public speaking in democratic city-states; later rhetorics treated eloquence more broadly, including written discourse in the contexts of religion, science, commerce, art, and education. Contemporary theories have expanded the purview of rhetoric to include visual media, digital culture, and nonverbal performance and to see rhetorical motivations lurking even in artifacts produced without conscious persuasive design.

    The course will be divided into three units: in the first unit, we’ll stretch our rhetorical muscles, using ancient pedagogical techniques to compose brief, persuasive texts in a wide range of genres. In the second unit, we’ll acquire a more self-conscious rhetorical vocabulary, learning about the history and theory of rhetoric and using the theory to analyze celebrated and ordinary texts. The third unit will be a culminating rhetorical experience, as we engage together a real-world “political” controversy – through reading, writing, speaking, listening, and deliberation.

    Rhetoric, Writing, and Society is intended for students wishing to learn more about rhetoric: its history, theory, art, and pedagogy. The course will be of special interest to anyone looking to improve their skills in public writing and speaking, whether for creative, professional, or political reasons. For English majors, the course can serve as an elective in the Major and some Letters of Specialization. Finally, the course is designed to help future middle and secondary school teachers meet those objectives of the English section of the Massachusetts Test for Educator Licensure (MTEL) focused on “principles of rhetoric” (see, e.g., Objectives 08, 09, 13, & 15 here).

    Learning goals. In this course, you can expect to

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    Work in the course will include:

    Reading and discussion. Reading is crucial for developing your skill as a writer and speaker: it can function as inspiration, as model, and as material to center group reflection and discussion. We’ll do some reading for every class meeting. Sometimes the reading will be from required course texts meant to introduce you to the history, theory, and art of rhetoric or to provide common material for analysis and discussion; sometimes you will bring in or post to Canvas texts you have located yourself for your own or group work; and very often we will read and respond to one another’s essays and compositions. You will occasionally be quizzed on required readings; you will sometimes be asked to respond in writing to selected readings; and you will often be asked to bring in or post readings of your own that you find interesting or useful.

    Writing. The main work of the class, however, will be your own writing and speaking. You’ll complete a variety of short texts, mostly exercises in composition and analysis, typically 2-4 pp long (DS); you’ll also complete a smaller number of longer texts, more substantial works of 4-10 pp long (DS). For each unit, you’ll compile your work into a portfolio to turn in, with some kind of introductory or reflective component at the beginning or end. The different units will practice you in different kinds of writing:

    1. Composition: most of the papers in Unit 1 will be brief “compositions,” short papers written in different genres and styles and prompted by our reading of ancient progymnasmata or rhetorical exercises;

    2. Analysis: most of the papers in Unit 2 will be analysis papers, in which you use the rhetorical concepts and tools learned from our reading to analyze situations and texts that you yourself locate;

    3. Engagement: most of the papers in Unit 3 will be steps in understanding, interrogating, and engaging a real-world controversy that we will share as a class: summarizing, synthesizing, analyzing, and debating the topic at hand.

    Expectations for the course include effortful invention in initial drafts, thoughtful revision in later drafts, careful editing in final versions, and punctual submission of all materials to the instructor and peer responders.

    Obligations to our writing community. We will do much of our writing and reading together; and we’ll be sharing our work often in class and in other venues.  Your active, sympathetic, and reliable participation in our classroom community will be important.

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    All readings will come from texts uploaded to our Canvas site or made available in class, e.g., Aphthonius, Progymnasmata, available as a free PDF on Canvas. In addition, there are many useful resources for rhetorical theory on the Internet – see, e.g., Prof. Gideon Burton’s “Forest of Rhetoric”. For a long (though still selective) list, go here.

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    Class Policies & Grades

    Please read the following policies carefully and let me know if you have questions about any of them.

    Engagement: Rhetoric requires engagement: with ideas, with language, with other people, with the world. Reading, writing, speaking, and listening in such an outward-facing spirit can be pleasurable, enlightening, even thrilling. But it can also be a source of anxiety and hurt. I ask that you be willing here to stretch your rhetorical muscles, to risk exposing your thoughts and words in “public,” to be prepared to falter rhetorically and keep going. I also ask that we all practice caring for one another rhetorically, being generous, supportive, and forgiving even as we push and challenge, working to strengthen our community even as we make it safe for difference and disagreement.

    Attendance:  Regular attendance in this class is important and thus required. If you must miss class for an unavoidable, legitimate reason – serious illness, death in the family, religious observance, etc. – let me know as soon as possible, and remember that you are responsible for any missed work. Beyond one unexcused absence, your final grade will be reduced 1/3 letter grade for each day missed. Coming to class excessively and/or repeatedly late, or turning in work late, may also result in penalties. For campus-wide expectations about attendance, see the University’s Academic Regulations here.

    Classroom Civility and Respect. “The University of Massachusetts Amherst strives to create an environment of academic freedom that fosters the personal and intellectual development of all community members. In order to do this, the University protects the rights of all students, faculty and staff to explore new ideas and to express their views. While the principle of academic freedom protects the expression and exploration of new ideas, it does not protect conduct that is unlawful and disruptive. The University preserves a high standard for members of the community in terms of mutual respect and civility.” For more, click here. For the University's diversity resources, go here.

    Academic Honesty Statement. “Academic dishonesty is prohibited in all programs of the University. Academic dishonesty includes but is not limited to: cheating, fabrication, plagiarism, and facilitating dishonesty. Appropriate sanctions may be imposed on any student who has committed an act of academic dishonesty. Since students are expected to be familiar with this policy and the commonly accepted standards of academic integrity, ignorance of such standards is not normally sufficient evidence of lack of intent.” For more information, click here.

    Accommodation Statement. “The University of Massachusetts Amherst is committed to providing an equal educational opportunity for all students. If you have a documented physical, psychological, or learning disability on file with Disability Services (DS), you may be eligible for reasonable academic accommodations to help you succeed in this course. If you have a documented disability that requires an accommodation, please notify me within the first two weeks of the semester so that we may make appropriate arrangements. For more information, consult the Disability Services website here.”

    Final grade.  Your final grade for the semester will be based on the following formula:

    Unit 1: composition  

    short papers, 7 @ 4 pts. ea. (2-4 pp DS)


    speeches, quizzes, posts, reflections

    Unit 2: analysis  

    short papers, 2 @ 5 pts ea. (2-4 pp DS)


    long paper (4-6 pp DS)


    speeches, quizzes, posts, reflections

    Unit 3: engagement  

    short papers, 3 @ 5 pts ea. (3-5 pp DS)


    long paper (8-10 pp DS)


    speeches, quizzes, posts, reflections




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    Calendar (tentative)

    day topics and assignments
    1 M 02/05 introduction to class and one another; introduction to rhetoric and rhetorical education
      W 02/07 introduction to Unit 1: composition
          Note: Wed., Feb. 7 is the last day to add or drop the class with no record.
    2 M 02/12 brief composition one due
      W 02/14 brief composition two due
    3 W 02/21 brief composition three due
      Th 02/22 brief composition four due
    4 M 02/26 brief composition five due
      W 02/28 brief composition six due
    5 M 03/04 draft of brief composiition seven due
      W 03/06 Portfolio 1 due, including "springboard" assignment; introduction to Unit 2: analysis
    6 M 03/11  
      W 03/13 analysis proposal due
    7 3/17–3/24 Spring Recess
    8 M 03/25  
      W 03/27  
    9 M 04/01 analysis draft due
      W 04/03  
          Note: Thus, Apr 04 is the last day to drop with a “W” and select P/F. (back to top)
    10 M 04/08 Portfolio 2 due, including "springboard" assignment; introduction to Unit 3: engagement
      W 04/10  
    11 F 04/12 first summary due
      W 04/17 second summary due
    12 M 04/22  
      W 04/24 oral arguments
    13 M 04/29 oral arguments
      W 05/01 deliberation and voting
    14 M 05/06 opinion draft due
      W 05/08 last day of class; opinion paper due
    15 W 05/15 Portfolio 3 due, including final reflection

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