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English 397R, Spring 2016

Rhetoric, Writing, and Society

University of Massachusetts Amherst

  • INSTRUCTOR: David Fleming, PhD
  • CLASS MEETINGS: MW 2:30 - 3:45 pm, Bartlett 203
  • OFFICE: Bartlett 267
  • OFFICE HOURS: Th 2:00 - 4:00 pm & gladly by appt.
  • PHONE: 545-2972 (o)
  • EMAIL:

  •  Description  |  Assignments  |  Texts  |  Policies & Grades  |  Calendar  |  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 nearly 2,500 years, rhetoric has been the central academic discipline for thinking about the adaptation of discourse to purpose, audience, occasion, and subject.  The earliest rhetorical arts were focused on public speaking in direct democracies; later rhetorics treated eloquence more broadly, including written discourse and its role in not only political and legal affairs but also religion, science, commerce, art, and education.  More contemporary rhetorical theories have expanded the purview of rhetoric to include visual media, digital culture, and nonverbal performance and to see rhetorical motivations lurking in artifacts constructed without conscious persuasive design.  Rhetoric is useful as a critical tool for analyzing others’ discourse; as a practical art for inventing one’s own discourse; and as a theoretical discipline for interrogating the languages of social and political life.

    The course will be divided into three units: in the first unit, we’ll learn about the history and theory of rhetoric and use the theory to analyze both celebrated and ordinary texts, the goal being to heighten our sensibility as rhetorical critics.  In the second unit, we’ll use ancient pedagogical techniques to compose our own brief texts in a wide range of rhetorical genres, the goal being to strengthen our skills as rhetorical writers and speakers.  In the third unit, we’ll work together to engage, responsibly and effectively, with a real-world controversy in an actual community, the goal being to experience public discourse first hand.

    English 397R, Rhetoric, Writing, and Society, is a good course for anyone interested in learning more about rhetorical history, theory, criticism, pedagogy, or art.  It can serve as an elective for the English major and some of its Letters of Specializations.  It is also meant to help future middle and secondary school teachers meet objective 10 of the English section of the Massachusetts Test for Educator Licensure (MTEL): “to understand principles of rhetoric as they apply to various forms and purposes of oral and written communication.” For more on this objective, click here; for more on the MTEL in general, go here.

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    Work in the course will include:

    Reading and discussion.  Reading is crucial for developing skill as a writer and speaker: it can function as inspiration, as model, and as material to center 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; sometimes the reading will be from shared texts meant to provide common material for analysis and discussion; sometimes you will bring in or post to Moodle 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, occasionally, speaking.  You’ll complete a variety of short texts, mostly exercises in analysis and composition, 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); and for each unit, you’ll compile all your work into a portfolio to turn in to me.  The different units will practice you in different kinds of writing:

    1. analysis: most of the papers in Unit 1 will be analysis papers, in which you use the rhetorical concepts and tools learned from our reading of rhetorical theory to analyze texts that you yourself locate;

    2. composition: most of the papers in Unit 2 will be brief “compositions,” short papers written in different genres and styles and prompted by our reading of ancient progymnasmata, or sequences of rhetorical exercises;

    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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    Our readings will come from the following required sources:

    There are many useful resources for classical rhetorical theory on the Internet – see, e.g., Prof. Gideon Burton's Forest of Rhetoric. For a long (though still selective) list, click here. Relevant texts and resources will occasionally be uploaded to our Moodle site or made available in class.

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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.

    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, and/or turning in work late, may also result in penalties.

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

    Reading: quizzes, exhibits, & responses


    Writing projects


    Unit 1: analysis  

    short papers, 3 @ 5 pts ea. (2-4 pp DS)


    long paper, 1 @ 7 pts (4-6 pp DS)

    Unit 2: composition  

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

    Unit 3: engagement  

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


    long paper, 1 @ 15 pts (5-10 pp DS)


    Membership in classroom community




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    Calendar (tentative)

    day topics and assignments
    1 W 01/20 introduction to class; introduction to Unit 1: analysis
    2 M 01/25 on invention
      W 01/27 brief analysis 1 due
    3 M 02/01 on arrangement
          Mon., Feb 1 is last day to add or drop the course with no record
      W 02/03 brief analysis 2 due
    4 M 02/08 on style
      W 02/10 brief analysis 3 due
    5 M 02/15 No class: Presidents' Day
      T 02/16 University on a Monday schedule; workshop
      W 02/17 Portfolio 1 due, including longer analysis; introduction to Unit 2: composition
    6 M 02/22 brief composition one due
      W 02/24 brief composition two due
    7 M 02/29 brief composition three due
      W 03/02 brief composition four due
          mid-semester: Thurs., Mar. 3 is the last day to drop with a "W" (back to top)
    8 M 03/07 brief composition five due
      W 03/09 brief composiition six due
    9 M 03/14 Spring Recess
    10 M 03/21 Portfolio 2 due, including brief composition seven; introduction to Unit 3: engagement
      W 03/23  
    11 M 03/28 summary due
      W 03/30  
    12 M 04/04 synthesis due
      W 04/06  
    13 M 04/11 analysis due; preparation for debate
      W 04/13 debate
    14 M 04/18 no class: Patriot's Day
      W 04/20 University on Monday schedule; deliberation and voting
    15 M 04/25 workshop
      W 04/27 last day of class; Portfolio 3 due, including opinion paper

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