• Andrew

Lesson Plan: An Introduction to Rhetoric

Rhetoric is a slippery term with a long history. Because of that, it can be difficult to introduce students to rhetoric. When they say, What is it? it's hard for me not to get lost in the myriad definitions I have encountered over the years. Most of those definitions are so abstruse and theoretical anyway that I hesitate to share them with students. Sure, I could just call it the "art of persuasion," but that sells it short. 

So, in general, I often dodge the issue of defining altogether, opting instead to give students a chance to experience the rhetorical process firsthand, helping them to get a feel for rhetoric rather than giving them a definition of rhetoric.


This lesson plan, then, gives students a chance to face a rhetorical problem and to craft a rhetorical solution to that problem. By the end, I hope that my students will have an intuitive sense of what counts as rhetoric and what doesn't, and I try not to worry (especially not at the beginning of a semester) whether they can formulate a convincing definition of rhetoric. (Besides, I'm on my way to a PhD in this stuff, and a vague, intuitive sense of rhetoric is about as much as I can do most days.)

Phase I | Confronting a Rhetorical Problem

Maybe it's just because a lot of my students have been aspiring engineers, maybe it's because I find the public discourse of certain famous astrophysicists insufferable, maybe it's because I like inflating the importance of my chosen discipline—whatever the motive, it's important for me to help my students understand that rhetoric is useful in situations where science just isn't. I want them to see that rhetoric is good for something and that it is good for doing things that other ways of thinking aren't. And what better way is there to illustrate that than with a classical ethical dilemma?

When I teach this lesson, I start with a modified version of the soapboxing in the last paragraph, and then I show them this video, which is a great overview of the classic Trolley Problem.



After we watch the video, I reiterate the final version of the dilemma posed in the video: A trolley is speeding towards some unsuspecting workers on the tracks. You can save them by pushing a sufficiently massive bystander off a bridge and in front of the trolley. He will die, but he will also stop the trolley, saving the workers further ahead. 

Then I ask them to reflect for a moment on their own: What would you do?

Phase II | Rhetorical Back-and-Forth

After students have some time to think through the kind of difficult question that rhetoric is positioned to help answer, I put them in groups and task them with coming to a consensus. They must decide unanimously within in their small groups whether they would push the sufficiently massive man over the edge or not.

This process requires students to think through the reasoning for their choice, to work through pros and cons, and to reach a consensus about the best course of action. I don't usually draw their attention to any of this explicitly. Instead, I'm satisfied with them having the experience of weighing different possibilities against each other and figuring out an answer for a problem that doesn't have an obviously right or wrong or factual answer. 

Once each group has reached its own consensus, we move on to Phase III.

Phase III | Thinking about Audience

Now that students have started to get a feel for the kinds of problems that rhetoric can be used to address and for the kind of process that rhetorical inquiry requires, I give them a chance to start considering how their rhetorical situation can influence how they make their case. More particularly, I give them a chance to see how the way in which they defend their decision changes based on who their readers are. Plus, it's a writing class, so I want to get them writing.

Thus, their third task is to write a letter as a group in which they justify their decision (either to push or spare the sufficiently massive man) to a particular audience, which I distribute randomly:

  • The sufficiently massive man

  • The students future grandchildren

  • The five people on the tracks

  • The police

  • Someone interviewing the students for a job

  • Reporters who arrive on the scene of the disaster

  • Bystanders at the trolley station

  • A moral philosopher

  • The sufficiently massive man's father

  • A jury in a court of law (perhaps at the students' trial)

These letters don't need to be long, but they should (obviously) defend the group's decision and clearly demonstrate the students' attention to the values of their assigned audience.

Phase IV | Reading the Letters (Assessment)

Once students have written their letters, it's time for a reading. Typically, I'll have each group read their letters out loud. If they have done this assignment correctly, the letters will be funny. After each group reads its letter, I ask the students to comment on why they wrote the letter they way they did: What challenges did they face in deciding how to justify their decision to their audience? How did they try to meet the audience's values in their letters? How id their letter different from the conversation they had in their group as they made their initial decision?

The goal here is just to reflect on the process overall, starting with a difficult and non-scientific question, talking it out to come to the best reasonable decision, and tailoring their writing to a particular audience. This process, I tell them, is the sort of process they should be thinking through when they write during the semester. In the end, I explain, this process is the kind of thing people mean when they're talking about rhetoric: it's a particular way of seeing the world, solving problems, and working together with other people through writing (or other media). 

Right about then, time is up, and I tell everyone to get out.

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