Rhetoric for Activists

I mentioned this new course I’m teaching in a Facebook status update and a couple of folks asked for the syllabus.  Formatting will be goofy here, but here ’tis.


ENG 400-04: Rhetoric for Activists

Professor: Seth Kahn, Ph.D.

E-Mail: skahn@wcupa.edu

Office: Main ***

Office Phone: 610-436-***

Office Hours: MW 3-4, Tth 11-12:30, or by appointment

Mailbox: Main 527

Course Overview:

This course investigates the rhetorics that activists use in their work as educators, organizers, and mobilizers. We will approach activist rhetoric from three directions. First, we will consider an array of theories of persuasion and deliberation, theorizing rhetoric as the basis upon which democracy depends. Second, we will take a case-study approach to several activist campaigns, some of which students will select as part of their research for the course (e.g., environmental, human rights, reproductive rights, health care reform). Finally, we will study the first-person accounts of activist rhetoricians, who describe their own activist work, and how they understand rhetoric’s place in it. Research projects may result in either critical/rhetorical analyses of a specific activist campaign, or portfolios that you use in your own activist work.

Course Objectives:

  1. To apply rhetorical and critical theory to activist texts
  2. To recognize, analyze, and apply knowledge of genre conventions to activist texts
  3. To research both issues and approaches to activism
  4. To present effective activist rhetoric, in writing and speech, i.e., to develop your writing and rhetorical skills

Course Requirements, Attendance, and Evaluation Policy:

  1. Informal reading responses: 2-3 pages, single-spaced, twice per month (Sept, Oct, and Nov) for a total of 6. The responses will engage issues, critique/analyze positions, interrogate claims, consider analytical possibilities for final projects, etc. I’ll ask you to post these in discussion forums on D2L and spend a few minutes each cycle reading other people’s. I won’t require you to respond to each other’s, but you’re certainly more than welcome to. Worth a total of 15 possible points.
  2. Campaign Profile: 5-7 pp., MLA format. Students will select an activist campaign and describe/analyze its history, purpose(s), strategies and tactics. Worth a total of 25 possible points. Due Week 7.
  3. Oral Presentation: Students will be able to choose one of two formal presentations. They will present either their Campaign Profiles, or an activist campaign portfolio based on their own projects. Worth a total of 25 possible points. Due Weeks 8-12 (presentations will be spread out over several class meetings).
  4. Final Project: Activist Portfolio (a compilation of documents aimed at a specific campaign of the students’ own design); or an extended analysis of an activist campaign’s rhetorical strategies and tactics. Worth a total of 35 possible points. Due during Final Exam period.

There are 100 points available for the course; the final grade is the sum of points earned for each of the four assignments above. I do not deduct points for late submissions; rather, I assume that you’re using the extra time to work on the assignment, and my expectations for the quality of your work increase the longer you keep the assignment.

Attendance is required and expected. While I don’t exact an attendance penalty in seminars, you’ll quickly discover that excessive absences make your success in the course extremely difficult.

Writing Emphasis Statement:

ENG 400 is a Writing Emphasis course, and as such requires significant instruction in research and writing. We will devote regular and significant class time to writing instruction. You will also be allowed to revise at least one of your written assignments, responding to my feedback on the draft or paper. I encourage revision, so you’re certainly welcome to revise anything you submit, as long as you can do so before the Final Project is due.

Required Textbooks:

Del Gandio, Jason. Rhetoric for Radicals: A Handbook for 21st Century Radicals. Gabriola Island, BC, Canada: New Society. 2008.

Kahn, Seth, and JongHwa Lee, eds. Activism and Rhetoric: Theories and Contexts for Political Engagement. New York: Routledge. 2010.

Riedner, Rachel, and Kevin Mahoney. Democracies to Come: Rhetorical Action, Neoliberalism, and Communities of Resistance. Boston: Lexington Books. 2008.

Ground Rules for Class Discussions: Whether we engage in discussions face-to-face in a physical classroom or over the Internet using online discussion forums (such as D2L) that are available to us here at WCU, the “classroom” should be a place where we all feel comfortable expressing positions on issues, even if those positions or issues are controversial. However, these spaces (physical classrooms and their online counterparts) are not a completely “free speech” zones; they involve state-owned facilities and federally-regulated communications media, and participants may be subject to state and federal discrimination and harassment laws. Even more important, classes are temporary communities that function best when their members exhibit consideration toward one another. In order to create a comfortable learning environment, we should all follow these common-sense ground rules:

  1. You should recognize that any position you state is open to rebuttal; in other words, you are free to have an opinion, but others are equally free to dispute it.
  2. You should be open to disconfirming evidence; that is, if someone presents a compelling counterargument to your own, you should concede it.
  3. You should be willing to assume and receive “devil’s advocacy.” A devil’s advocate is a person who takes up a position she or he may not personally hold in order to introduce new perspectives to a discussion.
  4. Remember that you must work closely with the other members of the class for the remainder of the semester. Be careful with sarcasm, “jokes,” stereotypes, or innuendo—especially online, since the lack of “paralinguistic” cues (verbal inflection, body language, facial expressions, etc.) can contribute to misunderstandings. The classroom—both physical and virtual—is no place for personal attacks or other forceful tactics. Indeed, such behavior may lead to your forced withdrawal from the class.

Here are a few more ideas about discussion, respect for others, and building and sustaining community that you may want to keep in mind:

  • Conflict–is good. We are passionate; conflict shows that we care. Seek out and talk with those with whom you disagree as well as those with whom you agree. Seeking out people shows your respect for the person. Respect builds community.
  • Civil discourse–Use words that do not insult, inflame, or otherwise exacerbate what may already be a tense situation. Speak your mind, but remember that alienating people prevents persuasion, while being civil builds community.
  • Reason–Focus on ideas, not people. Don’t tell someone they’re wrong; instead, explain why you disagree with their idea. Using reason builds community.

A further note about my role: Many instructors shy away from controversial discussions, but I feel they are sometimes necessary in a class where students are expected to write thorough, thoughtful arguments on important subjects. I am by no means neutral on many issues; indeed, I will often tell you my opinions on issues. I also have the responsibility of considering the needs of the whole class, so I will often act as a moderator in order to keep our discussions on focus and within the bounds of the curriculum. However, please be assured that there are no “politically correct” positions in this class, and I don’t want you sucking up to me politically or ideologically. Though I may express my opinion, I do not expect or even want you to share it; in fact, I appreciate and respect diverse opinions. Further, the ground rules above are designed to prevent any other class member or group from having a “bully pulpit.” Your grades and those of other class members will be based on the effective use of appropriate rhetorical strategies, not on your adherence to any particular position.

ADA Compliance Statement:

West Chester University is committed to providing equal access and fair accommodations. Please provide me with sufficient notice and documentation so that I can make appropriate accommodations. You can contact the Student Disability Services Office at 610-436-2564, and find more information about their services at http://www.wcupa.edu/_academics/cae.sds/.

Best Seminar Paper Award Submissions:

The English Department has adopted a policy encouraging faculty to submit the best paper from each seminar for our annual Best Seminar Paper award. If yours is the best paper in our class, I intend to submit it for consideration. I won’t do so without notifying you, but only under extraordinary circumstances will you be able to convince me not to do it, and you have to do so in writing.


Before getting into the details, you should know a couple of things. First, I’m very flexible about scheduling, especially about due dates. If I think we need to spend an extra class or two working on something, we will. If you need some extra time to work on an assignment, you can (generally) have it, as long as: (1) I know you’re taking it—you don’t really have to tell me why; (2) you don’t try to reschedule your oral presentation—those will be scheduled very tightly; and (3) you return the favor by being patient about grades—I read and respond slowly.

Important dates:

Reading Response Due Dates–

Monday 9/13, 9/27

Wed 10/13, Mon 10/25

Mon 11/8, 11/22

Monday 10/11: No class (Fall Break)

Friday 10/15: Campaign Profile due, by e-mail,

Oral Presentations: I’ll circulate a sign-up sheet about the third week of class.

Wednesday 11/24: No class (Thanksgiving Break)

Final Projects, due during Exam Period (Time TBA)


Weeks 1-3: Activist and Rhetorical Principles

This section of the course will introduce you to the central principles of activism: educate, agitate, organize, and mobilize. It will also introduce the rhetorical principles of persuasion, deliberation, and consensus. Our writing instruction for this unit will focus on developing a research plan and gathering source material towards presentations and final projects.

Monday 8/30: Intro the course, major assignments, policies, etc. What is “activism?”

For Wed: Read Del Gandio (DG), Chapter 1; Kahn/Lee (KL), Preface

Wednesday 9/1: A Very Brief (Simplistic) History of Rhetoric as Political Engagement

For Wed 9/8: Read DG Chapter 2; KL Chapters 1-3; Riedner and Mahoney (RM) Foreword and Introduction

Monday 9/6: No class, Labor Day

Wednesday 9/8: Emerging Themes from readings. What do you see as key issues circulating among these three very different texts?

For Mon 9/13: Reading Response 1 due. Read KL Chapter 4, RM Chapter 1.

Monday 9/13, Wed 9/15: Activism, Motive, and Purpose

For Wed 9/15: Read KL Chapter 5, RM Chapter 2

Wednesday 9/15: Developing a Research Plan

For Mon 9/20: Put together brief list of possible topics for research. Or, if you already know what you want to write about, start gathering source materials.

Weeks 4-8: Reading and Analyzing Activist Strategies and Tactics

This section of the course develops specific critical/rhetorical approaches to activist texts by examining a series of activist case studies. We will study protests at the World Trade Organization meetings over the last decade (Riedner and Mahoney), activism in a local peace movement (Kahn and Lee), campaigns around media activism (Kahn and Lee) and academic freedom (Kahn and Lee), along with campaigns students are researching. Writing instruction in this unit will focus on summary, evaluation, and analysis of primary source material (activist materials such as websites, petitions, press releases, statements, videos, etc), with particular attention to source credibility; and preparation for Oral Presentations.

Monday 9/20: Research Topics

For Wed 9/22: Read DG Chapter 3; RM Chapter 3

Wednesday 9/22: Elements of Activist Campaigns

For Mon 9/27: Reading Response 2 due; Read KL Chapters 7, 9.

Monday 9/27: Education. Agitation.

For Wed 9/29: Read DG Chapter 4, RM Chapter 4

Wednesday 9/29: More Education, Agitation. Organization.

For Mon 10/4: E-mail me a sample text from your Activist Campaign (either a doc or a link). We’ll spend next week looking at, describing and analyzing samples.

Monday 10/4, Wednesday 10/6: Analyzing primary activist texts; Mobilization

For Wed 10/13: Read KL Chapters 10, 12. Reading Response 3 due.

Monday 10/11: No Class. Fall Break.

For Wed 10/13: Read KL Chapters 10, 12. Reading Response 3 due. (yes, I realize that’s a duplicate)

Wednesday 10/13: Workshop Day for Activist Campaign profiles.

Activist Campaign Profiles due Friday 10/15 by e-mail!

For Monday 10/18: Read KL Chapter 16

Monday 10/18: Presentations 1-2. Mobilization, continued.

Wednesday 10/20: Presentations 3-4.

For Monday 10/25: Reading Response 4 due

Weeks 9-11: Designing Activist Campaigns and Campaign Documents

This section of the course examines case-studies of activist campaigns in their formative/early stages. The key ideas to consider are: developing organizing principles around which the campaign is organized; selecting issues to focus on; recruiting members to the campaign; emergent organizational structure, i.e., how the campaign develops (or resists) leadership. We will look at texts ranging from narratives of organizational efforts to group by-laws and mission/vision statements to recruiting letters/statements. Much of the reading for this unit will emerge from the students’ own projects and interests. Students who schedule presentations during this unit, for example, should require readings related to their projects. Writing instruction in this unit will emphasize: revision practices for Campaign Profile papers; design elements for activist texts, including visuals/graphics, use of space, jargon, etc.

Monday 10/25: Presentations 5-6. Examine sample docs from your projects (this will continue throughout the next few weeks).

Wednesday 10/27: Presentations 7-8 and sample docs.

For Mon 11/1: Read DG Chapter 5.

Monday 11/1: Presentations 9-10

For Wed 11/3: Read RM Chapter 5

Wednesday 11/3: Presentations 11-12

For Mon 11/8: Reading TBA (samples from your projects); Reading Response 5 due.

Monday 11/8: Presentations 13-14

For Wed 11/10: Read RM Chapter 6

Wednesday 11/10: Debriefing and synthesizing presentations. What have we all learned from what you all presented?

For Mon 11/15: Read KL Chapters 12, 13

Weeks 12-15: Activism and Academia

The final section of the course considers the relationships between our positions as students/teachers/scholars and the political world outside schools/universities. We will read less and talk/write more. Writing instruction in these last three weeks will focus on understanding purpose and audience in relation to each other; using secondary source material to establish authority and polyvocality in text; and the politics of textual representation of ideas and people.

Monday 11/15: Activism in the Academy.

For Wed 11/17: Read KL Chapter 14

Wednesday 11/17: More academic activism

For Mon 11/22: Read KL Chapter 15; Reading Response 6 due

Monday 11/22: Even more academic activism

For Mon 11/29: Read KL Chapters 17-18

Wednesday 11/24: No class! T(of)urkey Day Break!

Monday 11/29: Activism and Students

The last classes will be workshop/writing time for your final projects, which will be due during your exam period. I’ll let you know when that is as soon as I know.

Guidelines for Reading Responses

I don’t want to be too specific about these in advance; as advanced majors, you’re already quite capable of deciding for yourselves what’s useful to write about when responding to readings. The goals of these responses, as far as I’m concerned, are two–

  1. To share your reactions, ideas, questions, applications, and so on with your classmates so that we can generate some momentum for class discussions in advance; and
  2. To give me a sense of what you’re thinking so that I can reinforce, interrogate, and/or (in very rare cases) correct your thinking.

With those goals in mind, I can tell you a few things I do/don’t want you to spend your time on in these pieces.

*Unless you find a particular assigned reading very confusing, don’t spend much time summarizing it. On the other hand, if you have found something confusing, say so, and see if writing a summary helps you clarify your understanding.

*Stay focused on the readings. I’ve been assigning these response pieces for years, and the only ones that frustrate me are those that begin by citing a passage, and within a paragraph are off into space somewhere via random, free association. It’s not a problem for you to pursue associations, connections, and so on, but if I read more than a paragraph and don’t see any reference to any of the readings at all, that’s a problem.

*Make connections. While I want you to focus on the readings, it’s appropriate for you to refer to past readings, other reading or research you’ve done, and so on while you’re doing so. That is, feel free to test out comparisons/contrasts, to let readings complicate each other, to find reinforcement in other readings you’ve done, whatever happens as you read.

*You’re welcome to spend some time in each of these imagining what you might do with them in terms of projects; that is, if you read a chapter from Democracies to Come (for example) that sets off an idea for a final paper, you can use the response piece as a place to think out loud about it. But you shouldn’t spend more than a paragraph or so doing that. You can, however, spend one full response sketching out or proposing a final project if you like.

*These pieces are not “essays” in the sense that you’re establishing and defending a thesis—unless you feel like you need to practice doing that, in which case just make sure I know that’s what you’re doing. It’s appropriate for you to get halfway through a discussion of a passage, realize you’ve changed your mind, and just say so; don’t erase what you wrote, but keep going. Likewise, if you want to discuss two or three different passages in one response, that’s fine; you don’t have to find a way to pin them together or anything like that.

*I will not be grading these harshly, but I do expect you to think about how you’re presenting them. That’s a euphemism for “Proofread the dang things.”

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