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How to Advocate a Course of Action via Excel

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Spreadsheets can be a useful tool
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"Spreadsheet" by Jon Newman via Flikr

Brief Assignment Overview: 

Students will use a combination of rhetorical analysis and Microsoft Excel formatting to brainstorm and write a two-page policy proposal that advocates a particular course of action. Students will watch and discuss a presidential speech and read a short literary essay to generate ideas, and use Microsoft Excel to draft an outline for their own policy proposal before writing it.   

Type of Assignment: 
Assignment Length: 
Pedagogical Goals - Digital Literacy: 
Additional Pedagogical Goals: 

To advocate a position within a controversy with recognition of strongest arguments against it; to understand difference between advocating opinion and advocating policy; to craft a policy proposal that considers questions of feasibility and implementation; to answer or appeal to skeptics and opponents by means of anticipating, refuting or conceding to their claims; to understand important organizational, rhetorical and logical features of a policy proposal or statement; to gain awareness of ethical considerations inherent in policy advocacy. 

Required Materials: 

Computer work stations with Microsoft Office and an Internet connection. Optional: access to Eighteenth Century Collections Online (ECCO), an electronic database.

Timeline for Optimal Use: 
Full Assignment Description: 

Day One:

The class begins with a video clip showing a rhetorical moment devoted to advocating a policy: President Barack Obama’s speech requesting Congress to vote for his proposed jobs act - a video avaiable on YouTube. Students watched a brief introduction to the speech (3:08-3:35) and then a section covering education (7:35-9:45), since education is the broad theme of the course to which all students’ writing topics relate.

After the video, we held a discussion. I asked students what policy or course of action the president proposed, and what he proposed in particular for education? Then they discussed a series of general questions that I raised. I made it clear that they should ask these questions when analyzing any policy:

  • Is the proposal desirable? Is it possible? Is it feasible?
  • What are the pros and cons of the proposal?
  • Would the proposal require formal (official) or informal (unofficial) action?
  • Would the proposal reinforce the status quo or change it?
  • Qui bono? Who would benefit (or suffer) from the proposal’s adoption?

Following discussion, I asked students to go to their work stations and begin writing a draft of their own policy proposal by applying these questions to their stance. I instructed students to put emphasis especially on (1) making sure that their proposal addresses the strongest arguments against their own position and (2) ways in which their proposal demonstrates compromise with at least one major objection. I also told them to recognize obstacles to implementation, whether economic, political, ethical, or otherwise.

I asked students to come to class on on Day Two having read Jonathan Swift's "A Modest Proposal," showing them how to access it through ECCO's facsimile or (in modern type) Project Gutenburg's version. I warned students that although the essay is short, the slightly archaic language and drawn-out sentence structure can make it a challenge to read, and I made it clear that nevertheless they were responsible for reading it closely and preparing to discuss it. 

Day Two: 

Day Two was devoted to making use of the reading assignment, Swift's essay. The purpose of this session was to discuss the logical, rhetorical and organizational aspects of policy proposals by showing the greatest parody of one. My goal was to teach the lessons of Swift's satirical policy proposal in an accessible way, so I started the class by clarifying problems with comprehension. We then discussed students' general responses to the essay, and I guided discussion to make sure that we adequately addressed the essay's demonstration that there are ethical implications for every political or economic policy, and also that intentions (however "good") do not ensure ethical or effectual policy. 

One of the indispensable mechanisms of the satire is Swift's successful appropriation of the organization of a genuine policy proposal. Working through the text section by section, I asked students to identify the purpose of each section, and we arrived at the following outline: 

  • Identify main problem and need for solution
  • Define scope of problem and group of people to be most affected by proposed solution
  • List minor problems to be solved or averted by upcoming proposal
  • Present policy proposal itself, explaining how it solves main problem directly
  • List additional benefits of proposal
  • Consider anticipated objections, refute them 
  • Explain willingness to consider other proposals, but insist that they address root of problem 
  • Disavow any conflict of interest on part of author

Finally, I asked students to identify the use of logical and rhetorical figures in the essay. Some examples included the three chief rhetorical modes, the lesser of evils, the law of unintended consequences, Ockham's razor, reductio ad absurdum, etc. 

After discussing the essay's organization, and logical and rhetorical methods, I encouraged students to review genuine policy proposals (from think tanks, corporations, NGOs, and other organizations) to think about they could utilize these methods in their proposals for non-satiric purposes. 

Day Three:

Students arrived at class with the draft of their policy proposals. I had them pair up and conduct a peer review of each other's proposals, with the specific purpose of probing the series of questions outlined on Day One, identifying objections to the policy or difficulties in feasibility that the writer had not considered, and analyzing the organization and rhetorical style of their argument, as discussed on Day Two. 

Suggestions for Instructor Preparation: 

On Day One, students will come to class already having written papers both summarizing and analyzing different arguments in a particular controversy in an impartial manner, and aware that they will now need to choose a side of the debate and advocate it. I familiarized them with the concept of rhetorical stasis, and basic questions arising from stasis such as conjecture, definition, quality, and especially policy. But even if an instructor has not spent time teaching rhetorical theory, the students should come to class already having formulated their own opinion about the controversy they are investigating and having decided their answer to the question “What is to be done?” 

On Day Two students should come to class having read Jonathan Swift's "A Modest Proposal." On Day Three students should come with a typed draft of their own two-page proposal. 

Instructions For Students: 

In order to solidify these lessons, I asked students to create a short (one page) spreadsheet on Microsoft Excel that contained three columns (see image below). First, in the left column, students named the organizational components of their partner's essay, section by section, so that the entire structure would appear in sequence in that column. Second, in the middle column, students paraphrased each section of their partner's text, being careful to cover the key arguments or rhetorical figures. Third, in the right column, students explained their response to the section, for instance by stating an objection or qualification to the argument or evaluating the success of a particular rhetorical figure. After completing the Excel sheet, each student emailed it as an attachment to each partner, so that the partner could use it to help revise the draft. 

Evaluation Suggestions: 

The best way to evaluate the assignment is to compare the students' first draft of their policy proposal with the revised draft. Excel sheets are sometimes cumbersome to print off, although in this particular case it is feasible since they are short (see image below). But the important evaluation is whether the assignment was helpful in giving each student a clearer mental picture of the organization of their paper in a way that will help them anticipate objections to their argument or to their rhetorical techniques in specific sections. The only way to evaluate that is to compare the revised draft. 

Notes on Reception, Execution, etc.: 

Students responded variously to each component of the assignment. Day One was easy and trouble free. Day Two was more difficult because it focused on Swift's essay, which (as expected) was a challenge for student's reading comprehension abilities. However, students responded enthusiastically to having a prototypical structure to use for their own policy statement. Day Three was successful: students did not generally have trouble using Excel and could assist each other as needed, and the process of laying out each paper in the three-part format (organization-argument-objection) seemed helpful in visualizing it and preparing for revision. 

Additional Resources: 

Clearly my decision to use Swift led to complications that some instructors might wish to avoid. Another way to execute this lesson plan would be to draw the reading assignment from a sincere policy proposal published by credible think tanks, institutes, corporations, NGOs, or other organizations. My reason for avoiding sincere proposals is that I think parodies of policy proposals make for better and more enjoyable reading, which is helpful when talking about organizational and stylistic principles and makes the lesson more memorable. If an instructor wanted to use a parodic form without bothering with Swift's slightly archaic diction and numerous subordinate clauses, he or she would find ample material from the Onion, or even the local satirical paper (UT has the Texas Travesty, which, for instance, recently featured an article entitled,"Congress Discussing Failure as an Option.")

Here is a sample image of what this spreadsheet might look like:

Course Description: 

RHE 306 – Rhetoric and Writing is a course in argumentation that situates rhetoric as an art of civic discourse. It is designed to enhance a student's ability to analyze the various positions held in any public debate and to advocate his or her position effectively. Work in this course will help the student advance the critical writing and reading skills he or she will need to succeed in courses for the university degree. 

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