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Teaching Audience and Stakes With the Colbert Report

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Image Credit: 

David Shankbone

Brief Assignment Overview: 

This exercise asks students to work in groups to move past a working summary of a text's rhetoric to consider the goals of an author and their strategic approach to audiences. It uses PBworks' collaborative potentials to bridge the gap between two connected class discussions.

Assignment Length: 
Pedagogical Goals - Literature: 
Pedagogical Goals - Digital Literacy: 
Additional Pedagogical Goals: 

Encourage students to think flexibly about the stakes of any given argument and the various goals an author might pursue. 

Get students thinking about the relationship between rhetorical goals and persuasive strategies.

Continue to emphasize the central role of research in developing sound rhetorical analyses. 

Begin thinking about transitions and their rhetorical function as a critical reader (anticipates later lesson on transitions considered as authors).

Required Materials: 

One clip of the Colbert Report, digital projector, computer classroom, PBWorks or some other collaborative website to which all students have access.

Timeline for Optimal Use: 
Full Assignment Description: 

This exercise incorporates elements of full-group discussion, small-group work, collaborative writing, and oral presentation.

I used the 10/2/2012 episode of the Colbert Report as the assigned reading for the first of these class periods. I asked my students to watch the opening segment, paying particular attention to the way Colbert set up for his interview using punchlines as transition sentences to string together several topics having to do with the presidential election, campaign finance, special interest advocacy, and religion. This episode is a particularly rich one, but you can use any more current episode that features a "hostile" or oppositional-type guest. 

At the beginning of class, I led a brief discussion of the clip, asking: what is Colbert's argument? What is Garlow's argument? What were they trying to acheive with their audiences? Were they addressing the same audience? Once we had agreed upon some very basic answers to these questions, I replayed the segment. I then started asking about transitions. How did Colbert's monologue prepare the audience to react to Garlow? How does Colbert link Garlow and his Pulpit Freedom Sunday movement to other political operatives like the Koch brothers, and what are the implications of such a connection? 

Once we've got these questions resolved at a fairly basic level, I break the class down into 5 groups of four and ask them to

Use internet research to get context on Garlow, his movement, and the argument that he and Colbert have. The references to political figures, laws, the constitution, and the US tax code fly thick and fast in this segment, both before and during the interview, so there's plenty for them to pick out and focus on. 

Come up with a coherent summary of Colbert's argument and Garlow's argument, each considered as separate texts. Use direct quotation to support the summary. 

Getting to this point takes most of a 75 minute class. For homework, I ask each group to post a page of text to the PBworks website. In this page they must make a claim about both Garlow and Colbert with regards to what audiences they are addressing, what they want those audiences to do/think/take away from the interview,and support their claims with both direct reference to the Colbert segment as well as secondary information. On the following class day, each group presented their work to the class in a two minute prepared talk, outlined collaborative via pbworks. 

The students seem to get quite a lot out of Colbert's humor, and are consistent in surprising themselves by discovering additional nuance in his argument. Four out of the five groups concluded that Garlow "wanted to convince more people that preachers should be able to talk politics from the pulpit" and supported their claim with direct quotation from Garlow on the issue of free speech. These groups invariably concluded that the appearance was unsuccesful for Garlow because Colbert won the argument, capitalizing on his friendly audience and attacking the obvious gaps in Garlow's logic and evidence. 

One group, however, found that Garlow's organization had edited his appearance and put up a clip of just the interview portion of the segment, with none of Colbert's introductory monologue. This editing, together with the caption beneath the embedded video, led the fifth group to conclude that Garlow's goal in appearing on the Colbert Report was simply to gain exposure for his upcoming protest event by any means necessary. They point out that Garlow's whole intention, as he states on the Colbert Report, is to antagonize the IRS by preaching politics from the pulpit in unison with other preachers on one Sunday in October. This antagonism is meant to force the IRS into a legal showdoqwn with the Pastors in which the Pastors  can show the government attempting to limit free speech and challenge the conditions of tax code's religious exemptions in the Supreme Court. The fifth group, then, concluded that Garlow was just as successful as Colbert in this segment, because his goal was never to win the argument, but to win more attention for himself. This idea led to a full class discussion about the various possible payoffs of "exposure for exposure's sake" in today's news environment.

This in turn led back to Colbert's transitions/punclines in the opening monologue. Using the quotations and summarized evidence transcribed by the various groups, we spent the rest of the second class period creating an outline of Colbert's argument from opening joke to introduction of Garlow, placing particular emphasis on how Colbert's jokes stimulate a process of association in the audience's mind that links Garlow to superPACs and wealthy conservative donors like the Koch Brothers. One student proposed we think of Colbert as attempting to undercut Garlow's "rhetoric of victimhood" and re-construct the preacher-activist as a plutocrat. 

Suggestions for Instructor Preparation: 

This is a fairly low-prep lesson. You'll need to select and take notes on a Colbert segment, follow through on a couple of the research opportunities before class, and that's about it. 

Instructions For Students: 

For watching the video as assigned reading before the first clas period:

watch the opening segment, paying particular attention to the way Colbert set up for his interview using punchlines as transition sentences to string together several topics having to do with the presidential election, campaign finance, special interest advocacy, and religion.

For small group work:

Follow up on as many references and "factual" claims made by Garlow and Colbert as you can. Give yourself context and check to see how and to what purpose each speaker is deploying evidence. Evaluate what kinds of evidence are being used, and try to locate gaps or assumptions in the logic of each speaker. Generate a summary of each speaker's argument that accounts for how they deal with problematic evidence or cover over holes or assumptions in their reasoning. 

For homework

Based on what you have now found out about Garlow, Colbert, and the issues they discuss, make an argument about what each speaker is trying to accomplish with the segment, amongst which audiences, and how they go about accomplishing it.

Evaluation Suggestions: 

No portion of this assignment is graded, it is meant to stimulate conversation about a complex text and to provide low-stakes practice in invention, research, and the organization of an argument.

Notes on Reception, Execution, etc.: 

This exercise generated some of the best conversation we'd had so far in the term, and a lot of students seemed to turn a corner in their struggles with "analytical vs. topical argument" when they ran up agains the idea that rhetorical goals can be specific, narrow, and complex. 

Course Description: 

Rhetoric 309k: Rhetorics of Truthiness takes most of its material from the news cycle as it emerges week to week. Using core theoretical readings assigned early in the term and selections from a writing textbook, students are asked to develop expertise on a timely, compelling, controversial topic through independent research and several interconnected writing assignments that move from summary to synthesis to rhetorical analysis. Much of the focus of the course is on teaching students to develop a tolerance for and facility with conceptual complexity, and to explore complex issues without attempting to generate a reductive, totalizing "answer" to questions of rhetoric and policy. 

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