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Teaching Ethos Using Online Dating Profiles

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Students analyze portions of profiles excerpted from online dating sites to discuss ethos
Image Credit: 

Screen shot of the plan author's faux OkCupid profile, taken by the author

Brief Assignment Overview: 

Students analyze portions of profiles excerpted from the free online dating site, OkCupid, in order to talk about ethos, values, ideology and goodwill.  The exercise, in turn, encourages students to consider their own online presences, their values, and the ways in which rhetoric has “real world” applications.  

Pedagogical Goals - Literature: 
Pedagogical Goals - Writing: 
Pedagogical Goals - Digital Literacy: 
Additional Pedagogical Goals: 

To introduce the concept of ethos in a rhetoric classroom. To introduce students to the implications of online writing and the ways in which our writing reflects a particular image of ourselves to different audiences.  To encourage students to reflect on their own online identities, as well as the ways in which they shift their self-presentations based on their perceptions of audience and genre.

Required Materials: 

Internet access would be ideal, but this could easily be implemented using simple hand-outs prepared in advance.

Timeline for Optimal Use: 
Full Assignment Description: 

Perhaps more so than any other piece of writing, and even more so than my students' facebook pages, the self-summaries presented in online dating profiles are fundamentally arguments of ethos. Regardless of specific rhetorical aim (a casual hook up, a future spouse, or something in between), at heart, each of these texts is saying to readers, “this is who I am, accept me.”  So they seemed like a great source text to get my students really thinking about how and why they evaluate people: what sort of snap judgements they make, how they read into things without even realizing it.  And it also served as an excellent talking point about the public nature of the internet - how just because we don’t anticipate particular audiences doesn’t mean our intended audience will be the only readers.

As I pointed out to my students, the internet is very much so a public place, regardless of the sometimes flimsy, sometimes more strict privacy settings of a given website.  We never really know the uses to which our words will be put, and especially when asking students to share and compose in digital spaces, it’s important to get them thinking about how online identities and compositions might be read.

OkCupid profiles offer a glimpse of more pragmatic, everyday ethos: how a person's general presentation or demeanor reflects an image back into the world. Looking at their compositions encourages students to focus on how people generate (or fail to generate) goodwill, and how they convey particular values through their writing.

After students break off into groups to assess the ethos presented in the profiles they are given and write short descriptions of their candidates, then we discuss their assessments as a group.  

As a follow up assignment, I ask students to go home and write their own self-summaries to be posted on the class blog.  To encourage students to think about audience, you might give them different audiences for which to compose these summaries.  For example, how would they summaraize themselves on a job application versus a student-body election?  For their parents versus their friends? For their classmates versus their teammates?

Suggestions for Instructor Preparation: 

The site requires that you create an account in order to search for users, but the account is free, requiring nothing more than an email address.  So, if you would prefer to find example profiles on your own, you'll need to open an account.  However, I will include a number of potential sample profiles below in the "additional resources."  As my students discovered, these profiles can be easily found by "googling" phrases from the excerpts below (at least when I initially used them - users may have since set their profiles to private). I didn't use the full profiles as part of the class discussion, though I'm toying with the idea of doing so next time around. 

Should you seek out sample profiles to excerpt, here are my suggestions:

  • seek outside of your geographical region (to avoid selecting someone that your students could possibly know)
  • avoid using profiles that are overtly outrageous (this might be difficult as there are some ludicrous profiles on the site, but it will help to keep the exercise less unruly if the examples are more "reasonable")
  • try not to select profiles which you expect your students to respond to in a particular way (they will inevitably surprise you)
  • select profiles that have enough writing to afford a fair bit of analysis, but not so much that they students get lost (a good-sized paragraph should suffice)
  • double check to see if the profile is set to "public" by copying and pasting the url into a separate browser (in which you are not logged into the site)

Instructions For Students: 

There is, perhaps, no clearer instance of an argument based on character than online dating profiles.  Each person's profile essentially makes the argument that "you should date me because of who I am."  On the free online dating site OkCupid, users are asked to write a "self-summary" which is the first thing people see when visiting their profile.

For this exercise, you will analyze a person's ethos based on their self-summary.  You'll then play match-maker, deciding amongst four candidates who would make the best match with your bachelor or bachelorette.  However, you'll need to justify your choice based on both parties' presentation of ethos.

In groups of three, you'll be assigned to a particular bachelor or bachelorette below.  You'll first analyze your bachelor or bachelorette's ethos, writing an evaluation of their values and character based on evidence from their self-summary.  Once you have a clear sense of your person, you will make an argument as to why they "fit" with one of the matches provided - again, based on character and shared values.  Here are some questions to consider:

  • What makes this person a "good" dating candidate?
  • What kind of person are they?
  • What do they value?
  • What do they like to do?
  • How do they address their potential matches?

For any of these questions, you will want to provide a specific example/quote/evidence to explain your assessment.  If you have an immediate reaction to the person's profile, try to identify what sparked the reaction.  Think about word choice, tone, and level of formality.  How does this person generate (or fail to generate) goodwill?  Is anything in their profile alienating? What is it and why do you think you have that reaction?

Evaluation Suggestions: 

The in-class discussion was not evaluated, though it may require some careful moderating.  Students will likely have a lot of fun with the exercise, but both times I've implemented the plan, I have had to work to keep the conversation from devolving into making vun of the profile in question.  It's important to remind students that these are "real" people.

Notes on Reception, Execution, etc.: 

My students love this exercise. They find it thoroughly memorable and enjoyable, although I'm not sure that makes it the most pedagogically valuable lesson I've taught.  So I would love feedback in the comments section if you try this plan in your classroom.

Additional Resources: 

Here are a few of the sampels I used in my class - at the time of the exercise, all of these profiles were publicly viewable.  Summaries have been excerpted verbatim (all spelling errors and grammar issues are original).  I would recommend formatting them into some sort of chart (so as not to impose a vertical hierarchy), but for accessibility's sake, I'll simply post the text here.

Here are the options I gave to the first group:

---

Bachelor #1

Well I’m one of the good guys, a sweet heart that’s only here in hopes to find that awesome someone to share in life's sweat adventures with. No really it's true, not all guys are dumb assholes...Surprise. but lets be real, most are. Ha

They are some strange people out there that much is curtain so lets not think it's only you ladies that get weird messages from people. The first person to contact me on this site, turned out to be a homeless stripper. O_O Gross! Anyways I'm just saying I'm not like that or here for that. 

I'm not to serious a person, more carefree and laid back if anything so being able to make fun of people without hating on them is a must. I'd much rather do sometime fun than sit an complain all day about how messed up the world is.(Cause we all Know it is.) I do like to have intelligent conversations, deep discussions, and learn how to connect with the earth and universe more but I don't let things bother me that are out of my control if you know what I mean.

What I’m really interested in is someone that can love me for who I am and not try and make me out to be someone else and that's how I treat people in return.

I live alone and love it, my house is my sanctuary but like everyone else it gets lonely and I can use a best friend to hang with me and have some fun.

My heart and spiritual well being is very important to me, that being said I take good care of myself and my relationships with others. Having a negative attitude about anything isn’t worth my time and its just not my style.

I’m in no way a pacifist as I love a good debate and would jump in a second to save someone from a robber, bully or zombies. Fuck War! But sometimes even the monks must fight and stand up for the weak. That’s me.

I live by one simple truth that “The focused mind is the most powerful force in the universe, meaning what the mind can conceive and truly believe by will alone it shall achieve.”

However, the mind can only take so much and sometimes needs help form others. Everybody needs somebody sometimes. Sometimes its a shoulder you need and sometimes its a slap in the back of the head. I guess that’s why I’m here, no ones perfect even though I see a lot of people trying to be. So hit me up if you feel like I do.

---

Bachelorette #1

My name is Josephine, I studied fine arts at France and then moved to South America to finish a post-graduate program on Linguistics.

Nowadays I work as a drawing teacher and occasionally as a model for the faculty students. I have acted on the past too, I have always been very passionate about filmmaking, I even ended up making a film about five years ago. But that passion I left it behind to replace it with music. 

I am very much into exotic instruments. Koto, tabla, sitar, harmonium, buzuq, etc etc. These interest of the exotic came to me through my Romanian origins. I have a strong Gypsy bloodline on my family. I have played in several Manele bands during the late two years (since I re-established in England). 

Hmm... what else could I tell you? Vegetarianism is very important to me. I work hardly everyday to become a vegan and I'm expecting to totally achieve it by this year. That is why I have had to learn to cook vegan, which I succesfully achieved. I have the best Romani vegan dishes you'll ever taste (if we ever meet).

I like psychedelic sixties bands. I love The Doors, I think the ultimate party would be dancing around a pyre drinking sake to the rythmn of Five To One. I also love, of course, popular 'gypsy' music like Goran Bregovic, he did a great song with Iggy Pop called In The Death Car, for the film Arizona Dream, you should check that out.

Ok, I guess I already did this too long. Excuse me.

 ---

Bachelorette #2

Me, well, I'm a fat-bottomed girl and I make the rocking world go 'round.

I'm a woman. I enjoy womanly things like getting my nails done and putting makeup on. I do these things because they make me feel great, not because I'm high-maintenance or girly.

I'm pretty smart in my mind. I read a lot, enjoy a good movie often and listen to music all the time. I hate that I say "like" so fucking much, but it's one of my adorable quirks.

I'm a tactile person. I show affection by touch. However, I'm not a touchy feely person. Which is pretty fucking odd, I know.

At this point, I'm looking for someone I can actually do stuff with. Go to a play. Rock out to a band at a bar. Try a new restaurant. Drink!!

<*If all you're looking for is a bang buddy, I am not the girl for you.*>

 So essentially, I'm looking for someone who is fun, outgoing, and mature. It's odd looking for female friends, but I'm really trying to meet new PEOPLE not just men.

Likes:

SHORT Beards (on men)

Tattoos

Dancing

Men who play a musical instrument...I get so weak in the knees!

A man with some meat on his bones (and if you decide to be a smart ass and message me with, "I got meat on THIS bone," I will hunt you down and smack the shit out of you.)

A nice smile

Brazilian Fart Porn. Funniest shit I've ever seen.

A good, open sense of humor

Chivalry

Dirty minds

Dislikes:

Mindfuckery (Can you feel my dick in your mind right now?)

Aloofness

Facetiousness

Too much gook in a guys hair

Men who wear flip flops, eeeew

People who lack ambition and imagination

LIARS- I know that sometimes you have to wait until a precise time to mention something...just don't lie.

---

Bachelorette #3

I am very family oriented. So I would start off by saying that I am most passionate about my family and friends. Beyond that, I love traveling, reading and learning foreign languages. I think that these things can open doors to new people, cultures and better understanding of the larger world. I also am passionate about learning new things. I love taking goofy classes, or reading up on something I don't know about. I think that knowledge really is power, and I love using my imagination and creativity to explore different aspects of the world. I pride myself on being street smart. Though formal eduation is very important, arming oneself with useful everyday knowledge can sometimes be even more valuable (aka I am thankful that I possess common sense!) I am a quick thinker and believe myself not to be naive. And while keeping an open-mind and an open-heart, I love that I am comfortable relying on my independence.

On a less serious note, I love laughing and I LOVE Steelers football! I'm always up for a road trip and love to go anywhere warm (especially during the winter months!) Oh yeah, and I have started to train for a Triathlon Sprint coming up this summer. (I'll let you know how that goes... it's early yet, so I'm still quite optimistic!) 

Lastly, some things i believe:

* Everything happens for a reason.

* That there is a heaven. I'm not so sure however, about hell. ... I'll get back to you.

* That no talent ass-clowns should not be glorified on MTV, VH1, E! or otherwise.

* "Beauty is only skin deep" is said only by people who have never been ugly.

* Accents and foreign languages are sexy.

* Singers and musicians are sexy.

* Happy-endings do exist.

* There is a lid for every pot.

* Everyone needs to know how to laugh at themselves.

* Life's too short to sweat the small stuff.

* There is no such thing as an accident or a mistake.

* Boy Meets World could have been and may always be the best show to grow up watching.

* We never stop learning.

---

For the second group, I gave them these options, and it was interesting to see if the two groups paired up the same bachelor and bachelorette.

---

Bachelorette #1

My name is Josephine, I studied fine arts at France and then moved to South America to finish a post-graduate program on Linguistics.

Nowadays I work as a drawing teacher and occasionally as a model for the faculty students. I have acted on the past too, I have always been very passionate about filmmaking, I even ended up making a film about five years ago. But that passion I left it behind to replace it with music. 

I am very much into exotic instruments. Koto, tabla, sitar, harmonium, buzuq, etc etc. These interest of the exotic came to me through my Romanian origins. I have a strong Gypsy bloodline on my family. I have played in several Manele bands during the late two years (since I re-established in England). 

Hmm... what else could I tell you? Vegetarianism is very important to me. I work hardly everyday to become a vegan and I'm expecting to totally achieve it by this year. That is why I have had to learn to cook vegan, which I succesfully achieved. I have the best Romani vegan dishes you'll ever taste (if we ever meet).

I like psychedelic sixties bands. I love The Doors, I think the ultimate party would be dancing around a pyre drinking sake to the rythmn of Five To One. I also love, of course, popular 'gypsy' music like Goran Bregovic, he did a great song with Iggy Pop called In The Death Car, for the film Arizona Dream, you should check that out.

Ok, I guess I already did this too long. Excuse me.

---

Bachelor #1

The a geek, and proud of it. When I get passionate about something, I can't shut up about it (which is either endearing or extremely irritating, depending on your point of view).

I'm left-wing. A sceptic (in matters of science, although I'm sorry to say I'm quite gullible on a personal level). A militant atheist. It must be said though, that I'd like to think I have a pretty good sense of humour about those topics, even if I am passionate about them.

I'm an artist (I draw and paint). I love the English language, although my own writing talents are somewhat lacklustre. I like learning. There's nothing better than discovering something new and fascinating and being able to share it with other people.

I think Stephen Fry is God.

I think Batman and the Doctor are perhaps the greatest fictional characters created by man.

I think music was perfected in 1879 withGilbert and Sullivan's Major-General Song.

I think comic books and cartoons are perfectly legitimate artforms, capable of producing genuine human drama and emotion. On the other hand, I can't resist a good Talking Gorilla vs. Killer Robot fight.

I seem to think a lot of pretty silly things, huh?

I am geeky, smart...ish, and quirky

---
Bachelor #2

I have a yearning to explore different territory. To frolic in a refreshing mist atop the Yellow Mountains of Mainland China. To play with other great musicians. To watch shows in the opera house of Lyon, with an intermission of French kids break dancing outside the hall. To cook my own recipe in a Paul Bocuse culinary. These are things that most of my homies won't touch. Lest we forget, I am an abnormal guy; and I am looking for an extraordinary girl.
 
I want a girl who can be fun and adventurous. The kind of girl who isn't too afraid to suddenly break out of a three-day isolation and take a road trip across the country on a 1987 Vespa which I am convinced can take at least another hundred thousand miles.
 
Interestingly, my most passionate relationships involved completely contradictory personalities. Speaking of character--unfortunately, not all of us can be satisfied with pixellated photos and interview format autobiographies. Call me old-school, but coffee and a heated intellectual conversation beats the hell out of a 9 day back and forth email chat marathon. If you want to get to know me, call me. Tell me about yourself. Talk to me about politics. What is really important to you? I never get tired of meeting new and inherently good people.
---
Bachelor #3

Well I’m one of the good guys, a sweet heart that’s only here in hopes to find that awesome someone to share in life's sweat adventures with. No really it's true, not all guys are dumb assholes...Surprise. but lets be real, most are. Ha
 
They are some strange people out there that much is curtain so lets not think it's only you ladies that get weird messages from people. The first person to contact me on this site, turned out to be a homeless stripper. O_O Gross! Anyways I'm just saying I'm not like that or here for that.
 
I'm not to serious a person, more carefree and laid back if anything so being able to make fun of people without hating on them is a must. I'd much rather do sometime fun than sit an complain all day about how messed up the world is.(Cause we all Know it is.) I do like to have intelligent conversations, deep discussions, and learn how to connect with the earth and universe more but I don't let things bother me that are out of my control if you know what I mean.
 
What I’m really interested in is someone that can love me for who I am and not try and make me out to be someone else and that's how I treat people in return.
 
I live alone and love it, my house is my sanctuary but like everyone else it gets lonely and I can use a best friend to hang with me and have some fun.
 
My heart and spiritual well being is very important to me, that being said I take good care of myself and my relationships with others. Having a negative attitude about anything isn’t worth my time and its just not my style.
 
I’m in no way a pacifist as I love a good debate and would jump in a second to save someone from a robber, bully or zombies. Fuck War! But sometimes even the monks must fight and stand up for the weak. That’s me.
 
I live by one simple truth that “The focused mind is the most powerful force in the universe, meaning what the mind can conceive and truly believe by will alone it shall achieve.”
 
However, the mind can only take so much and sometimes needs help form others. Everybody needs somebody sometimes. Sometimes its a shoulder you need and sometimes its a slap in the back of the head. I guess that’s why I’m here, no ones perfect even though I see a lot of people trying to be. So hit me up if you feel like I do.
Course Description: 

I've used this exercise in both my introductory literary studies course (as a means to explain the "real world" implications/applications of close reading) as well as in my intermediate rhetoric course.

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Comment: 
This plan took on a whole new layer of "teachable moments" when the image I created for it was featured in a BuzzFeed post about dating in your 20s vs. dating in your 30s: http://www.buzzfeed.com/leonoraepstein/dating-in-your-twenties-vs-dating-in-your-thirties?