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Using Debates to Teach Rhetorical Analysis

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Two debaters at podiums smile at one another
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Brief Assignment Overview: 

This assignment asks students to watch a debate and evaluate the participants' use of ethos, pathos and logos given their goals and their audience. It then asks students to select a debate “winner,” construct an argument justifying their position, and debate the issue with other students, incorporating concession, refutation and rebuttal.

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Full Assignment Description: 

This assignment has students evaluate speakers' use of ethos, logos and pathos, perform a rhetorical analysis on the effectiveness of that use, and debate their own conclusions with their classmates by relying on concession, refutation and rebuttal. Ideally, this assignment will help students solidify their understanding of rhetorical appeals and allow them to practice calling upon argumentative strategies to persuade a skeptical audience. The debate chosen can be a fantastic hook to catch student interest in rhetorical analysis. Presidential debates or heated public debates could be introduced for a class that seems particularly politically conscious, but I personally used a semi-humorous debate between comedian Jon Stewart and Bill O'Reilly, television host and social commentator. The debating then required of students should help them develop their own use of persuasive strategies.

Students will first watch a debate in class. A classroom equipped with a computer and screen is necessary for this assignment. While viewing the debate, students should take notes on both (or one, if you want to divide your students neatly into two camps) speakers' use of ethos, logos and pathos. Ask them also to think about the audience for this debate and whether or not the rhetorical moves made by the speakers would be received well by that audience. This should take up one class period.

For homework, have your students write up a brief report arguing why one speaker “won” the debate. They should use the notes taken during the debate and focus on the use and effectiveness of rhetorical appeals.

During the next class period, ask students to share their arguments. Go back and forth between the two camps, asking students to use various combinations of concession, refutation and rebuttal to answer one another.

Suggestions for Instructor Preparation: 

Be sure to pick a debate video that will fit neatly in with your available class time. Decide whether you want to assign students to a single debater or offer them the option of picking their own side. If you assign students to a single speaker, you can ask them to focus solely on her while watching the debate video.

Instructions For Students: 

Ideally, before performing this exercise students should already be familiar with rhetorical analysis and refutation, concession and rebuttal. I used this assignment as an end-of-semester wrap-up to synthesize various ideas and skills.

1) For the first class period, students should closely watch this debate video. They should focus on both speakers' (or a single speaker's) use of ethos, pathos and logos. Instruct them to take detailed notes, citing specific examples. Ask them to pay special attention to these questions: what kind of ethos do the speakers establish? How? When do they use pathos and why? When do they use logos and why? Also, define the audience for this debate.

2) For homework, students should write up a 1-2 page argument about why one debater "won" the argument by more effectively using rhetorical appeals to convince her audience.

3) For the next class period, ask a volunteer on each side summarize why her debater won. Then, ask opposing sides to use various combinatinos of refutation, rebuttal and concession to argue against one another.

Course Description: 

I used this assignment for Rhetoric 306, an introductory course.

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