More on Rhetoric in Fiction

I wrote a few days ago about the rhetoric of fiction, musing about what kinds of expectations fiction authors create in readers, and the weird reactions that result when readers’ expectations aren’t met.

I’m thinking these days less about the rhetoric of fiction as a whole and more about examples of rhetorical appeals in fiction, as made by the characters. I think it would be fun to teach a course to English majors by using fiction (and TV shows and movies) to give examples of people persuading each other in all kinds of complex ways.

I’m writing this post because I’ve never really approved of using literature to teach rhetorical writing skills. That’s because it’s fairly common for graduate students in literature at my university to teach first-year composition for their first few years, and it seems to me that they often try to turn it into a literature class, not an introduction to rhetoric class. Like, I would rather spend my precious little class time with students’ writing as the focus of the class, not in an open-ended, interpretive, lit-class-style conversation about whatever novel or short story we were assigned to read. I’m partly passionate about this because I’ve been convinced by rhet/comp scholars who feel similarly, and partly because I see this as the biggest failure of my two years teaching high school English: I thought chatting about books would make students better writers, but it usually didn’t.

BUT. I’m increasingly interested in the idea of an advanced comp class, for folks who have already taken the required two comp courses, where we read examples of characters using persuasive appeals. Here’s where I would start:

  1. G. K. Chesterton’s The Man Who Was Thursday (full text and excellent free audiobook): I would have students read the first three chapters, which are full of arguments between individuals, arguments given in speeches to a group, and identity-switches (which are necessarily ethos-switches). I don’t want to be too spoiler-y, but this stuff is begging to be analyzed rhetorically–and if students read the whole book, it could even be read from a big-picture angle too, as we question the big-picture argument that Chesterton makes in the novel about the nature of God.
  2. Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game: I want students to read the chapter where Ender’s story is put aside as we learn about the online rhetorical genius of Peter and Valentine as they literally change politics through disguised pseudonyms in a chat room. (I’ve written about this before.)
  3. The Constant,” a season-4 episode of Lost (and probably my favorite episode of the series): Desmond’s consciousness is traveling between his 1996 self and 2004 self, and he has to convince people that he’s telling the truth or he’s going to die. He relies on all sorts of persuasive appeals with increasing desperation–and (SPOILER ALERT) he’s saved when he finally finds his constant in both time frames–or perhaps it’s not a stretch to say he focuses on his thesis throughout his essay. Just sayin’. (I was honored to give a presentation on my efforts to teach this episode from this angle at the 2009 International Conference on the Fantastic in the Arts.)
  4. Hippocratic Oath,” a season-4 episode of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, for very similar reasons: characters disagree with each other on really sticky ethical grounds, and they argue about it in all kinds of fascinating ways. And to DS9’s great credit, they refuse to cleanly resolve the issue. Love it.

What else?

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