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Lesson Plans, Rhetorical Analysis

Early Effective Examples: Showing Content *and* Context

I was uncertain what to write for this blog at first; I’ve only been teaching 1020 for a few weeks, haven’t strayed too far from the model wiki/syllabus, and haven’t been asked to try any unconventional or freeware-based teaching tools as part of the practicum. But I did find a great, somewhat unconventional example for practicing the Ad Analysis. After a very basic introduction to the assignment (providing the formal project description and rubric, as well as discussing a few standard appeals and devices) I had my students watch a clip from Futurama. In it, the main character’s dreams are interrupted by an advertisement for ‘Lightspeed Briefs’ underwear. The next morning he and the other characters sarcastically discuss the invasiveness of 20th century advertising (before impulsively rushing off to the mall).

In addition to being approachable and humorous, this clip is perfect for practicing the assignment as a group because it provides both an advertisement for analysis (using humor, sex, anxiety, etc.) and a context for that analysis (proliferation of advertising media, and a demonstration of its effectiveness). My students responded enthusiastically to both halves of the clip, collectively analyzing how the fake ad worked in broad terms and discussing how frequently they encounter ads in almost every aspect of their lives. This conversation caused them to move beyond the why (to sell a product) in order to consider the how. And because the advertisement was for fictional merchandise, they were safeguarded from falling into the trap of discussing a product or company instead of the advertisement itself. By the time we moved onto the next, real-world advertisement 15-20 minutes later, they already had considerable practice asking rhetorically useful questions without getting sidetracked by these pitfalls. This early group activity started my students in the right direction, which showed in their final papers: although several students hadn’t been as detailed with their analysis as I would have preferred, almost none of them strayed from that rhetorical analysis.

I used a comparable example to launch the Rhetorical Analysis. Before starting our reading of Zakaria’s The Post-American World, we read a short essay he wrote in response to Romney’s victory in the Florida primary. The piece is quite short, rhetorically interesting, and most importantly has intro and conclusion paragraphs that serve as contextualizing bookends. Similar to how the Futurama clip provides the real world context for its tongue-in-cheek criticism, Zakaria clearly explains the political framework for his essay. This pronouncement helped my students better understand how an individual text can participate in a larger conversation, which is of course an important first step for effective rhetorical analysis. And because the text had such a clear purpose, they were again denied the ability to look solely at content and/or background rather than the actual argument. We of course worked on recognizing all those necessary components of rhetorical situation over the next few days, but this initial emphasis on just the text helped them further develop the analytical skills they had gained during Project One.

Based on my success from these earlier introductions, I’m planning to use a clip from the penultimate episode of Chappelle’s Show to introduce the Definition Argument. After showing a live audience several clips that were initially kept from broadcast due to Dave Chappelle’s fear that the sketches reinforced rather than mocked racism, costars Charlie Murphy and Donnell Rawlings poll the audience about their initial response. The results are varied, as several saw the clips as racist, as anti-racist, as supporting negative stereotypes for some races but positive stereotypes for others, or as being acceptable regardless because it is not comedy’s responsibility to educate, etc. I have no doubt that my class with also have varied and passionate reactions to the sketches, but the inclusion of the audience’s opinions should help instigate and contextualize further discussion about the definition of racism and/or comedy.

R.C. Thorsby is a PhD student and GTA in the English Department at WSU. His research interests are 19th century colonial travel and exploration literature, and he is currently teaching his first section of 1020.

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