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Teaching Activity: Synecdoche Detroit, a Rhetorical Exercise

The following teaching activity was designed by Jared Grogan (1020 Lecturer):


This semester I found one class-plan more valuable to return to than I had expected, finding it to be perhaps one of my all-time favorites in terms of how it creates a memorable moment and a bright signpost for students as they start work on the rhetorical moves required of their evaluation arguments.

As students work on the latter half of a research packet with a rationale, a well formulated research question, a research strategy, a set of annotations, and a brief discourse community analysis, we begin to introduce the purposes and rhetorical strategies for the argument draft that stems from this research process, which looms in the near future.   We begin with a brief lecture reviewing the objectives of the research packet, with a discussion of how the packet serves to foreground research strategies and processes, and a brief examination of two student reflections on these (pointing out examples shaping up nicely while noting the potential in their research process and reflections so far).

We then shift to the question of how we Invent Evaluation arguments, and, for starters, we foreground  the criteria for judging/evaluating something we encountered in an earlier reading in the textbook, noting that that all evaluations/judgments can be discussed in terms of how they fit within aesthetic, ethical, or practical “criteria” which frame or guide our subsequent reasoning (or simply: establish the need for good reasons, and for argument itself rather than mere information, as we must make the case that the criteria marking this kind of judgment are valuable).

Here I present a student example that also introduces Detroit as today’s focal point for practice.

“Detroit’s demolition plan is a shortsighted policy because it leaves much of the environmental cleanup to future generations (ethical), destroys numerous historic sites (ethical/aesthetic), and outsourced its work to several disreputable companies (ethical, practical/economic).

We then discuss how all students/writers will share some key moments in their drafting as they initiate this part of the process: writing about and discovering exigence, establishing suitable background or context, and then (sooner rather than later) working out and then through an initial evaluation claim.  Thus we can account for some work we’ve already done, and some that need new steps in inventing an evaluation.  We can see that we’ve all selected a suitable “item” to evaluate in a process that involves effectively narrowing your scope to a manageable/research-able problem or potential;  grounding this in a contemporary trend either in new research on this ‘problem,’ or in a new trend affiliated with the problem itself or its consequences;   and discovering how this is suitably challenging as an evaluation and proposal argument (essentially matching the topic to the challenge of the assignment description).    I note too that students have almost uniformly discovered much of the initial Exigence through research, where they intuitively focus on the stakes involved in their topic.   They thus share a common goal, to develop criteria for evaluating that item, so they can judge it wisely and convince others to do so as well, which requires considering which criteria are most important, obvious, arguable or impactful on an audience.

As the latter requires thinking critically about how criteria establish an evaluation argument and how they frame a logical/illogical or fair/unfair judgement, the class needs some practice identifying this and working with these concepts.

So here I offer a simulated research pack (less polished than the examples just viewed), which pitches the scenario where some preliminary research (or ‘working knowledge’ research) found these Popular Evaluations and proposals about Detroit:

Some popular Evaluations:

These Popular-Proposals:

I then set up a two part rhetorical challenge for groups of 4 to 6.

Challenge 1: 

  • Take 10 minutes to read, discuss, evaluate, and briefly analyze the short piece by Forbes from the list above. 

  • Groups will report back to the class on what your group thinks about Forbes’ evaluation of Detroit as the “most miserable city”.  Report back on the following two questions:

    • Is the evaluation fair, why or why not?

    • What do you think about the criteria for evaluation? 

The Forbes piece is familiar to many students, takes 6-7 minutes to read, and raises an initial awareness of their own reading, as they almost all note a defensive bias they feel the urge to defend Detroit.  Forbes uses a “misery index” to argue that Detroit is America’s most miserable city, an index based on five (sometimes more) economic criteria, and four (or more) “quality of life” criteria to measure human happiness.  The latter (like “weather” and “commute times”) are obviously shallow, raising just the sort of false controversy that Forbes wants to generate in readers, who year after year comment on the fallibility of these criteria (often raging as they do so).  The end game here it that it begs the question somewhat to each group, by asking students to see (in a very brief period) how the two questions are actually the same, or inseparable.  You can circulate and demonstrate how answering one (well) requires answering the other.

Challenge 2:  

In 10 minutes, come up with an Idea for a Project 4 (basically a standard evaluation/proposal argument with a twist) that is interested in evaluating one crucial problem in Detroit.  To improve upon Forbes’ (now you say “sensationalist and flawed”) evaluation, give us each of the following:

  1. Pitch a suitably narrow, grounded, and challenging RESEARCH QUESTION for an evaluation paper inspired by Detroit.

  2. Tell us what criteria make sense initially for this evaluation argument.  Remember, you are judging something and initially doing so in a binary way: in terms of what makes it good or bad.   Tell us IN 20 WORDS OR LESS.  what kind of criteria you will be using in your evaluation and why:

    • Aesthetic

    • Ethical

    • Practical

  3. Prove to us that your topic is A PART of larger context or systemic problem facing Detroit, or America.  Without stereotyping Detroit as ‘miserable’ or ‘utopian’, present your focus as a synecdoche to effectively CONNECT your narrowed and manageable ‘problem’ to these larger problems or trends.  

  4. Explain to the class why this would be manageable and important for project 4.   

Present all four parts in less than one minute.  

What seems most motivating here is that students seem to enjoy feeling smart.  They recognize that Forbes has played with the evaluation argument, deliberately overstating their argument or sensationalizing, and they feel they’re well equipped to do better – so long (as I remind them) as they can do what Forbes did well by consciously playing with the criteria for evaluation.  Forcing students to condense their answers here not only prevents any long-winded rebuttals or detractions, it allows us to return next class (without prolonging this particular exercise) to the key moves that refined an initial evaluation claim, to their sense of synecdoche (or simply what connects a narrow focus to the initial exigencies they desired to pursue in the research), and their ability to reflect on why these matter to the project.  There is after this a clear confidence and working knowledge that seems ingrained in many students.



One thought on “Teaching Activity: Synecdoche Detroit, a Rhetorical Exercise

  1. Sounds like a very effective way to help students see how criteria work in evaluation arguments. I like the way you work backwards from the Forbes piece to do that.

    Posted by Gwen Gorzelsky | November 30, 2013, 2:40 pm

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