Ineffective Rhetoric and Logical Fallacy

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SWBAT identify flaws in rhetoric and explain why the rhetoric may be ineffective for an audience or be illogical by analyzing a series of rhetorically flawed statements.

Big Idea

Just because a text is meant to be persuasive doesn't mean it is; the persuasion is in the evidence and logic.


A Tour of Evidence Types

15 minutes

In the first part of this lesson I want to review the different types of evidence that can be used in arguments, based on their homework reading in the Language of Composition 2e textbook (pgs. 97-111).  The highlights are differentiating first-hand evidence and second-hand evidence, and, more simply, what can count as evidence in the first place.

Students come in with a rather narrow view of evidence:  quotes from the text.  This has been drilled into them, in part because of the literature analysis genre they've generally been writing in previous English classes, and the emphasis on quotes for demonstrating content knowledge on written assessments in other content areas.  I think a flaw in teaching the use of evidence is the frequent statement "you have to use quotes;" it is no wonder that students simply identify evidence as quotes, rather than recognizing the function of evidence, and the variety of shapes evidence can take.  So part of this discussion is simply to introduce students to the idea that in arguments there are lots of forms of evidence, and each has a specific function.  And, that the type of evidence used is directly related to the rhetorical situation--audience, message, and purpose.  Understanding this will help them as they read and explain, as Reading standard one states, "what a text says explicitly as well as inferences drawn from the text" because they can talk more specifically about the type of evidence, and therefore the function.

The standard desk set-up is a semi-circle so everyone can see each other, so for this section we will sit as a group and talk about the content together.   Before starting our discussion, though, I will ask them to skim the pages of the text for review and to gain context, then ask if they had any particular questions regarding evidence (having students review text acts as an activator to get everyone in English mode--who knows when they did their homework, and there is no reason I should expect them to remember everything they read, among all their other after-school activities).  My sense is there isn't anything particularly challenging here--that the reaction is more like "oh, that can be evidence?!"  So after fielding questions we'll walk through the sections together, with the two general questions being:

1.  What does this type of evidence look like?

2.  In what kinds of rhetorical situations would it be useful?  Not useful?

This discussion will then transition nicely into the rhetorical fallacies section that will occur next.

A Review of Logical Fallacy

20 minutes

Students read about logical fallacies in their homework reading about evidence, since most fallacy centers around evidence.  There is also a good little activity in The Language of Composition 2e on page 109 that asks students to identify the logical fallacy by name (bandwagon appeal, hasty generalization, etc.) and explain why there is a problem.  Students did this as part of their homework, so it will act as a nice way to introduce the idea of fallacy.

The first thing I will note to students, however, is a quote from the book that says "it's more important that you notice these fallacies and be able to describe what you see than it is to be able to label hem by their technical name"(99).   I think it is a good learning tool for them to go back and identify the type by name as they did for homework so they have to read the descriptions over a few times and understand the differences and nuances, but also important for them to know that recognizing fallacy is much more important than giving it a technical name.

Rather than reviewing the types first, we will read the descriptions together for clarification as we go through the homework and they come up.  Some of the fallacy statements from the activity include:

-"A person who is honest will not steal, so my client, an honest person, clearly is not guilty of theft."

-"A national study of grades 6-8 showed that test scores went down last year an absenteeism was high; this generation is going to the dogs."

-"Smoking is dangerous because it is harmful to your health."

As you can see, these statements have clear fallacy, and therefore act as a nice entry into learning how to identify issues in text.  There are eight in the book, so eight different students will begin the discussion and we will refer back to the book section when clarity is needed.  Students may name the flaws differently, and that is also part of the lesson-a flaw is a flaw, no matter the name, and some fallacies may fit into more than one category, a concept that will emerge as the students explain their reasoning.  If they can describe it, then it is something to contribute in analysis, and something to look out for in writing. . . a transition to the next section.

Ineffective Rhetoric: Student Samples

30 minutes

I saw a lot of increased effort in student writing over the weekend when I read their analyses of the Ram truck “So God Made a Farmer” advertisement.  Since they are experimenting and working at their craft, I decided to pull some passages from their texts to use as teaching moments for understanding rhetorical flaws, and also to help increase awareness in their own writing.   Specifically, I read many instances where students were making claims in an effort to create tone that they could not possibly substantiate, making generalizations, and stating logical connections that weren’t really logical.

It is important to note that for these writing assignments I have strongly encouraged them to write for around 30-40 minutes and to experiment with crafting strong arguments in that time to practice this particular skill for the eventual AP exam.  However, these particular prompts are assessing the rhetorical analysis skills they’ve been learning.   So the assessment is in the thoughtfulness and conceptual understanding, not necessarily the writing.   In fact, in many cases I score the assignment and post it in the grade book, but don’t count it toward the final grade.  Doing it this way puts more value on the learning than the end grade, and gives students freedom to experiment in their learning without worrying about getting a bad score; rather, they get feedback and can learn from it without any “points” at stake.  Given this, I’m also trying to stress the importance of having more awareness of their writing and developing a reflection-in-action skill for editing on the fly, so they are prepared for high-stakes situations.  

This scoring strategy also helps when I use student work as a teaching tool, because the students aren't immediately thinking they got a poor grade--since they don't count toward their grade.

As I’ve done in previous lessons, I will put some examples from their work on Smartboard slides for analysis (student rhetorical flaws.pdf).   I also will introduce this part of the lesson in a light-hearted way and look objectively at the flaws so the lesson is fun and educational, and students don’t feel bad.  I generally choose examples from the stronger students, too—ones I know won’t be too sensitive, and talk to the students before hand so they aren't surprised when their work is up there.  With the first example I will point out the flaw, modeling the objective manner in the analysis, and then ask students to participate in the analysis of subsequent examples.

 In one paper, for example, a student wrote, “Although they only show the flag once it is such an influential object that it stuck in their minds until the end.”  I will highlight the last part beginning with “stuck” and ask the class why this section is problematic—talking specifically how there isn’t any way to prove the statement.  Then I’ll show another example where the writer writes, “without the strategic  choice of images, the commercial would have been much more ineffective,” noting the generalization that doesn’t really say anything insightful.   Many of the examples feature use of generalizations without solid evidence, hyperbole that can’t be substantiated (speaking in ‘absolutes’), and word choices that don’t make sense in the context (students trying out big words they’ve heard, but aren’t completely sure of the meaning).

 Next steps:  in the final ten minutes I will explain their homework, in which they will practice their ability to identify evidence by annotating Anne Applebaum’s editorial from the Washington Post “If the Japanese Can’t Build a Safe Reactor, Who Can?”, identifying evidence and noting what type it is.  This piece is also featured in the textbook on pages 26-27 as part of an activity about establishing effectiveness of rhetoric; I found the piece on-line (Applebaum article.docx) so they could annotate.  I chose to use it since there is some argument of the effectiveness of the rhetoric, based on the type of evidence she uses.