Rhetoric Recap: What is ethos?

With our 21st century penchant for planned obsolescence, you start to feel like anything that’s more than a couple years old is past its prime and headed for oblivion. But before you toss out your Blackberry, recycle all your CDs, and delete your MySpace page, consider this: pretty much everything we now know (or believe) about communication is derived from some ideas written down over 2000 years ago. Continue reading


Engaging with the Ideas of Others: Using Reporting Language

What is “reporting language,” and why do I need it?

One of the most important modes of speaking and writing is referencing and responding to the ideas and views of others. Doing so situates your own writing within a larger conversation, which helps your interlocutor (whomever you’re communicating with) to understand why your discourse matters, and also gives him/her a frame of reference to interpret your meaning.

It’s essential to always clearly identify when you are restating the ideas of others by using reporting language, that is, sentences that explicitly attribute ideas to another source. In the first place, you should always give credit where credit is due. Furthermore, consistent use of reporting language is critical to the clarity of your own discourse; it helps you to distinguish your own position from that of others. Failure to use consistent reporting language can confuse your interlocutor as to what your own argument is. Continue reading

Tone-deaf FIFA Ad Glorifies British Colonialism

I’m a World Cup fan.

I’ll be honest: I don’t really follow soccer 3.9 years out of every 4 (or indeed, sports of any kind), but when the World Cup comes around, I’m there, donning my black, red, and gold, and shouting my head off. I spent the summer of 2006 in Berlin when they hosted the World Cup, and I caught the bug. There was so much hope and excitement in the air – I couldn’t help it. I’ve tuned in faithfully ever since, out of both nostalgia and a growing appreciation for the game.

So it’s without malice that I ask: what were they thinking with that ad for today’s Tunisia vs. England match? Continue reading

Who are our students’ heroes?

I recently gave a midterm in my section of Myths of the World, a large lecture class that most students take to meet a general education requirement in the humanities at San Francisco State University.

I have been extremely proud, and more than a little shocked, that since introducing this version of the midterm in my classes, several students have told me that they actually had “fun” answering the essay question.

The essay asks students to make comparisons between texts we have read by considering the question:

What makes a hero?

In class, as we read each text, I have challenged them to think about several issues related to this topic:

  • By what means does the author establish for us that the character is heroic? What details of his/her representation make it clear that we are meant to valorize a certain character? What do these choices help us understand about what it means to be heroic in the context of the story?
  • How does the depiction of heroic figures help us to understand the beliefs, attitudes, and values of the society that produced them? If a hero is represented as an ideal, an object of admiration and aspiration, what does this show us about the traits and behaviors that were valorized in a particular culture?
  • How might stories of heroic figures inspire but also constrain real individuals in a society as they try to figure out who they are and who they want to be?
  • Would we, now, consider this figure heroic? Why or why not?  How does this help us understand our own sociocultural beliefs, attitudes, and values?

The exam asks them to consider these questions in relation to two of the texts we have read and discussed in class so far, but it also adds an unexpected element:

Then, for your final paragraph, choose a heroic figure from our own contemporary culture. This doesn’t necessarily need to be your own personal hero – it should be someone you feel is admired by a large number of people in our society. This could be a fictional character (like a superhero, or action hero), or a real person who is considered a hero by a significant portion of society. Discuss what this heroic figure reveals about our own cultural values, AND, whether this represents a change from the values of the ancient cultures you discussed, or remains consistent with those ancient values.

This is the part my students really like. Making connections between the stories we have read and their own experience and frame of reference helps make the texts we have read together seem more meaningful to them. And they love having the opportunity to talk about stories and characters that they feel strongly about, and comment on aspects of their own culture and society.

The first time I gave students this question, I was fascinated to see which figures my students picked, so this time around I decided to catalog their responses.

Here is an overview of my students’ choice of heroes.

Continue reading

A Timely Reminder: Judith Butler’s Excitable Speech


“When we claim to have been injured by language, what kind of claim do we make?

We ascribe an agency to language, a power to injure, and position ourselves as the objects of its injurious trajectory. We claim that language acts, and acts against us, and the claim we make is a further instance of language, one which seeks to arrest the force of the prior instance. 

Thus, we exercise the force of language even as we seek to counter its force, caught up in a bind that no act of censorship can undo.”

— Judith Butler, Excitable Speech: A Politics of the Performative


In recent days, a great deal of thought, and even more raw emotion, has been generated by the topic of rhetoric — rhetoric about politics, about race and culture, about identity and belonging, and about exclusion and distrust. I think now, more than ever, we as a society are confronted with the power — the potentially abusive power — of language.

And yet, when considering the power language has to wound, I cannot help recalling Judith Butler’s assertion, in Excitable Speech, of the paradoxical nature of language’s power — that in trying to curtail the power of language, we inadvertently accede to it. Then again, in accepting the power language has over us, we can likewise recognize it as a power we can wield. Though the book is now creeping up on its twentieth anniversary, it seems more relevant than ever to remember both the warning and the promise it contains.

Continue reading

Fallacies, Episode II: The Use and Abuse of Evidence

In episode I, you learned about logical fallacies that represent mistakes in moving from our premises to our conclusions, due to bad logical form. But even if we’re careful to support our conclusions with reasoning and evidence, we can often run into problems with the evidence itself. “Facts” are supposed to be objective — but facts need to be interpreted, and this process is often subjective.


For that reason, evidence can often mislead and confuse. Have we interpreted it correctly? Do we have enough context to understand what it really indicates?

As consumers of media, we need to be aware of how frequently the supposed “evidence” that supports a claim can be misinterpreted and misused.

As thinkers and writers, we must make sure that we always consider source and context to ensure that we are using evidence appropriately.

Continue reading

Logical Fallacies Exposed

Logical fallacies are examples of fallacious, or faulty, arguments. At best, they represent flawed reasoning—making claims that are not supported by reasons or warrants, or drawing conclusions that don’t match up to the information you have. At worst, they can be deliberate attempts to mislead or confuse someone, to persuade through providing misinformation, usually to serve some hidden agenda. Many of the logical fallacies we will examine are common mistakes we all make, but some of them are established propaganda techniques.


Continue reading

Best Life Hack | Logical Reasoning

Reasoning, in its most fundamental sense, is the process by which we take bits of information and knowledge that we already have, and compare or combine them to generate new knowledge. It describes our ability to move from what we know to what we don’t know.

We do this by drawing conclusions from a set of premises – things we already know (or believe) to be true. The way we combine the premises to produce a conclusion is called an argument. The goal is to construct a sound argument so that we draw conclusions in such a way that they are guaranteed – or at least very likely – to be true. We want to come to the right conclusions, but this can be tricky.

Continue reading