Rhetoric & Public Discourse Spring 2015 | RPD15 | January 27, 2015


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Rhetoric & Public Discourse Spring 2015

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Rhetoric and Public Discourse
Professor Jonathan Zittrain
Spring 2015 Seminar
Meets: Tuesday 5:00pm – 7:00pm in WCC Room 3009

Course Description

This seminar will cover issues in both individual and public discourse. For the former, students will have an opportunity to hone rhetorical skills in a chosen format — speaking, presenting, moderating or production of media — and for the latter, we will explore the evolving nature of discourse in the networked public sphere, from “electronic town halls” to Wikipedia to anonymous and identified commenting. Some of our questions: What roles do and should intermediaries play in setting our topical agendas and shaping conversations around them? What impact does and can money have in influencing opinion on a large scale? What new modalities exist to facilitate conversation and closure among parties who disagree in good faith? Should advocates and agents be treated the same as those who claim to be speaking for themselves? Are there ways to identify and mitigate discourse grounded in bad faith, a.k.a. truthiness?


The major assignments for the course will entail 5-minute talks and an 800-1200-word short-form pieces both on topics of the student’s choosing. The assignments will be somewhat customizable in that students may choose whether to write two short-form articles and give one talk or give two talks and write one article. Students that give two talks will receive feedback between their first and second talks, and students that write short-form pieces will receive comments between the two. The assignment schedule will be determined once we know how many students will be focusing on short-form writing and how many will be focusing on public speaking. The idea for both the talks and the short-form pieces is for students to try their hands at some of the rhetorical and discursive concepts and strategies discussed in class. Thus, while students can select the content for their talks and articles, both should be crafted with an eye towards using the tools and techniques of the course. Students may also request to substitute a similarly substantive contribution to public discourse of another form (e.g. a video) for either the talks or the short-form articles.

In addition to the major assignments, there will occasionally be weekly assignments that require students to do some research or participate in an asynchronous exercise. These will both be communicated through email and through the H2O syllabus.


The grading for this course will be as follows: 60% for talks and short-form writing (20% for each assignment) and 40% for class participation, mailing-list participation, and weekly assignments. Any questions regarding grading can be directed to Shailin Thomas (sthomas@cyber.law.harvard.edu).


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  1. 2 Show/Hide More Short-Form Skills
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  2. 3 Show/Hide More Public Speaking
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  3. 4 Show/Hide More Humor and Satire
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  4. 10 Show/Hide More Science and Belief
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January 28, 2015

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