The rhetoric of PWR

Sept. 24, 2019, 10:02 p.m.

Not all students hate Stanford’s Program in Writing and Rhetoric (PWR), but they generally agree that other students hate it. There’s a rhetoric around PWR: a word-of-mouth opinion spread around campus about the two-quarter sequence that nearly all Stanford students take in their first and second years. PWR is tedious. Topics are hit-or-miss. Participation is perfunctory. With thousands of classes to choose from and only 12 quarters to take them, why must two of those classes be PWR?

Taken seriously, this perception of PWR raises the question of whether the program is living up to its ambitious goal to make students “strategic, thoughtful, ethical, and persuasive in any kind of message they might need to create and deliver,” as Faculty Director Adam Banks writes on its website. 

Though PWR is Stanford’s equivalent of other colleges’ Freshman Writing courses, its departure in name signals its divergence in approach. A focus on rhetoric is the core of PWR’s pedagogy. Thus, understanding criticisms of PWR requires understanding what a focus on rhetoric means in the classroom. 

Asked about the aims of the program, PWR Advanced Lecturer Donna Hunter talked of how persuasive devices constantly bombard us. “We’re trying to give you the tools of awareness,” she explained. Understanding how messages can be constructed to persuade is where the ‘rhetoric’ part of ‘writing and rhetoric’ enters the conversation, and where PWR transcends a mere writing mechanics class.

Advanced Lecturer Chris Kamrath, who was PWR 1’s Course Coordinator from 2016 to June 2019, wants students to be able to do what he calls rhetorical detective work. “Every writing situation is going to be different, but how you approach that writing situation and figure out what the expectations are, how you sort through what a good argument is in that situation, or what stylistic expectations are in that situation — that’s similar,” he said.

The teachers we spoke to, as well as the program directors, emphasized thinking and writing rhetorically as a goal of the program. But whether students leave PWR 1 with a concrete sense of rhetorical thinking is unclear.

“I don’t really think ‘rhetoric’ was super clearly defined,” recounted Polly Moser ’22, who took PWR 1: The Rhetoric of Criminality. “There was never any point where we [asked] ‘what is some of the rhetoric associated with criminality?’ and ‘what does rhetoric mean?’ That was never a conversation we had in the context of the whole program.” 

Moser’s point that “rhetoric” remains unexplained in PWR is echoed by Nicole Ticea ’20. Rather than exploring rhetorical techniques or the craft of writing, said Ticea, students focused more on analyzing content or understanding how to approach a paper assignment. Tristan Wagner ’20 agreed: “I still don’t know what a rhetoric class is.” 

Some students, however, had an answer when we asked what they learned about thinking rhetorically. “An important thing [my teacher] has always stressed was [to] write with the intent of having some kind of audience, knowing what that audience is, and gearing the way you write… in a way that appeals to their fundamental sense of moral well-being,” explained J.P. Tang ’22. 

Tang told us that PWR did help him realize that research papers couldn’t simply “regurgitate some standardized view” from existing scholars. And Moser, who took Hunter’s class, says Hunter encouraged students to go beyond the “high-school framework” of logos, ethos and pathos. “We were encouraged to not just think in those terms, but to think more deeply about it.”

Students’ responses express an ambivalence when it comes to PWR’s goals. Concrete takeaways are mixed with uncertainty as to what rhetorical thinking means. Teachers too, seem to have different conceptions of the key components of rhetoric. 

The few existing critiques of PWR have been narrow or anecdotal. Yet the program touches the lives of nearly every Stanford student, and so deserves a closer look. In conversations with administrators, instructors and students, we explored PWR’s philosophy, realities and challenges. We asked to what extent PWR’s focus on rhetoric can address the vagueness of rhetoric itself, an information age that outruns the capabilities of rhetorical thinking, and the difficulties of teaching lasting skills in the short time that PWR has with students. 

The promise of PWR

“Rhetoric,” PWR director Marvin Diogenes told us, “is about relationships between human beings.” 

PWR explicitly frames writing as rhetoric: as entering and engaging in conversations, and seeing written works as acts in communication rather than static objects. True, the introductory writing courses that preceded PWR at Stanford also alluded to rhetoric. But the writing requirement pre-PWR, named first Freshman English and then the Program in Writing and Critical Thinking, focused simply on developing student’s writing skills. In 1994, Director Kenneth Fields succinctly stated the program’s goals: “We are here to help students improve their skills in speaking and writing.” 

It was only in PWR that the writing requirement found a central focus in rhetoric as an approach to writing. PWR is a young program — no older than the frosh gracing the campus this fall. Introduced in 2001, and developed under the guidance of Diogenes and then-Director Andrea Lunsford, the program did away with writing exemptions for students with Advanced Placement English credit and added an oral component to the second course in the writing sequence.

The biggest change, however, was the newfound attention to rhetoric championed by Lunsford, who had previously developed writing and rhetoric programs at other universities.

The new focus on rhetoric eliminated the “it’s obvious” approach to writing — the notion that it was patently clear what good writing meant and that the goal of improving students’ writing was specific enough. Fields’ description of the program’s aim as “to help students improve their skills in speaking and writing” was in this vein, and in 1993, The Daily’s Editorial Board claimed it was generally agreed upon that “the focus of the freshman writing requirement should be on learning to communicate one’s ideas effectively.” The Stanford Bulletin in the years before PWR justified the writing requirement similarly, saying that “all instructors expect that students will express themselves effectively in speech and writing.” 

Implicit in the “it’s obvious” approach to writing, and made explicit in the bulletin’s appeal to what “instructors expect,” was an academic orientation. This concept built off the idea that the key purpose of a writing requirement at an academic institution should be to allow students to do the kind of writing and oral communication that instructors expect in future courses. To this point, Joyce Moser, the then-associate director of the Program in Writing and Critical Thinking, expressed in a 1994 Daily article the wish that students be able to write “at a college level.” 

“I’ve been surprised by how many Stanford students don’t write well,” said Debra Satz — now dean of the School of Humanities and Sciences — in a 2001 Daily article. “I’ve also been surprised by how many students write well but don’t have an argument. I’d like to see logic as one of the things that counts towards the [new PWR] requirement. We have a lot of students who are smooth but can’t give a justification for what they believe. ”

The academic orientation implicit in the “it’s obvious” approach might make sense at first glance, but it’s not obvious what distinguishes academic writing as a whole from nonacademic writing, or whether “college-level” writing is a well-defined concept. Indeed, the volume and nature of academic writing varies wildly from major to major. 

In problem set-heavy majors in technical fields, very little writing is done outside of formulaic write-ups of homework. Students in the humanities may write two or three papers per class, and will write largely analytical rather than technical papers. And in the social sciences, students might write papers that involve more empirical research. It’s unlikely, then, that a first-year requirement can prepare all frosh adequately for the demands of future courses they will take in their various majors. 

“Writing doesn’t exist apart from what you’re writing about,” said History professor emeritus Mark Mancall, founder of Structured Liberal Education (SLE), a first-year program at Stanford that integrates writing instruction into a liberal arts curriculum. 

Philosophy professor Ken Taylor agreed: “I don’t believe that there’s a content-free, discipline-free, purpose-free thing that is just writing — I mean, writing journalism is one thing, a movie script is another thing.” 

In seeing first-year writing as an opportunity to give students a framework with which to approach communicating their ideas throughout and after college, PWR shed the “it’s obvious” approach and the implicit academic lean it incorporated. 

Under PWR’s rhetoric-based approach, the point of writing a rhetorical analysis is not just so one knows how to write a rhetorical analysis in future classes. Rather, it is a means to learn how to engage more richly with any text. “What we mean by reading rhetorically is engaging fully with the complexity of language,” Diogenes said. “Good rhetorical analysis is not just the surface of the text. It’s the complexity of how the text creates a space for the writer and the reader to interact about something important.” 

Kamrath connects this complexity to change, noting that students need to understand that “writing does things in the world” and that “the way you write matters to how you can do something.”

Different sections of PWR 1 have myriad topics, ranging from “The Rhetoric of Meritocracy” to “Why Movies Matter.” But they all share a structure of three essays, starting with a rhetorical analysis, graduating to a synthesis paper and culminating in a research paper. These three papers all seek to instill in students a responsible approach to engaging in conversation across diverse genres. 

Following the rhetorical analysis, Banks, PWR’s faculty director, explained, the synthesis paper pushes students “to engage the richness of a conversation, to be able to synthesize, to bring ideas into connection with each other without having to immediately judge or evaluate.” By forcing you to slow down, Kamrath said, the synthesis paper enables you to write a more carefully reasoned final product. In this final research paper, students incorporate their ability to engage responsibly in conversation with multiple sources and bring those conversations to bear in an argument. 

PWR’s aspiration, then, is to approach students as people and citizens, inspiring in them paradigms of responsible discourse, habits of listening closely and charitably to others’ arguments, and skills of crafting one’s opinions. All this, the directors say, is what makes PWR’s approach one based in rhetoric. 

The rhetoric of ‘rhetoric’ 

When the faculty senate changed the writing requirement’s name to PWR in 2001, there were concerns about the word “rhetoric.” As political science professor David Abernethy observed in the senate meeting, rhetoric “tends to mean overblown, somewhat misleading communications —­ exactly the opposite of what we have in mind.”

Lunsford pushed back, saying that rhetoric was “not about manipulation, but about reasoned judgment.” Over the objections of Abernethy and other faculty senate members who worried “rhetoric” would be construed as meaning insincere, manipulative language, Lunsford insisted that, since rhetoric would be what the program emphasized, the name should reflect that. 

Abernethy is right that rhetoric often refers to communication that is heavy on persuasive tricks and light on substance. When thinking of rhetoric, people subconsciously add the adjective “empty.” It’s not only popular discourse: when legal scholar Cass Sunstein asks in a 1993 paper whether a disagreement is “a matter of rhetoric, not substance,” he invokes the idea that a matter of rhetoric is the opposite of meaningful discussion. 

Nor is this the only simplification of rhetoric. For some students, rhetoric might seem to be a checklist: SOAPSTone, ethos pathos logos, or tropes and schemes. Rhetoric might be reduced to a specific word or grammar, and what function it fulfills within the framework. 

Those within PWR have different answers when explaining what rhetoric can mean when not misunderstood or oversimplified. Lunsford says that rhetoric is “the art of ethical communication and persuasion.” Diogenes tells us that rhetoric is about “the complexity of how the text creates a space for the writer and the reader to interact about something important.” And to Hunter, rhetoric is about “meaning making” in addition to persuasion. 

Outside of PWR, the Council of Writing Program Administrators sees rhetorical knowledge as “the ability to analyze contexts and audiences and then to act on that analysis in comprehending and creating texts, while the Oxford English Dictionary says rhetoric is the “art of using language effectively so as to persuade or influence others.” 

Is rhetoric essentially related to persuasion, ethical discourse, or contexts and audience-speaker interaction? Perhaps all of the above. The diversity of possible characterizations of rhetoric illustrates that, despite its history and prestige in some academic circles, rhetoric is somewhat of a catch-all term in the study and practice of communication. 

If rhetoric is so sweeping an idea, then the point made by Mancall and Taylor that writing doesn’t exist apart from what you’re writing about applies to rhetoric as well. Indeed, Taylor argued, “there’s no such thing as a freestanding art of persuading.” From science to philosophy to law, different kinds of arguments require completely different sets of tools. 

Perhaps this is why when asked to discuss PWR’s conception of rhetoric, students had trouble getting beyond a standard recitation of ethos, pathos and logos, or a broad gesture at audience awareness. The rhetoric of rhetoric is nebulous. To someone not deeply versed in what academics consider rhetoric, anything relevant to communication can be called rhetorical, given the right spin. 

Even if we struggle to verbalize the notion of rhetoric, we might still identify when a piece of writing employs it successfully. We might develop skills of persuasive writing without articulating fully what those skills are; in other words, the capacity to think rhetorically may not need a precise grasp on the theory of rhetoric itself. If so, this could mean PWR can teach rhetoric without explicitly defining it. 

On the other hand, it might also mean that teaching rhetoric is too big a task for a two-quarter sequence students take their freshman and sophomore years. As it stands, PWR might take a rhetorical approach to writing, but unless students and teachers are on the same page about what this means, rhetoric may be a shaky foundation for the program’s methods.

PWR’s rhetorical approach in the Internet age

Writing changes with the mediums that carry it. In the 21st century, modes of communication shift at an unprecedented pace with the proliferation of the Internet, Facebook and Twitter, and the ubiquity of the smartphone — all phenomena younger than PWR. 

These constant changes to our communication landscapes mean we must be aware of new ways information can be created and interpreted. Effective communication is different on Twitter than on Reddit. An audience is different for an op-ed and a Facebook post. And, most importantly, assessing the reliability of information in the 21st century is harder than ever before. 

The Russian disinformation campaign of 2016 represents only one example of the challenges students face today, ranging from an inability to differentiate sponsored content from actual articles to a worrying reliance on weak signals like a website’s design or domain name to assess reliability. If PWR is to prepare students to be, as its states, “engaged citizens” who are ready for the “many kinds of participatory culture that have emerged in our relationships with digital, networked, technologies,” today’s media landscape cannot be an afterthought. 

Kamrath suggested that if we think about rhetoric as placing sources in conversation, as the synthesis assignment encourages students to do, then we can avoid the traps of tempting language when evaluating sources. 

“If every source is connected, and you can see how many times they’re cited, you can see where they’re cited and that they’re commenting on each other, then you can have a better sense of how the source is actually read within a particular community or within a scholarly conversation,” he said. 

This is true within the academic-research sphere, where students use Google Scholar or librarian-approved databases, but not so much on the internet. A study conducted by the Stanford History Education Group (disclosure: one of the authors of this piece, Nadav Ziv, does work for this organization) found that both historians and college students were easily fooled by the innocuous-looking website of a dubious organization. Historians relied on signals like how professional a website looked, citations of credentialed experts and the presence of references at the end of the site, even though the credible journals that were referenced largely did not support the points on the page. 

Only 50% of the historians in the study, all of whom have PhDs, rated the site as less credible. Fact checkers, in contrast, used lateral reading — leaving a site and searching it in a new tab — to investigate the organization. They saw what other sources had to say about the original site, and quickly came back with the correct verdict. 

Though lateral reading echoes Kamrath’s suggestion of following a citation trail and finding out what other sources have to say, it requires different steps on the open web than when one is working with pre-selected, peer-reviewed articles. Nor does lateral reading necessarily replace a rhetorical approach. Rather, it’s about deciding where to spend your time, as Mike Caulfield, Director of the Digital Polarization Initiative, explained. Just as you might check the weather before investing your time in planning a picnic, lateral reading is the online background check you use to decide if it’s worth your time to dig deep into a page and examine its contents.

When it comes to how PWR 1 teaches students to evaluate sources, Kamrath points us to Stanford Libraries’ workshops, where PWR outsources part of the task. The Libraries’ video on source evaluation, however, leaves students liable to fall into the traps set by deceptive websites.

Though cautioning that some “.orgs” and “.edus” can be deceitful, the video suggests that “some domain names are considered more credible than others,” a distinction that can mislead students into thinking “.coms” are bad and “.orgs” are good. 

The video also stresses considering the intended audience of the source and its recency. Suppose, however, that we use these techniques to assess the credibility of a website like that of the Institute for Historical Review (IHR). IHR’s “About” page states: the “IHR is an independent educational center and publisher that works to promote peace, understanding and justice through greater public awareness of the past, and especially socially-politically relevant aspects of modern history.” This sentence does not belie the fact that the IHR is best known for promoting Holocaust denial. IHR has a “.org” domain and seems to have been updated recently. If a student did not leave the page to see what other sources had to say, they might conclude the IHR is a legitimate scholarly resource.

Stanford Libraries’ video does tell students to “always independently research the organization,” and not to “rely on the website’s about page,” just as it cautions that some “.orgs” are unreliable. But this advice is not always followed in the video itself: when telling students to consider the author or the intended audience, the screenshots shown as examples are all from within the webpage. 

Felicia Smith, Head of Learning and Outreach at Stanford Libraries, told us the video is meant to be a jumping off-point for PWR instructors to build upon. With more resources, Smith said, she would love to create content devoted specifically to teaching students to evaluate online information, rather than only a few minutes within a single video that must cover how to evaluate scholarly, popular, and internet sources.

This breadth is the video’s problem. Advice relevant to evaluating scholarly sources, such as looking at the listed author credentials or references, translates poorly to an online world where traditional signals of credibility are easily manipulated. The video hints at this distinction, but does not show why and how one must take a different approach when using the internet.

Kamrath said PWR has done workshops to improve students’ ability to evaluate the credibility of sources: “this is something that we as a program can become better at, and are becoming better at.” And Banks and Diogenes have been thinking hard about the issue: “we as educated citizens have to take on more of the responsibilities of fact-checking,” Banks told us. 

It’s challenges like these that PWR faces in the internet age. It must teach students how to write research papers, and also to communicate in 280 characters. It must show students how to find peer-reviewed information in scholarly databases, and also to sort through good and bad information on the open web. The flexible toolkit of a rhetorical approach is a promising start. But it’s important to recognize rhetoric’s limitations — to identify when new possibilities and new dangers demand new kinds of tools. 

Institutional aspirations and limitations

“PWR has gotten into the position of the course you love to hate,” PWR lecturer Donna Hunter said. For structural reasons, Hunter hypothesized, PWR has a bad rap because it is a more rigid requirement than Thinking Matters, the other first-year requirement. 

Despite the perception that PWR is hated, however, some students we talked to were far from disparaging.

Tristan Wagner assured us he loved his PWR class. “I liked it for reasons that didn’t really have much to do with the class stuff. It was my professor and the topic,” he said. “It’s controversial when I say this to my friends. The mentality is ‘oh my god PWR sucks.’” Moser, too, cited her instructor, Hunter, as the reason why her experience with PWR was largely positive. 

Ciera Okere ’22 appreciated PWR’s emphasis on self improvement. “You don’t necessarily have to be the best writer in the class, but as long as you’re writing better than you were, that was what [the instructor] wanted.” Emphasis on rhetoric was largely limited to the first essay and dropped off after that, so Okere felt she learned more about good writing-process and editing habits. But she also echoed Wagner’s and Mosers’ qualification that it was the instructor who made the class work, more than the curriculum. 

PWR dedicates extensive resources to helping teachers become better instructors. The administrative team works with new teachers for over a month right before fall quarter. Returning instructors undergo a week of training as well, and PWR Lecturer Samah Elbelazi praised the resources offered. New instructors coming into the program have different specializations and can therefore offer new classes. They also offer an opportunity for the program to clarify its goals as they’re described to the newcomers, explained Kamrath. 

Instructor turnover, however, poses a challenge. Some PWR teachers are on only one- or two-year contracts, and instructors we spoke with mentioned affordability as a major reason young post-doctoral fellows leave Stanford. For students, the high teacher turnover can translate into reduced class quality. It often takes several iterations of teaching a class for it to realize its full potential, and teachers who are only at Stanford for a short time don’t have the opportunity to get to this point. 

Instructors told us that Banks and Diogenes do their best to prevent instructors from having to move on and offer support for instructors in finding new jobs even when they do. In contrast to some other universities, where writing instructors all have fixed terms, the majority of PWR instructors are on an “advanced lecturer” track which, though not providing tenure, allows instructors to renew their contracts indefinitely. 

The quarter system also presents a challenge. “With the rapid and quick phase of the quarter, sometimes I personally feel like I have so much to cover that I don’t have that much room for bringing so many people to have workshops,” Elbelazi said. Topics likes source evaluation or learning how to write emails are either covered very briefly or left out of the course entirely. 

“PWR is set up so PWR 1 doesn’t have to solve everyone’s writing problems,” Kamrath said. “Writing is designed at Stanford so people are learning about writing in different stages of their time here.” 

Banks, the faculty director, stressed that even the sequence of PWR 1 and PWR 2 is not enough time to cover all the skills that students need. Accordingly, PWR has broadened its scope beyond the two-course requirement.

There is the Hume Center for Writing and Speaking, which provides tutors for written and oral communication, and holds frequent workshops like “Writing the Translingual Voice.” There are advanced PWR electives, with 2019-20 course offerings including classes like “Topics in Writing and Rhetoric: Introduction to Environmental Justice: Race, Class, Gender, and Place.” And in recent years, an initiative that integrates writing specialists into different academic departments has been highly praised by faculty and teaching staff.  

Banks says if there’s interest in an idea then they’re willing to design it. PWR reaches out to the student body through student focus groups where administrators and lecturers get input on proposed course offerings for future years.

The effort to provide opportunities outside the PWR 1 and PWR 2 requirements, however, faces several hurdles. Within PWR’s control is the perceived confusion among some students of what advanced PWR electives are meant to do. In one PWR focus group, several students pointed out that sometimes it wasn’t clear what made a course worthy of PWR’s rhetorical approach rather than a more content-based one. 

Other features of Stanford life are immutable. Stanford students already spread themselves thin between class work and extracurriculars. To attend a supplementary PWR workshop is a nontrivial commitment, especially when students receive no academic credit for their participation. Even in the case of advanced PWR courses, where students do get credit, they must fit the elective in with their major and breadth requirements. 

The fact that Stanford students are busy and must make choices about where to spend their time is of course not a problem exclusive to PWR, and not a reason in itself to scale down supplemental offerings. But just 64 students took an advanced PWR course in the 2018-19 academic year, compared to the over 1,400 students who took PWR 1.

Is the material in these supplemental courses truly outside the scope of what is important enough to put in the core PWR courses, where it could reach far more students? PWR’s website declares that “writing and speaking are crucial to global citizenship, and they are central to any hope we have in the pursuit of deep democracy and social justice here in our own society.” But if PWR seeks to prepare students for being scholars and citizens in the 21st century, certain skills, like navigating the information landscape of the internet, are crucial rather than discretional. 

PWR’s struggle reflects rhetoric’s struggle. In “The Rhetorical Tradition, written at the same time that PWR was being conceived, authors Patricia Bizzell and Bruce Herzberg wrote: “Rhetoric is a complex discipline with a long history: It is less helpful to try to define it once and for all than to look at the many definitions it has accumulated over the years and to attempt to understand how each arose and how each still inhabits and shapes the field.”

What is important in communication and persuasion is ever-changing, and now changing very rapidly. This is the task that PWR is up against. It must teach communication as it has happened and as it happens now, and has neither history’s luxury of distance, philosophy’s luxury of timelessness, nor engineering’s luxury of well-defined problem statements. 

Diogenes recognizes the momentous task: “I often say to my new teachers, I say up front that we’re going to ask you to do the impossible. And I’d say to a student coming into a PWR 1 class, I’ll just tell you up front: we’re going to ask you to do the impossible. But actually that’s something to be proud of.” 

Contact Adrian Liu at adliu ‘at’ and Nadav Ziv at nadavziv ‘at’

Nadav Ziv (@nadavsziv) ’22 is a columnist and was a member of The Stanford Daily’s Volume 256 Editorial Board. His pieces on democracy and violence won the 2019 Woo Award for Excellence in Opinion Writing, and he has co-written pieces for The New York Times and TIME.Adrian Liu '20 was Editor of Opinions in Volumes 257 and 259.

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