e-mail me at billdeg@umich.edu


high standards

For the first few weeks of my comp classes this term, I leaned heavily on political rhetoric. We looked at speeches, representations in the popular press, and pretty much anything and everything associated with the presidential campaign. I used Don Lazere's 'Ground Rules for Polemicists' and some other very useful materials from his Reading and Writing for Civic Literacy text. The 'Ground Rules' challenge students' perceptions of how arguments work and should work. Lazere sets a high bar for the ethics of political rhetoric, for instance, emphasizing the importance of fully and fairly representing opposition perspectives, avoiding ad hominem attacks, and so forth.

Have others out there used Lazere? Any thoughts on this? One challenge is how to reconcile his guidelines with the realities of political discourse. My students have essentially concluded that nobody really follows these ground rules. Not on cable news, certainly, but not on op-ed pages either. I can't say I disagree with their assessments, but one of the things I'm trying to do is to temper their critiques of the current climate with genre realities. For instance, an op-ed piece simply doesn't allow enough space to do all the things Lazere suggests. A couple hundred words, max. It's simply not possible to represent "fully" the mythic "other side."

We've had some good discussions that come down to the notion that something's gotta give. Following any set of ground rules for argumentats limits the possibilities, putting regulations of sorts on Aristotle's definition of rhetoric ("all" the available means of persuasion). If you follow Lazere's rules, you draw on all the ethical means. One downside to using Lazere: students often end up looking for this impossible an untenable "bias free" political rhetoric. Again, I need to do a better job teaching civic genres. I keep writing on student papers things like "but an op-ed is SUPPOSED to advance a particular p-o-v."

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