21W.016 | Fall 2016 | Undergraduate

Writing and Rhetoric: Designing Meaning


Course Meeting Times 

Lectures: 2 sessions / week, 2 hours / session


There are no prequisites for this course.

Course Description

Michael Hyde and Craig Smith, prominent scholars of contemporary rhetoric, emphasize that “the primordial function of rhetoric is to ‘make-known’ meaning both to oneself and to others. Meaning is derived by a human being in and through the interpretive understanding of reality. Rhetoric is the process of making known that meaning.” (1979)

This course takes rhetoric as a system for designing meaning that helps us understand complex situations and ideas, enlighten and persuade others to act, and thus reshape our world. We’ll study rhetoric systematically and empirically, both analyzing how it works on us as readers, and testing how we can make informed rhetorical choices as we design our own texts. Through reading contemporary rhetorical theory and evaluating practices of rhetoric—in political speeches, debates, and visual images—we’ll study rhetoric as a body of knowledge that offers a means of developing persuasive arguments, a method of analyzing written, oral, and visual texts, and a mode of human inquiry. Along the way we’ll consider how rhetoric shapes issues such as political and cultural beliefs, the acceptance or rejection of new technologies, policies on energy and economics; in short, we’ll investigate how rhetoric shapes our material world. We’ll write analyses that consider how other writers use rhetoric, and we’ll apply rhetorical principles as we construct our own persuasive arguments, both written and oral. Throughout the semester, we’ll investigate rhetoric in a weekly “rhetoric laboratory,” in which we’ll investigate and experiment with tools of rhetorical analysis, design, and production.

Course Requirements

  1. Three essays, a speech, a debate, and an oral presentation. Each essay must be revised at least once. The speech, debate, and oral presentation will be accompanied by a meta-analysis of the rhetorical choices that informed the design of the presentation. (1st: 1000 words; 2nd: 1250 words; 3rd: 1750 words; meta-analyses: 250-500 words). All essays and drafts must use MLA style for formatting text and referencing sources.

Each essay will be graded according to the following scale:

  • A: Exceptional, focused argument presented in a thoughtfully structured essay, fully developed with vivid, sufficient evidence and compelling analysis, and written with excellent style, grammar, and mechanics.
  • B: Very good ideas developed in a logical and appropriate structure, with interesting evidence and strong analysis, written with proper grammar and mechanics.
  • C: Satisfactory ideas supported with adequate evidence, structured clearly on both a sentence and essay-level.
  • D: Work with insufficient or unsatisfactory development, focus, evidence, structure, or style.
  • F: Work that exhibits serious deficiencies in focus, evidence, structure, or style; incomplete work of any level.
  1. Conferences

For each essay, you will have a private conference with me between the draft and the revision, so that we can discuss your ideas, and the structure, content, and mechanics of your essay. This is the time for you to ask questions, seek guidance on how to develop your rhetorical knowledge and abilities, develop your argument, and clarify your meaning. You should come to conference prepared to participate in a discussion about seriously revising your draft.

  1. Other opportunities for individual help with your writing (for MIT students)

There are two more ways to receive outside help with your writing. The first is by coming to my office hours. When you come to office hours, I will expect you to be prepared to discuss the ideas you’re considering writing about, the revisions you plan to make, or problems or questions you have about assignments or the writing process. The other avenue for help with your writing is the Writing and Communication Center, which offers free one-on-one professional advice from lecturers who are published writers about all types of academic, creative, and professional writing and about all aspects of oral presentations.

  1. Class attendance and preparation (for MIT students)

This is a small class and active participation is essential. Attendance is mandatory, and only fully prepared and active attendance meets the attendance requirement: More than three unexcused absences will result in your course grade being lowered; more than five will result in your being withdrawn from the course. Lateness for class, if extreme or chronic, will be counted as an absence.

  1. Policy on Academic Integrity

Academic integrity is the foundation of all scholarship, because being able to trace how our ideas have developed in relation to other people’s theories, research, and evidence, as well as our own, is what ensures the soundness of our research. Thus university communities have a collective investment in ensuring that the practices of academic integrity are thoroughly learned and carefully practiced. In this CI-HW subject, we’ll study many features of academic argument that will help you to understand how scholars make use of sources, and distinguish their own ideas from those of other scholars. You’ll learn to read sources carefully, to assess their validity and usefulness to your own thinking, to use some kinds of sources as evidence that you’ll analyze and argue about, and other kinds of sources as a theoretical foundation or counterargument to extend or deepen your own ideas about a subject. You will also learn the mechanics of source use: how to accurately quote, paraphrase, and cite sources according to one of the common systems of citation.

As members of this class and the larger scholarly community you are expected to abide by the norms of academic integrity. Everything you submit must be your own work, written specifically for this class. While a good deal of collaboration is encouraged in and out of class, all sources—of ideas as well as words and images, whether from a friend, a text, or the internet—must be acknowledged according to the conventions of academic citation. Willful disregard for these conventions—i.e., plagiarism—can result in withdrawal from the course with a grade of F, and/or suspension or expulsion from the Institute. For more information about policies and practices, please refer to the MIT Policy on Academic Integrity.


First essay 20% (5% for the draft + 15% for the revision)
Second essay 25%
Third essay 30%
Speech 5%
Oral presentation 5%
Meta-analyses (one each for the speech, debate, and oral presentation) 5%
Class participation, debate, workshop reviews, and laboratory notebook 10%

Course Info

As Taught In
Fall 2016
Learning Resource Types
Written Assignments with Examples