Introduction to Public Discourse

Course Description

A liberal arts education is meant to prepare citizens for participation in democracy, and for traditional students the first year of college represents the start of their adult lives and participation in civic life. The goal of this course is to introduce students—whether traditional or non-traditional—to the primary methods of civic participation other than voting.


Because participation takes place mostly through discussion, debate, and writing, this course introduces students to the genres and methods of writing for a public audience, as well as the process of public conversation, known as public discourse.


The purpose of most civic conversation is to solve shared problems. At the heart of public debate is an understanding that shared problems cannot be solved without the consent and support of large numbers of people. To create consent and support requires persuasion, and persuasion requires language. To illustrate how language is employed to persuade others students read contemporary newspaper editorials and blogs, watch televised debates, listen to political speeches, study famous essays such as Dr. King’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” even attend local government meetings, and of course compose their own persuasive essays.


Over the course of the semester, students identify a problem within their local community, investigate past and present conversations about the problem, propose solutions, and then attempt to affect positive change by creating a public consensus and coalition via writing. At the semester’s end, students leave the classroom and put rhetoric into action with petitions, editorial writing, social media campaigns, or other methods of participation in civic debate that involve writing.

Required Texts

   1.  Rhetoric: Discovery and Change  by Richard Young, Alton Becker, and Kenneth

        Pike. Harcourt, Brace & World, 1970

   2.  Merchants of Doubt: How a Handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth on Issues

        from Tobacco Smoke to Global Warming by Naomi Oreskes and Erik M.

        Conway. New York: Bloomsbury Press, 2011.


The assignment trajectory guides students through the process of identifying a public problem, researching the various interests affected by the problem, proposing solutions, empathizing and identifying with opponents, writing a persuasive essay, and finally creating and promoting a petition that advocates for a solution.


1.  Topic Selection - students will identify things that bother them and narrow

     their focus to a single, specific problem within their local community.

2.  Annotated Bibliography - students research the issue and find all relevant

     information about the topic. Special attention is given to evaluating sources

     outside the context of peer-reviewed academic papers.

3.  Define the Problem

      - outline the history of debate on the issue and what has been tried before

      - what is the student's solution?

      - who is the opposition? why do they oppose the student's solution?

      - who needs to be pressured to enact the solution?

4.  Rogerian Essay - in order to build a coalition, students will use the essay style

     developed by Carl Rogers in order to show empathy with opponents and

     persuade them to join their side.

5.  Petition for Change - students will create a public petition using forums such

     as in order to pressure the relevant parties in enact the student's

     solution. The student will promote their petition via social media, letters to the

     editor and other means.

Course Calendar

Week 1 – The Process of Writing

welcome & ice-breakers

class introduction & brief syllabus review

writing is thinking (Lev Vygotsky theory)


writing is revision / shitty first drafts / writing is an act of discovery

inventing the university


Week 2 – What is Public Discourse and its Purpose

Academic Discourse (what is) vs. Public Discourse (what should be)

problems we share in common as members of a society

the rational problem solving process

the role of debate in a democracy

venues where public debate take place / genres of public discourse: TV, radio, op-ed, petitions, public hearings, councils and legislatures

review: Civic and Political Autobiography assignment


Week 3 – Finding a Public Issue to Research

conferences with instructor about Civic and Political Autobiography

due: 3-4 issue proposals

workshop of proposals

review: the personal essay assignment

genre of the personal essay (hook, turn, epiphany)

the personal is political


Week 4 – The Art of Persuasion & The Rhetorical Triangle

ethos, pathos, logos

rhetorical devices

organizational strategies for non-academic essays / big picture strategies that define the shape of a written work: narrative, compare & contrast, explanation,


Week 5 – Self-Editing and Revision

junk words, passive voice, concision, clarity

topic sentences & transitions

avoiding vague statements and fluff

details, details, details

due: personal essay assignment 1st draft


Week 6 – How to Research Public Affairs Issues

identifying the components of an issue: legal, historical, cultural, competing interests

primary vs. secondary vs. tertiary sources

non-academic databases like Lexus Nexus

homework: research the history of the debate around your topic

due: personal essay assignment 2nd draft


Week 7 – Evaluating Sources / The Merchants of Doubt

in-class exercise: using the rhetorical triangle to evaluate sources

in-class exercise: using the rhetorical triangle to evaluate website credibility

Google’s ranking method and its problems

have finished reading The Merchants of Doubt

discussion of conclusions we can draw from the book


Week 8 – Logical Fallacies

what is a logical fallacy?

in-class exercise: identifying logical fallacies in sample essays

homework: identifying logical fallacies in sample essays


Week 9 – The Aristotelian Essay / Op-Ed

the Aristotelian Essay genre & format

the amazing thesis development worksheet

workshop of sample thesis statements

due: thesis statement proposal

workshop of thesis proposals

due: Aristotelian Essay 1st draft


Week 10 – Self-Editing and Revision

 integrating evidence, in-text citations

avoiding vague statements and fluff

supporting all claims with evidence

details, details, details

due: Aristotelian Essay 2nd draft


Week 11 – The Rogerian Argument

the Rogerian argument genre and format

the importance of empathy

examples of Rogerian argumentation in: abortion, global warming, gay marriage, et cetera

due: the Rogerian Argument 1st draft


Week 12 – Self-Editing & Revising the Rogerian Essay

in-class workshop of sample student Rogerian essays


Week 13 – Putting Rhetoric into Action

due: the Rogerian Argument 2nd draft

the creative problem solving method

due: proposals for participating in public discourse

workshop of proposals


Week 14 – Putting Rhetoric into Action, part2

students participate in pubic discourse


Week 15 – Conclusion

end of semester self-assessment

instructor evaluations


Week 16

exam week—no class!

due: final portfolios (autobiography, personal essay, Aristotelian essay, Rogerian essay, reflection on participation in public discourse)