The problem: students think "rhetoric" means deceit and manipulation
I created this assignment to solve a problem. My students, after years of writing formulaic expository essays in high school, thought persuasion was simply a matter of having the correct information and explaining it clearly. Their "just the facts" attitude to argumentation meant they thought the term rhetoric was a bad thing, a term that described deviation from the facts into deceit and manipulation. That attitude is widely held by the public, often expressed in complaints like, "The president's rhetoric doesn't match the facts."
As a result, introducing students to rhetoric with a lecture defining ethos, pathos, logos, and kairos had unintended results. My students thought I was simply providing them with terms used to label types of deceit. To them, rhetorical appeals were something to avoid, like logical fallacies, rather than tools that helped them solve problems.
I needed a way to convince them that their "just the facts" attitude was mistaken, that the facts alone were silent, that the way those facts were presented mattered, that they needed to know their audience as well as they knew the facts, that persuasion is about solving problems not just having the right answer, and that rhetoric is not inherently deceitful.
My solution was to have them analyze a TV show that illustrates all those points.
TruTv's comedy walks a tough rhetorical line
In each episode of Adam Ruins Everything host Adam Conover works to convince his audience that their commonly held beliefs are wrong and that he is right. It's a terrible premise for a TV show in an era of ideological filter bubbles, as the show itself admits in its first episode. If Adam offends or insults his viewer they can change the channel. Nevertheless the show has been well received because Adam has audience awareness and makes smart rhetorical choices.
This assignment is meant to introduce students to the concept of rhetorical choice before discussing abstract principles with Greek names. It works because students quickly grasp Adam's conundrum: he wants to change minds but if he loses viewers he'll get cancelled. The assignment asks students to figure out how Adam solves his problem and provides real-world examples that you can reference later in lectures about ethos, pathos, and logos.
Students watch at least two episodes of Adam Ruins Everything (two or more episodes will reveal patterns) and answer a series of questions that help them identify all of Adam's rhetorical choices, from the way he cites sources all the way to his wardrobe and personal appearance. The questions ask students to imagine themselves in Adam’s shoes and think through his decision making process.
This can be either a homework assignment or an in-class activity. Either way, after students have answered the questions it is a good idea to have a class discussion about what the students discovered.
I always emphasized that as a class we were not interested in the content of Adam’s argument — whether he was right or wrong did not matter to us. Instead, we were interested in the choices Adam made because of the combination of his medium, message, and audience as well as how the show’s medium, message, and audience influenced each other.
1. Some students aren't familiar with cable TV
Some of my students seemed never to have watched cable or broadcast television. They had only ever watched YouTube, Netflix, et cetera where creators target narrow audiences and there is little or no cost to watch. These students assumed, bizarrely, that Adam's target audience were people who already agreed with him. They did not understand that broadcast and cable television must appeal to a wide audience, and that due to cost, cable television subscribers are middle or upper class.
In all likelihood your students will watch episodes of Adam's show online, so before the assignment you may want to discuss how the show is made for cable television as well as the economics of cable television versus streaming services.
2. Some students are right-wing culture warriors
Some of my angrier, conservative students perceived Adam as politically liberal, that the purpose of his show was to provide talking points to other liberals, and that only smug liberals who liked feeling better than other people watched it. (A student actually said these things to me.)
If you have had a student like this you know they arrived in college ready to battle liberal professors out to brainwash them. Their personal politics prevented them from separating the content of Adam's arguments from his rhetorical methods, and some of them also seemed not to understand the economics of cable TV. My strategy with these students was simply to reiterate how the content of Adam's argument was irrelevant to the assignment.