Introduction

Module One: Approaches to Argument and Critical Reading

Module Introduction

Beware of his false knowledge; it is more dangerous than ignorance.

~ George Bernard Shaw, Maxims for Revolutionists

Regardless of one’s political leanings, the 2016 U.S. Presidential election represents an instructive case study in our culture’s complex and evolving relationship with credible information. In the weeks following the election’s final outcomes, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg felt compelled to defend his company’s content-mediation practices and dispel the notion that the many fake news stories circulating widely on various social-media platforms materially influenced the election. In her article “From Hate Speech to Fake News: The Content Crisis Facing Mark Zuckerberg,” NPR reporter Aarti Shahani examines the substantial influence that Facebook has on shaping public opinion. Her piece explores an important component of what has been a difficult paradigm shift from the print culture of the twentieth century to our present digital environment—the flood of false or misleading content now freely available on the Internet.

Technology’s influences on human growth and development can be complicated, and digital technologies in particular have dramatically altered American culture in just two short decades. The maps that once crowded our glove compartments have given way to automated directions linked to the Global Positioning System (GPS). The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has had to develop guidelines for regulating unmanned aircraft systems—otherwise known as “drones” in broader culture. Encyclopedias are now freely available online, travel agencies have ceded ground to digital companies such as Kayak and Travelocity, and entire libraries have been made portable via tablets and digital reading devices. Print subscriptions to newspapers are waning as consumers now turn to social media for updates from friends, relatives, and a wide variety of news agencies.

Therein lies a critical paradox of our time: Americans have access to more information than at any other time in human history, and yet we are perhaps less informed as a nation. As Shahani notes, many of the stories circulating on social media are patently false. These stories now surface with such regularity that Slate has developed a browser extension that helps readers identify news that is “intentionally misleading, [and] intentionally false.” The dissemination of such damaging information is now ubiquitous in American culture, and it represents a serious impediment for our society in successfully navigating important collective issues.

This course, English Composition II, covers elements of modern rhetoric and research composition. Simply put, these learning modules build on the work of English Composition I by exposing students to the fundamental tenets of rhetorical studies while providing them with practice in developing perceptive, credible texts. Greek philosopher Aristotle defined rhetoric as the art of advancing the best means of persuasion for a given situation. The art of rhetoric, or providing your audience with sound reasons to agree with you, is founded on a variety of factors, including the needs of the audience, the purpose of the communication activity, and the environment in which that communication takes place.

In the twentieth century, information was most commonly conveyed through newspapers, magazines, and books. Physical print media required linear thinking, careful attention, and a fairly sophisticated vocabulary. In the twenty-first century, digital media is truncated, brief, and hypertextual. Contemporary students often experience greater difficulty in focusing on complex texts and complicated subjects. Theorists such as Nicholas Carr (“Is Google Making Us Stupid?”) and Sven Birkerts (“Terminal Reading: Into the Electronic Millennium”) argue that digital technology is contributing to widespread cognitive atrophy, the waning of the private self, and an inability to make sense of situated knowledge. In his informative text The Economics of Attention: Style and Substance in the Age of Information, UCLA scholar Richard Lanham compares the activity of conducting digital research to drinking from an informational fire hose. In short, digital technologies provide us with immense opportunities while simultaneously inhibiting some of the critical skills that we must develop to excel both in our work and as productive, informed members of society. (1)

Objectives

Upon completion of this module, the student will be able to:

  • Compare and critically assess the features of the argumentative models advanced by Aristotle, Carl Rogers, and Stephen Toulmin.
  • Apply elements of these formal approaches to rhetorical studies to their own arguments.
  • Apply critical reading strategies to their analysis of complex texts in the interests of developing thoughtful, well-researched arguments. (1)

Readings

  • Online Learning Content