George Will is pedantic (showing off with big words), Maureen Dowd is acerbic and polemical, David Brooks urges us all to act for the betterment of society, Ben Shapiro is sarcastic and Charles Blow seems incapable of writing a column without mentioning Donald Trump.
The annual Columnist Project in my Advanced Placement English Language and Composition class is once again in the books, and the results were encouraging.
I am always pleasantly surprised at how well high school juniors quickly pick up on the quirks and political inclinations of nationally syndicated newspaper columnists.
For the project, assigned every spring in the weeks leading up to the big AP Exam (this year on May 15), the students follow a columnist of their choosing for four to six weeks (depending on how soon in the semester we can start the project).
Each week, they print out and annotate a copy of the column, highlighting and commenting on rhetorical strategies the writer uses. Then they write a rhetorical precis — a brief summary of the strategies, the purpose of the piece, and the effect on the audience.
Rhetorical strategies include such things appeals to emotion (pathos), logic (logos), and trust and credibility (ethos). A few other strategies include repetition, rhetorical questions (asking a question to make a point, not to get an answer), hypophora (asking a question and answering it for the reader), and syntactical maneuvers such as following a long sentence with a short, punchy one to make the short sentence stand out and emphasize a point.
After following their columnist for the assigned number of weeks, the students write an essay analyzing the strategies they saw the columnist use most often. They quote from various columns and synthesize an argument on whether the strategies are effective in achieving the writer’s purpose.
For the last step, they write a letter (email) to their columnist, mentioning the project and commenting on the columnist’s work. Nicholas Kristof writes back; I’m not sure how many others do, since they must get so much mail.
Perhaps even more encouraging than their insight into the rhetorical strategies, many of the students chose to follow columnists whose political views are opposite their own.
I hope they are as opened-minded four years hence, when they are juniors in college.
I know of many AP Lang teachers, including here in the AV, who assign this project. It is good to know so many students are keeping up with the news, analyzing messages, and understanding political arguments.
They can see through politicians of all stripes, identifying the logical fallacies they employ. The most common these days seem to be:
• Ad hominem (attacking the opponent personally instead of his or her argument).
• Post hoc ergo propter hoc (Latin for “after this because of this” — allowing politicians to take credit for good things that happened after they passed a law, even if the causes were unrelated to the law they passed).
• Strawman (distorting the opponent’s argument so you can easily knock it down like a strawman).
If all voters studied rhetoric like our 11th-graders do, we’d all be better off.
William P. Warford’s column appears every Tuesday, Friday and Sunday.