Special Topics in Documentary Studies (Public Writing and Speaking)
“It may be what you think I said, but it wasn’t what I meant!” There is very little that is more important to our daily existence than communication, and very little that is more difficult. In the words of T.S. Eliot’s J. Alfred Prufrock, “it is impossible to say just what I mean.” As difficult as it is to communicate effectively in our daily lives, it is even more challenging to get the message across to a broader public, especially through all of the noise.
This class will take up the challenge to learn to communicate more effectively by studying three areas that are central to contemporary life: science, politics, and the law. The class will be divided into three units in which students will study the best political, scientific, and legal writing with an eye towards considering what constitutes effective and powerful communication and what responsibilities are entailed in communicating effectively.
How did Abraham Lincoln change the course of history with 272 words? What power did Martin Luther King harness when he told a nation about his dream? What captured the imagination of musicians and the public when Barack Obama chanted, “Yes We Can”?
How do the best science writers enchant the world for a general public? How might careful communication about scientific research and discoveries influence not only public opinion, but also policy debates and decisions?
How do the best legal writers construct arguments that persuade judges and juries? How do they use the tools of language and storytelling not only to win cases, but also to influence public opinion?
These are some of the questions we will address as we read some of the finest examples of persuasive communication. We will begin this class by an analysis of the poetics of the best persuasive writing. Using poetry, we will analyze how word choice, the juxtaposition of words and sound, and the use of imagery constitute meaning that is felt as well as understood. Through weekly readings, we will then analyze the poetics of political, legal, and scientific writing. We will consider how a mastery of poetics makes this writing so effective: how it moves as it informs the reader (or listener).
A significant component of this class will consider the ethical implications of persuasive rhetoric. What responsibilities attend the conscious use of language to persuade—which is to say, to manipulate feeling? How does this use of language in creative productions, such as poetry, differ from its use in political, legal, and scientific writing? And how do these ethical questions differ among these three areas? What kinds of responsibility do we have toward our readers or listeners in each case? What criteria can we use to determine what constitutes ethical communication?
Students will have the opportunity to hone their own written and oral communication skills as they practice these different forms of public communication. Writing exercises will include a range of forms from political speeches to op eds; science journalism to legal narrative. We will also have the opportunity to study and practice what constitutes effective public speaking in these areas.