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Rhetoric Students Analyze the Language of the 2016 Presidential Race

Monday, February 08, 2016
Political Rhetoric Articleimage

Vote for us: Dev Chanana and Jacob Alumbaugh are candidates vying for votes in Anne Watt's Presidential Rhetoric class.

An ancient philosopher once noted that whoever fails to study rhetoric will be a victim of it. If that's true, the students in Anne Watt's Presidential Election Rhetoric course should be well protected.

In the popular class, which Watt has offered each presidential election season since 2004, the Republican and Democratic parties' candidates provide real-world examples of campaign rhetoric for study. Her students also test their own rhetorical skills in a mock in-class presidential election.

"The course has made watching the [real] presidential debates more fun," says Dev Chanana, a senior software engineering major. "We will all be better-informed voters in the election."

Watt, a professor of English, asks her students to use Aristotle's concepts of ethos, logos, and pathos to analyze the political messages they observe. Ethos reflects a candidate's perceived credibility, logos refers to the logic of the candidate's arguments, and pathos refers to his or her emotional appeal.

Pathos has been a main ingredient in the real-world campaign, the students observe. The fear-inducing expression "radical Islamic terrorism" has been especially common in GOP debates, noted Jacob Alumbaugh, a sophomore biomedical engineering major.

Asked to name the candidate with the strongest ethos appeal, most say Democrat Hillary Clinton, a former First Lady, senator and secretary of state. The lone notable logos candidate, they believe, has been Sen. Rand Paul, a libertarian-leaning Republican.

The students must be objective as they observe the candidates, but can express their own political views on the class blog or in the mock presidential campaign, in which six of the more than 30 students in the course are running for president. Each candidate has spelled out detailed policy positions, selected a running mate, and a campaign team. They have also created campaign websites, advertisements, and introductory videos.

Occasional gaffs by the real-world candidates are understandable once you've experienced the intensity of a live debate, says Tucker Osman, a senior software engineering major and one of the mock presidential candidates. "It's incredibly difficult," he says. Drafting campaign material for a candidate is also no cake walk, says Morgan Cook, a junior software engineering major and campaign manager. "It's harder than most people think."

The class concludes with a mock election at the end of winter quarter. In the weeks prior, the pressure is on those running to use their rhetorical skills to win votes.

"This class is something I believe does the students a lot of good by making them better-informed citizens," Watt says. "And, in effect, they receive credit for doing something they should be doing anyway."