Spring 2007

David Kane

dkane at iq.harvard.edu

This is a draft. Comments and suggestions are welcome. I have put a list of open questions that I would like feedback on at the end of the syllabus.


Rhetoric -- the art and science of persuasion -- is a subject as old as human conversation and as recent as today's newspaper editorials. This tutorial covers both the theory and practice of persuasion, using words, numbers and pictures to convince others, and yourself, of some claim. You will learn how to write persuasive essays, how to pick out the flaws in your opponent's argument, how to shift the terms of a debate to your advantage, how to marshal numbers and statistics to your side, and how to create sophisticated statistical graphics. These are ambitious goals and much hard work will be required to achieve them.

Beyond these instrumental ends, we will also explore the philosophical background on rhetoric. Which criteria for persuasion are reasonable and which are not? Is there a difference between superstition and justified true belief? If so, what is it? How are we to know if our own opinions on controversial topics like the war in Iraq or income inequality are informed or ignorant? Philosophers have wrestled with these questions since Plato confronted the Sophists two thousand years ago. Our tutorial will continue that conversation.


There are no prerequisites. Indeed, this tutorial is designed for first years and sophomores who have taken neither a tutorial nor a philosophy course before. (Juniors and seniors are also welcome but the focus is on preparing younger students for the rigors of upper level courses in philosophy and elsewhere.) It will be helpful to have a background in statistics at the level of the AP Statistics Exam or STAT 101, but this is not required. I do not expect you to have any background in computer programming, but you must be enthusiastic about acquiring the ability to produce beautiful statistical graphics.

Meeting Times

All tutorial sessions will meet on Wednesdays. Ideally, the 5 classes will run from 8:45-9:45, 10:00-11:00, 11:15-12:15, 1:30-2:30 and 2:45-3:45. Later or earlier starting times will be considered, depending on student schedules. My hope is that students in the class will be able to join me for lunch, at least on occasion.


The main texts for the class include:


The tutorial is organized into two main parts. During the first part (up to Spring Break) we will focus on the foundations of persuasive rhetoric and statistical graphics. Our goal is to hone your skills. In the second part, we will apply these skills to controversial debates, not so much because we are interested in those debates per se, but because we want to exercise your new found talents. The entire tutorial builds to the final project in which you and a partner will submit a book review to an academic journal. That will review will serve as your contribution to the conversation that is the search for knowledge.


Essays will be graded anonymously. Much of the complexity here is due to the desire for ``blind'' grading. Fairness has its costs. The mechanics are as follows.

The first 10 tutorial sessions are divided up into 5 groups of 2.1 Each group focuses on one ``instigation'' article, a well-written and thoughtful exposition of a viewpoint, occasionally extreme. I choose articles about which you are likely to have strong opinions, often negative, in order to generate more interesting discussion and debate, both in the essays and during class. We will discuss each article for two weeks, along with the other assigned readings.

Each ``round'' will have a ``critic'' and a ``defender,'' with students serving in each role 5 times during the semester. The schedule of roles will be assigned at the start of the term via a random draw. Students should keep this and similar information to themselves. This schedule will specify both what role you will fulfill each week and who you will be assigned to respond to on those weeks during which you are a ``defender.''

In other words, you will not usually be responding to the essay written by your tutorial partner. Instead, your ``opponent'' in this dialog will be another member of the class whose identity is not known to you (or me). In writing your essays, keep in mind the following:

The goal of these essays is to persuade the reader. You should make the best case you possibly can even if you disagree with the arguments that you are making.

Instigation Articles

The five instigation articles are:


Essays will be graded anonymously. Each week, essays will be ranked from 1 to 10, from best to worst. One problem with letter grades is that they do not allow me to clearly differentiate between the very best work and the merely good. What point is there in grades that only range from B+ to A? A ranking system also makes it clear to students who are struggling that, in fact, they are struggling. If you write the worst essay in the class, then I want you (and me) to be clear on that fact. Writing the worst essay does not make you (or me) a bad person, but it is important to see where you stand and to know what you should do to improve.

These rank grades are only for use in understanding where you stand relative to your peers. Your final grade will, of course, be on the traditional scale. I will calculate this final grade by first determining where you stand in the class and then by mapping this standing to the usual Williams practice for tutorial grading.

There is some chance that a group of especially bright and hard-working students will take this tutorial and that, therefore, the average grade should be higher than that in an ``average'' tutorial. Perhaps. Since I do not have enough Williams teaching experience to make that judgment, I will rely on students' performance on the final project as a guide. I will show these projects to some Williams colleagues and ask if they think that the work is superior. If they think that it is, I will raise the tutorial average accordingly.3

Tutorial Preparation and Conduct

Prior to tutorial, you should:

Essays will not be read aloud during tutorial. Given that all the participants will have read all the essays prior to class, there is no reason to waste valuable discussion time on such an exercise. The ideal tutorial will require me to say only two words: ``Hello'' and ``Goodbye.'' This happy state will be difficult to achieve. But, to the greatest extent possible, students will be expected to carry the conversational load, to practice the art of persuasion using the spoken word. With luck, students will have different viewpoints on the instigation article, viewpoints from which discussion and debate will naturally flow. However, I will still expect students to argue both sides of a debate during class, to provide the most eloquent defense they can of positions they disagree with and to attack with verve ideals which they hold dear. If wide-open, no-holds-barred debate is not what you are looking for, do not take this class.

Final Project

The final project will be a review of a book of your choice. Since learning to work together is one goal of the tutorial, students will complete the project in pairs, selected by me. Partners will be assigned by the third class session. (Please let me know privately if there is someone with whom you do not want to work.) The ``book'' selected for review may be a book-length report such as ``The Health Consequences of Involuntary Exposure to Tobacco Smoke: A Report of the Surgeon General'' by the Centers for Disease Control or ``IPCC Third Assessment Report - Climate Change 2001'' by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).4

What sort of book should you use for your final project? First, remember that the choice is yours. Pick something that you and your partner care about. Second, the book must be ``data-rich'' enough for you to make use of your new graphics skills. You must have access to either the data from the book or a similar dataset. Your review should be approximately 3,000 words and must include at least two beautiful graphics. Third, you should consider choosing a recent book. Reviews are due by noon on Tuesday, May 15.

These reviews will become part of the permanent academic conversation. You must submit your review for publication somewhere. A good place to look for likely journals is The Berkeley Electronic Press but many other options are available. Now, some may argue that undergraduates, especially first years, are unlikely to have success in academic publishing. I disagree. A well-written book review with thoughtful comments and striking graphics will find a home. If you are unable to place the review in an academic journal, then you must attach it to the Wikipedia entry for the book. (If there is no such entry, you will create one.)


Week 1: February 7

The main readings for weeks 1 and 2 are short. This allows you more time to get your R skills up to speed and to get used to the back-and-forth nature of the essays.

Week 2: February 14

Week 3: February 21

Having mastered the basics of graphics in the first two weeks, you can now use them for real in your essays going forward. In general, you will be required to include at least one graphic in your 1,000 word essays. Using graphics in the 500 word essays is optional.

Week 4: February 28

Week 5: March 7

Week 6: March 14

This week marks the midpoint of the tutorial. At this point, you should have mastered the basics of using words, numbers and pictures to persuade. The remaining 6 weeks will be devoted to practicing these skills in the context of a conversation about the nature of knowledge in our analysis of society and social progress.

Week 7: April 4

Week 8: April 11: History

Week 9: April 18. Evolution

Week 10: April 25. Progress

Week 11: May 2. Politics

Week 12: May 9

By Tuesday noon, you should submit the rough drafts of your final projects via the usual mechanism. All students should should closely examine the projected which their tutorial partner is working on and prepare detailed comments. We will try to connect rhetorical themes developed over the semester to a concrete discussion of the strengths and weaknesses of the final projects. You should use this feedback over the following week.


If you had tried to write a similar book review before taking this tutorial, you would have done X well. Now that you have taken the tutorial -- now that you have learned how to analyze an argument, evaluate statistical data, create beautiful graphics and write persuasively -- you will do Y well with your review. The success (or failure) of the tutorial can be measured by comparing Y with X.

Requests for Comments

I am looking for input from two points of view. First, I want to make this the best class possible. Second, I want to maximize the chances that the Philosophy Department will accept my application. (Of course, these goals are highly correlated -- but not perfectly!) Key questions left unresolved include:

About this document ...

Spring 2007

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The translation was initiated by David Kane on 2006-08-17


... 2.1
Ignoring the session immediately after Spring Break.
... 6.2
For those doing the math at home, the formula would be something like: . Note that the longer essays count twice as much as the shorter essays while the final project matters twice as much as the original graphic.
... accordingly.3
If these professors think the work is inferior, I will let students in the tutorial know about their judgment but I will not lower the average grade accordingly since the problems are no doubt a result of my inadequacies as a teacher.
... (IPCC).4
Note that the fourth report may be available by Spring 2007.

David Kane 2006-08-17