First debate screening
Students attend the first presidential debate in Whitman's Olin Hall on Sept. 26.

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Photography by Nhi Cao '20

This presidential election cycle, Whitman is offering two fall semester courses encouraging students to engage with today's heated political discourse.

The special classes, taught by Associate Professor of Politics Susanne Beechey and Assistant Professor of Rhetoric Heather Hayes, each emphasize a different disciplinary perspective, providing insight into both policy issues and the rhetorical devices candidates use to argue them.

"The way I've structured the course is to bring in political science literature on more typical elections to try to make sense of 2016," said Beechey. "There's so much attention being paid to the top of the ticket, but actually, there's a lot going on underneath that's important—so we're trying to both embrace the circus of this presidential moment but also disrupt the way in which that sometimes distracts from other things that are on the ballot."

Attending campus screenings of the presidential and vice presidential debates is another major component of both classes. The screenings, which are open to the entire community, have proven to be a big draw: The first was a full house.

"For me, the public debate viewings are as much about the campus as a whole as they are about my specific class," Beechey said. "It's an opportunity to model for students from across the college ways to be politically engaged."

The role of race, gender and class in electoral politics is of particular interest to Beechey and her students, each of whom has selected a policy issue to track on the local and national level.

"I've been really struck by the diversity of what's important to students in these discussions, which I think is more complex than the media gives them credit for," she said. "We talk about young voters as this monolith, when they actually have very different reasons why they might ultimately vote in a similar way, and they also are not all voting in a similar way."

Beechey listed environmental issues such as climate change and energy policy, as well as racial justice, prison reform and reproductive rights as examples of topics her students are tackling.

Hayes, whose course focuses on campaign rhetoric, was the one who introduced live tweeting as part of her instruction and integrated it into the debate viewing experience: While the two opposing candidates dominate the big screen, a second screen projects a running Twitter feed with reactions from around the country and world.

"It's a good way for us to move outside of our own bubbles," Hayes said. "I think it is really interesting to get outside of that context and to really think about what's going on in this conversation nationally. How do we interface and interact with people who might think differently than we do? How can we talk with them in ways that lead to productive outcomes?"

She said having the knowledge base to recognize and understand how politicians like Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump communicate with each other and with voters is key.

"These are two people who are going to spend a heck of a lot of time trying to persuade you. Having a tool where you can think about both the policy-which is why I think the partnership with the department of politics is so important—and also the symbolic relevance of particular ways that candidates use language and metaphors and narratives and argument—I think that's what makes us stronger citizens, and makes our students stronger students."

To better identify rhetorical tools in real time, Hayes and her students, along with members of other rhetoric and communication departments nationwide, reference Twitter hashtags that denote common tactics, such as the ones described below.

Hayes added, "One takeaway is that this is a really important moment for the country to see that, on the national stage, issues that many of us are talking about on our campus, in our towns, in our communities—that's actually filtering up into discussions by people who might be the next President of the United States."

Follow along with students and faculty from Whitman and 41 other schools during the debates by searching for #TRWD (Team Rhetoric Debate Watch) and #WhittieDW on Twitter, in addition to the hashtags reproduced here. Note: these represent a selection of the original document written by Hayes and distributed nationwide on social media.

  • Argumentum Ad Hominem #AdHom
    A speaker evades the actual topic of discussion, or the specific question they've been asked, by directing an attack at their opponent. Example: She's a crook so you can't believe anything she says.
  • Argumentum Ad Populum #AdPop
    A speaker uses an appeal to arouse feelings and enthusiasm of the populus rather than building an argument with clear warrants and impacts; often these can involve appeals to patriotism. Example: A true American knows that beer is the national drink.
  • Cherry Picking #CherryPick
    A speaker points at individual cases or data that seem to confirm a particular position, while ignoring a significant portion of related cases or data that may contradict that position. In other words, a speaker chooses only to offer the data or cases that best support their position and ignore other data that may not support their position. Example: I am significantly ahead of my opponent in the national polls. This one poll from The New York Times proves it.
  • False Equivalence #FalseEquiv
    A speaker equivocates two situations or logics when in fact there is no connection between the two situations or logics. Example: Guns may kill people but automobiles kill people too. If we're going to regulate guns we should regulate cars as well.
  • Slippery Slope #SlipSlope
    A speaker asserts that a relatively small first step inevitably leads to a chain of related events culminating in some significant impact/event that should not happen, thus the speaker argues that the first step should not happen. Example: If we close the prison at Guantanamo Bay, the next thing you know, terrorists will be crossing freely into the United States from all around the world.