Digital Lesson Plans: Teaching Neo-Aristotelian Criticism with #ThanksObama

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Here at the DRC, we are introducing a new series of posts featuring Digital Lesson Plans. The aim of our Digital Lesson Plan series is to solicit and share classroom activities and assignments that teach some aspect of digital rhetoric, broadly interpreted. These “digital lessons” have been designed and tested by instructors, and the hope is that they will serve as practical models and jumping-off points for readers to adapt to their own teaching contexts. The following lesson was developed by Kaitlin Clinnin of Ohio State University.

Brief Description of Activity: Students practice Neo-Aristotelian criticism by analyzing the Twitter hashtag #ThanksObama. Through practice, students consider the affordances and limitations of Neo-Artistotelian criticism as well as tools for conducting social media research.
Class Subject: The Arts of Persuasion (general education course on rhetorical theory, course theme was Digital Rhetoric(s))
Activity Topic: Neo-Aristotelian analysis, Twitter hashtag analysis
Length of Activity: 30-55 minutes
Required Materials: Twitter.com or other Twitter programs (like TweetDeck); Hashtagify.me
Suggested Readings:
 – On Neo-Aristotelian Criticism: Foss, Sonja K. “Neo-Aristotelian Criticism.” Rhetorical Criticism: Exploration and Practice.
Sample Neo-Aristotelian Analysis: Alicie, Dwayne. “The Meat of the Matter: A Neo-Aristotelian Analysis of Lady Gaga’s ‘The Prime Rib of America’ Address.” Alicieinwonderland.com. 22 September 2011. Web. Accessed 29 April 2016.
Hashtags and Rhetoric: Daer, Alice R., Rebecca F. Hoffman, Seth Goodman. “Rhetorical Functions of Hashtag Forms Across Social Media Applications.” Communication Design Quarterly 3.1 (November 2014): 12-16. Print.

Learning Objectives:
Students will:
– Construct the steps of a Neo-Aristotelian analysis
– Evaluate the appropriate conditions to engage in Neo-Aristotelian analysis and adjust Neo-Aristotelian methods to analyze digital case studies
– Assess digital tools to collect and analyze social media
– Practice Neo-Aristotelian analysis using Twitter hashtags

Learning Assessments:
Students participate in a large group discussion at the beginning of the class to review Neo-Aristotelian concepts from the reading. After the activity, another large group discussion focuses on the students’ findings regarding the use of digital tools for social media research, the affordances and constraints of Neo-Aristotelian analysis, and the rhetorical characteristics of identified hashtags. The learning objectives for this activity align with the first major assignment for the class, Analyzing Twitter with Aristotle, so in this class activity students were able to practice the skills needed to successfully complete the assignment.

Activity Plan:
Prior to class: I asked students to read “Neo-Aristotelian Criticism” from Rhetorical Criticism by Sonja K. Foss. This chapter provides a brief overview of Neo-Aristotelian criticism’s origins as well as a process for how to conduct a Neo-Aristotelian analysis. I then asked students to review “The Meat of the Matter,” an example of a Neo-Aristotelian analysis of a contemporary pop culture figure. I asked students to consider the following questions as they read both texts:

  • What is the process of analysis using a Neo-Aristotelian method?
  • What are some of the critiques of a Neo-Aristotelian method?
  • What does the Neo-Aristotelian analysis of “The Meat of the Matter” make apparent? Basically, what does analyzing a text using the Neo-Aristotelian method help us as rhetoricians understand?

I also asked students to bring a device (smart phone, laptop, tablet, etc.) to class.

In class: I began class with a large class discussion intended to review concepts from “Neoaristotelian Criticism” by Foss and to answer the questions I provided to frame their reading. I focused the discussion on the process of analyzing a text using Neo-Aristotelian method, so the class discussed concrete ways that they would analyze the rhetor, occasion, audience, canons, and effect of a text. This review took approximately 15 minutes.

Next, I transitioned students from Neo-Aristotelian criticism as a theory to applying Neo-Aristotelian criticism on their own. I introduced students to the hashtag, #ThanksObama. I told students that we were going to use the Neo-Aristotelian method to analyze the #ThanksObama hashtag from a rhetorical perspective. I showed students various ways that they could search for hashtags using Twitter.com’s interface (including top Tweets, real-time Tweets, and the Discover function) and other sites like Hashtagify.me.

I formed students into groups and assigned each group one component of the Neo-Aristotelian method to examine. For example, one group was responsible for using the various Twitter search functions and other sites to gather information about the rhetor(s) using #ThanksObama while another group focused on the audience, etc. I asked all groups to gather evidence (such as sample Tweets) that would form the basis of their analysis. I also told groups to pay attention to the affordances and constraints of both Neo-Aristotelian criticism methods and the social media sites. Groups worked together for about 15 minutes practice collecting evidence on their topic.

After students had time to work in groups, I called the class back together to have a discussion about their findings. Each group presented the evidence they found on their assigned rhetorical element and discussed their experience using the Neo-Aristotelian method. I wrote significant findings about the #ThanksObama hashtag and the Neo-Aristotelian method on the board. As a class, we examined the evidence and findings from all of the groups to look for significant rhetorical trends that could be analyzed in a larger paper. For example, several groups noticed how different rhetors used #ThanksObama; Twitter users who identified as conservative in their bios seemed to use the hashtag to criticize Obama’s policies, and liberal users seemed to use the hashtag in ironic or humorous ways. The class also discussed the affordances and limitations of using Neo-Aristotelian criticism as a method to analyze Tweets. For example, Neo-Aristotelian criticism was difficult to apply to the hashtag #ThanksObama because there were thousands of individual rhetors using the hashtag for various purposes. However, Neo-Aristotelian criticism could be applied to a single Tweeter to analyze the specific user’s rhetorical usage of #ThanksObama. In addition, the class discussed the ethical issues of conducting social media research.

Reflection:
If I were to teach this activity again, I would want to devote two full class periods to Neo-Aristotelian criticism. On the first day, I would review the Neo-Aristotelian process based on the readings and then practice the process on more “traditional” texts like a speech or ad. Students would then have more experience with the Neo-Aristotelian method and would better understand the affordances of the method under optimal conditions. In the next class, I would ask students to analyze a Twitter hashtag using the Neo-Aristotelian method. Their previous experience would help students understand that some methods are better for particular texts or situations, and just because one method does not work in a given situation does not mean that the method is useless.

My students enjoyed working with the #ThanksObama hashtag. Students in my class represented diverse political beliefs, and the hashtag offered a range of political and social interpretations. In the future, I would use a different hashtag that would be more relevant or popular at that time. I would also try to find a hashtag that did not have as many Tweets; the large number of Tweets using #ThanksObama presented multiple difficulties including rhetorical (how to make a claim about the use of rhetoric when so many rhetors use the hashtag for many purposes) and logistical (how to preserve Tweets for use as evidence).

Thanks to Kaitlin for sharing her inventive and innovative Digital Lesson Plan! Do you have a great lesson plan that you want to share with the DRC community?  Contact drcfellows@umich.edu. 

About Author(s)

Leigh is a PhD candidate in Rhetoric and Public Culture at Northwestern University. Her research and teaching interests center on digital representation, subjectivity, and intersections between old and new media.

Kaitlin Clinnin is a PhD candidate in Rhetoric, Composition, and Digital Media Studies at the Ohio State University. Her dissertation research focuses on the theories and practices of "community" in education, writing programs, and physical/online writing classrooms.

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