Course Activity: “Rhetoric & Ethics in Technical Documents: Examining the Top-Secret ‘Torture Memos’ Through an Ethical Lens”


Assignment Title: Rhetoric & Ethics in Technical Documents: Examining the Top-Secret “Torture Memos” Through an Ethical Lens

Authors: Jamie Littlefield, Texas Tech University (

Date published: August, 2022

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Class Info/Tags: Asynchronous, Digital Rhetoric, Technical Communication

Course Motivation: Students will learn to analyze technical documents as rhetorical acts that should be examined through an ethical lens.

Context of Use: This assignment is used within the course module on ethical decision-making.

Instructor Reflection: Often in subtle ways, technical documents are rhetorical. Such documents attempt to persuade readers to think a certain way or enable them to take a particular action. Because of this, it’s important that technical communicators develop their ability to make ethical decisions about the type of technical documents they create and the methods they use to create these documents. This technical communication class discussion asks students to consider the ways the U.S. government’s top-secret “torture memos” are rhetorical and to reflect on how the application of a different ethical lens might have altered the content or intent of these documents.

What do you like about this activity? I think this is an engaging way to start examining the rhetorical impact of a less-compelling genre (the memo). Sometimes, students can have difficulty imagining how applying a different ethical lens to the creation of a technical document might change the intent and consequences of that document. I think this activity opens up an opportunity to discuss the material differences that can result from different ethical approaches.

What scaffolding/preparation needs to happen? Before beginning this discussion, students read and discuss “A Framework for Ethical Decision Making” from the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics at Santa Clara University. The article examines how ethical decision-making is more than doing what feels right. Students consider how technical communicators might apply the following ethical lenses to their work: The Rights Lens The Justice Lens The Utilitarian Lens The Common Good Lens The Virtue Lens The Care Lens It’s useful to follow this discussion with less-dramatic examples of rhetoric and ethical decision-making in technical communication. Once students have practiced with this memo, they’ll be better prepared to examine more subtle ethical challenges.

About Author

Jennifer Burke Reifman

Jennifer Burke Reifman is a 5th year Education Ph.D. Candidate at U.C. Davis with an emphasis in Writing, Rhetoric, and Composition Studies. Her research focuses on technology in the writing classroom, writing program administration, and student identity and agency. When she isn't being a graduate student and writing teacher, she spends most of her time playing with her 3-year old son, tending her backyard garden, or diving into a video game.

Sarah Hughes

Sarah Hughes is a PhD candidate in the Joint Program in English & Education at the University of Michigan, where she also teaches in the English Department Writing Program. Her research interests include digital rhetoric, gender and discourse, and gaming studies. Her dissertation project explores how women use multimodal discourse—grammatically, narratively, and visually—to navigate online gaming ecologies.