Doug Coulson
Associate Professor, Department of English
Carnegie Mellon University

Law, Performance, and Identity

Although rhetoric and law have long been closely associated, the modern professionalization of law has often promoted the idea that legal discourse is not rhetorical but is a rigorously defined technical discourse that can be applied free of social or political influence. This view of legal discourse is disputed by critics who point out the figurative aspects of legal language, the importance of character, emotion, and narrative in legal discourse, and the ways in which law protects social structures of power such as race, class, and gender privilege. In this course we examine the often fraught relationship between rhetoric and law by considering the ways in which a variety of legal discourses constitute identities in global contexts, particularly the ways in which legal systems are portrayed to reflect the ideals of democracy to suit particular foreign relations goals. We begin by studying the ways in which Cold War politics influenced desegregation and civil rights discourse in the United States, then we study the ways in which the prosecutions of deposed rulers have been orchestrated to persuade global audiences that emerging democracies observe the “rule of law” in order to garner international support. Alongside primary sources of legal discourse, we will study a selection of interdisciplinary scholarship about the relationship of rhetoric and law.

Race, Nation, and the Enemy
Conflicts over racial and national identity continue to dominate headlines in the United States as they often have during the nation's history, from debates regarding the immigration, naturalization, and birthright citizenship of racial minorities to debates regarding racial disparities in access to civil rights. This course explores the discursive practices through which racial and national identities are formed and the frequent conflicts between them, particularly by focusing on the role of enemies, threats to the nation, and sacrifices made on behalf of the nation in American public discourse. Alongside primary sources of public discourse regarding wars, the immigration and citizenship of racial minorities, racial segregation and civil rights, and the criminal prosecutions of dissidents during periods of crisis, we will read secondary sources offering multiple theoretical and disciplinary approaches to the study of racial and national identity formation. Along with regular brief responses to readings, assignments will include a short rhetorical analysis paper and a longer research paper.

Rhetorical Invention

Rhetorical invention refers to the discursive process of inquiry, discovery, and problem solving, or how we decide what to say, what arguments to advance, and what means of persuasion to use. Although invention is centrally important to rhetoric—without which it becomes a superficial and marginalized study of clarity, style, and arrangement—from the Scientific Revolution and Enlightenment through the mid-twentieth century invention all but disappeared as a topic of rhetorical study under the pressure of the view that invention should be exclusively directed by deductive logic and the empirical method rather than rhetorical considerations such as audience or language. This view of invention fundamentally shaped modern thought and continues to influence the ways we think and communicate today. In this course, we'll begin by examining the repudiation of rhetorical invention in the development of modern thought before focusing on efforts to recover a rhetorical understanding of invention from the mid-twentieth century forward, surveying a variety of contemporary theories of rhetorical invention including those promoted by postmodern, posthuman, and digital rhetorics. The course is designed to explore the central importance of invention to contemporary rhetorical theory through a pairing of historical and contemporary readings.

History of Rhetoric: The Classical Age and Its Legacy

This class surveys a number of key concepts from canonical texts within the classical tradition of European rhetorical thought, beginning in antiquity with the Greek sophists, Plato, and Aristotle, then moving to treatises of Cicero and Quintilian from ancient Rome, before tracing the influence of the concepts developed by these figures in the Medieval and Renaissance periods. Alongside canonical texts from the classical period, we will also read contemporary scholars and theorists who have examined and/or reappropriated their concepts in their work. Thus, we will seek to align canonical texts with contemporary adaptations and scholarship. The course is designed to provide you with a foundational knowledge of the classical rhetorical tradition—its themes, controversies, and evolution—to prepare you to situate your own scholarship and teaching in relation to the history of rhetoric and to teach a history of rhetoric course in your future careers. Ultimately, the course will challenge you to produce an original research study that investigates some aspect of the classical tradition or use historical concepts to understand contemporary rhetoric.


This course is an introduction to the theory and practice of argument. The course begins with an overview of major theories of argument followed by consideration of a variety of topics in argument production, analysis, and evaluation, often applying the principles we study to specific cases in class. Students will each select a type or genre of argument—whether academic, practical, professional, or otherwise—upon which to focus their research throughout the course. Students will begin by developing short assessments of the value and relevance of major theories of argument to the type of argument they are researching, then develop their own approach to argument analysis and apply it to an example of that type of argument, before producing an original argument of the type they have been studying by the end of the course.

Freshman Seminar: Trials and Controversies

The courtroom is so closely associated with rhetoric that Kenneth Burke once claimed we can see the rhetorical quality of martyrdom in the fact that ”it even gets its name from the law courts.” This course introduces students to issues in rhetoric and argumentation through a study of legal trials, particularly those that have been criticized as so-called ”political trials” perceived to be influenced by public attitudes or opinions on issues such as race, religion, political ideology, gender, and sexuality. Using readings from rhetoric, law, and history, as well as opening and closing arguments, cross-examinations, and documentary evidence from actual trials, we examine how courtroom speakers use character, emotion, analogy, narrative, scapegoating, and other rhetorical strategies to persuade their audiences.

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