ENGL 206 A: Rhetoric in Everyday Life

Meeting Time: 
MTWTh 1:30pm - 2:20pm
LOW 105

Syllabus Description:

University of Washington

ENGL 206 Rhetoric in Everyday Life

Winter 2018

Data, Knowledge, & the Rhetoric of Complex Systems


Instructor: Tait Bergstrom

Office: Art Building 347

Office hours: W 2.30am-4.30pm

Email: taitb3@uw.edu
Class Time: MTWTh 1.30-2.20pm
Class Location: MTWTh – Loew 105
Website: https://canvas.uw.edu/courses/1187029  




“If you are not paying for it, you’re not the customer; you’re the product being sold.”

 – Andrew Lewis


From Nextflix recommendations to credit scores to presidential elections, our ability to do things is shaped and limited all the time by the way we decide what data mean and how they should be used. You deserve to have a say in these decisions and I hope this class will give you some of the tools you need to make your voice heard.


Data and rhetoric might seem to have little to do with each other. We tend to think of data as reliable facts from which we can safely draw conclusions: the more data we have, the better and more accurate our conclusions will be. Rhetoric, if we think of it at all, is subjective and too much is dangerous: consider the “divisive rhetoric” of a nasty political campaign. What could data and rhetoric possibly have to do with each other? This course will go beyond the logos, pathos, and ethos you may be familiar with to introduce you to the idea of rhetoric as a complex system in which extracting knowledge from data is a form of persuasive action that shapes our world. As we explore this concept, we will be investigating issues like:


  • What is the relationship between data and knowledge?
  • How do feedback loops involving data products like Amazon’s recommendation systems shape our behavior and the behavior of others?
  • What are some of the unintended consequences of the rhetorical situations created by complex systems?
  • If we are living in an information economy, what are our rights and responsibilities as producers and analysts of data?

There are three big goals for this class. The first is to help you become a more effective writer. Writing is one of the best ways we have of turning the sensory data of our lived experience into knowledge that we can share. I want you to get really good at taking the messiness of the world around us and making sense of it in a way that’s useful for other human beings. So, we will practice doing this with discussion board writing, “mini-case studies” of how data products shape and are shaped by human action, and one research paper. This writing along with class readings and discussions tie in to the second goal: to develop your ability to think critically about this new media environment we are creating and its problems and complexities. Finally, this work will give you an enriched understanding of what rhetoric is and how it works as a part of our everyday lives.



  • Internet access, UW Net ID, and UW email account that you check daily
  • A notebook/tablet/laptop for in-class writing
  • Texts will be made available to students online or through other media.


Optional Recommended Texts:

  • Writer’s Help (online version)



  •  Short Paper 1            15%
  • Short Paper 2             15% 
  • Final Paper                 45%
  • Participation               25%


SHORT PAPER 1 – Consumer Side: Rhetorical Analysis of a Complex System (15%)

In this first assignment, you will choose a single approach to rhetorical analysis to analyze some example of a complex system that has rhetorical effects produced through a positive feedback loop. So, that sounds kind of technical, but it’s something that we all have experience with every day. Every time you use a search engine like Google while signed in with your Google account, the results you get are not only influenced by your search terms but other data that Google has collected about you. The more you use Google, the more you, in turn, influence the kinds of results you get from a Google search, which then increasingly influences what kind of information you have about the world. There’s the positive feedback loop! The complex system you choose to examine does not have to be digital or related to computing, however. Language policy at schools, use patterns of public buildings, and social interactions among peers playing card games or table-top games are all examples of analog complex systems you could examine.


You will choose a single form of rhetorical analysis for this assignment, so that you are able to maintain a clear focus throughout the paper. This means that you could use argument analysis, visual analysis, or genre analysis, but not all three. You will be introduced to different rhetorical approaches in class and you can select whichever seems most appropriate for your complex system.


Short Paper 1 should be 3-4 double-spaced pages in APA format and include the following:

  1. A brief description of the complex system to give the reader context.
  2. A brief description of the single rhetorical analysis approach you are using examine your system.
  3. An examination of one or more rhetorical effects of the complex system from the point of view of the user/consumer. How is the user influenced to think/feel/believe/act in certain ways by this system?


SHORT PAPER 2 – Producer Side: Toulmin Analysis of a Complex System (15%)

The Toulmin Model is a particular theory of how informal or contingent arguments tend to be structured that was first developed by a British philosopher, Stephen Toulmin, in the 1950s. While it can’t really tell you whether an argument is true or not, it is good for figuring out what its unspoken or underlying assumptions are. For this second assignment, we’ll be using the Toulmin Model to consider one aspect of a complex system from the point of view of someone who is in a position of greater power or influence over that system. So, if your first paper was about what the experience of news feeds is like for a Facebook user, you could write this paper about what the experience of news feeds is like for Facebook employees or the advertisers that work with Facebook. The idea here is that you both want to identify what are the rhetorical effects of the system, but also what this tells us about what the Producer assumes to be true or valuable about the system.


One important note: This assignment is NOT asking you to be a professional data scientist and work out how some company like Facebook does what it does down to the level of its algorithms or source code. You only need to be looking for what the rhetorical effects of a complex system are. So, for example, cross-site advertisers and site trackers that use behavioral targeting techniques may notice that people who google search terms like “morning sickness” and visit related websites often end up searching for prenatal vitamin brands later. The rhetorical effect of this information is that advertisers take action to present prenatal vitamin ads to people who exhibit this behavior before they ever get the chance to search for prenatal vitamin brands. The underlying or unspoken assumption is that people google searching pregnancy symptoms necessarily want to carry pregnancies to term and buy a wide range of products that promise healthy fetal development.


Short Paper 2 should be 3-4 double-spaced pages in APA format and include the following:

  1. A brief description of ONLY ONE aspect of a complex system to give the reader context.
  2. A brief examination of how the Toulmin model applies to this aspect.
  3. An examination of one or more rhetorical effects of the complex system from the point of view of the producer. What is the “warrant” or underlying assumption revealed by this/these rhetorical effect(s).


Final Paper – Putting the Rhetoric of Complex Systems into Context (45%)

Our final assignment is a 7-8 page research paper in APA style that asks you to look beyond a single aspect of a complex system and consider how the entire system has an influence on the world we live in now. All papers will require research on your part, so it is important that any theorizing you do is closely based in an examination of data and knowledge that you collect or produce. Your best bet is find a particular example of a system that illustrates a larger phenomenon.


Please submit a short proposal for what your paper will be about and what kind of sources you will be using for your research. This proposal is informal and will be turned in as a Discussion post on Canvas at the end of Week 6.


For this paper, you have a lot of freedom. You could consider:

  • Examining the dynamic relationship between the users and producers of a complex system that generates or manipulates capital. How is value in the information economy produced?
  • How complex systems change over time and are only ever “stable enough for now.” You could examine the historical development of a system as well as potential destabilizing factors. Is our representative democracy, for example, destabilizing?
  • How the effects of complex systems differ widely based on the race, gender, class, etc. of users. How do these differences arise? Who is served or disenfranchised by them? One example here would be the real estate industry.
  • Examining how the concept of “truth” has been undermined by the concept of data. This could be examined by looking at the media storm surrounding a hoax or conspiracy theory. What is the value of a concept like “truth” at a time where meaning is in crisis?
  • Examining the concept of privacy and ownership of data that one produces. Is my data mine? What really is in an End User Licensing Agreement? How would one advocate for greater ownership of one’s data?


Participation (25%)

You are expected to contribute actively in class discussions. The participation component of your final grade takes into account the substance and quality of your contributions to learning that we do as a class. A major part of actively participating in class includes reading and thinking about assigned texts. If you must be absent, please let me know and please consider asking a classmate for notes and handouts about homework. Participation will be worth 25% of your final grade.


Online Discussion Board

Every week you will have some reading to do for this class. Each Friday, I will post a few discussion questions on our Canvas Discussion Board. You are required to write a short reader response of one or two paragraphs about one of the readings and post it by the following Monday.


You can answer one of the discussion questions I provide, or you can respond about something totally different. This exercise is graded on a strictly credit/no credit basis. I’m only doing it so that I can get a sense of what people are responding to in the texts as well as what they don’t get. You cannot “fail” these responses – this is your way to tell me that something is confusing or boring or even nonsensical. The readings I have assembled are not set in stone. I will move them around as the quarter proceeds based on all kinds of things: your feedback, class discussions, what you choose to write about, and my own gut instinct. You can use the discussion board to influence my decisions and you cannot get penalized for it, so you might as well let me know what you think.


Late Work: Assignments must be completed and turned in on time. Late work will be accepted, but I will deduct a grade point for each class that the assignment is late.



Academic Integrity: Plagiarism, or academic dishonesty, is presenting someone else's ideas or writing as your own. In your writing for this class, you are encouraged to refer to other people's thoughts and writing as long as you cite them. As a matter of policy, any student found to have plagiarized any piece of writing in this class will be immediately reported to the College of Arts and Sciences for review.


Complaints: If you have any concerns about the course or your instructor, please see the instructor about these concerns as soon as possible. If you are not comfortable talking with the instructor or not satisfied with the response that you receive, you may contact the director of English undergraduate programs: Professor Jesse Oak Taylor, (206) 616-0563 or jot8@uw.edu. If, after speaking with Professor Taylor, you are still not satisfied with the response you receive, you may contact English Department Chair Brian Reed, (206) 543-7895.



Accommodations: If you need accommodation of any sort, please let me know so that I can work with the UW Disability Resources for Students Office (DRS) to provide what you require. This syllabus is available in large print, as are other class materials. More information about accommodation may be found at http://www.washington.edu/students/drs/.


Campus Safety: Preventing violence is everyone's responsibility. If you're concerned, tell someone.

  • Always call 911 if you or others may be in danger.
  • Call 206-685-SAFE (7233) to report non-urgent threats of violence and for referrals to UW counseling and/or safety resources. TTY or VP callers, please call through your preferred relay service.
  • Don't walk alone. Campus safety guards can walk with you on campus                                after dark. Call Husky NightWalk 206-685-WALK (9255).
  • Stay connected in an emergency with UW Alert. Register your mobile number to receive instant notification of campus emergencies via text and voice messaging. Sign up online at www.washington.edu/alert. For more information visit the SafeCampus website at www.washington.edu/safecampus.


Writing Help: You can always come to me for help with your writing either by sending me an email, coming to my office hours and talking with me after class, but getting another opinion can also be valuable. Luckily, getting someone to work with you on improving your writing is very easy to do at UW. Two excellent resources include:

  • OWRC (Odegaard Writing & Research Center), offering free one-to-one support from writing tutors and librarians on all your writing assignments. For more information visit https://depts.washington.edu/owrc. Please consider signing up to join a Targeted Learning Community (TLC) if you are interested in developing your writing skills with a small group of students and tutor-facilitators also taking a composition course. These TLC groups are only open to students for whom English is not their first language. If you are interested in joining, please email me at taitb3@uw.edu or the OWRC at owrc@uw.edu.
  • CLUE (The Center for Learning and Undergraduate Enrichment), offering free drop-in tutoring, a writing center and discussion sessions. Best of all, CLUE provides support Sun-Thurs in Mary Gates Hall from 6:30 pm-Midnight. More information is at https://depts.washington.edu/clue.


Counseling Center: UW Counseling Center workshops include a wide range of issues including study skills, thinking about coming out, international students and culture shock, and much more. Check out available resources and workshops at: http://depts.washington.edu/counsels/.


Q Center: The University of Washington Q Center builds and facilitates queer (gay, lesbian, bisexual, two-spirit, trans, intersex, questioning, same-gender-loving, allies) academic and social community through education, advocacy, and support services to achieve a socially-just campus in which all people are valued. For more information, visit http://depts.washington.edu/qcenter/.


TENTATIVE COURSE CALENDAR (Check Canvas for changes!)

Winter Quarter 2018


in-class activities


Wed 01/03


Introduction: What is rhetoric? What is complexity?


Thu 01/04

Review course syllabus and expectations


 Mitchell Ch. 1-2; Bitzer


The Complex Systems in Our Lives


Mon 01/08

Everyday Life: On the consumer side of the positive feedback loop: cruise lines, bargain furniture, and Kahlua

Discussion Board Post due

Tue 01/09

Complexity: The characteristics of complex systems


Wed 01/10

Rhetoric: What is the rhetorical situation? What was this idea developed to explain?


Thu 01/11

Writing: Starting with the paragraph

Mitchell Ch. 3, 7; Vatz


What’s at Stake for You?


 Mon 01/15



Tue 01/16

Everyday Life: Investigating your own data trail

Discussion Board Post due

Wed 01/17

Rhetoric: Creating your own rhetorical situations


Thu 01/18

Writing: Approaches to rhetorical analysis

FRIDAY: Short Paper 1 at 11.59pm on Canvas


Mitchell Ch. 15-17


Who Profits?


Mon 01/22

Everyday Life: Monetizing Millennials – Let Them Eat Avocado Toast

Discussion Board Post due

Tue 01/23

Complexity: Attempts to influence/modify system behavior


Wed 01/24

Rhetoric: Class Debate: Bitzer v. Vatz – kairos, fact or fiction?


Thu 01/25

Writing: Organizing & reorganizing paragraphs

O’Neill Introduction, Ch 1


The Manipulation of Data


Mon 01/29

Everyday Life: Why do tech companies tend to become monopolies?

Discussion Board Post due

Tue 01/30

Complexity: How do some of these algorithms work?


Wed 01/31

Rhetoric: How can an algorithm be rhetorical?


Thu 02/01

Writing: Invention – Finding an argument

FRIDAY: Short Paper 2 at 11.59pm on Canvas


O’Neill Ch. 3, 4; Edbauer


Rhetorical Ecologies & Complex Systems


Mon 02/05

Everyday Life: Unintended consequences when goals of users and designers don’t align

Discussion Board Post due

Tue 02/06

Complexity: Revisiting downward causation as a concept


Wed 02/07

Rhetoric: Rhetorical ecologies – complicating the rhetorical situation




Thu 02/08

Writing: Inquiry-driven scholarship: What is a research paper?

FRIDAY: Final Paper Proposal due as Canvas Discussion Board Post


O’Neill Ch 5; Ridolfo & Rife


Crime & Punishment


Mon 02/12

Everyday Life: How bias is encoded into the justice system

Discussion Board Post due

Tue 02/13

Complexity: Confusing data with knowledge


Wed 02/14

Rhetoric: Rhetorical velocity – how things get away from us


Thu 02/15

Writing: Making good use of sources

Allcott & Gentzkow; Poczkowski


News & Elections


Mon 02/19



Tue 02/20

Writing: Peer Review Workshop

Final Paper Draft 1 due (bring 2 hard copies)

Wed 02/21

Writing: Peer Review Workshop


Thu 02/22

Everyday Life: Fake news is a complex system, but so is reading

Rainie & Anderson (pp. 11-30); Madsbjerg


The Future of Privacy


Mon 02/26

Everyday Life: What will privacy mean in 10 years?

Discussion Board Post due

Tue 02/27

Complexity: The problem of consciousness – When you know you’re being watched


Wed 02/28

Rhetoric: Debate – Can we reclaim the right to our own data?


Thu 03/01

Writing: Approaches to revision – reverse outlining and the flowchart model





Mon 03/05

Final Paper Conferences


Tue 03/06

Final Paper Conferences


Wed 03/07

Writing: Final paper workshop


Thu 03/08

Big messy conclusions: What has emerged?

Final Paper Draft 2 due on Canvas



Holidays: MLK, Jr. Day, Monday January 15, 2018; Presidents’ Day, Monday February 19, 2018


Last Day of Instruction:  Friday, March 9, 2018.

Finals Week:  March 10-16, 2018 (There is no Final Exam for this class.)

Catalog Description: 
Introductory rhetoric course that examines the strategic use of and situated means through which images, texts, objects, and symbols inform, persuade, and shape social practices in various contexts. Topics focus on education, public policy, politics, law, journalism, media, digital cultural, globalization, popular culture, and the arts.
GE Requirements: 
Visual, Literary, and Performing Arts (VLPA)
Writing (W)
Last updated: 
October 17, 2018 - 10:30pm