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Students Throng to Workshop Series on Election Strategies


A standing-room-only crowd of students recently gathered at the first of two “Punch Bowl” workshops held in Murdock Hall, which focus how to decipher the rhetorical techniques and strategies used during presidential campaigns.

Dr. Gerol Petruzella, an adjunct professor of philosophy and the assistant director of academic technology, moderated a talkback session for students to identify trends and patterns in the presidential candidates’ speech, and shared strategies and resources to respond critically and effectively to claims that rely on weak reasoning.

“In the general public, political debate is often merely about partisan positions. However, these workshops allow us to examine carefully how the content of a political belief can be distinguished from the tactics used to advance it,” Petruzella said.

Students watched segments of Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump’s national convention acceptance speeches, and then analyzed the transcripts for problematic rhetoric. English professor Dr. Amber Engelson and math professor Dr. Elizabeth Hartung gave examples of persuasive techniques accessed by the candidates.

“While we watched the excerpts from both speeches, several students were visibly amazed at some of the more egregious – or outrageous – claims,” Petruzella said. “Students couldn’t believe that obviously flawed reasoning could be as rhetorically effective as it clearly is.”

Such techniques include use of the “straw man” fallacy, where a candidate’s position is presented in a way that makes it sound weak and easy to dismiss. This often includes putting words in the other candidate’s mouth.

“Sentimental appeal,” Petruzella continued, uses emotionally evocative ideas to persuade, while the “red herring” fallacy uses evidence that seems relevant, but isn’t.

“This workshop series is a great opportunity for students to see how reasoning skills are applied in a ‘live,’ public context, and to participate in that kind of situation themselves,” Petruzella said.

Organizers of the event aimed to evoke a lively sense of community, where friends and fellow citizens could gather to talk and listen together, in an atmosphere that supports friendly and thoughtful engagement.

Although some claims may be factual, because they can be misleading, fact-checking alone usually is not sufficient to give a listener or reader a complete picture, Petruzella said.

“We see this as a well-timed opportunity to show students how a liberal arts education can be deeply and immediately relevant,” Petruzella said. “This election is throwing into play issues of truth, argumentation, rhetoric, evidence, reasoning and fallacies. These focal issues lie close to the heart of several of our disciplines.”

The final workshop – on Tuesday, Oct. 18, at 7 p.m. in Murdock Hall room 218 – will focus on rhetoric in the media.