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PWR 1CN: You Have My Undivided...: The Rhetoric of Attention

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Weathered sign showing an exclamation mark in a triangle Photo by Markus Spiske

Catalog Number: PWR 1CN

Instructor: Christian Nagler

Units: 4

Grade option: Letter (ABCD/NP)

Prerequisite: None

Course Feature: WR-1 requirement


What do we mean when we speak of paying attention, as well as grabbing it, investing it, losing it, being hungry for it, and having it fragmented, concentrated, or overwhelmed? Like a few other rare capacities (breathing, for example), attention seems to have the potential to be both voluntary and involuntary, active and passive. In this class we will explore the rhetoric that animates discourses around attention, focus, distraction, perceptual overwhelm, and burnout. We will investigate our own experiences of these phenomena, and the social, economic, and political uses made of them.

Possible topics to explore in research and writing projects include: the metrics of attention in online marketing and platform design; the use of screen technology in early education; the understanding of attention in meditation practice and spirituality; social media addiction; the role of attention in forms of interpersonal and professional care work; eye and gesture-tracking technologies; experiences of neurodivergence; the gendered, raced, classed, and ableist assumptions around the uses of attention; the political role of spectacle, distraction, and misdirection.

Writing, reading, research, and discussion, arguably, make demands on our attention, and the direct evidence of our attempts to meet these demands may inform our endeavors and point to our research interests. As early as Aristotle and early Buddhist scholars, people have questioned the physiological components, limits, and spiritual and ethical significance of attention, and in the 19th-20th centuries these questions became the basis for schools of thought in psychology, cybernetics, and neuroscience. By the late 20th century, with the rise of digital communication technologies, attention became the tragic hero in an epic drama of “information overload”. This brings us to our contemporary moment, in which we are said to be undergoing an epidemic scale “attentional crisis.” How do we navigate that presumed crisis, and how do we make sense of the forces that may have generated it, enabled it, and profited from it? How do we evaluate the arguments that make claims for and against it?

Major Assignments

Rhetorical Analysis

(1500-1800 words; 5-6 pages):  This assignment asks you to analyze the rhetorical strategies of a text of your choice that makes an argument about the value of attention.

Texts in Conversation

(1800-2400 words; 6-8 pages): This assignment marks the beginning of your research project. Here, you will research and investigate the larger research question you’d like to explore relating to the topic. You’ll analyze how different sources, voices, and perspectives inform the larger conversation about your topic. 

Research-Based Argument

(3600-4500 words; 12-15 pages):  Your RBA is the final product of this course where your voice enters the conversation. Here is where you’ll build on and expand the work you began with the Texts in Conversation assignment by integrating a variety of sources to produce your own complex, provocative argument as it relates to your topic.