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PWR 1DB: Not Even Past: The Rhetoric of Collective Memory

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old photo of people

Gerhard Richter, Group of People (1965)


Fall 2021: Sec1 MW 1:30PM-3:15PM, Sec2 MW 3:30PM-5:15PM

Winter 2022: Sec1 MW 1:30PM-3:15PM, Sec2 MW 3:30PM-5:15PM

Spring 2022: Sec1 MW 1:30PM-3:15PM, Sec2 3:30PM-5:15PM

Units: 4

Grade option: Letter (ABCD/NP)

Prerequisite: None

Course Feature: WR-1 requirement

“The past is never dead. It isn’t even past.” William Faulkner’s oft-quoted epigram—revived by Barack Obama in his 2008 speech “A More Perfect Union”—highlights the central role collective memory plays in our lives: how does the past define our present and future? Why does getting it right matter? And how do the ways we write, communicate, and revise accounts of the past create our shared history?

Collective memory—the forces and factors that shape how societies remember—is a driving force in modern politics and culture. Every day seems to bring a new dispute over what history should be understood to “mean.” In the US, for example, statues and school curricula have become flash points in a broader battle over the legacies of racism; in Russia, drawing comparisons between the actions of Hitler and Stalin is now a crime; and in China, failing to portray certain past events “positively” can land historians in jail.

But struggles over the past and what lessons it has for us are not restricted to politics and history books. The roles of science and technology in our lives are also conditioned by collective memory: events such as the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and the Tuskegee Syphilis Study, for example, have called narratives of progress in physics and medicine into question. Indeed, if memory is the “connective structure of society,” as some scholars argue, then collective memory is everywhere society is.

In this course, students will identify the rhetorical strategies speakers, writers, filmmakers, and journalists use to advance their versions of the past and its meaning across a broad range of topics and disciplines, including law, the visual arts, medicine, philosophy, engineering, and literature. Students will also hone their own rhetorical abilities by entering into conversations with scholarly and public-facing texts and writing research papers on a wide variety of topics related to collective memory. Possible projects include: the neuroscience of social memory; the effects of technology and social media on collective memory; oral history and how communities pass down knowledge of the past; or the relationship between collective memory and identity.

Major Assignments

Rhetorical Analysis 

(1500-1800 words; 5-6 pages) For this assignment, you will analyze a short public-facing text of your choosing in which the author engages with collective memory by exploring a historical event or phenomenon (including technological or scientific advances) and making claims about what it means for the present. Relevant texts can include articles, op-eds, videos, and podcasts such as Throughline. You'll learn to identify rhetorical strategies and their use in different media: what is the author’s purpose? How do they appeal to the audience and attempt to persuade them? How do authors use different rhetorical strategies in audio, video, and print media?

Texts in Conversation 

(1800-2400 words; 6-8 pages) This assignment asks you to explore multiple voices and texts and to begin laying the foundation for your research-based argument. You will choose a topic that excites you, develop a research question, and explore what scholars and other experts have written about the subject, with the aim of creating a sense of the “conversation” that surrounds your research interest. Your research question might concern the way collective memory functions around a specific event or phenomenon—9/11, for example—or an aspect of collective memory itself, such as the psychology, sociology, or legal status of collective memory.

Research-Based Argument 

(3600-4500 words; 12-15 pages) For this final assignment, you will channel the research you explored in the Texts in Conversation assignment into your own rhetorically effective argument. You will add your voice to the conversation by developing an argument for your position using rhetorical tools and evidence from a variety of sources. For example, you could argue for a reevaluation of a given historical event or phenomenon, such as the Space Race, or explore the role textbooks’ coverage of issues such as the Holocaust and the US Civil War plays in collective memory. 

PWR 1 Winter Catalog

PWR 1 Spring Catalog