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PWR 1JSA: The Rhetoric of Plants

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Plants are all around us. They are in the food we eat, from lettuce in your salad to feed for the cow that produced your steak. They are in the human environment, from the potted succulent on your desk to the street tree providing shade in an urban environment. And they define the natural world, from towering redwood trees to vibrant meadows of wild flowers.

Despite this ubiquity, or perhaps because of it, we often don’t pay much attention to the plants around us. However, in this class we will refocus our attention on plants, using them as a lens to explore, research, and write about different aspects of our world. For example, we will study how new scientific ideas are communicated and accepted by studying the work of maize geneticist and Nobel laureate Barbara McClintock. We will explore Lysenkoism, the politicization of agricultural science in the Soviet Union, drawing parallels to modern day climate change science, and we will dive into the research on urban tree coverage to see how plants can be a marker for social inequality.

Building off these examples and others, you will identify your own “plant lens” with which to explore some aspect of the world. Using this lens, you will engage with all aspects of the research and writing process, from identifying questions, to finding and evaluating sources, to drafting, receiving feedback, and revising. By the end of this course you will view the plants in your environment, and the research and writing process, with a new perspective.

Main Assignments

Rhetorical Analysis

(1500-1800 words; 5-6 pages) In this assignment, you will analyze a text to determine the rhetorical strategies used to communicate a message about plants to a specific audience. For example, you could write about the Radiolab podcast “From Tree to Shining Tree,” showing how the authors use storytelling techniques and appeals to wonder to present plant science in an engaging way.

Texts in Conversation

(1800-2400 words, 6-8 pages) After thinking rhetorically about how texts are constructed, you will next research a plant-related topic in which you are interested, identifying your “plant lens,” and synthesizing your findings of the current state of the research conversation. For example, you could research the debate around genetically modified plants to explore how we define what is “natural,” or you could explore the problem of food deserts, places where fresh fruit and vegetables aren’t readily available.

Research-Based Argument

(3600-4500 words; 12-15 pages) For your final project, you will expand the research conversation identified in the Texts in Conversation assignment, adding in your own research and analysis. For example, you could add to the conversation on genetically modified plants with an analysis of how these foods are discussed on health and wellness blogs. Or, you could explore possible solutions to the problem of food deserts by researching the work of local urban garden collectives. This research paper will also demonstrate understanding of genre conventions and rhetorical strategies identified in the Rhetorical Analysis assignment.