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PWR 1MGE: Numbers and Metrics: Rhetoric of Calculation and Quantification

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Counting is powerful. When something can be counted, it can be measured, it can be analyzed, and it can be managed. Contemporary rhetoric is saturated by numbers, with discussions of politics and policies built around the latest polls, stock market figures, or unemployment statistics. And increasingly, our own lives are driven by figures that are used to judge and manage ourselves: weight, SAT scores, credit ratings, sales numbers, or “likes” online.

What effects–positive and negative–does quantification have on us and on society? Are there better and worse ways of knowing the world? How do numbers get used and misused? And what do they end up meaning to us?

Some numbers become iconic: think of the “one percent” in discussion of inequality, the “five second rule” rule, or the “70 cents on the dollar” gender pay gap in the US. Political movements have been launched on the backs of such numbers, while the process of producing iconic numbers—and the skilled workers needed for that process–is a huge social undertaking.

Many of you will spend a great deal of your time at Stanford learning about how to produce and make use of iconic numbers. We won’t engage in much quantitative analysis in this class. Instead, we will step back and think about how such numbers rise into policy conversations, how they emerge from science or study, and how they can become deeply contested or take on unexpected meanings.

Like all PWR 1 classes, this class will be an introduction to rhetorical analysis and college-level research. While we will have shared readings and case studies, much of your exploration will be driven by your or your classmates’ own research and writing. Sample research topics you might pursue include counting practices that have shaped your own life: maybe you would like to dig into the emotional and health impacts of calorie counting, or into how social media follower counts can affect offline friendships. You could also look into how numbers are presented in the media. For instance, you could look at the way rhetoric about the “top one percent” of wealthy individuals has entered into recent political debates about inequality.

Major Assignments

Rhetorical Analysis

(1500-1800 words; 5-6 pages) In this essay, you will analyze the rhetoric used in a single text that involves some form of quantitative thinking, such as an op-ed about public health by an epidemiologist or a piece by an education reformer concerned about declining test scores. You will focus not on what the author argues but on how they make their case.

Texts in Conversation

(1800-2400 words; 6-8 pages) In this assignment you’ll start to develop your own research into how an iconic number, a set of metrics, or some form of quantitative thinking have made their mark on the world. As a first step, you will write about how several sources relate to each other by imagining an online conversation between authors of texts that take different approaches to your topic. If you wanted to research the controversy about including citizenship questions in the upcoming US Census, you would write out a debate between a sociologist, a demographer, and a pair of political commentators about the effects of that change.

Research-Based Argument

(3600-4500 words; 12-15 pages) After mapping out an existing academic and media conversation, you will contribute your own original argument to that conversation based on your own research and using the rhetorical tools we’ve discussed during the quarter. In the case above, your paper for this assignment might take a stance on changes to the Census.