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PWR 1PT: Who Speaks for the Past: The Rhetoric of Public Memory

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Catalog Number: PWR 1PT

Instructor: Peter Tokofsky

Units: 4

Grade option: Letter (ABCD/NP)

Prerequisite: None

Course Feature: WR-1 requirement


The ability to define what counts as history is a crucial tool for maintaining power. People who wield power erect monuments for heroes and tell stories in museums that promote a particular version of the past supporting their authority. These official narratives of historical importance often remain silent on matters that undermine the virtue of the regime, but over the past several years activists have pushed authorities to expand and revise public memory (markers and celebrations of history in public venues) to be more inclusive, democratic, and accurate. New ways of shaping public memory have emerged that empower diverse populations and that include histories of oppression. Many people are now actively making their own contributions to public memory.

In this course we discuss the rhetoric of monuments, museums, ceremonies, and other forms of public memory that contribute to narratives about the past. We consider arguments for and against rewriting public history. For example, should Junipero Serra give way to Jane Stanford and Columbus Day be recast as Indigenous Peoples Day? Is it better to topple monuments and smash statues or add to them in order to create more inclusive histories? We will read opinions on both sides of this debate and add our own voices to those that speak for the past. 

Examples of research topics. For this course, you will engage in an in-depth research project spanning several weeks.  Sample research topics you might pursue include the history of specific monuments to determine who created them and what their motives were. You could explore, for example, how different countries commemorate the same historical events. You might look at ways museum exhibitions such the Asian American Art Initiative at the Cantor Arts Center shift the historical narrative. You could consider how the United States would create a national narrative of atonement through memorials such as been done in Germany and elsewhere. You could document artistic interventions in public memory such as Dustin Klein and Alex Criqui’s use of technology to project onto Richmond’s Robert E. Lee monument.

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 monuments or other forms of public memory and what we should do with them.

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. You might look at different kinds of materials including texts, exhibitions, and artistic interventions.

Research-Based Argument

(3600-4500 words; 12-15 pages):  Your RBA is the final product of this course where your voice enters into 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.