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PWR 1RE: The Rhetorics of Meritocracy and Deservedness in an Unequal Society

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Neon lights saying you deserve it.

Catalog Number: PWR 1RE

Instructor: Stephanie Reist

Units: 4

Grade option: Letter (ABCD/NP)

Prerequisite: None

Course Feature: WR-1 requirement


Congratulations! You’ve been graded, sorted, and ranked. Having just gone through the grueling application process, you are well aware of the criteria used for your admission—your standardized test scores and GPA, the quality of your personal statements, the number and type of extracurriculars you participated in.  But what is the history of these criteria? Who chose them, and how do these decision makers convince others that their criteria are legitimate? Due to its promise of ‘unbiased’ social mobility, higher education has become the face of US notions of meritocracy. Indeed, the most recent Supreme Court case prohibiting the use of race in college admissions underscores the ways in which notions of democracy and meritocracy buttress one another while also point to difference worldviews about the very meanings and promises of both.

In this course we will examine the rhetorics of meritocracy within and beyond the university. From applying to jobs and auditioning for a role to running for an elected position and even applying for a visa, we believe–or at least want to believe–that our qualifications and hard work will be the primary criteria used to assess us, that these things correspond to deservedness. However, systemic inequalities–less funding in predominantly Black and/or Brown schools, the individual wealth needed to run for office, the lack of women in STEM, or the dearth of Asian Americans in high-ranking corporate positions—point to the limits of meritocracy and to the ways it may largely function more as a myth than as a reality. To that end, we will also consider how narratives and processes of meritocracy relate to, legitimize, and mask inequalities of race, class, gender, and disability. We will also explore questions of undeservedness, such as means-testing in welfare programs, the elimination of humanities departments due to their supposed inutility, and the backlash against teachers’ and other public sector and ‘white collar’ unions. 

To explore the rhetorics of meritocracy, we will analyze academic works, speeches, personal essays, and, most importantly, each other’s work. Over the course of the quarter, you will engage in an individual research and writing project investigating meritocracy–or the lack thereof– or other questions of deservedness in an area of your choice. Possible research topics include an analysis of the rationales for and against affirmative action policies in higher education (in the US or elsewhere), of meritocracy as a mechanism against corruption in bidding processes for major construction projects, of the narratives that support and oppose the moral panic over transgendered athletes, of how deservedness is depicted in your favorite television series, or of discussions about the quality of AI generated art and media.

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 merit, meritocracy, and/or what it means to deserve or not some sort of reward (broadly understood).

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 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.

photo credit: Mareko Tamaleaa