Monday, May 2, 2011

Rhetoric and the Teachable Moment: "Remarks by the President on Osama Bin Laden"

Teachers love the "teachable moment." President Obama's speech announcing the death of Osama Bin Laden offered a teachable moment for my speech and English classes, all of which are currently immersed in persuasive speaking/writing units.

Last week we watched a video explaining Aristotle's use of logos, ethos, and pathos, which is available on the Read, Write, Think website. While the video addresses advertising specifically, the definitions also apply to all forms persuasion.

Before watching President Obama's speech, I asked students to draw a triangle on their papers and to label each point with the terms ethos, pathos, logos, and we reviewed the terms.

During their viewing of the speech, students had transcripts that allowed them to follow along as POTUS spoke.

After listening to the speech, students broke into small groups with each taking a protion of the speech to analyze. Each group posted examples of ethos, pathos, and logos on the board and added to their own graphic organizer of the speech.

My background in rhetoric and communication provided an opportunity to discuss the speech as both writing and speaking. I explained to students that President Obama's speech falls into the "special occasion" speech genre.

A brief review of general speaking and writing purposes followed:
  • to inform,
  • to persuade,
  • to narrate,
  • to entertain
My students had no trouble identifying President Obama's purpose to inform Americans about Bin Laden's death, but I wanted them to understand that the President had a larger audience than just Americans in mind, so I asked: "Did President Obama need to give a speech for us to know that Bin Laden was dead?"

Imediately, students understood that the world was listening to the President. I told my classes about my virtual Canadian colleagues who burned the midnight oil to listen to the speech. I reminded them of the world reaction to the 9-11 attacks: "We are all New Yorkers."

This discussion propelled us forward as we talked about purpose: to persuade us to unite as a nation; to convince the global community of the justice in our military action of entering Pakistan to find Osama Bin Laden; to persuade us to remember and honor the victims of 9-11, their families, and the military personnel who have served in both Afghanistan and Iraq.

President Obama's speech, I explained, is a form of Apologia, a form of public discourse designed to defend one's actions. Specificaly, President Obama uses the strategy of bolstering:

"Bolstering refers to any rhetorical strategy which reinforces the existence of a fact, sentiment, object or relationship. When he bolsters, a speaker attempts to identify himself with something viewed favorably by tthe audience" ( Ware, B. L. and Wil A. Linkuger. "They Spoke in Defense of Themselves : On the Generic Criticism of Apologia." Rhetorical Criticism: Exploration & Practice ed. Sonja K. Foss).

Another necessary element of apologia is denial. In the President's speech, he explicitly denies any wrongdoing by referencing Bin Laden's declaration of war on the U.S.A. and by noting his promise to enter Pakistan to find Bin Laden.

Thus, the President's address offers an explanation that asks the audience to understand his "motives, actions, beliefs" so as not to condemn him. And it offers a justification that asks for approval as well as understanding.

For a nation who will forever commerate 9-11 both understanding and justification are inherent audience responses, but as one of the greatest orators to take the podium, President Obama knows the world may need a reminder that "We're all New Yorkers."

That's what I love about the teachable moment. I'd love to hear how your teachable moment.


  1. Obama's speech was a perfect opportunity to have my comm 101 students analyze the speech in context of everything we have discussed this trimester... Aristotle, Quintillian, Monroe, spectacle and visual symbols, enthymemes, ideographs, rhetorical devices, etc. We are still processing.

  2. What an amazing lesson, Glenda! I think that the fact that you gave students the opportunity to analyze Obama's speech so soon after it was given made all the difference in making the lesson relevant and memorable. Even if this lesson was presented a mere week from now, the impact would not be as potent.

  3. Thanks Debbie and Mardie. I think I will have students look at the speech using Monroe's Motivated Sequence, at least in speech. It seems an appropriate way to see it.

  4. I also used this as an opportunity to review ethos, pathos, and logos, but it looks like you did it a bit more thoroughly.

  5. what are the rhetorical devices used in this speech?

    1. I'm working from memory here since I haven't listened to the speech since last May. That said, President Obama uses alliteration, allusion, anaphora, (If memory serves), exemplum; there may be polysyndeton, as well as synecdoche. In the lesson, we focused more on ethos, pathos, and logos. I don't move much beyond alliteration, allusion, exemplum, and metaphor in my general speech classes.