I have, in the past, asked ENG 112 students to research a debunked scientific theory or conspiracy theory that people still believe today. As they research, they must create a theory about why some folks to continue to hold that belief despite it being proven false. A former student whom I ran into outside of class recently remarked to me that the conspiracy theory assignment changed their life. The student didn’t believe in conspiracies or debunked theories. They didn’t come out of a cult or something. They did, however, learn a new way of looking at the world from doing the research and examining the rhetorical appeal of the proponents of their discredited idea.
There is a lot of good research out there about what causes people to believe in conspiracy theories, but what gets my students every time is the strength of the rhetorical appeals they find in the proponents of discredited ideas. Not only do we start to see why people might believe these varying claims from a “logical” standpoint, if the assignments and presentations are done well, we give them props for their pathos and ethos appeals. Join our team, be in the know, these discredited ideas seem to scream. In fact, the next time I teach this assignment I will start with this reading from Vox, which interviews an academic who explains that, for some, conspiracy theories are a way of coping with an uncertain world.
For my student, while theorizing why someone might be susceptible to a certain conspiracy, it became easier to see rhetoric shaping the varying communications they encounter in the world. Inherent in each act of communication, someone is trying to persuade my student of something/to buy something/to think or feel something. We call this concept the PAPA Square: every argument can be analyzed for Persona, Audience, Purpose, and Argument. The rhetorical appeals (logic, emotion, and authority) are used to help a speaker/writerly persona reach an intended audience for a chosen purpose with a tailored argument. When my student told me that the assignment changed their life, they meant that this subject matter had transferred–it had transcended the classroom and turned into a way of seeing the world. Without knowing it, this student gave me what was probably one of the best compliments I have ever received as a professor, and a reason to keep giving an iteration of this research/writing assignment.