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Rhetoric 405: Communicating Public Problems: The Construction and Framing of Contemporary Social Issues

Module: Environmental Crisis

Curricular materials created for the 2014 SAIL seminar:

Contested Spaces in the Pikes Peak region of Colorado

RHE 405 – Course Goals & Learning Outcomes

This course explores the role of communication in identifying “public problems.” Students interrogate the strategies through which social ills are marked, framed, and brought to the public’s attention. After an introduction to the theoretical framework guiding the course, the course features a diverse array of case studies (e.g., terrorism, genocide, global warming, poverty & economic recession) designed to illuminate the processes by which these phenomena are imbued with meaning and significance. By the end of the course, I expect that students will be capable of (1) critiquing the ideologies that inform and structure our understandings of what “counts” as local, national, and international “crises,” and (2) authoring cogent written and oral critiques of public discourse.

Environmental Crisis – Module Goals & Learning Outcomes

This three-week course module on environmental “public problems” is designed to centralize the rhetorical, political, and scientific obstacles that complicate the recognition of global warming as a crisis. In other words, I situate this unit so that it showcases the difficulty of capturing (and holding) public attention to mobilize collective action. By the end of this unit, I expect that students will be able to (1) explain why scientific data alone is insufficient as persuasive proof within global warming discourses, (2) discuss the implications of various representational choices made within global warming rhetorics, and (3) compare and contrast the ways communication scholars, scientists, and political scientists approach the problem of global warming.


Content/Concept Goals

This module develops students’ understanding of certain concepts pertinent to the study of environmental discourse. Students will be able to:

  • Identify apocalyptic framing within global warming rhetorics and discuss the implications of choices to adopt such frames (see Foust and O’Shannon Murphy, 2009);
  • Explain how attempts to visualize the environment and global warming reshape our understanding of these concepts (see Dobrin and Morey, 2009); and
  • Discuss how existing ideologies and narratives complicate efforts to spur action to address global warming (see Lakoff, 2010).

Higher Order Thinking Skills Goals

In line with the goals for the course, this module provides students with another topic area within which to analyze the rhetorical strategies used to normalize a state of affairs as part of the status quo or, alternatively, to punctuate some event or phenomenon as a “crisis.” To do so, students need to be (1) able to conceptualize the world as socially constructed via words and images, and (2) capable of reading discourse with an eye toward the underlying ideologies the discourse promotes or challenges. Although this module offers specific conceptual content, the higher order thinking skills remain the same across the units of the course. Students will be able to:

  • Interrogate visual or verbal messages in order to explain how such messages construct ideologies; and
  • Translate their interrogations into cogent oral and written critiques of public discourse.

Multidisciplinary Analysis

This unit teaches students to evaluate the kinds of knowledge produced within various disciplinary structures with special attention to the merits of and limits to each approach. By showcasing the unique contributions each discipline can offer a complex problem such as global warming, I hope to disabuse students of the notion that some disciplines are more important (or more relevant) than others. After completing this unit, students will be able to describe how rhetoric shapes and is shaped by scientific and social scientific knowledge pertinent to global warming.


Because this class met only twice a week, this three-week unit consisted of only six class sessions.

Day #1

The first day of the module was designed to prompt students to think about existing global warming narratives. In addition to the assigned film (An Inconvenient Truth), students were asked to take stock of the variety of arguments that circulate about global warming. Students were tasked with selecting 2-3 popular “texts” discussing global warming and instructed to offer an evaluation of the texts’ argumentative strategies, use of evidence, and construction of the audience. The film as well as the texts students analyzed provided the basis for a discussion of the kinds of narratives contained in popular global warming discourse and the rhetorical strategies found within such texts.

Day #2

The second day of the module focused on the importance of framing. The content for the day built on previous discussions of temporality and introduced students to the apocalyptic frame via Foust & O’Shannon Murphy. Much of the work that day involved a close reading of the Foust and O’Shannon Murphy article below. Key Reading: Foust, Christina R., and William O’Shannon Murphy. “Revealing and Reframing Apocalyptic Tragedy in Global Warming Discourse.” Environmental Communication 3, no. 2 (2009): 151-67.

Day #3

On day three, students examined the ways images shape how we understand environmental issues broadly and global warming specifically. Dobrin and Morey’s Ecosee: Image, Rhetoric, Nature (2009) functioned as the starting point for a discussion of the epistemological properties of images, the affordances of various visual mediums, and the ideologies underpinning select depictions of the environment. Key Reading: Doyle, Julie. “Seeing the Climate? The Problematic Status of Visual Evidence in Climate Change Campaigning.” In Ecosee: Image, Rhetoric, Nature, edited by Sidney I. Dobrin and Sean Morey, 279-298. Albany, NY: SUNY Press, 2009.

Day #4

After three days of combining various disciplinary perspectives within the humanities, the fourth day of the module featured a colleague from chemistry and a colleague from political science to help students discuss the scientific evidence used to establish global warming as a crisis and the political obstacles that work against collective environmental action. The class session was part guest lecture and part interdisciplinary discussion.

Day #5

Given the course’s focus on public problems, I am aware of the potential for students to feel overwhelmed, falling prey to the mindset that certain public problems are intractable. Accordingly, the last day for new content offered a space to explore a simple question: Now what? Course readings encouraged students to think about the implications of the various ways we attempt to advocate for environmental causes while deepening their awareness of the rhetorical, political, and scientific dimensions of contexts in which students could take action. Key Reading: Lakoff, George. “Why it Matters How We Frame the Environment.” Environmental Communication 4, no. 1 (2010): 70-81.

Day #6

The last day of any unit in the course is a writing workshop. In addition to daily preparation for each of the class sessions mentioned above, students are working simultaneously on a piece of ideological criticism relevant to the subject matter explored in the module. The last day of the unit consists of two parts. During the first half of the class, a select number of students orally present their artifact and analysis to the class. During the second half of the class, students read each other’s work and offer written feedback on the strength of the ideological analysis, the coherence of the argument, and the quality of the writing. After the workshop, students are given five days to improve the draft before it is submitted to me for a grade.

Resources & Materials

Selected Readings in Environmental Communication

Cox, Robert and Phaedra C. Pezzullo. Environmental Communication and the Public Sphere. 4th ed. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications, 2015.

DeLuca, Kevin Michael. Image Politics: The New Rhetoric of Environmental Activism. New York: Lawrence Erlbaum, 1999.

DeLuca, Kevin Michael & Anne Teresa Demo. “Imaging Nature: Watkins, Yosemite, and the Birth of Environmentalism.” Critical Studies in Media Communication 17, no. 3 (2000): 241-260.

Dobrin, Sidney I., and Sean Morey, eds. Ecosee: Image, Rhetoric, Nature. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2009.

Hansen, Anders, and Robert Cox, eds. The Routledge Handbook of Environment and Communication. New York, NY: Routledge, 2015.

Killingsworth, M. Jimmie, and Jacqueline S. Palmer. Ecospeak: Rhetoric and Environmental Politics in America. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1992.

Selected Readings on Framing Global Warming

Anshelm, Jonas, and Martin Hultman. Discourses of Global Climate Change: Apocalyptic Framing and Political Antagonisms. New York: Routledge, 2015.

Boykoff, Maxwell T., and Jules M. Boykoff. “Balance as Bias: Global Warming and the US Prestige Press.” Global Environmental Change 14, no. 2 (2004): 125–36.

Foust, Christina R., and William O’Shannon Murphy. “Revealing and Reframing Apocalyptic Tragedy in Global Warming Discourse.” Environmental Communication 3, no. 2 (2009): 151–67.

Lakoff, George. “Why it Matters How We Frame the Environment.” Environmental Communication 4, no. 1 (2010): 70–81.

Spoel, Philippa, David Goforth, Hoi Cheu, and David Pearson. “Public Communication of Climate Change Science: Engaging Citizens Through Apocalyptic Narrative Explanation.” Technical Communication Quarterly 18, no. 1 (2008): 49–81. Selected Analyses of An Inconvenient Truth

Johnson, Laura. “(Environmental) Rhetorics of Tempered Apocalypticism in An Inconvenient Truth.” Rhetoric Review 28, no. 1 (2009): 29–46.

Olson, Kathryn M. “Rhetorical Leadership and Transferable Lessons for Successful Social Advocacy in Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth.” Argumentation and Advocacy 44, no. 2 (2007): 90-109.

Rosteck, Thomas, and Thomas S. Frentz. “Myth and Multiple Readings in Environmental Rhetoric: The Case of An Inconvenient Truth.” Quarterly Journal of Speech 95, no. 1 (2009): 1–19.

Web Resources for Class Discussion

The web resources below were used in this module as a means of stimulating class discussion.

Midway: Message from the Gyre. (http://www.midwayfilm.com/)

For additional articles about the film project, see the links below:

McDonald, Mark. “The Fatal Shore, Awash in Plastic.” IHT Rendezvous – New York Times, August 23, 2012, http://rendezvous.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/08/23/the-fatal-shoreawash-in-plastic/?_r=1.

Wilson, Stiv J. “Dead Plastic Filled Birds: Artist Chris Jordan’s New Mission to Midway Island.” Huffington Post, July 9, 2010, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/stiv-jwilson/dead-plastic-filled-birds_b_638716.html.

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