Spring 2021 - ENGL 375 D100

Studies in Rhetoric (4)

Class Number: 4135

Delivery Method: In Person


  • Course Times + Location:

    Tu, Th 2:30 PM – 4:20 PM

  • Prerequisites:

    Two 100 division English courses, and two 200 division English courses. Recommended: One of English 199/199W or 214.



Advanced study in the theory and/or history of rhetoric. The course may be repeated for credit if a different topic is taught, though students who obtained credit for English 375 prior to Summer 2015 may not take this course for further credit.


Humour and Rhetoric

From the Sophists of the fifth century BCE to twenty-first century stand-up comics, this course offers a selective historical survey of the relationship between rhetoric and humour. We will read from rhetorical theory and humour studies, and look at examples of humour in politics, literature, interpersonal communication, academic writing, and performance. Though definitions of rhetoric vary widely, all seem to agree that it has to do with using words or images effectively toward a particular purpose with a particular audience. As academic writers, we’re taught that “effective” means logical, unambiguous, appropriate, and serious. Since humour seems often to be none of those things, how can it be rhetorically effective? What can humour accomplish beyond amusement? Can it do things that “serious” language cannot? Alternately, when and why does rhetorical humour fail? If we consider the interaction of humour with the “rhetorical triangle” of text, speaker, and audience, we generate more questions:

  • regarding the text: How do we determine if something is ironic? What does it mean to “get” a joke?
  • regarding the writer or speaker: What are the benefits and the drawbacks of choosing to use humor?
  • regarding the audience: If we laugh at something others deem offensive, what, if anything, does that say about us—and them? What power should the experience of offense, and the desire to avoid it, have in determining what can be written and spoken?

Over the millennia, rhetoricians have presented their theories about language and their practical suggestions on how best to use it, each theory entailing a certain attitude. So we’ll think too about what it means to deploy humor not only as a style or strategy but as a disposition, as a way of reframing—and perhaps even remaking—the social reality we inhabit and co-create.

Regarding the course content, be aware that humour almost always runs the risk of offending someone, and in some cases sets out to offend. Whether you will find yourself offended by any of the course material is yet to be determined, but do note that it’s a possibility. It will also be an opportunity to discuss issues central to the study of rhetoric: issues of reason and emotion, responsibility and judgment, citizenship and censorship.


To increase one's tolerance for productive disagreement, and openness to being changed by the process.
To develop one's abilities--in thinking, speaking, and writing--in fearlessness and iconoclasm. As Mark Twain writes, "There is no humor in heaven."
To enjoy ourselves in the process.


  • reliable attendance at synchronous on-line discussions 5%
  • productive participation, in oral synchronous discussions and written Canvas discussions 10%
  • three brief reading quizzes 15%
  • two short writing assignments, based on selected readings (c3 pages each) 30%
  • 8-10 page academic essay, or an equivalent alternative 40%



All readings will be provided or available on-line, so there are no books to purchase. Among other things, we will discuss:

The Sophistic pedagogy of dissoi logoi; Cicero’s de Oratore; Kenneth Burke’s description of “perspective by incongruity;” some stuff from Freud; stand-up comedy by Richard Pryor, Joan Rivers, Margaret Cho, and Hannah Gadsby; The Daily Show; essays by Jonathan Swift and Dorothy Parker; political commentary by Anne Coulter and Alexandra Petri. We will also consider relevant items from the daily news.


All readings will be provided or available on-line, so there are no books to purchase.

Department Undergraduate Notes:

IMPORTANT NOTE Re 300 and 400 level courses: 75% of spaces in 300 level English courses, and 100% of spaces in 400 level English courses, are reserved for declared English Major, Minor, Extended Minor, Joint Major, and Honours students only, until open enrollment begins.

For all On-Campus Courses, please note the following:
- To receive credit for the course, students must complete all requirements.
- Tutorials/Seminars WILL be held the first week of classes.
- When choosing your schedule, remember to check "Show lab/tutorial sections" to see all Lecture/Seminar/Tutorial times required.

Registrar Notes:


SFU’s Academic Integrity web site http://www.sfu.ca/students/academicintegrity.html is filled with information on what is meant by academic dishonesty, where you can find resources to help with your studies and the consequences of cheating.  Check out the site for more information and videos that help explain the issues in plain English.

Each student is responsible for his or her conduct as it affects the University community.  Academic dishonesty, in whatever form, is ultimately destructive of the values of the University. Furthermore, it is unfair and discouraging to the majority of students who pursue their studies honestly. Scholarly integrity is required of all members of the University. http://www.sfu.ca/policies/gazette/student/s10-01.html


Teaching at SFU in spring 2021 will be conducted primarily through remote methods. There will be in-person course components in a few exceptional cases where this is fundamental to the educational goals of the course. Such course components will be clearly identified at registration, as will course components that will be “live” (synchronous) vs. at your own pace (asynchronous). Enrollment acknowledges that remote study may entail different modes of learning, interaction with your instructor, and ways of getting feedback on your work than may be the case for in-person classes. To ensure you can access all course materials, we recommend you have access to a computer with a microphone and camera, and the internet. In some cases your instructor may use Zoom or other means requiring a camera and microphone to invigilate exams. If proctoring software will be used, this will be confirmed in the first week of class.

Students with hidden or visible disabilities who believe they may need class or exam accommodations, including in the current context of remote learning, are encouraged to register with the SFU Centre for Accessible Learning (caladmin@sfu.ca or 778-782-3112).