Spring 2020 - ENGL 475W D100

Topics in Rhetoric (4)

The End of Persuasion?

Class Number: 5477

Delivery Method: In Person


  • Course Times + Location:

    Tu, Th 12:30 PM – 2:20 PM
    BLU 10655, Burnaby

  • Exam Times + Location:

    Apr 23, 2020
    3:30 PM – 6:30 PM
    AQ 5016, Burnaby

  • Instructor:

    Sean Zwagerman
    1 778 782-4967
    Office Hours: by appointment
  • Prerequisites:

    45 units. Strongly recommended: ENGL 214 or 375. Reserved for English honours, major, joint major and minor students.



Seminar in a particular topic, approach, or author in the field of rhetoric and writing. The course may be repeated for credit if a different topic is taught. Students with credit for ENGL 475 may not take this course for further credit. Students who obtained credit for ENGL 475W prior to Summer 2015 may not take this course for further credit. Writing.


The End of Persuasion?

During the lifetime of 67-year-old fisherman Leo Dotson, rising seawater has covered more than 1,800 square miles of Louisiana coastline. But Dotson, in a CNN story on climate change skepticism, denies both the scientific consensus on climate change and the brute fact of rising water. How do we talk to someone who insists on denying reality, even as the seawater rises around his ankles? To ask the question more generally: Since persuasion requires all participants in dialogue to be persuadable, to be willing to consider alternatives, how do we converse with people who refuse to be persuadable, even when their own opinions are contradicted by overwhelming evidence? Such encounters may result in exasperation, yelling (or its written equivalents), silencing, or the refusal to even engage with people who don’t already agree with us. Since, as Bryan Garsten writes, "persuasion is one of the characteristic activities of democratic politics,” can we save democracy—and dialogue itself—from what Tom Nichols sees as the rising tide of unpersuadability?

We all have opinions and beliefs that we are (for now) unwilling to change; when does that become problematic? When are we all entitled to our own opinion, when are some opinions simply better than others (and what do we mean by “better”?), and when is personal opinion irrelevant? Since both democracy and the study of rhetoric assume that it's necessary to talk to people with whom we passionately disagree, how do we do that productively and respectfully? (Spoiler alert: Ultimately, the answer might have less to do with persuasive skill than with love.)

I raise these questions in the spirit of rhetorical dialogue, since I’m not entirely satisfied with my answers to any of them. Let’s discover in class where our collective agreements and disagreements take us . . .


Upon completing this course, I hope that we are all:

  • more skilled and confident in analyzing and effectively using written and spoken language
  • more tolerant of, and confident in, disagreement
  • more courageous in questioning the orthodoxies of our various communities, including the academic community


  • attendance and participation 15%
  • in-class presentation, solo or group 25%
  • shorter paper (c5 pages) 20%
  • longer paper (c12 pages) or project, developed from the presentation or the shorter paper 40%


Students need to get a copy of The Death of Expertise by Tom Nichols (Oxford 2017) before classes begin. It's readily available on-line, but will not be in the SFU bookstore.

Interested students from other departments are welcome to contact me in advance for permission to take the course.


Please come to class having done the assigned reading and prepared to discuss it.



Nichols, Tom. The Death of Expertise. Oxford, 2017. (note: this will not be in the SFU bookstore, and students need to obtain a copy before classes start. It's readily available on-line.)

Assorted handouts throughout the semester. (Don't worry, there will be plenty of reading.)

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