Rhetoric: The Art of Persuasive Writing and Public Speaking

Gain critical communication skills

This Harvard online course introduces learners to the art of persuasive writing and speaking and teaches how to construct and defend compelling arguments.

Featuring faculty from:
8 weeks
2-3 hours a week
Certificate Price
Program Dates
Start Rhetoric today

What You'll Learn

We are living in a contentious time in history. Fundamental disagreements on critical political issues make it essential to learn how to make an argument and analyze the arguments of others. This ability will help you engage in civil discourse and make effective changes in society. Even outside the political sphere, conveying a convincing message can benefit you throughout your personal, public, and professional lives.

We will be using selected addresses from prominent twentieth-century Americans—including Martin Luther King Jr., John F. Kennedy, Margaret Chase Smith, Ronald Reagan, and more—to explore and analyze rhetorical structure and style. Through this analysis, you will learn how speakers and writers persuade an audience to adopt their point of view.

Built around Harvard Professor James Engell’s on-campus course, “Elements of Rhetoric,” this course will help you analyze and apply rhetorical structure and style, appreciate the relevance of persuasive communication in your own life, and understand how to persuade and recognize when someone is trying to persuade you. You will be inspired to share your viewpoint and discover the most powerful ways to convince others to champion your cause. Join us to find your voice!

The course will be delivered via edX and connect learners around the world. By the end of the course, participants will be able to:

  • When and how to employ a variety of rhetorical devices in writing and speaking
  • How to differentiate between argument and rhetorical technique
  • How to write a persuasive opinion editorial and short speech
  • How to evaluate the strength of an argument
  • How to identify logical fallacies in arguments

Course Outline

  • Define the term "rhetoric."
  • Articulate the importance of effective communication
  • Summarize the history of rhetorical study, from the ancient Greeks to the modern-day
  • Identify the parts of discourse
  • Define the three modes of appeal
  • Identify tropes and schemes, and explain their use in composition
  • Compose an opinion editorial on a topic of your choice
  • Analyze Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream…” speech
  • Define inductive reasoning and some of its associated topics
  • Identify instances of inductive reasoning in writing and speech
  • Define deductive reasoning and some of its associated topics
  • Identify instances of deductive reasoning in writing and speech
  • Recognize and evaluate the strength of an argument's refutation
  • Apply the elements of rhetoric you have learned so far into the final draft of your op-ed
  • Analyze Sarah Brady’s Democratic National Convention Keynote Speech
  • Analyze Charlton Heston’s speech on the Second Amendment
  • Define “inductive reasoning” and some of its associated topics
  • Identify instances of inductive reasoning in writing and speech
  • Define “deductive reasoning” and some of its associated topics
  • Identify instances of deductive reasoning in writing and speech
  • Recognize and evaluate the strength of an argument’s refutation
  • Apply the elements of rhetoric you have learned so far in the final draft of your op-ed
  • Describe the origins of the practice of oratory
  • Recognize ways in which orators tailor their writing for the spoken word
  • Describe techniques for effective public speaking, both prepared and extemporaneous
  • Brainstorm ideas for your own short speech
  • Analyze Joseph McCarthy’s “Enemies Within” speech
  • Analyze Margaret Chase Smith’s "A Declaration of Conscience" speech
  • Identify the modes of appeal and the logical reasoning of the featured speeches
  • Identify both common and special topics used in these speeches, like cause and effect, testimony, justice and injustice, and comparison, and begin to recognize their use in other speeches
  • Identify examples from these speeches of logical fallacies including the either/or fallacy, the fallacy of affirming the consequent, the argument ad hominem, the argument ad populum, begging the question, the complex question, and the use of imprecise language
  • Discuss the importance of winning and keeping an audience’s trust and the pros and cons of attempting to tear down their confidence in an opponent
  • Define for yourself the definition of "extremist rhetoric," debate its use as a political tool
  • Consider the moral responsibilities of those who would seek to persuade others through language
  • Discuss how the audience and the desired tone for a speech can influence diction (word choice)
  • Compare the effects of using passive vs. active voice, and first-person vs. other tenses in a speech
  • Discuss the effectiveness of the use of symbolism in writing and speech
  • Define hyperbole, antimetabole, and polysyndeton, and identify when these devices might be appropriate and useful in terms of persuasion
  • Describe techniques for connecting with your audience, including storytelling and drawing on shared experience

Your Instructor

James Engell is Gurney Professor of English and Professor of Comparative Literature, also a member of the Committee on the Study of Religion, and a faculty associate of the Harvard University Center for the Environment.  He has also directed dissertations in American Studies, as well as Romance Languages & Literatures (French).

Education:  B.A. 1973, Ph.D. 1978 Harvard

Interests: Romantic, Eighteenth-Century, and Restoration British Literature; Comparative Romanticism; Criticism and Critical Theory; Rhetoric; Environmental Studies; History and Economics of Higher Education

Selected Works: The Call of Classical Literature in the Romantic Age (2017, ed. with K. P. Van Anglen) and contributor, "The Other Classic: Hebrew Shapes British and American Literature and Culture."  William Wordsworth's Prelude (1805), edited from the manuscripts and fully illustrated in color (2016, ed. with Michael D. Raymond).  Environment: An Interdisciplinary Anthology (2008, ed. with Adelson, Ranalli, and Van Anglen).  Saving Higher Education in the Age of Money (2005, with Anthony Dangerfield).  The Committed Word: Literature and Public Values (1999).  Coleridge: The Early Family Letters (1994, ed.).  Forming the Critical Mind (1989).  Johnson and His Age (1984, ed. and contributor).  Biographia Literaria for the Collected Coleridge (1983, ed. with W. Jackson Bate).  The Creative Imagination:  Enlightenment to Romanticism (1981).

Ways to take this course

When you enroll in this course, you will have the option of pursuing a Verified Certificate or Auditing the Course.

A Verified Certificate costs $209 and provides unlimited access to full course materials, activities, tests, and forums. At the end of the course, learners who earn a passing grade can receive a certificate. 

Alternatively, learners can Audit the course for free and have access to select course material, activities, tests, and forums. Please note that this track does not offer a certificate for learners who earn a passing grade.

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