Communication and Media Studies 414

COMS 414: Critical Analysis of Public Discourse

Prerequisite: COMS 130 and COMS 230 or permission of instructor

Credit Hours: (3)


Detailed Description of Content of Course

This course focuses on the creation, consumption, and evaluation of public discourse. As such, its main concerns are the sources of messages, the audiences for messages, the contexts in which the messages are produced, the messages themselves, and the confluence of all four to create a rhetorical reality.


Detailed Description of Conduct of Course

I. What is criticism?

            A. Defining criticism
            B. The functions of criticism

                            1. Searching for effect
                            2. Illuminating events, contexts, and speakers
                            3. Social criticism
                            4. Identifying and evaluating arguments
                            5. Identifying and evaluating stylistic choices

            C. The goals of criticism
            D. Standards of criticism

                            1. The Effects criterion
                            2. The Truth criterion
                            3. The Artistic criterion
                            4. The Ethical criterion

II. The elements of public discourse

            A. The source

                            1. Contextual significance of the source
                            2. Consideration of source ethos

            B. The audience(s)

                            1. Identifying primary and secondary audiences
                            2. Contextual significance of the audience(s)
                            3. Demographic characteristics of the audience(s)
                            4. Psychographic characteristics of the audience(s)

            C. The context

                            1. Historical context
                            2. Political context
                            3. Social context
                            4. Cultural context

            D. The message

                            1. The purposes of the message
                            2. Organizational features of the message
                            3. Style and structure of arguments in the message
                            4. Style and strategy of language choices in the message
                            5. Nonverbal elements of the message

III. Criticism of public discourse

Sections I and II will introduce students to the practice and functions of criticism, and, as such, will require only a brief amount of time at the beginning of the course. The larger portion of the course will be devoted to section III, criticism of public discourse. This content of this section will thematic and will be determined by the individual instructor teaching the course. For example, as one of several themes to be included in the course an instructor might choose public discourse centering on the theme of civil rights and include the following as critical artifacts to be examined:

Selected speeches of Presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Baines Johnson; the related discourse of George C. Wallace, Governor of Alabama; the related discourse of the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr.; the critical artifact of the documentary series “Eyes on the Prize”; President Bill Clinton’s Memphis, Tennessee, address on race relations; and the report of President Clinton’s Blue Ribbon Committee on race relations.

Or an instructor might choose public discourse centering on the recent public discussion of weapons legislation and include the following critical artifacts to be examined:

  • Selected speeches of President Bill Clinton; selected floor speeches of members of the U.S. House and Senate; selected speeches of Charlton Heston and Wayne LaPierre, President and Executive Director of the National Rifle Association, respectively; selected speeches of Sarah Brady, wife of James Brady, press secretary for President Ronald Reagan.
  • Selected themes of discourse used in the course will cover a variety of social,historical, political, and cultural topics.


Goals and Objectives of the Course

At the conclusion of the course, students will be able to demonstrate

1. knowledge of the definition of criticism
2. knowledge of the goals and functions of criticism
3. knowledge of the standards of criticism
4. knowledge of the elements of public discourse
5. the skills necessary to discover and assess the organization, arguments, and effects of a variety of public messages.


Assessment Measures

Instructors may choose traditional examinations, analytical papers, oral reports, or a combination of these as the assessment measures for the course.


Other course information

Because of the nature of the course, no text exists which adequately encompasses the themes each instructor might choose. Therefore, materials would need to be developed by each instructor given his or her choice of themes for the course. With access to the World Wide Web, though, copies of specific speeches or examples of various discourse are easily available to faculty as they prepare course materials.  


Review and Approval
September, 2001 Bill Kennan, Chair