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Selecting an Effective Theme

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PWR 1 & PWR 2 courses are themed, which presents a particular challenge in the design of a new course. A successful theme must be capacious enough to accommodate the interests of the diverse students who may find themselves enrolled in the course, yet it must also be precise enough to give students a clear idea of the kind of work they'll do in the course.

However, keep in mind even in choosing your theme that your PWR 1 or PWR 2 course will be organized not around your topic but around the writing assignments students will be doing—assignments that are more important than the topic or theme of the course—and you will need to define the topic carefully before you can use it effectively as a context for the students’ writing and research.

Principles of Effective Themes

Since PWR 1 and PWR 2 courses are not content-driven, the themes should be designed to guide students to better understand different issues through a rhetorical lens and to learn effective ways to communicate their ideas.  That is, a successful theme draws on the instructor's expertise and interests but situates them in relation helping students effectively learn about to rhetoric, communication, writing, research, and/or representation.  When choosing your theme, always keep in mind that this is a writing (and speaking, in PWR 2) course, not a content-driven course.  The theme should support your pedagogical goals related to students' ability to write, speak, and research effectively; you are not trying to teach your students to become mini-experts in your topic.

In general, effective PWR themes

  • guide and inspire your students to respond effectively to the basic sequence of assignments for the course
  • are accessible to first- and second-year students who, without prior knowledge of the theme or of its historical and intellectual contexts, must get to the heart of the theme in just a few short weeks and begin to write with increasing complexity and understanding
  • are compelling and intellectually engaging to first- and second-year Stanford students without sounding esoteric or overly-specialized
  • are intellectually engaging to you in ways that enable you to implement the appropriate sequence of assignments.  You can best help your students craft their own arguments if you select a theme of genuine interest to you
  • offer a point of entry or appeal to a range of students -- across disciplines, cultural backgrounds, gender identities, race, etc. 

The strongest themes allow a wide range of undergraduates to see clearly the relevance of the course to their future growth and success (however they may define it).

Examples of Effective Themes

Successful themes from recent years include:

  • Rhetoric and Global Leadership
  • Debating the Environment
  • Seriously Funny: The Rhetoric of Humor
  • Writing What You Eat: The Rhetoric of Food
  • Imagining Technology: The Rhetoric of Humans and Machines
  • Words, Deeds, and Dreams: The Rhetoric of Human Rights
  • Global Exchange: Intercultural Communication
  • Health Matters: Health Innovation and Communication
  • Writing Nature: Discourses of Ecology
  • The Rhetoric of Sports
  • Communicating Science to the Public
  • Silicon Valley and the Future of Work: Rhetoric of Labor Utopias and Dystopias
  • Science, Democracy, and Social Media
  • The Rhetoric of American Musical Theater
  • Bringing Design Thinking to Research, Writing, and Presentation

See also the catalogue of this quarter's current course offerings for PWR 1 & PWR 2

Developing a PWR 1 or PWR 2 Theme

The Associate Director and Course Coordinators are available to consult with you about possible course themes.  Based on their familiarity with the range of themes offered in PWR currently and in the past, they can offer suggestions to help you design a theme that will allow you to engage students while also accomplishing your learning objectives.