For more than 20 years, I’ve taught a course in scientific writing. In the course, students write a proposal. A number of years ago, I realized that a particular challenge for students was crafting a persuasive argument.
Aristotle identified the rhetorical characteristics of a persuasive argument: logos, ethos, and pathos. (Sometime people also include “kairos”). So I give the students a prompt and ask them to draft a persuasive essay that takes a position on some weird question.
The rubric essentially evaluates “logos” as checking that the argument is organized into clear paragraphs with good internal structure. It gives credit for “ethos” for using scientific citations and references. And “pathos” is kind of a giveaway in actually referring to some kind of human values as a rationale.
I don’t like to re-use the exact same assignment, so each semester I come up with a new prompt that students have to respond to.
The first one I wrote was really just an excuse for an elaborate joke.
A new retrovirus is killing domestic dogs at terrible speed: in a few months all domestic dogs are predicted to be extinct. However, scientists have developed enough vaccine to save one pregnant mother and her puppies: which breed of dog should be saved?
No matter what dog they selected, I would say “But we all know that the correct answer was ‘boxer dog.'”
I was a bit lazy another year:
Due to rising sea-levels, an island with a unique ecosystem is being inundated and its species will be lost. Should these species be introduced to other islands to preserve them?
Blah, blah, blah. I mean, it’s fine. You can make a case either way and there’s good science you can refer to.
This one was one of my favorites:
A scientific breakthrough has enabled the genetic engineering of cetaceans small enough to fit in the pocket of a shirt. Should corporations be allowed to create and market “pocket whales”? And, if so, what kind of whale (or dolphin) should be chosen first to be a pocket whale?
Almost everyone chose the “pocket whales are an utterly abhorrent idea whose marketing for sale should be condemned” angle, but one gal wrote a brilliant essay advocating for them:
Orca whales would be a good species to engineer, as they have distinct black and white coloring. With a neutral color base, they will match any color shirt pocket. The wearer will not have to worry about the whale clashing with their outfit. Whether it is a suit pocket, or a t-shirt pocket, orca whales are very versatile.
Lately I’ve been getting weirder:
A new genetic engineering technique has enabled people to grow animal ears on their heads, which corporations believe will lead to a popular, new fashion trend. Corporations claim the technique almost never produces undesirable behavioral changes (e.g. needing to use a litter box). Should corporations be allowed to market this technique and, if so, at what age should children or adults be allowed to use it?
And this semester is even weirder yet.
A corporation claims to have developed a medical process that enables people to pupate, where they enter a period of morphological degeneration and re-development, that can allow them to change any aspect of their physical appearance. Should corporations be permitted to market a process by which people could change into other species (e.g. otters)?
I can’t wait to see what students do with it. There are so many directions you could take it. I think there’s a “ship of theseus” argument you could make. Are you really the same person after pupating? And, if you’re an otter, how would you even tell? But who *wouldn’t* want to be able to become an otter? It’s a conundrum!