Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Grading Sarah Palin's Speech

NO ONE KNEW WHAT to expect from Sarah Palin on Wednesday night at the Republican National Convention. Actually, I think most people had an inkling of what dishes would be on the menu--Alaska drilling, small town values, lower taxes, nuclear family, praise for the military. What people were unsure of is how she would serve the meal.

How would she, for example, handle talking about the obvious details of the Republican platform? On a more human level, would she falter in the spotlight as the unexpected and questionable candidate for vice-president? Would she call attention to her pregnant daughter? Would she exploit her son with Downs? Would she bust out the beehive? How good would her jokes be?

If I were to grade Gov. Palin's speech as though it were a student assignment, I would be impressed by some parts and troubled by others. On one hand, she delivered her talk with confidence. She's a better--or at least a more natural--public speaker than Hillary Clinton. She's softer, less stiff, and more convincingly folksy. So, from a presentation perspective, I think she surprised up. Part of that though is the classic expectations game. Most had low or virtually no expectations, so anything short of a Truman Capote drunken insult-laden tirade would probably be some form of success. Palin didn't disappoint.

Content, though, is a different story.

Students often confuse "topic" and "thesis," and this seems to have been Ms. Palin's stumbling block as well. A topic is the subject of your talk, the items and themes you plan to cover. A thesis, though, is a different set of go-go boots. A thesis is the argument you make about your topic--what you assert. Though Ms. Palin certainly had topics--Alaska drilling, her husbands, snow machine prowess, Obama's rhetoric--she never really asserted a thesis. She tried here and there, but she always came back to the same messages, none of which were ever argued, merely passed on.

Her talk can be broken down into three main components: who I am, who Barack Obama is, who John McCain is.

That's it.

That is the structure of her talk. On a micro level, she did a fine job of telling us what we already know: her hockey momness, her momness, her governorness. But, she told us little about what ideas, what thinkers, what texts shape her thinking, galvanize her ideology, and motivate her to public service.

Here, she makes another classic undergraduate mistake by confusing data with context.

Eager to provide lists of accomplishments, zingy one liners about Obama's spooky speechmaking, and narratives about McCain's manliness, Palin assumes that providing information does the same kind of work as providing context. But, there is a different between reciting lists and giving backstory, filling in gaps.

For example, in what way does being a hockey mom prepare you to help run the country? What manner of mayoring enables one to engage in foreign policy? How has serving as the Commander in Chief of Alaska given you a better understanding of the military and a war mentality?

Because she has no context, she has no bones on which to hang the flesh of her argument. That's why there was no argument. There were only topics.

Topics can go a long way. They can get a room riled up, they can make for good sound bytes, and they can make Americans cry. But, topics don't get people to vote; topics get people to read or to listen to talk radio. Ideas, arguments, plans, and vision get people to vote.

Mostly, I was disappointed there was no vision. Again, vision and data carpool, but they live in separate houses. I thought Gov. Palin might have the key to that house, but she may have left it back in Alaska, where John Kerry must have dropped his a few years back.

I wanted to be inspired by the Governor's talk, but instead I was just not disappointed. Compared to Obama's and even Biden's, Palin's felt like a menu describing what you might get if you ordered correctly. But, Obama's and Biden's came across as a deluxe prix fixe, a chef's assortment of the best available options.

On delivery, I would give Governor Palin high marks, likely an A. On content though, it would be quite low, more like a D. That would average out to a B, which is probably about right. As it happened, I watched her talk along with my students in my honors class on "The American Experience," most of whom are women. Judging by their reactions, they would have given the governor an even lower grade--not a good sign for the McCain camp.

My food metaphor in the first paragraph is not meant to be a gendered gesture calling attention to Ms. Palin's domestic abilities or her gender. It's a rhetorical tool designed to remind the reader that during this time of year, many of us devour politics and politicians. We consume the process and the product. Tonight's product was okay.

The problem is that her opponent cooked a similar meal three years ago, and it tasted great.


  1. Are you using this speech to teach your students or brainwash them?

  2. A comment on the site mentioned your blog and this post. I don't think I agree with your grade, but I sort of liked your take. You sounded more sympathetic to Palin than your students. Will you also grade McCain's speech?

  3. i dont think palin is the right person to "brainwash" a classroom full of liberal feminists

    in my eyes, she degraded herself throughout her speech by insisting she's just a 'gal', just a 'hockey mom', just a small-town girl who became governor of alaska

    sheesh palin, it sounded like a miss usa acceptance speech. or maybe that's what she was going for?

  4. This is a fascinating "reading" of her speech. I totally get your point about information vs. context. I do think that in these speeches topics are a kind of thesis, though. She could have been more assertive about her ideas than about Obama. She was all about how she and mccain were not obama.

  5. I never really thought of brainwashing my students. I'll get right on that. Kate may be a tough project, but I'll do what I can.

    Thanks, s.s. for the kind words, and yes, I did already grade McCain's speech. It's today's post.

  6. Hi Dean! I'm surprised that you haven't considered brainwashing as a pedagogical device! I do it all the time. From Facilities, you can get the chairs with little ropes on the arms. They will also produce classroom extremes of hot and cold. From Dining Services, you can get their food credits deleted. This is very important, as you should have available in class both nausea-producing foods and satisfying ones. From ITS, you can get a whole array of interesting devices, the most important being the loud shrieking mp3s to disorient them.

    Again, I'm quite surprised you have not utilized these methodologies, on which there is so much effective research (and more experimentation going on all the time!). The alternatives are somewhat unsatisfying. For instance, there is the brainwashing technique that consists in (1) providing course readings that address social, political, and cultural texts from a range of perspectives; (2) assisting the students in developing analytical techniques (like that "topic/theme" gem); (3) providing historical context to those texts that might evade the cultural/intellectual milieu of young people born after 1986; (4) guiding open discussion in which points of view are clarified, defended, and subsequently altered; and (5) showing students where further research is available.

    Although this technique has been shown to work on occasion, it has the drawback of typically producing students who are unable or unwilling to parrot your views out of coerced necessity. Instead, they have been known to develop the frightening ability to produce reasoned and deliberate critiques of cultural and political formations.

    So, if you're interested, you can start the process of classroom brainwashing by leaving a message at x9876, and we'll get some service technicians out to install the proper chairs and a/v equipment.

  7. Dear Jeff, thanks for the head's up. I did know about USF's branch of conditioning services. I can't tell you how much easier this will make things!