Language and Politics Syllabus, Fall 2017

Language and Politics
SMPA 3459
Fall 2017
Weds 6:10 – 8:40 pm, SMPA 308

Instructor: Peter Loge
Office: SMPA 431
(202) 994-7835 Office
“The world is still in want of clear-headed citizens, tempered by historical perspective, disciplined by rational thinking and moral compass, who speak well and write plainly.”
Lee Pelton, President of Emerson College

This course will investigate the connection between language and the political world around us.  We will explore both the theory and practice of language in politics and discuss the implications of these explorations on the creation and consumption of politics.

This course is roughly divided into three conceptual chunks: foundational questions about where meaning ‘comes from’ and whether or not words themselves ultimately ‘mean’ anything; case studies of how words work in politics and policy debates; and a larger discussion of what happens when language starts referring to other language as proof rather than referring to ideas or objects in the outside world. Throughout the course we will be discussing the ethics of political language.

While the course will focus on words, we will also discuss the role that images, sounds, and other things play in the creation of meaning. The last chunk of the course will especially focus on the topic of systems of signs or systems of meaning.

You will be expected to do the readings, think about their connections to events in politics, and participate in class discussions.  Quality of insight is better than quantity of words, and challenging questions and questioning of assumptions is always more interesting than just tagging along. 

The success or failure of this class rests largely on you and your colleagues.  If you listen closely to your peers, make unexpected connections, and take intellectual risks, the fall will be a very interesting conversation.

You will be graded on three short essays, a major paper, a mid-term exam, a final exam, and class participation. 

You will be required to write three short essays.  They should be no longer than two pages, double spaced.  I will stop reading at the bottom of the second page, and grade you only on what I’ve read.  Extreme efforts to extend margins, squeeze in fonts, etc., will be punished.  No late papers will be accepted.

Each essay is worth 10% of your final grade (combined they are worth 30% of your final grade).

Essay #1 is due at the start of the second class session (Sept. 6) and should discuss a piece of political language and its implications – for example what the words “anchor baby” imply, why Republicans would want to call the Affordable Care Act “Obamacare,” or if there’s a difference between “climate change” and “global warming.”

Essay #2 is due at the start of the October 4 class and should discuss the connection between language and politics – what it is, what it should be, and the implications of the connection (or disconnection).

Essay #3 is due at the start of class on November 15 and should examine the relationship between a metaphor and public policy.

Major Paper
For your final paper you will be required to do a thorough analysis of a piece of political language or a political image or develop and defend a position on the role of language (broadly defined) and politics.

One option is to find an image, word, etc., and explain something about it – what it means, how it came to mean that, the historical development, its implications, etc.  Your paper should include reviews of others who have written on your topic and should place your analysis in the context of that research.  For example if you write about the Confederate Flag, you should discuss others who have written about the symbolic power of flags in general, as well as those who have written about the confederate flag.  An important element of the paper is the “so what?”  You will be expected to not just describe something, but connect that description to larger events or issues.  In the above example you could provide ideas on how to resolve the controversy around the Flag.

Another option is to develop your own theory of language (verbal and/or visual) and politics.  If you choose this route you should be sure to include those who have already written on your subject, anticipate and respond to criticisms, and demonstrate why your approach is superior.  For example you could critique Lakoff and suggest your own explanation of metaphor in politics.

The final paper should be between 15 and 25 pages long.  I expect these papers to be top quality, that you will footnote your claims, cite your works (any form of citation is acceptable as long as it is complete and consistent), and that there will be no grammatical or spelling errors.

The final paper is due at the start of the last day of class, December 9th.  It is worth 25% of your final grade.  No late papers will be accepted.

I encourage you to begin thinking about your final papers early in the semester and to consult with me along the way.  I am willing to read drafts, look at outlines, talk about ideas, and so forth.

Anything that happens in class is fair game for exams.

The mid-term exam is on October 25 and will have a short answer and essay component. 

The final exam will be a take-home exam and consist of one or two essays.  It will be due at the end of the scheduled final exam period for this class.

The mid-term counts for 20% of your final grade, the final exam 15% (for a total of 40%).

Class participation is worth 10% of your final grade.  You are expected to constructively add to the conversation, which means you should do, think about, and be prepared to talk about the readings.  You are also expected to pay attention to the political world around you and think about it in terms of the course.  You should have ideas and opinions and be able to defend them. 

You will not be rewarded for just talking a lot.

On Writing Well by William Zinsser
Available in most decent bookstores and online

Other readings are listed in the course schedule below, and most are on Blackboard.  In addition I may email articles or essays during the week that strike me as interesting. 

You have several ethical responsibilities in this course.  This is a small group, in a small space, for several hours at a time.  For this adventure to work for all of us, each of us needs to do the readings and think about them.  We must respect each other’s positions on the readings, and honor intellectual experiments (the “what if….” positions); that means people should be willing and able to change their minds, to defend their positions, and challenge the positions of others.  Critically, one should never confuse an argument with the person making the argument – positions are not people. This means you should not attack people, only their claims and you should do so based on reasoning.  Similarly, you should defend your positions as if they were ideas to be kicked around, not children to be protected.

Cheating and plagiarizing are not acceptable.  They will be punished to the greatest extent permitted by The George Washington University policy.  All exams, papers, and other work products are to be completed in conformance with The George Washington University Code of Academic Integrity.

I work from the premise that you are all adults.  I don’t take attendance, but you are responsible for everything that happens in class.  If you miss a session, you should find a colleague from whom to get notes, readings, etc. 

There may be guest speakers and the schedule of readings and discussions may change.

Aug 30            Introduction – Lecture: The Course in an Hour

Sept. 6            FIRST ESSAY DUE Discuss the ethics of teaching politics
Write the first essay discussing a piece of political language and its implications – for example, examine the difference between “conservationist” and “environmentalist,” “global warming” and “climate change”, etc.

On Writing Well Chapter 1, 2, 3, 6, and 14
Protagoras by Plato, available at  and elsewhere.

Sept. 13          Discuss the connections between words and things
Selections from Course in General Linguistics by Ferdinand de Saussure

Selections from C. K. Ogden and I. A. Richards The Meaning of Meaning

“Language, thought and reality: a comparison of Ferdinand de Saussure’s Course in General Linguistics with C. K. Ogden and I. A. Richard’s The Meaning of Meaning by David West, Changing English Vol 12 No 2, October 2005 pp 327-336

The connection between words and things.

Sept.    20        LOGE OUT – NO CLASS – Potential to reschedule

Sept. 27          Discuss the connection between language, ideas, and truth
“The Contingency of Language” Richard Rorty, London Review of Books Vol. 8 No. 7 April 17, 1986

Oct. 4              SECOND ESSAY DUE
Write your second essay explaining what the connection between language and politics is, what it should be, and the implications of the (dis)connections.

Discuss the relationship between political language and political reality, and the possibility of one without the other.

“Politics and the English Language” by George Orwell available at and elsewhere

“The All Spin Zone” by Stanley Fish

“Political Language and Political Reality” by Murray Edelman, PS vol 18 no 1 Winter 1985

 Oct. 11            NO CLASS – FALL BREAK

Oct. 18           Discuss metaphor and human reasoning
“Conceptual Metaphor in Every Day Language” George Lakoff and Mark Johnson, Journal of Philosophy Vol 77 No 8, August 1980 pp453-486

Oct. 25            MID TERM              

Oct. 28            Discuss the impact of metaphor on policy reasoning
“Epistemic motives moderate the effect of metaphoric framing on attitudes” Mark J. Landau, Lucas A. Keefer, Zachary K. Rothschild Journal of Experimental Social Psychology Vol 53, 2014 pp125-138

Nov. 1           Discuss metaphor and crime
“Metaphors We Think With: The Role of Metaphor in Reasoning” by Paul H. Thibodeau, Lera Boroditsky, (PLoS ONE 6(2))

Nov. 8             Discuss metaphor and health care policy
“The Meaning and Measure of Policy Metaphors” by Mark Schlesinger and Richard R. Lau, (The American Political Science Review vol 94 no 3 Sept. 2000)

“Policy Frames, Metaphorical Reasoning, and Support for Public Policies” by Richard R. Lau and Mark Schlesinger, (Political Psychology, Vol. 26, No. 1, 2005).

Frank Luntz health care messaging memo

Nov. 15           THIRD ESSAY DUE
Write about the relationship between metaphor and a public policy
Discuss metaphor and immigration
“Indigestible Food, Conquering Hordes, and Waste Materials: Metaphors of Immigrants and the Early Immigration Restriction Debate in the United States” by Gerald V. O’Brien, Metaphor and Symbol Vol 18 No 1, 2003

Nov. 22           NO CLASS –THANKSGIVING

Nov. 29          Discuss postmodernism
Read: Selection from Jean Baudrillard’s Simulacra and Simulation


Final Exam due at the end of the scheduled final exam period for the class

Worth Checking Out:

The Frameworks Institute:

Other readings of note:

“Metaphor of the Living Dead: Or, the Effect of the Zombie Apocalypse on Public Policy Discourse” Daniel W. Drezner, Social Research: An International Quarterly, Vol 81 No 4 Winter 2014, pp 825-849

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