Read “The Advice Column Two Ways–Part One: Creative Nonfiction” here.
One thing that came up frequently in my nonfiction workshops was Sugar’s persona—the mix of tough love, personal vulnerability, and intellectual reasoning that makes her a powerfully persuasive writer. My first-year writing classes include lessons on the rhetorical appeals of ethos, pathos, and logos, and Sugar offered me a concrete, easily-digested way of introducing these concepts in class. I tend to focus on Sugar’s situated and invented ethos, but her columns offer expressions of all three appeals. I do this activity as an in-class lesson (75 minutes).
1) Students will be able to differentiate between situated ethos and invented ethos.
2) Students will be able to summarize an author’s attempt to build credibility, and analyze the effectiveness of their rhetorical choices.
- Provide definitions of situated and invented ethos.
- Ethos: The character of the rhetor, their qualifications, trustworthiness, authority, relationship to the subject, etc.
- Situated Ethos: The aspects of a rhetor’s ethos that are part of their identity. It can include their professional credentials, education, title, age, gender, race, and other elements of background. A medical doctor and a gardener may have equally valid arguments vaccines, but their situated ethos will encourage us to trust the doctor more.
- Invented Ethos: The aspects of a rhetor’s ethos that they actively construct in the text itself. An author will characterize themselves in particular ways for particular purposes. They may emphasize the ways in which they represent a group or ideology, or how they hold certain values, like social justice or environmental responsibility
- Read 1-2 Dear Sugar columns in class. (My personal favorites are: #67 “The Black Arc of It,” #71 “The Ghost Ship That Didn’t Carry Us,”and #81 “A Bit of Sully in Your Sweet.”) I like to do this out loud, with each student taking a paragraph, so we can hear how we each interpret Sugar’s language and tone.
- Identify the places where Sugar relies on her situated ethos to cultivate trust with both the reader and letter writer (her education, her previous publications, her older columns in which she describes life experiences that come back to bear on future columns, etc.).
- Identify the places where Sugar invents her ethos in an effort to persuade her audiences that her advice is worthy of following (her maternal language—“sweet pea,” “honey bunch,” etc.—personal narratives that reveal her own vulnerability, analysis of the letter writer’s language to uncover its implications, and more.
- Discuss the rhetorical effectiveness of these choices. How does Sugar invite either identification with her, or differentiation from her?
- Have students write their own responses to the letters Sugar already answered. How can they deploy elements of their authority and personality in an attempt to be persuasive to the person asking for advice?
You can also do this activity using the podcast iteration of Dear Sugar, with Cheryl Strayed and Steve Almond, comparing and contrasting their situated and invented ethos.