Overview: Students read Russell Baker’s two-page parody of “Little Red Riding Hood” and analyze his argument and rhetorical strategies. By retelling a classic fairy tale using stuffy diction and syntax—as well as legalistic jargon and “politically correct” language—Baker cleverly critiques “the modern American language.” Students can have some fun analyzing why Baker’s inflated (and sometimes deflated) prose is so “wrong” not only for this fairy tale but for much writing—including much academic writing.
Activity title: Punctilious Rhetorical Enterprise Situation Regarding Grandiloquent Communication (aka An Exercise to Help Students Avoid Stuffy Writing)
Author: Erik Ellis
Course: PWR 1 or PWR 2
Activity length and schedule: Approx. 30-45 minutes. This activity works best before students turn in their first essay (and in PWR 1, after some initial discussion of rhetoric).
- Discourage students from writing stuffy prose.
- Show that writers can sometimes be more persuasive by making their arguments indirectly.
- Practice rhetorical analysis.
- Pass out hard copies of Russell Baker’s 2-page New York Times piece “Little Red Riding Hood Revisited.”
- Read it aloud as a class (consider asking for a volunteer or two).
- Divide students into five groups. Assign each group one section of the piece. (I divided the attached version into five sections. These breaks aren’t part of the original—something you should probably mention to students).
- Ask each group to answer these questions by analyzing their section:
- What is Baker’s argument?
- What rhetorical strategies does he use?
- What evidence does he use? Focus on specific language.
- Discuss what students came up with in their groups. Consider taking notes on the board—or ask them, as part of the step above, to take notes on a designated section of the board.
- If you’re doing this activity on a day when students have a draft due, ask them to look carefully at their own writing to see if they recognize any of the stuffy techniques Baker uses.
- Sometimes when students first hear Baker’s piece, they seem unsure whether it’s “real” or a parody. You might want to encourage them to appreciate the humor by chuckling or smiling when some students laugh.
- Russell Baker could have easily written a predictable, curmudgeonly op-ed about how “folks today” don’t appreciate the English language the way they used to, etc. You might ask students to imagine such a version, and then ask whether it would likely be more or less persuasive for skeptical readers—that is, readers who tend to use a lot of passive voice, fifty-cent words, etc.
- Consider asking students when jargon might be appropriate. How is the term “jargon” rhetorical?