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Read Liz Winhover’s essay, “The Power of Failure” in CEL Ch. 9 (p. 279-282). Answer the following questions about Winhover’s essay in a response of at least 200 words. 

  • Given the definition of critical reading above, how well does Winhover’s essay function as a practice of critical reading? How specifically does Winhover step back to reveal how JK Rowling’s commencement speech is working? 
  • How would Winhover’s essay change if her focus was on evaluating JK Rowling’s speech instead of reading it critically?  
  • After looking over the Rhetorical Tools for textual analysis on p. 179-182, what particular rhetorical tools does Winhover use most effectively? Why?

279Liz Winhover The Power of Failure: J. K. Rowlings’ 2008 Harvard Commencement Speech


The Power of Failure: J. K. Rowlings’ 2008 Harvard Commencement Speech Liz Winhover The following essay is a rhetorical analysis, an essay in which the writer, Liz Winhover, steps back and— instead of getting involved in what is being argued—examines the argument’s rhetoric. In other words, Winhover’s essay focuses on how J. K. Rowling communicates her ideas. Notice that Winhover mentions Rowling’s ideas, in places summarizing what Rowling says, but that her essay focuses on how Rowling develops and supports her points.

In the summer of 2008, J. K. Rowling took to the podium to deliver the commencement speech for the graduates of Harvard University. At the time, Rowling had published the final installment of her successful children series, Harry Potter, and had movies in the works for those same books (“J. K. Rowling”). She was not an odd choice for Harvard’s commencement. Her widespread success as an author represents the grand accomplishment one might associate with Harvard University, one of the top institutions in the world.

The addressees were the graduates of Harvard’s 2008 class. The intended audience, however, stretched further to include the entire audience present on the day of the com- mencement. Because the timing has now passed for the delivery of the speech, the audience now is anyone who reads a transcript or watches a recording of the speech. Today’s audience’s detachment from the genuine occasion means they will have a different reaction to the speech than the graduates had on the day it was delivered.

The urgency of the situation is interesting. Rowling is giving a commencement speech, a type of delivery that requires specific timing because there is only one day on which to give a commencement speech—the day of the graduation. Additionally, there is the occasion—the graduation itself. While the occasion includes talking about the future lives of the graduates, the exigence (the situation that requires attention) could relate to the declining American eco- nomic status (“2008”), prompting Rowling to speak about “the benefits of failure” (Rowling) because graduates are entering an increasingly selective workforce. However, the speech is still fueled by the need to address the graduates on their accomplishments and comment on the possibilities of their future.

Rowling focuses on two main subjects— the benefits of failure and the importance of imagination. She talks first about her own failures: “I had failed on an epic scale. An exceptionally short-lived marriage had imploded, and I was jobless, and a lone parent, and as poor as possible.” But she also explains the benefits those failures brought her because,

‘The Power of Failure: J. K. Rowlings’ 2008 Harvard Commencement Speech,” by Liz Winhover. Reprinted with permission of the author.

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she says, “failure meant a stripping away of the inessential.” Next she focuses on her work with Amnesty International and how this helped to expand her imagination and empathy for others. She also underscores how empathy for other human beings is needed to combat evil in the world.

The first line of reasoning involves the “benefits of failure.” This can be seen by break- ing the reasoning down and looking at the grounds, the support for the claim: Rowling failed early in her career, which she talks about extensively. The first warrant (an idea that connects claim and support) following this statement is that everyone fails in life (failure being relative to each person’s expectations and hopes). Rowling backs this up when she says, “Talent and intelligence never yet inoculated anyone against the caprice of the Fates.” When she points out the unavoidable “caprices of the Fates,” she suggests that failure is widely experienced. In other words, it’s something Rowling and her audience shares. This leads to the claim that failure can have benefits, as Rowling shows with her own story of “rags to riches.”

While Rowling’s speech resonates with such basic presuppositions as higher education is good and success is good, she explores another presupposition more in depth and pushes against it: failure should be avoided. She explains that failing meant stripping away all distractions around her, which allowed her to “direct all [her] energy into finishing the only work that mat- tered to [her].” However, she doesn’t completely reject the presupposition that failure should be avoided, but argues that failure can have positive benefits. It showed her that she “had a strong will, and more discipline than [she] had suspected.” She is suggesting that failure taught her more about herself.

Another appeal seen throughout the speech is ethos. Rowling doesn’t have to laud her own credentials and accomplishments, partially because Harvard has a history of choosing only well-established and accomplished persons and because of the widespread success of her book series and movie series. However, she does have to establish her credentials as a failure, a side of her the audience would know less. She spends several paragraphs discussing the range and depth of her failures, establishing that she is qualified to talk about such a subject. She also speaks about her experiences with Amnesty International, creating a pathos–ridden passage about the empathetic and imaginative lessons this job taught her.

Rowling’s second line of reasoning focuses on the importance of imagination. Specifically, she claims that imagination can make us more empathetic. The grounds, or support, for this claim can be seen as Rowling herself. It can be argued that she is, or carries, the ethos to back this claim. Because of her far-reaching success as an author of fiction/fantasy stories, she can be relied on to have a solid imagination and, therefore, state its importance. This logic relies on a two-part warrant—an idea that connects a claim and its support. The first warrant states, imagination can allow us to see beyond ourselves. If we are able to see beyond ourselves, then the second warrant follows that we can imagine other people’s experiences and accept the validity of those experiences. Rowling backs this warrant with considerable information about her work with Amnesty International, which she cites as “One of the greatest formative experiences of

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281Liz Winhover The Power of Failure: J. K. Rowlings’ 2008 Harvard Commencement Speech

my life. . .[that] informed much of what I subsequently wrote in those [Harry Potter] books,” suggesting that being aware of the stories of those around us can lead to greater imagination. This leads to the unstated claim that with the information imagination brings us, we can be more empathetic.

Rowling’s 2008 address came at a time when the United States housing market was expe- riencing a decline and later that year would crash. The message of Rowling’s speech would speak to the graduates’ future struggles because as she says, “Talent and intelligence has never yet inoculated anyone against the caprice of the Fates.”

I believe that Rowling’s focus on her life story, highlighting her failures and her road to accomplishment, was suitable for a Harvard graduation speech. She allowed the new graduates to see that her success wasn’t built over night but required passion and determination. A work ethic accompanies success, and graduates must be willing to struggle toward their goals despite being rejected time after time. The kind of honesty she provides about her path to success is important if not necessary. Success, after all, is a powerful magnet. It draws attention to itself, and so people too easily forget how failure works or how often it shows up in everyday life. At places like Harvard, failure is probably a foreign, if not exotic, concept. One could argue that many Harvard students have never confronted the realities of failure, and yet Rowling pushed the relevance of failure because no one is immune to it.

As a college student, I am not as far removed from failure as a Harvard graduate. For myself, the small yet formative experience of quitting my high school sports team really felt like failure. But from that disappointment came self-respect for my actions and the opportu- nity to focus on other interests. What I saw as failure strengthened the trust I placed in my decision-making and my love for writing. And now that I’m in college, I fear failing in the classroom and ruining my chances for the future. But if the past and J. K. Rowling have taught me anything, it’s that failure can contain the lessons that influence the future.

Works Cited “2008.” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, 5 Mar. 2017, en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=

2008&oldid=768738519. Accessed 7 Mar. 2017. “J. K. Rowling.” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, 27 Feb. 2017, en.wikipedia.org/w/index

.php?title=J._K._Rowling&oldid=767706893. Accessed 3 Mar. 2017. Rowling, J. K. “Text of J. K. Rowling’s Speech.” Harvard Gazette, 5 June 2008, news.harvard



1. Even though you have not read or heard Rowling’s speech, why can you understand Winhover’s response to it? What strategies does Winhover use to help the reader understand.

2. Based on Winhover’s essay, summarize Rowling’s argument.

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3. Winhover reveals warrants—or warranting assumptions—that are key to understanding Rowling’s line of reasoning. Closely examine the fifth paragraph. In your own words, explain how a specific warrant operates within Rowling’s “first line of reasoning.”

4. Describe the public resonance of Winhover’s essay.

5. In her final two paragraphs, Winhover gives her opinion about failure and its importance. In your own words, characterize Winhover’s opinion.


1. What does Winhover assume about students at Harvard? And why do you, or don’t you, share her assumption?

2. What significance does Winhover draw from Rowling’s speech?

3. Provide your own example of how failure can be beneficial by stripping away the inessential.

4. Winhover suggests Rowling’s message was influenced by “declining American economic status.” What might her message have been in a robust and growing economy?

5. Describe a failure of your own. What did that failure do for you? What idea or reflex might it have sparked?


1. Find a commencement speech online and analyze its rhetoric, ultimately explaining the message’s signifi- cance to you.

2. Find an important warranting assumption (or warrant) in a speech and argue for its value, making sure to help the reader understand the warrant’s role in the speech.

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