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How to use this Book—Pedagogical Background for Students and Teachers

15.2 Rhetorical Situations

In this book encourage a deep consideration of writing as a dynamic response to rhetorical situations. We can all acknowledge that different circumstances, different audiences, different subjects require different kinds of writing. This variability demands that we think more expansively and critically about genre, language, style, and medium. It also requires us to acknowledge that there is no monolithic, static, singular model of “good” writing, contrary to what some traditionalists believe—and what many of our students have been trained to believe.

The realization that “good” writing cannot be essentialized is not groundbreaking in the field of rhetoric: indeed, we have known for thousands of years that audience and purpose should influence message and delivery. However, it often is groundbreaking for students today who have learned from both hidden and explicit curricula that certain dialects, styles, or perspectives are valued in academia.

Shifting the paradigm—from “How do I write right?” to “How do I respond to the nuanced constraints of my rhetorical situation?”—requires a lot of unlearning. As your students try to unpack more and more complex rhetorical situations, support them by deliberately talking through the constituent elements of the rhetorical situation and the preferred modes and languages utilized therein. One question to use to turn students’ focus to the rhetorical situation is: How will the subject, occasion, audience, and purpose of this situation influence the way we write?
Why this focus? Our emphasis on rhetorical situations is twofold:

To sharpen and complicate students’ thinking. On a more abstract level, Abrams advocates for critical consumption and production of rhetoric as a fundamental goal of composition instruction. If we, as educators, want to empower our students as thinkers and agents within the world, we must equip them with the habits to challenge the texts and ideas that surround them.
To prepare students for future writing situations. On a more pragmatic level, we don’t think it’s possible to teach students all of the ways they will need to know how to write in their lives—especially not in a single college term. Instead of teaching rules for writing (rules which will invariably change), I argue for teaching questions about writing situations. Students will be better prepared for future writing situations if they can analyze a rhetorical situation, determine how that situation’s constraints will influence their writing, and produce a text that is tailored to that situation.

We encourage consideration of the many forms that rhetoric take and critical encounters with all kinds of media and rhetoric that permeate our lives. Although you are using this book for a class with “Composition,” in the title, another primary goal of this book is to advocate for critical consumption and production of rhetoric in all its forms. We are centered on the nonfiction essay form (in order to satisfy the typical academic requirements of foundational college courses).


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Expression and Inquiry by Chris Manning, Sally Pierce, and Melissa Lucken is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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