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

15.5 Rhetorical Situations Applications

In this book, you’ll notice a focus on rhetorical situations, which are explained more thoroughly in the General Introduction. Put simply, the act of writing is a response to a rhetorical situation, and no two situations are the same. Think about the differences and similarities between the following kinds of writing:

A letter to your grandmother about your first semester in collegeAn editorial advocating for immigration reform

An e-mail to a craigslist user about the futon you want to buy

A flyer for a Super Smash Bros. tournament in the Student Union

Different circumstances, different audiences, and different subjects require different kinds of writing. These differences ask writers to think critically about genre, language, style, and medium. More importantly, it means that there is no one method for creating “good” writing, no one-size-fits-all, step-by-step guide to success, despite what some of your previous teachers may have claimed.

Because you and each member of your learning community has a vastly different   future ahead of you, it would be impossible to teach you all the ways you will need to write throughout your lives—especially not in a single college term. Instead of learning rules for writing (rules which will invariably change), it is more valuable to learn the questions you should ask of your future writing situations and produce texts that are tailored to those situations.

In this book, you will explore and work within several rhetorical situations. Because many college composition programs value the nonfiction essay form, this textbook focuses on three different kinds of essays: a personal narrative, a textual analysis, and a persuasive research essay. The goal of writing these essays, though, is not to become a master of any of them. Instead, the goal is to practice interrogating the rhetorical situations and tailoring your work to be more effective within them.

As you learn more about rhetorical situations, think about the many forms that rhetoric takes. We hope the learning experiences included in this book and your class should be applied to the other sorts of reading, writing, speaking, and listening you do throughout your life: how can you bring the same thoughtfulness to a Facebook status, an online news article, a class syllabus, a conversation in the dining hall, or a Socratic discussion in class?

Throughout this text, you will be challenged to respond to different rhetorical situations through the act of writing. In other words, you will try to learn more about what “good writing” says and does in different contexts: What makes for a good story? An insightful analysis? A convincing argument? Why does it matter that we write where and when we do? What do different readers want out of a piece of writing?

By exploring and writing within different situations, you will learn skills for specific rhetorical modes, sharpen your critical literacy, and—most importantly—learn to adapt to a variety of writing circumstances that you will encounter both in and out of school. In other words, practice in different rhetorical situations will make you a more critical consumer and producer of rhetoric.

But let’s back up a second. What’s rhetoric?

You may have heard of a rhetorical question before—a question that someone asks you without expecting an answer. What’s the point of asking a question with no answer? To somehow impact the person who hears it, maybe by making them think about an issue in a different way.

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, rhetoric is “The art of using language effectively so as to persuade or influence others, esp. the exploitation of figures of speech and other compositional techniques to this end.”

Very generally speaking, rhetoric refers to a set of strategies that authors use to connect to their readers.

Let’s consider some examples that require such a vague definition:

Each of these texts is rhetorical. Texts can be written or spoken; they can be images; they can be video; they can be digital or printed; they can exist for only a moment or for eons. What they try to accomplish can vary widely, from killing time to killing people.

A pattern might be emerging to you: you are perpetually surrounded by rhetoric, but you are not always aware of how it’s acting on you. But by developing your rhetorical awareness, you can perceive and interpret texts more diligently, in turn developing skills to think more independently. For that reason, this book encourages you to be both a critical consumer and also a critical producer of rhetoric, specifically in the written form.

In this book, you will explore and work within four rhetorical situations. The non-fiction essay, personal narrative essay, textual analysis, and the persuasive research.

Rhetorical Example Rhetorical Product
An essay on capital punishment tries To convince a reader to form a particular opinion on the issue.
A t-shirt with the Boston Red Sox logo tries To rally team spirit.
A Levi’s advertisement in a magazine tries To sell you Levi’s and to build a brand image
A website for Portland Community College tries To provide resources for students, faculty, and staff
An episode of The Simpsons tries To entertain to tell a story, or to make social commentary.
The aforementioned rhetorical question tries To stimulate reflection.
A speech to the U.N. on the Syrian Civil War tries To garner support and humanitarian aid.

The goal of writing these essays, though, is not to become master of any of them. Instead, the goal is to practice interrogating the rhetorical situations and exploring within your work to become more effective, impacting the writing you will do throughout your life.

Instead of learning rules for writing (rules which will invariably change), it is more valuable to learn the questions you should ask of your future writing situations and produce texts that are tailored to those situations. Whenever you create a new piece of writing, you should ask: What will make my writing most effective based on my rhetorical situation?

Every text comes into being within a specific rhetorical situation and reflects the characteristics and values of that situation. Although there are many ways to break down a rhetorical situation, I use the acronym SOAP for subject, occasion, audience, and purpose. This acronym comes to us via Abrams courtesy of Daniel Hershel.

These are distinct elements, but they often overlap and inform one another. Let’s take a closer look:

Identifying these elements is only step one. What matters more are the implications that each of these elements carries. For each text you create, you should ask: What is my subject? What is my occasion? Who is my audience? What is my purpose? But you should also ask: How do each of those answers influence the way I will write?

For instance, the subject of the story of your weekend might change when you’re telling your grandma instead of your friends. Your language will change as your audience changes: if you’re writing a story about giraffes for a classroom of third graders, you’d better use different word choice than if you’re writing a meta-analysis of giraffe population metrics for the Executive Board of the Oregon Zoo. Similarly, you can imagine that writing a blog about standardized testing would be different in 2003 from the same writing in 2017.

Throughout this book, we encourage you to think critically about these rhetorical situations because there is no one version of “good writing.” There is only rhetoric that is effective in its situation. Any such rhetoric is crafted through process.

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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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