Teaching Writers To Consider Their Rhetorical Situation

All, Teaching Tips

Perhaps one of the most frustrating parts of teaching writing is that too many people (including people who should really know better) think good writing can come out of a better set of rules. They are the magic bullet teachers. The one-size-fits-all teachers who believe good writing is good writing without any consideration of purpose or audience. They don’t focus on the writer. So much of teaching first-year college writers is undoing the nonsense students have been taught about writing, breaking bad writing habits, and developing good sustainable writing habits while helping students develop an understanding of rhetorical context so they can be successful writers after they leave my classroom.

Understanding rhetorical context is a large part of my teaching praxis. It is why I focus on authentic writing and why I teach rhetorical analysis. Working on our understanding of our audience – especially their wants and needs – is a large part of the work in every one of my writing classrooms from developmental writing to professional writing. It is why I love embedding usability testing into my classes (not just professional writing) as much as possible.

I know I am preaching to the choir for those with rhetorical or composition training, but I still see so much writing instruction (and worse assessment) focused on the product of composition with little or not attention paid to the larger rhetorical context. I am a huge fan of writing workshop and the writing process (although not of all its variations), but think (in general) we do not pay enough attention to rhetorical context. Sure many composition teachers have a lesson about the rhetorical triangle, but such abstractions are not useful for most developing writers. That is (in large part) why I use games to teach writing. As I have argued before (many times) too often we have a limited definition of text which is why we adopt one-size-fits all approaches to teaching writing.

If you want your writers to level up then I strongly urge you to consider rhetorical analysis as either an assignment or group activity (preferably both). One activity I use to prepare my students for their rhetorical analysis essays is to assemble and examine a set of (game or pop culture) Snaps that explore the arguments made by that “text” as well as the history and rhetorical context for that “text” then spend time discussing specific approaches for those texts before students eventually select the text to focus on for their essay. In addition, in class we also use the rhetorical triangle to analyze a Super Bowl commercial. Commercials are great practice, one of my colleagues likes this one and our Kentucky students also like this one and this one. I also have many colleagues who like to use songs or song videos for this exercise. Photographs and print advertisements can also work well.

In addition to studying rhetorical analysis, my students assemble their own list of mentor texts as a community and examine those texts to develop guidelines and tips for crafting their own texts for the specific rhetorical context of the deliverable currently in progress. I want my students to succeed with the immediate task, but my real goal is that they develop habits that will help them succeed as writers long after they leave my classroom. One day, maybe, writing teachers will stop equating rigor with word count and strict rules and will consider that maybe, just maybe, the problem with the writing has more to do with the assignment and the way students are taught to write than the writer. Maybe one day writing classes will focus on supporting the writer rather than some unknowable vision of an inauthentic writing product.

Do you think attending to the rhetorical context is an important tool for your developing writers? How do you help your students better understand their rhetorical situation now and in the future?

Artwork by Ted Major

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