Why (and how) I Teach Rhetorical Analysis

All, Teaching Tips

I love teaching rhetorical analysis, because it is so rewarding as a writing teacher. I also love teaching rhetorical analysis because it is so much fun — and a lot of my students agree. Yes, Virginia, rhetorical analysis can be fun if you do it with popular culture and games. Rhetorical analysis can also help developing writers think more deeply about rhetoric and writing than they ever have before. One of the key lessons I want my students to take away from my writing classes is the knowledge that understanding their rhetorical context is key for communication. Conducting a rhetorical analysis of a TV show, a Pixar film, or a game provides my students with an interesting text to study – a text that they chose because they know it well and it speaks to them. Conducting a rhetorical analysis of a text they chose and instinctively want to explore and defend, challenges writers to dig in and peel back the layers as they explore the rhetorical choices made by the creators. As I note in Gaming the Teaching of Writing, too often developing writers have a very limited definition of text and argument. I love using comics, movies, and games to demonstrate the very broad definition and purposes of text. I also love how these texts help us better understand humanity in an accessible way – which can only make us all better writers. These qualities make rhetorical analysis a twofer assignment which is important to my goals as a writing teacher.

How I Teach Rhetorical Analysis

Ever since I adopted my Less is More approach to class planning, rhetorical analysis has been the second of four units for my Writing I and Writing II classes regardless of theme. I like to begin these classes with a narrative argument and during that unit we spend much of our time studying the theme (American literacy or games, for example) from a variety of angles. This is important foundational work for our rhetorical analysis. After all, if you are going to conduct a rhetorical analysis of a game it helps to have a firm definition of a game as well as an understanding of the varied types of games as well as their history. Our rhetorical analysis unit begins with an exploration of the term “rhetorical analysis” with the help of Writing Commons, OWL at Purdue, and Mere Rhetoric which culminates with a crowdsourced document where we share definitions, tips, and offer a strategy or angle to approach our specific task (asking ourselves what lens we can use). Then we 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 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.

Do you think rhetorical analysis is an important experience for developing writers? I assign rhetorical analysis for high school and first year college students, but think you could do it with middle school students as well. My goal for my students’ rhetorical analysis essays is not a perfect analysis or essay, but a close reading of text and consideration of rhetorical context. I am much more concerned with my students’ thinking about writing and rhetoric and text than their mastery of this new skill.

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