13 Reading College Assignments Rhetorically
When you get your first writing assignment, it’s normal to feel confused or frustrated. You might think, “Why do I have to do this? I won’t ever use this kind of essay again!” Or, “Why are there so many rules? I won’t have to follow them in my future job.”
To understand these assignments and what’s expected of you, it’s important to become familiar with the idea of a “rhetorical situation,” or “writing situation.” This chapter provides a foundation for understanding texts, speeches, and other assessments commonly assigned to students. It also attempts to explain how these types of assignments relate to IRL (in real life) situations.
Reading assignments rhetorically is helpful because it not only better prepares you for completing an assignment, but also teaches you to how to think critically across a range of situations. For example, you’ll learn why an email to your boss should look different from one to a friend or family member. Or why it’s ok to use informal language when texting with friends, but not in a professional cover letter. By learning to read assignments with a rhetorical mindset, your writing will improve and become more flexible.
This chapter covers five key terms associated with writing situations that students will face in college:
- exigency: the issue, problem, or debate a student is often expected to respond to
- purpose: what the student is expected to demonstrate with their artifact, in response to the exigence
- audience: whom the student is writing for
- genre: how the content is delivered is packed
- setting (including platform constraints): constrains related to where the artifact is being published or delivered (such as a social media platform or within a classroom)
I. Exigency: What issue needs to be addressed?
Simply put, the exigency of a rhetorical situation is the urgency, problem, or issue that a college assignment asks a student to respond to.
The focus on “exigency” is often attributed to Lloyd Bitzer. When Bitzer drew attention to the importance of “exigence” and “context” in his famous article “The Rhetorical Situation,” he pointed out that certain aspects of the situation invite “the assistance of discourse.” One of his examples is air pollution: “The pollution of our air is also a rhetorical exigence because its positive modification—reduction of pollution—strongly invites the assistance of discourse producing public awareness, indignation, and action of the right kind.” Within a given context, certain things will provoke a call to action from discourse.
Some college assignments ask a student to brainstorm, research, and clearly explain their own exigency and then respond to it. Other assignment prompts will provide a student with a pre-defined exigency and ask them to respond to or solve the problem using the skills they’ve been practicing in the course.
When analyzing texts or creating their own, students should be able to specify the particular urgency their discourse is responding to. It’s precisely this urgency that the text aims to take up and respond to, at the right time and place, kairotically. In thesis-driven academic essays, the exigency is usually clarified at the beginning, as part of the introduction.
The separate chapter on “Exigence” offers more details about this important rhetorical term.
Exigencies and Introductions
In academic essays, students should consider the following questions when drafting an introduction that’s attuned to an exigency. Note that your response to these questions will vary depending on the course and writing assignment.
- What issue, problem, or threat is being addressed?
- Where is this issue located: in a text (appropriate for a literary analysis essay)? among a group of specialists? among journalists?
Examples of Exigency Awareness
College assignment example: Research paper on climate change, addressing the need for immediate action and solutions.
Professional workplace example: Business proposal to implement environmentally sustainable practices within the company.
II. Purpose: How will the exigency be addressed?
One straightforward way to understand the purpose of a rhetorical situation is in terms of the exigency: the purpose of a essay, presentation, or other artifact is to effectively respond to a particular problem, issue, or dilemma. Traditionally, three broad categories have been proposed for thinking about a text’s purpose:
- inform: provide new knowledge for the audience
- persuade: convince an audience to accept a point of view or call to action
- entertain: provide an affective experience for the audience, by inspiring, humoring, or otherwise diverting their attention
Here are some rhetorical situations where the exigency and purpose are clearly defined. The last situation is unique to college courses:
Exigency 1: I need to write a letter to my landlord explaining why my rent is late so she won’t be upset.
- Purpose of the letter = persuade the landlord it’s ok to accept a late payment
Exigency 2: I want to write a proposal for my work team to persuade them to change our schedule.
- Purpose of the proposal = persuade the team to get the schedule changed
Exigency 3: I have to write a research paper for my environmental science instructor comparing solar to wind power.
- Purpose of the research paper = inform the audience about alternative forms of energy;
- Secondary purpose: persuade/demonstrate to the science instructor you’re learning the course content
The difference between Exigency 1 and Exigency 3 above may initially cause some confusion. Exigency 1, the letter about the late rent payment, happens in the “real world.” It’s an everyday occurrence that naturally gives rise to a certain rhetorical situation and the purpose seems obvious.
When moving to Exigency 3, the writing situation feels more complex because the student is learning about things supposedly “out there,” in the “real world,” but the purpose has multiple layers to it because it’s part of a college course. On the surface, the purpose of the research essay is obviously to inform the reader; but since the assignment is given within a science course, the student is also attempting to convince the instructor that they’re actually learning the course outcomes.
The example of Exigency 3 shows how college assignments sometimes differ from other writing situations. As WAC Clearinghouse explains in its page, “What Should I Know about Rhetorical Situations?”, a contextual appreciation of a text’s purpose helps a student appreciate why they’re given certain assignments. In a typical writing course, for example, students are often asked to respond to situations with their own persuasive or creative ingenuity, even though they’re not expected to become experts on the topic. Until they enter high-level or graduate-level courses, students are mostly expected to simulate expertise.
When this simulation happens, we can consider an assignment and the student’s response as having two distinct purposes. The first is obvious and usually stated; the second is often implied.
Purpose 1: Obvious purpose. On the surface, the purpose of the assignment might be to solve a problem (anthropogenic climate change, the rise of misinformation, etc.) and persuade an academic audience their solution is legitimate, perhaps by synthesizing research. Depending on the topic and assignment criteria, a student might pretend to address a specialized audience and thereby simulate a position of authority (a type of ethos), even if they haven’t yet earned the credentials.
Purpose 2: Hidden purpose. When simulating expertise, instructors and students should also take into account the actual context of the writing assignment prompt: it’s given to the student as part of a college writing course. The outcomes for that course shape the kinds of assignments an instructor chooses, as well as how they’re assessed. The hidden or implied purpose is therefore the course objectives the student is expected to demonstrate, including techniques such as developing a thesis, providing support, synthesizing research, and writing with sources.
College writing assignments can thus have multiple purposes. The more attuned a student is to why they’re being tasked with certain assignments, the more their writing will matter, both for them and others.
It also helps if instructors make it clear to students why they’re given certain tasks. College essays stretch a student to practice certain techniques that do transfer, but students rightly become frustrated when this contextual information is not obvious.
Examples of Purpose Awareness
College assignment example: Analytical essay on a literary work, aiming to explore themes and techniques used by the author.
Professional workplace example: Writing a progress report for a project, intending to update stakeholders on the project’s status and milestones achieved.
III. Audience: Who will help respond to the exigency?
As with the section on purpose above, audience has a straightforward relation to the exigency: it’s the reader, listener, or viewer whom the author expects to help solve the problem.
This sensitivity to an audience should help students better appreciate why writing programs emphasize the importance of writing for readers. Journaling and some creative writing situations might have an audience of just one (you, the writer), but most rhetorical situations expect the writer to craft their message in such a way that it appeals to a clearly defined audience.
Writing with an intended audience in mind is one of the most important. factors a writer will consider. It impacts everything in a writing course, from the assignments themselves to the peer review process. Although there are many different types of audiences, it can help to lump them into three very broad categories:
- Formal communities, such as a college course or professional workplace. Artifacts geared towards these audiences often adhere to highly codified stylistic conventions and are at least somewhat “tight” as a culture.
- Informal communities, such as for friends, family, or social media. Artifacts written for these audiences still follow some rules, but they’re less likely to be explicitly stated. The culture is usually “looser” than academia and professional institutions.
These communities are defined more carefully below.
Writing within formal communities
When students are expected to simulate expertise on a topic and address a specialized community, they’re writing within a “discipline” or “field of study.” Writing artifacts produced within that field tend to sound the same, circulate within a certain hierarchy, and are housed by specific institutions. The uniqueness of each field of study (a type of context) often fosters academic jargon. You may have noticed that peer-reviewed academic articles look very similar and are more difficult to read than popular news articles. That’s because peer-reviewed articles are published from within and for highly specific writing communities who share a similar vocabulary and disciplinary knowledge with tightly controlled conventions. A contextual appreciation of an article’s audience allows a specialist to say much more about certain things (a molecular biologist can explain the shape of a protein fold very precisely) and less about other things (the same biologist doesn’t need to explain what a protein compound is). Community-as-context helps a writer better understand how to communicate with their intended audience. The cost of this specialization, however, is that peer-reviewed articles can often lapse into too much jargon!
Even when students aren’t expected to simulate expertise, professors often ask them to submit writing samples that adhere to certain conventions, such as MLA or APA Style. In this way, higher education fosters a culture that the cultural psychologist Michele Gelfand would categorize as relatively “tight.” The tightness of academic culture impacts stylistic requirements (MLA, APA, etc.) as well as what “appropriate grammar” looks like.
Part of this tightness helps explain common expectation surrounding “standard American English” (SAE). Historically, many U.S. academic institutions have penalized deviations from standard English in order to maintain a particular standard that only began to be heavily codified in America in the early nineteenth-century. As a result, variations such as Black English, Spanglish, or sub-dialects related to Southern American English tend to be seen as sub-standard within this broader cultural context that higher education takes for granted (the chapter “Style and Linguistic Diversity” offers more information about this cultural back-history to standard English). Phrases like “appropriate grammar” should be understood contextually, as belonging to a particular formal culture, even if it’s perceived to be dominant.
Some cultural norms carry over into professional workplace environments, especially formal ones. For example, “clear writing” in the professional world is often conflated with with “Is that written in standard English?”, an expectation that begins in education. On the other hand, MLA or APA formatting are usually not required in many workplace environments, unless it happens to overlap with research or publishing.
Understanding the broader cultural context within which “stylistically appropriate” writing is produced should help a student become even more intentional about the choices they make when writing for the intended audience. It should also lead to more awareness about how to critically evaluate the writing within their community. When participating in peer review, for example, a student who’s aware of the cultural context undergirding requirements such as “appropriate grammar” may adopt a more nuanced tone in their revision feedback.
Writing within informal communities
Depending on a student’s background, the vast quantity of their experience with writing on a daily basis might be for an informal audience, such as a family member, close friends, or significant other. But even very informal writing situations, such as texting a friend, sending an email to a family member, or crafting a social media post place certain expectations on the writer/rhetor. These more informal writing situations may or may not have codes of conduct attached to them. They often appear to emerge spontaneously, as unstated contracts between the parties. Certain unsaid codes of conduct determine what you can and cannot say to a parent vs. a group of friends, for example. However, there tend to be fewer rules governing these situations than the formal writing situations, and they’re usually not articulated anywhere. The rules are almost never explicitly enforced by a governing body or institution. Writers within these situations usually feel spontaneous, natural, and authentic.
The basic distinction between informal and formal writing communities helps explain why college assignments often feel so unnatural and difficult.
Examples of Audience Awareness
College assignment example: Writing a policy brief for a political science course, targeting policymakers and stakeholders who can influence policy change.
Professional workplace example: Drafting a sales pitch for a new product, targeting potential clients or investors who may be interested in the product.
Genre places additional limits on the rhetor/writer/speaker, beyond those related to the beliefs, concerns, and expectations of the audience.
A genre constraint might be the kind of speech a student is asked to deliver to the class. For example, many COMM 100/101 courses ask students to develop expository and persuasive speeches. When preparing for these assessments, students are often given a set of expectations, including a basic structure, style, and whether certain persuasive appeals are relevant. A student can then adopt a topic of their choice to these default expectations.
This process is not dissimilar from how a maid of honor or best man will google “how to do a maid of honor speech” or “how to do a best man’s speech” before a wedding. There are a well-known set of conventions that people draw from–and, at the same time, cultures and sub-cultures will introduce slight innovations within those recurring forms.
The ability to identify a “persuasive college speech” or a “best man’s speech” is both an act of naming and a form of classification. That’s what genre awareness is: an ability to map an assignment or another rhetorical situation to a relatively stable form that recurs across time and space. It’s why the rhetorical term “genre” is the same as the biological term. They’re both forms of classification. And just as nature evolves, so do linguistic forms. Slowly, a best man’s speech will change. Eventually it might even become extinct. But for now, it’s a relatively distinctive and stable genre. The same goes for many college assignments.
Rhetorical modes refer to the common patterns of organization used in writing to convey information. These modes include narration, description, exposition, and argumentation, among others. An argumentative essay tends to be structured around reasoning and evidence (One reason why…Another reason why…), while a narrative essay often revolves around a sequence of events (First this happened…Then.., Finally…).
Genre, on the other hand, refers to the category or type of a text or artifact, characterized by a set of conventions and expectations shared by a particular community. Genres can be broad, such as essays, speeches, or articles, or more specific, like research papers, editorials, or lab reports. Each genre has its own unique set of conventions.
The relationship between rhetorical modes and genre can be seen in how the modes are often employed within different genres. For instance, a persuasive essay (a genre) may use argumentation as its primary rhetorical mode to convince the reader of a particular viewpoint. A personal narrative (another genre) would utilize narration to tell a story from the author’s perspective. In this way, rhetorical modes help shape the content and organization of a text within a specific genre.
Why should students focus so much on genre?
First, the idea of genre in college writing situations is useful because it will help you think more deliberately about how the finished artifact (your essay, speech, project, etc.) should appear. One of the most common anxieties or frustrations students in a writing course have is what their essay should ultimately look like. Some instructors provide highly detailed models, including templates for every part of the essay. Others simply state something like: “write a persuasive essay about x,” and students are expected to figure out the details of what a persuasive essay looks like on their own. When a student asks the instructor for an example of what submission should look like, they’re looking for the genre—the particular form an artifact is expected to take.
How can students become less anxious about what their essay should look like? Some courses (especially writing courses) should provide detailed training and instructions for the genre. In courses where a particular instructor doesn’t provide much support, I suggest two things. First, see if they’ve provided a sample somewhere. If not, ask them for one, or try to find one online or from students who have previously taken the course (it’s not cheating if you’re looking for the form of the assignment). Second, pay close attention to an assignment’s requirements. Some courses and instructors will be vague, suggesting the genre may not have as many rules associated with it; others may be very specific, even including a detailed outline for each part.
You’ll quickly find out “in the real world” that genre is highly relevant to success! Workplace environments have many different genre expectations, and it’s often the case that employees are asked to write things they’re unfamiliar with. The more practice you have with identifying a task’s genre and the conventions associated with it, the more successful you’ll be at your job. Even getting a job requires familiarity with genre—the resume!
Examples of Genre Awareness
College assignment example: Writing a lab report in a chemistry class, adhering to the specific structure and conventions of scientific reporting.
Professional workplace example: Preparing a PowerPoint presentation for a team meeting, following a clear and visually appealing format that effectively communicates key points.
V. Setting and Platform Constraints
Bitzer and others would lump setting and genre together as part of a rhetorical situation’s “constraints.” In this chapter I’m separating them. The setting of a rhetorical situation often has a physical component to it: it’s the space or environment within which an artifact (the speech or essay) is delivered.
Increasingly, however, the most common settings are digital. I’m borrowing the phrase “platform constraints” from the digital design world. This term doesn’t appear in Writing Commons, for example, but the phrase “platform constraints” does show up in articles that use exigency and other rhetorical terms to conceptualize digital culture.
The difference between genre constraints and platform constraints is one that every social media influencer is highly savvy about. Why do some TikTok memes take off so quickly on that platform, then fizzle out on YouTube shorts or Instagram Reels? Or, why do public service announcements have to create separate ads for Instagram vs. YouTube vs. TikTok vs. Reddit? Why do some people prefer to get their sports updates from their Facebook news feed while others might prefer Twitter lists? The content–and often much of the form!–is often very similar, with only slight tweaks to fit where the information is published. Those tweaks (shortening or lengthening a video, adding music or images, relying on text or video, etc.) show how vastly important it is to remain aware of what platform a user is relying on to reach their audience.
Why does this matter to students? Increasingly, the push in higher education for integrated studies, pathways to workplace success, and flexible ways of knowing means that professors will often expect students to craft messages for audiences in real life, or at least simulate the process.
In my own courses, for example, I expect students to switch from traditional academic assignments to Unessays, explicitly non-academic artifacts that involve the same or similar material for professional and personal audiences. To reach that audience, they need to demonstrate familiarity with particular platforms of their choosing. A public service announcement (PSA) based on a persuasive essay isn’t enough. The PSA is a well-known mode or genre. But a PSA developed in a webb app such as Canva will need to be geared towards the particular social platform (or other space) the student chooses. In fact Canva often has separate genre templates for separate platforms!
This phenomenon of a stable genre taking on degrees of variation across different digital platforms has a number of analogues in college life. The genre-platform distinction explains why chemistry lab reports look very different from informative reports written for an English course. Or, what a “persuasive essay” means may not be exactly the same for your PHIL 101 and ENGL 102 courses. Certain elements of the genre remain “stickier” and more fixed than others.
First Year Writing courses can themselves be viewed as learning communities that allow students to become proficient in some of the core college genres, while also providing them with enough rhetorical savviness to adjust to the different platforms as a student shifts into their area of focus.
Examples of Setting and Platform Awareness
College assignment example: Creating a video presentation for an online course, adjusting the content and format to suit the requirements of the online platform.
Professional workplace example: Designing a social media marketing campaign, tailoring the content and style to fit the specific platforms such as Instagram, Twitter, or LinkedIn.