When confronted with their first writing assignment, many feel puzzled, or even angry. “Why am I being asked to do _______? I’ll never write this kind of essay again!” Or, “Why are there so many requirements? I’ll never need to format an essay MLA once I’m in my real job.” To de-mystify these assignments and their requirements, it’s important to grasp the rhetorical concept of “context.” This chapter aims to provide a contextual foundation for understanding texts, speeches, and other forms of discourse. Understanding context has a huge pay-off: it not only de-mystifies many assignments, but also helps students to think critically about why an email drafted for a future boss should look different from an email to a friend or relative, or why it’s ok (and even encouraged) to use non-standard English when texting to friends but the same writing in a resume Cover Letter might get them rejected from a pool of job applicants. Understanding context helps your writing matter more.
What is Context?
“Rhetoric is situational,” Lloyd Bitzer famously declared in 1968. Writing artifacts don’t just burst forth from a rhetor’s head, Athena-like (Fig. 1). They take shape and inspiration from specific places and times. The texts we read and write have a certain flavor due to the distinct places, communities, and cultures within which they’re produced. Writing is always entangled with a certain background, even if that background remains unnoticed by the writers and readers.
Since Bitzer’s “The Rhetorical Situation” was published, Writing Studies has increasingly focused on how to unpack this sense of embeddedness, what is commonly termed the context. Bitzer himself tended to emphasize the socio-cultural aspect of context. His article illustrated the rhetorical situation with an anthropological case study of how to make sense of a fishermen’s speech in the Trobriand Islands after a successful expedition. In Bitzer’s view, it requires the keen details of an anthropological gaze to tease out the background necessary for appreciating how certain aspects of a Trobriand fishermen’s speech become meaningful.
Do students need to become amateur anthropologists in order to appreciate a text’s context? Sometimes, but not usually. While anthropology and history offer tools for appreciating the background details of a particular unit of discourse such as a Trobriand fishing speech, the bigger lesson is that parsing and creating meaning requires an attunement to a broader environment—of actors, physical constraints, and other variables that often go unnoticed. It invites readers and writers to adopt an ecological mindset: critical readers and writers recognize that all artifacts belong to a web of relationships. The trick is identifying what kinds of associations are most relevant. The more attuned a reader and writer is to the context of a given discourse, the savvier their critical reading and writing will be. Writing that matters is attuned to the background.
The sections below offer suggestions for where to begin when understanding writing artifacts as informed by context.
Writing Communities and Context
Even the most antiseptic scientific writing belongs to a particular group of people. We call this writing community 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) leads to the creation of academic jargon. You may have noticed that peer-reviewed academic articles look very similar and have a lot of jargon. That’s because they’re published from within and for specific writing communities who share a similar vocabulary and disciplinary knowledge. This context 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.
Why students should care about context: The impact of a particular writing community on a particular writing artifact has everything to do with the kinds of writing first year composition students are expected to complete. WAC Clearinghouse explains in its page, “What Should I Know about Rhetorical Situations?”, that context informs all of the other elements of the Rhetorical Situation, including why practicing academic writers are given certain assignments. In a typical composition course, students are often tasked with responding to particular scenarios 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 should consider an assignment and the student’s response as having two levels of context.
- The simulated context of a specialized community: On the surface, the ostensive 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 address a highly specialized audience and thereby simulate a position of authority (a type of ethos), even if they haven’t yet earned the credentials. Essays often signal the simulated context in the introduction, where a writer might summarize the ongoing conversation and issue their own artifact is responding to.
- The actual context of a writing community: 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 an academic writing course, perhaps their first or second semester in college. The outcomes for that course shape the kinds of assignments an instructor chooses, as well as how they’re assessed. The contextually-informed purpose is therefore the writing competency the student is expected to demonstrate (develop a thesis, provide support, synthesize research, write with sources, etc.) for a particular instructor within a particular institution.
The outcomes-based purpose doesn’t replace the ostensive purpose of the essay. Instead, it’s better to appreciate the fact that texts often have multiple purposes, depending on the kind of writing community they belong to. 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 writing instructors make it clear to students why they’re given certain tasks, particularly those that won’t appear in future courses. All writing simulations stretch a student to practice certain techniques that do transfer, but students rightly become frustrated when this contextual information is not obvious.
Cultural Norms and Context
If we scale up from more local or institutional writing communities, we can also recognize the extent to which assignments are given to students within the broader culture of higher education, one 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.
Michele Gelfand’s “The Secret Life of Social Norms” offers a helpful framework for thinking critically about the “tightness” of academic culture.
The sociological understanding of cultural conventions as norms is useful here. Many Anglo-American academic cultures have traditionally 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, dialects such as Black English or Spanglish 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. The point is that phrases like “appropriate grammar” can be understood contextually, as belonging to a particular culture. Conventions don’t drop down from the sky.
Some cultural norms carry over into professional workplace environments (e.g., conflation of “clear writing” with standard English), but others may not (MLA or APA formatting are not required in many workplace environments). Understanding the broader cultural context within which “stylistically appropriate” writing is produced should help a student become even more intentional about certain choices. It should also lead to more awareness about how to evaluate certain artifacts. 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.
Are cultural norms arbitrary? Sometimes a writer might choose to deviate from a cultural norm in order to better serve the purpose. When making this decision, however, the writer will need to anticipate the effect their culturally-deviant discourse will have within their specific community as well as how it might be assessed. Sometimes conventions do need to be disrupted or nudged in a certain direction. Walt Whitman’s “Song of Myself” would hardly work in iambic pentameter; it’s ground-breaking precisely because of its free verse. On the other hand, some conventions help create consistency and fairness. The renewed interest in “civil discourse” and codification of “inclusive language” suggests that many writing communities are adopting new guidelines even as they reject or modify old ones.
Some instructors may tolerate or even encourage deviance from certain cultural norms, e.g., by inviting students to “code-switch” in an assignment. Others may emphasize that standard English tends to operate as the norm in most professional contexts and therefore expect composition students to demonstrate basic proficiency in all of their assignments. A contextual appreciation of style encourages students to remain curious and adaptive.
Physical Constraints and Context
In addition to community and culture, the material constraints and affordances of a writing space are key factors of any rhetorical situation. Here, context can be understood in terms of material and spatial limitations. Writing artifacts don’t just appear out of nowhere. They take shape within buildings and spaces. Physical and digital spaces have certain constraints that limit how a text takes shape, what it looks like, and how it should be assessed.
The relatively new field of Disability Studies has pointed out that many physical settings assume the writer is neurotypical and able-bodied. Those with disabilities and neuroatypical students often face additional hurdles within academic culture. A typical classroom setting, for example, assumes the average student does not have ADHD, dyslexia, severe anxiety, or any of the other invisible disabilities. When an instructor gives a writing prompt and expect students to complete it in thirty minutes, the quantity of words produced and particular form of the text may reflect the tension between the constraints of that classroom and the particular abilities or disabilities of the writers.
Context and Exigence
All artifacts are context-bound, including lumps of Play-Doh, windows, and poems. But what motivates some people to design schools chairs and others to craft a manifesto on minimalist design? When writing and reading certain texts critically, it’s important to distinguish between the various layers of context that impact a writing artifact from the highly specific problem or issue a rhetor is responding to. Although whim does play an important role in discourse, not everything is whimsical.
When Bitzer drew attention to the importance of context in “The Rhetorical Situation,” he pointed out that certain aspects of the situation (the context) invite “the assistance of discourse.” One of the article’s 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 elements or phenomena will provoke a call to action from discourse. The fancy certain for this unique element is the exigence. The rhetor’s response to an exigence might be in the form of a collage, poem, or traditional persuasive essay.
The case of air pollution can help us think about how an “exigence” can be separated from the context of a distinct writing community. Within a community of environmental scientists, a researcher might begin tracking a certain compound in the atmosphere. After enough data is collected the researcher notices a trend. Analysis of the data suggests something dire could happen in the next decade. The researcher’s initial report would then be published within their own community, for other specialists, in an effort to draw attention to the exigence. But this environmental science report would be full of technical language that makes it largely unreadable to those outside the initial readership. So, in an effort to bring greater awareness to the problem, the scientist might approach a science reporter, who could summarize the report for a more general readership in a national news publication. In an effort to draw attention to the exigence, the same information would be published twice: first for the specialized audience, the second time for the public. The information looks different because some of the context has changed (the readership is wider and less specialized), but the phenomenon that gave rise to the report—the looming environmental threat—remains stable.
This clarification of exigence helps to separate the multi-faceted contextual background from only those phenomena that appear to call for intervention by acts of communication. It also helps to clarify how context and exigence are connected: exigence stands out from the highly textured background that gives rise to each unit of discourse. It is indeed part of the context, but exigence is that which specifically places a demand on the rhetor to act.
When analyzing texts or creating their own, students should be able to not only remain aware of the the environment within which certain units of discourse emerge (such as a movement or writing community), but also 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, kairotically. The discourse’s impact on the audience should help address the challenge in some way.
The separate chapter on “Exigence” offers more information.
Exigence and Introductions
In academic essays, students should consider the following questions when drafting a contextually-informed introduction. Note that your response to these questions will vary depending on the course and writing assignment.
- What ambiguity, issue, 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 a group of reporters?
- Do you intend to simulate specialized expertise (usually appropriate for upper-level courses)? Or is your text aimed at a wider readership (more appropriate for a writing course)?
Choose three or four example articles from different academic disciplines (biology, computer science, sociology, literature studies, etc.), then identify the following:
- Explicit context: In many peer-reviewed academic articles, the context will be presented near the beginning, usually in the Introduction. Summarize what you think the context is for each of the articles.
- Implicit context: Now look more closely at how the articles are formatted, including things like citations, spacing, headers, etc. To what extend do all of these articles belong to a broader academic culture? On the other hand, what kinds of formal differences indicate that the text is produced within a particular field?