13 Reading College Assignments Rhetorically

Joel Gladd

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,” often referred to as the “rhetorical situation” or the “writing situation.” This chapter aims to provide a rhetorical foundation for understanding texts, speeches, and other assessments commonly assigned to students.

Understanding an assignment’s context has a huge pay-off: it not only clarifies the “how” and “why” of many assignments, but also helps students to think more 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 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. Reading assignments rhetorically helps your writing matter more and become more flexible.

The chapter covers five key terms associated with writing situations that students will face in college:

  • exigence: 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 and platform constraints: when conveying a message, how the content is delivered is impacted by conventional formal expectations (genre) and other constrains related to where the artifact is being published (such as a social media platform or within a classroom)

I. Exigence: What issue needs to be addressed?

Simply put, the exigence of a rhetorical situation is the urgency, problem, or issue that a college assignment asks a student to respond to.

When Lloyd Bitzer drew attention to the importance of context in his famous article “The Rhetorical Situation,” he pointed out that certain aspects of the situation invite “the assistance of discourse.”[1] One of the 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.”[2] Within a given context, certain elements or phenomena will provoke a call to action from discourse.

Some college assignments ask a student to brainstorm, research, and clearly articulate their own exigence and then respond to it. Other assignment prompts will provide a student with a pre-defined exigence 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 exigence is usually clarified at the beginning, as part of the introduction.

The separate chapter on “Exigence” offers more details about this important rhetorical term.

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)?

II. Purpose: How will the exigence be addressed?

One straightforward way to understand the purpose of a rhetorical situation is in terms of the exigence: 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 exigence and purpose are clearly defined. The last situation is specific to college courses:

Exigence 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

Exigence 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

Exigence 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 Exigence 1 and Exigence 3 above may initially cause some confusion. Exigence 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 Exigence 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 an outcomes-driven science course, the student is also attempting to convince the instructor that they’re actually learning the course outcomes.

The example of Exigence scenario 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 composition course, for example, 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 can consider an assignment and the student’s response as having two distinct purposes. The first is obvious; the second is often hidden.

Purpose 1: Ostensive Purpose. 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 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. Essays often signal the simulated context in the introduction, where a writer might summarize an ongoing conversation within a specialized community their essay is responding to.

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 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 second, outcomes-based purpose doesn’t replace the ostensive purpose of the essay. Instead, it’s better to appreciate the fact that college writing assignments can 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, 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.

III. Audience: Who will help respond to the exigence?

As with the section on purpose above, audience has a straightforward relation to the exigence: it’s the reader, listener, or viewer whom the author expects to help solve the problem.

This rhetorical attunement 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 the intended audience.

Writing with an intended audience in mind is one of the trickiest constraints a writer will face. It also 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:

  • Writing within 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.
  • Writing within informal communities, such as for friends, family, or on 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.
  • Writing within a dominant culture. In the U.S., standard American English is often used to legitimate and de-legitimate different forms of writing. The formal and informal writing situations above both tend to assume and reinforce this dominant culture.

Each of 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.

Michele Gelfand’s “The Secret Life of Social Norms” offers a helpful framework for thinking critically about the “tightness” of academic culture.

 

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.

IV. Genre and Platform Constraints

Genre and platform constraints place additional limits on the rhetor/writer/speaker, beyond those related to the beliefs, concerns, and expectations of the audience.

Genre Constraints

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 become extinct. But for now, it’s a distinctive genre. The same goes for many college assignments.

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 the finished artifact looks like, they’re looking for the genre—the particular form an artifact is expected to take, which is usually shaped by conventions associated with that writing situation.

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!

Platform Constraints

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 exigence 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 IRL (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.


  1. Ibid. p. 6.
  2. Ibid. p. 7.

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Write What Matters by Joel Gladd is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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