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 contextual foundation for understanding texts, speeches, and other forms of discourse commonly assigned to students. Understanding an assignment’s 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, the rhetorical situation for your writing artifact, helps your writing matter more.

What is a Rhetorical Situation?

SnappyGoat.com - Free Public Domain Images - SnappyGoat.com- Birth_of_Athena.jpg
Fig. 1. Classical illustration of Athena emerging from the head of Zeus. From SnappyGoat.com, Public Domain.

“Rhetoric is situational,” Lloyd Bitzer famously declared in 1968.[1] 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.

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 or the rhetorical situation.

As the excellent article “Backpacks vs. Briefcases: Steps toward Rhetorical Analysis” explains, there are two distinct models for understanding the rhetorical situation. Bitzer’s model focuses on the context that gives rise to a particular artifact. He proposes three key terms to explain this context: exigence, audience, and constraints. But some students are also taught the “rhetorical triangle”: writer, reader, and purpose. This second model helps writers focus more on the writer and purpose.

Finally, it’s important for students to understand that the rhetorical situation’s focus on context is often supplemented with rhetorical terms that help explain the persuasiveness of the argument or message, especially, logos, pathos, and ethos.

If you’re not familiar with any of these terms, it can feel overwhelming. Even your instructors struggle putting all of these terms together.

To help simplify things a bit, it will first help to understand that lessons about the rhetorical situation focus on context, or the background that gives rise to a particular essay, poem, speech, etc. The same background can inspire many different artifacts. On the other hand, lessons focusing on the argument/message often zoom in on a single artifact that emerged from the context. An economic metaphor might be helpful here: in the writing cycle, the rhetorical situation (the context) is upstream from an actual artifact (the message or argument).

This chapter provides an introduction to just the upstream part of the writing cycle, the rhetorical situation, as it pertains to college writing assignments. Whereas many articles and chapters tend to culminate in students analyzing a famous speech or essay, this chapter is tailored specifically for college students who are learning how to respond to college-level writing prompts. Its goal is to provide students with strategies for successfully responding to major college writing assignments.

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: the form that the artifact is expected to look like
  • constraints: in addition to genre, other limitations and expectations that can have an impact on what the writing assignment looks like

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 Bitzer drew attention to the importance of context in “The Rhetorical Situation,” he pointed out that certain aspects of the situation invite “the assistance of discourse.”[2] 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.”[3] 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: Simulate expertise. 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: Demonstrate proficiency in the course outcomes. 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 texts can have multiple purposes, especially in learning communities. 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.

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.

 

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 friend, 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.

Writing within a dominant culture

When moving from informal to formal writing situations, some writing practices will feel similar. If we scale up from formal and informal writing communities, we can also recognize the extent to college professors and social media readers alike tend to evaluate writing and speech according to the standards of the dominant culture, especially in countries like the United States. The sociological understanding of behavioral conventions as cultural norms is useful here. 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, 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). Phrases like “appropriate grammar” should be understood contextually, as belonging to a particular culture, even if it’s dominant. Conventions don’t drop down from the sky.

Some cultural norms carry over into professional workplace environments, especially formal ones (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 the choices they make when writing for the intended audience. It should also lead to more awareness about how to 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, especially when responding to the writing of peers who come from non-dominant cultures.

Are cultural norms arbitrary? There’s an increasing push towards recognizing the costs associated with evaluating writing according to the standards of a single culture. Sometimes a writer might choose to deviate from a cultural norm in order to better serve the purpose of the rhetorical situation. 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.

On the other hand, some conventions do help create consistency and fairness. The renewed interest in “civic discourse” and the codification of inclusive or bias-free language by professional and academic institutions suggests that many writing communities are adopting new guidelines even as they reject or modify old ones. MLA, APA, and other official styles continue to be maintained and updated in order to foster collaboration and communication within academic disciplines. Formal communities have many rules. Successful writers are the ones who practice the lifelong art of constrained optimization.

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.

Increasingly, students and professional workers alike are expected to remain highly attuned to the demands of diverse audience and adaptable within their communities.

IV. Genre Constraints

Lisa Bickmore’s chapter “Genre in the Wild” offers an excellent and highly thorough introduction to the concept of genre. For the purposes of this chapter, I will just highlight a few things.

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.

Genre helps explain why a Young Adult novel looks similar to but different from a John le Carré spy novel. It also helps explain why chemistry lab reports look very different from informative reports written for an English course. As Bickmore explains, genre is “an act of language … that behaves in typical or characteristic ways, which we can observe in repeated or persistent situations.”

A rhetorical appreciation for the importance of genre will stress the importance of the writing situation within specific college courses. It will help to recognize that a college essay written for one course may look very different from another course. For example, what a “thesis-driven essay” means may not be the same for your PHIL 101 and ENGL 102 courses.

How can students become less anxious about what their final artifact 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.

Finally, you’ll quickly find out “in the real world” that genre is a highly transferable concept. 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.

V. Physical Constraints

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.

How physical constraints shape writing habits: The material aspect of writing plays a crucial role in why some writers become more successful practitioners than others. Forming life-long writing habits largely comes down to appreciating what kinds of behaviors work within a given space, given your own limitations and abilities. There’s no perfect time and place to write. There are only tactics and strategies that work for certain individuals in certain spaces. The more a writer becomes attuned to their writing contexts, the more strategic they can become.

  1. Philosophy & Rhetoric, Jan. 1968 (Vol. 1 No. 1), https://www.jstor.org/stable/40236733, p. 3.
  2. Ibid. p. 6.
  3. Ibid. p. 7.

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