What’s (a) Rhetoric?!?

Here are a couple cursory definitions:

Rhetoric is “the faculty of discovering in any particular case all of the available means of persuasion.” – Aristotle

The duty and office of rhetoric is to apply reason to imagination for the better moving of the will. – Bacon

Rhetoric is a form of reasoning about probabilities, based on assumptions people share as members of a community. – Erika Lindemann

The most characteristic concern of rhetoric [is] the manipulation of men’s beliefs for political ends….the basic function of rhetoric [is] the use of words by human agents to form attitudes or to induce actions in other human agents. – Kenneth Burke

Rhetoric is ” The study of how people use language and other symbols to realize human goals and carry out human activities . . . ultimately a practical study offering people great control over their symbolic activity.” – Chuck Bazerman

Well, that sounds pretty comprehensive, huh? I mean, what human expression isn’t encompassed by language use and symbolic activity?

For starters, let’s do some work on tracing the rhetorical elements of any situation.  There are three fundamental components of any event where an individual uses symbols to convey meaning.  They include the speaker, audience, and message.  Here’s a handy dandy graph:

So, why might teaching this model of communication be useful in your writing class?  Well, for starters, by teaching that all texts exist in contexts we can begin to push students toward understanding that texts do things to contexts but also that texts arise from contexts.  What this means is that texts must be attendant to the audiences they are meant to persuade/affect (Audience) but are also imbued the values, authority, power, and exigence of the writers position in the world (Communicator).  When any message, text, film, or symbolic action that exists in culture is viewed in this way we can begin to trace how a text exists beyond itself.  In other words, the overly simplified rhetorical situation above lets us see how symbolic activities (writing, reading, speaking, persuading, protesting, rioting, etc.) are distributed across situations and aren’t merely the result of an autonomous author writing an autonomous text that exists outside the context of lived experience in the world (the charge often levied against New Criticism).

OK, so, ready for rhetorical situation redux?  🙂

Drawing on a variety of work in the social sciences, recent scholarship in Writing Studies (Edbauer, Brooke, Hawk, Cooper et al.) suggests that the rhetorical situation is a bit inadequate to explain the complex systems of symbolic activity that exist in the contemporary age.  You needn’t look past the screen most of us use each day to understand that audiences and speakers are radically altered in electronic, networked environments.  What’s an audience on Youtube?  Who is a speaker in the context of Wikipedia?  How do you know how effective a message is when it’s efficacy is distributed across the networks of the internet?

To come up with a solution, Edbauer[1] offers the term “rhetorical ecology.”  In short, the rhetorical ecology attempts to consider the complexities of any symbolic action that exists beyond the classic “rhetorical situation” by tracing out the interconnectedness and distribution of symbolic activity.  I won’t say more here but will return in a bit to discuss this idea in more detail (see “Textual Circulation on the Web” heuristic).

Without belaboring the point too much let me just say that you’ll want to teach different aspects of the rhetorical situation in your classes because it will equip your students with a “toolbox” that they can return to in order to craft writing assignments that have exigence, purpose, and real-world relevance.  This might be a lot different than some of the writing assignments you did in college.  You might be accustomed to writing about the text and the text alone.  That’s all well and good; however, if we want to help students acquire the techniques, literacies, and critical thinking skills required to function as democratically informed, civically responsible individuals in our world then we must equip them with the tools to describe, analyze, deconstruct, and remake it.  Teaching rhetorical awareness using various heuristics[2] is a key component in that process and will aid your students in making real-world connections to their academic writing.

So, where might you find some resources to use with your students on rhetorical awareness?

Rhetorical Awareness in Your Course Materials

Writing Analytically

  • Pgs 10-12:  an overview of rhetoric and why it is important.
  • Pgs 111-113: Pitch, Complaint, Moment (see attached heuristic) – This super useful heuristic asks students to identify the sociopolitical, historical, cultural “moment” in which a “pitch” and “complaint” (read:argument) occur.
  • Pgs 134-5: Plausible vs. Implausible Interpretations:  The Social Context – This section asks students to consider the social realities that shape their topic/space of inquiry.
  • Pgs 191-205:  Chapter 9 is dedicated to the classical logical fallacies found in rhetoric texts as far back as ancient Greece.
  • Pgs 213-4:  Pan, Track, and Zoom – The “Pan” section of this heuristic asks students to sketch the broader context of argument they are entering.
  • Pgs 267-281:  Chapter 13 asks students to enter into a dialogue with their sources in order to better map the rhetorical context of their topics.  This is a useful chapter for pushing students to consider the ethos of other voices in their topic of inquiry.
  • Pgs 317-348:  Chapter 15 is dedicated specifically to rhetorical awareness and the effect of audience on the construction of an argument.  This includes generic conventions of particular disciplines as well as argumentative strategies such as induction and deduction.  A great – but complex – chapter.  This would be well suited for work toward the end of the semester once the rhetorical basics have been established.

The DK Handbook

  • Pgs 2-15:  This introductory section provides the basics of rhetorical awareness by taking up audience, context, purpose, strategies, and rhetoric as writing heuristic.
  • Pgs 142-170:  This section covers the generic conventions of particular writing styles.  A useful section for talking about disciplinary audience expectations.
  • Pgs 194-202:  A chapter dedicated completely to understanding the needs and expectations of particular audiences.  A great section for teaching how different audiences shape writing expectations in different ways.
  • Pgs 268-288:  This chapter considers the effects of audience in diverse settings.  Careful consideration of academic language for inclusion (ethnic, gender, ability, age, sexual orientation, religion, etc.) is giving extended treatment.

Sample Heuristics


Rhetorical Sourcing

Claim – Warrant



And, finally, for work on tracing rhetorical ecologies via circulation on the internet:

Textual Circulation on the Web

[1] Edbauer, Jennifer.  “Unframing Models of Public Distribution: From Rhetorical Situation to Rhetorical Ecologies.”  Rhetoric Society Quarterly.  35 4 (2008): 5-24.  Print.

[2] Heuristics are a key function of Writing classes at SU.  These experience-based activities provide your students effective means of solving problems, discovering positions, and inventing arguments.  They are a fundamental part of the curriculum and should be used as often as possible; however, they shouldn’t be used like a “worksheet” to be completed but as an activity to reveal new possibilities, hidden assumptions, and alternative avenues of expression.  I’ll share some heuristics with you shortly.  🙂

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