Foregrounding Rhetorical Awareness

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Some of the best moments I experience as a composition instructor come when my students discover that texts, as rhetorical events, can offer significant insights into the values, beliefs, and/or desires of their target audiences. When these moments of recognition occur, I’m reminded just how empowering a discovery this can be for many of my students who, although often quite adept at reading texts for information, have rarely been asked to approach texts rhetorically. Fostering a more sophisticated audience-based rhetorical awareness, then, is among my chief aims as a first-year writing instructor. This kind of awareness is precisely what I believe students are able to transfer from one rhetorical context to another.

Like many instructors, though, I often find myself bound up in the day-to-day processes of supporting students’ production of a review of scholarship or an annotated bibliography or any number of other process-level tasks. During these periods, my focus as an instructor sometimes drifts from the higher-level concern for students’ developing rhetorical awareness to the lower-level, though obviously still important, activity of text production.

My response has been to try to ensure that my students are engaged in rhetorical analysis and reflection activities at critical moments throughout my course:

Beginnings: The Public Audience

I usually begin my first-year writing course with a review of some of the basic principles of rhetoric. One of the initial activities I assign asks students to identify a specific target audience and to construct a product advertisement aimed at moving their selected audience to “buy” a product. An important stage in the process of completing this project is the analysis of audience. To be successful in the project, students must identify the values, beliefs, and/or desires of their target audience and make appropriate decisions about the elements of their advertisement in light of their analyses. My students have produced hand-drawn ads, posters, and even short filmic texts in response to this assignment, and I have them present their ads to the class as a whole. Students explore the content and design features of their advertisements in light of their understanding of their targeted audiences as part of these presentations.

In the Middle: The Academic Audience

The ad construction project sets the stage for the audience-based rhetorical analysis activities and projects that continue throughout the “heart” of my course, which is comprised of a series of units that explore the literate practices of various academic domains—the social sciences, the humanities, etc. In my natural sciences unit, for instance, I have students produce a formal rhetorical analysis of a professional academic journal article. My goals for this project are for students to (1) demonstrate their abilities to notice salient rhetorical/conventional features of natural science writing and (2) offer rationales for those features that are grounded in their understanding of the values, beliefs, and/or desires of the authors’ target audience. In another assignment, I ask students to translate a scholarly article for a popular audience. Students, again, must analyze an audience carefully and make appropriate decisions about how their text should be crafted to best serve the needs of that audience.

Endings: Self-Reflection

One of the final writing assignments my students complete is a rhetorical analysis of their own writing. My students choose a text (representing a specific disciplinary genre) they’ve produced as part of my class during the semester, and they analyze that text in light of the values, beliefs, and/or desires of the text’s target audience.

Strategically placing these kinds of activities and projects throughout my course helps to ensure that my students are able to move from analyzing audiences to creating texts that respond appropriately to the needs of those audiences in various contexts.

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About the Author
Roy Stamper is Senior Lecturer in English and former Associate Director of the First-Year Writing Program in the Department of English at North Carolina State University, where he teaches courses in composition and rhetoric. He is also academic advisor to the department’s Language, Writing, and Rhetoric majors. He has been recognized as an Outstanding Lecturer in the College of Humanities and Social Sciences and is a recipient of NC State's New Advisor Award. Prior to his current appointment, he worked as a high school English teacher. He has presented papers at a number of local, regional, and national conferences, including the Conference of the Council of Writing Program Administrators and the Conference on College Composition and Communication.