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On Frog Tongues (and Rhetorical Situations)
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In earlier posts, I’ve mentioned an assignment I frequently use that asks students to translate, or to repurpose, an academic text (in this case, a scholarly journal article) for a public audience. One of the overarching aims of the assignment is to help students see how - even when the topic discussed and information shared are pretty much the same - a text changes according to the needs of its audience and an author’s purpose for writing it. I want students to see how rhetorical situations shape a writer’s decision-making.
In this post, I wanted to share a related lesson I use in my first-year writing class to reinforce students’ understanding of the rhetorical nature of texts. This one involves tracing the journey of an academic article as it makes its way from an “insider” audience of other academics to a wider, more popular audience. I refer to this journey as an article’s “publication trajectory.” Of course, not all academic articles will make this journey, so article selection is key to the lesson’s success. But the results of this lesson have been pretty inspiring so far. Months after the lesson, I’ve had students tell me that they continue to investigate the relationships between news articles they encounter and the academic sources on which they are sometimes based, and students have repeatedly shared their excitement with me when they’ve stumbled upon the academic source for a news article.
Stage 1: Academic Article
First, we explore an academic article. Depending on where we are in the semester, the article could originate from any number of fields of study. But here’s an example from natural science:
Frogs use a viscoelastic tongue and non-Newtonian saliva to catch prey
Alexis C. Noel, Hao-Yuan Guo, Mark Mandica, David L. Hu
Published 1 February 2017. DOI: 10.1098/rsif.2016.0764
No doubt, students tend to read for content, and the article has much to teach them about frog tongues. However, students’ engagement with the article at the level of content is also an opportunity to teach them something about how communication is fashioned within the community of scholars for which the article was written. As we explore the article, I try to help students identify conventional moves and other features typical of this form of communication among scholars in the sciences. We may explore the article’s organizational design, its reliance on passive voice constructions in particular sections, or the ways sources are documented, just to name a few.
Stage 2: Press Release
In my experience, this stage really piques students’ interests. In it, I share a press release linked to the academic study we’ve just discussed. A press release written to accompany the publication of the study on frog tongues, for example, can be found in the News Center at Georgia Tech University’s website:
Reversible Saliva Allows Frogs to Hang on to Next Meal
Having read the study on which a press release is based, students are generally pretty eager to see how the writers of a press release refashion the presentation of scholarly research in light of a new audience of journalists. Very quickly, they notice the visual elements of the press release, along with the additional videos and links provided as a part of it. They also see, for example, how the structure of the content shifts to move the reporting of research conclusions to the beginning of the press release, along with how careful the authors of the press release are to define jargon for the new audience. Noticing these changes is an important step in their own developing rhetorical sensitivity, I believe.
Stage 3: The News Article
The research is published, and the press release is out. So what’s next? In the ideal situation, you’re able to continue to trace the publication trajectory of an academic article’s journey to show students how the press release itself is repurposed (or at least how it influences) the productions of a news article, written for an even more general readership. The research on frog tongues was translated for a number of popular audiences, for instance. News articles on the research appeared online in The Atlantic, Popular Science, NPR, and Smithsonian.com, where the headlines read as follows:
- Why Frog Tongues Are So Sticky
- Frogs use elastic tongues and reversible spit to catch prey
- To Catch Prey, Frogs Turn To Sticky Spit
- Inside Every Frog’s Mouth Is a Sticky, Grabby Bullet
Obviously, there are many ways to go about fostering students’ growing rhetorical awareness, but I’ve never encountered students more enthusiastic about conducting research for themselves than when I have asked them trace the publication trajectory of ideas in a research article that have made their way to a news article. And I’ve never seen my students more able to analyze their rhetorical situations and craft well-conceived texts in response to them.
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