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teaching writing: rhetorical analysis

A rhetorical analysis of a text aims to make visible the ways in which the writer attempts to persuade his or her audience.  It includes a consideration of how the purpose and the occasion shape the text and of the ways in which the author attempts to persuade his or her chosen audience.  The goal of teaching rhetorical analysis is to lead the students to a better critical awareness of how persuasive writing works, and a better understanding of how these strategies can be deployed in their own writing.  If you’ve never taken a class in rhetoric it’s a good idea to analyze a couple of essays yourself to get a sense of how your students might begin to tackle it.

Recognizing the appeals

  • At the beginning of the semester give students a handout describing the rhetorical triangle and some of the key appeals that are made in an argument. (See below for examples)
  • For every reading assignment ask them to identify the rhetor, the message and the audience, and some ways in which the author tries to appeal to the audience. (You'll need to model how to do this a couple of times first).
  • For each reading ask students to make three sets of notes in the margins: what the author is saying, what the author is doing (in terms of structuring the argument), and how the author is doing it (in terms of rhetorical appeals).

Learning what to say about the appeals

  • Break down the writing process into discrete tasks - writing the intro, writing a thesis, citing evidence etc. (We'll focus here on writing a thesis, but you can do the same thing for any one of these writing tasks)
  • Have the students read and compare several examples of how to do a rhetorical analysis of something they've read. Break each analysis down and discuss the way in which the writer sketches out the context (describing the rhetor, the audience and the message), makes a claim about the rhetoric of the piece and provides supporting evidence. Map out the structure of each piece. Compare and contrast each approach. See here for an analysis by a 10:001 instructor of EB White's "Education," and compare it to Jack Selzer's analysis of the same essay in Conversations.
  • Provide the students with examples of "poor, better and best" introductions / thesis statements / use of evidence. Compare and discuss what makes one approach better than another.
  • Provide students with examples of introductions / thesis statements / use of evidence from previous (annonymous) student papers. Model how you would rewrite one of these. Then break the students into groups and ask them to rewrite the others. The groups can all rewrite the same one, you can put the new versions on the board and have a discussion about which is the best and why. Or each group can do a different one and then present the original and rewrite to the rest of the class for comments and suggestions.

Some common student mistakes.

Students often don't know how to interpret their evidence. It is not unusual, for example to get a statement like this in a student paper: "Martin Luther King describes the conditions of African-Americans at that time period. This is an appeal to our emotions / an example of pathos" (with no further explanation). One way to avoid this is to explicitly describe this mistake, providing examples of it, and demonstrate and practice better ways to cite and interpret evidence. "Martin Luther King describes African Americans as 'crippled by the manacles of segregation and the chains of oppression.' This reference to "mangles" and "chains" vividly captures the pain and the burden of discrimination and also serves as a sharp reminder to listening white Americans of the history of slavery."

Students often do a psychological analysis, describing the feelings of the rhetor or the audience. "Martin Luther King is really angry about the conditions of African-Americans." Or "The conditions of African-Americans are shocking to listeners." Provide examples of this mistake, explain the problem and practice rewriting sentences like the one above. "Martin Luther King uses words like "crippled," "manacled" and "chained" in an attempt to shock the mostly white audience into a realization that conditions for African Americans have changed little since the abolition of slavery."

Here's a handout written by a UI instructor on psychological versus rhetorical analysis.
Gang signals, tin-foil hats and psychological analysis

(Grammatical errors and sentence-level difficulties are also problems in some student writing. Rather than devoting a lot of time to grammar in class, it's usually better to do the occasional mini-lesson covering the most common mistakes and /or refer individual students to grammar handbooks)

Here are some definitions of a rhetorical analysis and some handouts on how to do one:
From the morphing textbook
Dictionary Definition
The rhetorical situation – from Purdue – (this is a bit sketchy, needs fleshing out with examples)
Basic questions to ask when doing a rhetorical analysis
Handout on Rhetorical Analysis from Thomas J. Finney, University of Arizona

The Rhetorical triangle:
From the morphing textbook

Logos, Pathos, Ethos - to teach or not teach the terms
See this link from UI rhetoric instructors for some arguments about whether to teach the terms logos, ethos and pathos
Teaching the appeals without the terms, from the University of British Columbia

Here are some examples:
Writing a rhetorical analysis – University of British Columbia.  This site describes how to read a text critically, structure a rhetorical analysis of the text and provides samples of a text and an analysis of that text
See here for a sample text – a letter from George Bush to Saddam Hussein
And here for a model of a rhetorical analysis of the text
Another example
Here’s a model written for 10:001 students by a UI instructor:  The text is EB White’s Education.
Chemical Toilets and Buses of Death

Here are some resources for teaching rhetorical analysis:
Oregon State University
From Colorado State




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