So, let's talk about some common errors that I see in student writing in my classes that makes me worry about how they are viewing "rhetorical situation" (or not considering it at all, which sometimes seems to be the case).
The Disclaimer: Hey, I get it. You wouldn't be writing that fascinating analysis of someone else's article or story if I weren't forcing you to do so for the class. The problem is that when you simply approach the writing assignments as a "I'm only doing this because you're making me do it" perspective, you're missing out on huge learning opportunities and chances to expand your skill set. This is what I mean by "hoop jump."
On to some common errors.
Referring to the assignment in a direct way. This shows up in writing as phrases like "In this essay, I'm going to talk about question #3." Or, it might even be worse--the assignment prompt is copied at the start of what is supposed to be an essay written by you. This sort of self-consciousness about the question you're answering is a bit of a cop out. While this is a great way to start your thinking about an assignment prompt, you don't want your readers to feel like you're just filling out a form. The papers you write should not sound like answers on a short essay exam, in other words.
The Solution: Use keywords from the prompt to actually set up your thesis, but don't use words like "the question" or "this assignment" or "my teacher asked me". Let's consider an example. Say that you are given an essay prompt that is like this: "Explain how Charlotte Perkins Gilman uses symbolism in 'The Yellow Wallpaper' to critique gender roles at the turn of the century" your thesis might look like: "Gilman uses color as well as imagery of hanging, and imagery from jail to symbolize the oppression of women in the late 19th century." See how that pulls on the same ideas but it doesn't create a purpose statement?
An example from a Composition course (rather than a Literature one) might be: "Analyze Smith's essay for rhetorical appeals." A purpose statement would be: "This essay will analyze Smith's use of rhetorical appeals." OK, but to what end? A thesis might be worded as "Smith effectively appeals to emotions while also balancing those appeals with logical evidence to persuade the readers of Time that dietary guidelines need revision."
My instructor/class is my audience and my only audience. Well, yes, in reality this is true. However, you don't want to just write to me (or in other classes your other instructor). You don't just want to write to the class (instructor and peers).
I truly think in online classes that this is in part caused by the daily discussion board and students not seeing the papers as different. After all, the DB posts are written and instructors expect support there, just as we do in papers. However, this is what I'm talking about with not recognizing there are different rhetorical situations.
The solution: Edit your work making sure you literally introduce what it is you are talking about. The introduction should literally introduce the topic. If you are writing a paper on "The Yellow Wallpaper" your introduction should introduce the story by telling the title, who wrote it, and when it was published. Don't just jump right in and assume the reader of your paper already knows what you are talking about since we all have the assignment.
An example in Composition would be in a response essay that you have to literally give the title, author, and publication information (year published and when) in the introduction. With a position paper, the introduction should literally "situate" the topic by giving context and "introducing" how that topic is relevant today.
In short, pretend that your reader is the person who never comes to class and never cracks open their book. They need you to introduce what you're talking about. You don't want to assume that the audience has no access to the ideas, though; this is why I suggest you pretend it is a classmate rather than someone on the other side of the world. Note, too, that assignments often offer a few choices of what you can talk about--for instance in ENG102, the first writing assignment has three options to pick from. Starting your paper with "This essay talks about Lindenberger's ideas" is not as clear as "Michael Lindenberger, in his 2009 article 'A Gay Marriage Solution: End Marriage' argues for a separation of religious and legal recognition of relationships."
Assuming the writers you are writing about are somehow your pals. OK, I know that sounds flip, but calling a writer "Alice" instead of "Walker" or "Alice Walker" is pretty flip, too. Note that if you had a personal relationship with the writer that in informal circles you could probably call them by first name. However, in academic writing writers don't name drop that way in most cases. It's in bad taste and too informal.
Can you imagine walking into a job interview with someone and saying, "Hey, Bob! Great to meet you"? That's the same sort of maneuver as calling a writer by their first name--it's just too familiar and informal. Just as Bob won't likely take well to such informality in a first interview for a job (or if you were to address him that way in your application letter), readers of academic writing are not likely to take you seriously if you use that tone in your papers.
The Solution: Realize that formality is important in academic writing. Use the first and last or last name only when referring to writers in academic or analysis writing.
Confusing how you "feel" with analysis. Note that in a classroom situation that "response" means direct response, or analysis, not just general gut reaction. I personally don't really like the term of response, mainly because I think that many people are not well-versed with what that means. I blame media for this and the fact that news has become a competitive sport, rather than actual reporting, but that's probably a topic for a different blog post.
To respond to a piece of writing isn't just about saying "Lipshitz says this about X. Now here's how I generally feel about X." Response is not setting two general discussions of a topic side by side. Instead, response requires actual interaction with the source. In order to respond to any writing (or to verbal debate claims), we have to isolate specific points and directly respond to those.
Think about reasoned debate or even arguments you have with people you care about. You don't get very far if both of you just shout your individual positions, right? You have to really listen to what the other person says and if you're going to resolve the issue, you have to address specific points they make, directly responding to those. Writing about writing (fiction or non-fiction) works in much the same way.
Listen, I am always really happy to hear that you love reading something or that a piece of writing made you happy, sad, uncomfortable, or angry. That means you are paying attention that you had a reaction. However, that's only the starting point for your writing. Move beyond that gut reaction toward analysis. Why does the writing evoke that emotional response from you? What are some examples in the writing where you see the writer using specific techniques to draw that response out of the readers? If you can't find any you have to ask if your response is really response or if it is just your personal reaction. As readers, we all have baggage that we bring into the reading process. One step toward becoming a critical reader is to realize when we are projecting that baggage onto our reading, rather than analyzing what is on the page.
So, one solution here is to cut the subjective wording as much as you can. Here are some examples of wording that probably should not be in your analysis essays:
- I feel
- I think
- This made me ______
- You can tell (how do you know what I can tell?)
Bashing the writer for sins you think they committed. This most often shows up as a "The writer should have . . . ." argument. This usually ends up being a wish list of what you "want" the writer to do that has little to nothing to do with the actual purpose or audience of the piece of writing. Note that the pieces we read in LIT and ENG classes (as long as you are doing actual research and not using blogs or other inappropriate sources) were published. This means that they were chosen out of tons of submissions to be printed in a publication that has a specific audience. It's not likely that the writing is so far off the mark that it doesn't "fit" the purpose or audience.
The solution: Realize that analysis is not about what is NOT on the page but about what IS. The "writer should have done X" set up is really a refusal to analyze. It's a bit of a cop out. The real task here is to really read critically. Like a geometry proof, you have some givens:
- It is given that the author is writing within a specific context. Make sure you know what that is.
- It is given that the writer has a specific purpose. Don't bash a writer for writing a short story that you think would work better as a poem, for instance. Instead, consider the audience, purpose, and context and why the author CHOSE the things they did.
- Ask those journalistic questions: who, what, when, where, how, and why. These are at the core of analysis, no matter what we're analyzing.
Note that working on these items will lead to better communication not only in essay assignments, but also in email, letters, and even in face-to-face situations. Ultimately, any class worth taking should be more than mechanically jumping through hoops. If you only do the minimum and don't embrace the challenges fully, you'll walk away from the class with less.
NOTE: This is a blog entry, not a piece of academic writing. I can use informal tone (for instance questions and saying "hey" and "listen") because this is not a formal essay. Also, because this is advice and process analysis-related, my use of "you" in second person is appropriate to the type of writing I'm doing.
I point these things out for students reading this post who may be saying "But, wait, you're doing stuff you just told us not to do." Actually, I'm not--this isn't a formal academic essay. See how rhetorical situation makes all the difference?