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Rhetorical Analysis, Tips for Teaching

Rhetorical Analysis in Three Easy Steps

I remember feeling somewhat dumbfounded when I was first tasked with teaching the rhetorical analysis assignment. Sheepishly, I had to admit to myself that despite being a graduate student in an English department, I really had no idea what the devil a rhetorical analysis was, let alone how to write one. However, many years later, after a little reading, studying, and teaching I can claim that I have command of teaching rhetorical analyses. In fact, I have honed a three-step heuristic that I have found to be well-received both in the classroom and in the Writing Center. Too, in a conversation with some of our colleagues the other day, I learned that my difficulty with the rhetorical analysis is far from unique. Thus, I offer rhetorical analysis in three easy steps.

A rhetorical analysis is simply an evaluation of the relationship between an argument’s form and content. Moreover, apart from understanding what a rhetorical analysis is in general, it’s important to recognize that a rhetorical analysis allows the reviewer to put his/her opinions/reactions to a particular argument into a vocabulary that helps to transform the reviewer’s opinion/reaction into an acceptable argument. That is, we move from “Professor A’s argument sucks” to “Professor A’s argument is unpersuasive because…” With that said, I break it down into three-easy steps:

1. Describe the “content” of the argument
A. What is the argument? That is, what is the writer attempting to have the reader do/belief/understand?
B. Why is this argument important?
C. Who/what is the argument responding to?
C. What is your preliminary evaluation? Do you agree/disagree/kind of agree?

2. Describe the “form” of the argument
A. What argumentative genre is being used? Comparison/proposal/evaluation/etc?
B. What evidence is being used?
C. What is the language like?
D. What assumptions are we as readers expected to make?
E. Does the author’s ethos indicate a bias?
F. Who is the audience and what do they expect from the argument?
G. Does the author take into account opposing viewpoints?
H. Are all terms appropriately defined?

3. Evaluate the relationship between #1 and #2
A. Is the argument persuasive?
B. Is the argument supported with evidence?
C. Does the argument address the expectations of the audience?

While my approach is not by any means new or groundbreaking, presenting a rhetorical analysis in such a way has three (yes!) benefits. These three steps have been an effective way into broader discussions of rhetoric and composition. Secondly, as some students may understand the aims of a rhetorical analysis, these steps can also point to one possible way to organize their own rhetorical analyses. Lastly, this heuristic can be useful when students begin to invent and pen arguments in the other genres. In short, although seemingly reductive and tautological, these three steps not only offer us a way to present a sometimes unwieldy assignment in an accessible, easy-to-tackle format, but also suggest a point of departure for discussing larger issues of invention, arrangement, and style. In conclusion, these three steps help us to guide students in their thinking and writing about writing.

Mike Ristich is a PhD candidate in the department whose research interests are at the intersection of rhetorical and critical theory, particularly as they relate to the study of radical political movements. He currently serves as the Graduate Student Tutor GSA in the Writing Center.

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