The most troubling part of teaching rhetoric, for me, has been making the shift from analyzing rhetoric to creating it. The best strategy I’ve come up with is to be aware of this future hurdle and lay the groundwork in the early part of the course.
For example, this year, before explaining the concept of rhetorical situation, I had my students search out blogs and write a quick response to them. They were to consider the blog writer’s credentials, his presentation, hosting website if applicable, prospective audience, and specific content of a post or two. The idea was to get the students to think about issues of ethos, pathos, logos, audience, genre, discourse and context prior to actually introducing the terms and concepts. Additionally, I also hoped to garner information on topics that students cared to discuss for future lessons as well as demonstrate to them the variety of topics on which they could write persuasively.
Posts to this response ranged from CNN and Fox News to ESPN and Perez Hilton. This activity helped lay the groundwork for discussing rhetorical situation. My lecture on that topic was grounded in their responses and followed by an in-class dissection of a video clip from The Onion. We treated the piece with two approaches: first, we discussed the elements of the video on a surface level, assuming it was a true news story; secondly, we examined the satire involved. This was a fun and well-received method of discussing the historic moment and cultural context of any given piece.
These two activities, inevitably, led to discussions of rhetoric and media, which I had anticipated. The unit on Rhetorical Analysis was capped by a reading of Brooke Gladstone’s The Influencing Machine which discusses the relationship between media producers and consumers. Through an individual responses before class and an in class group writing activity, my students worked on introductions, theses, and transition sentences of rhetorical analyses of The Influencing Machine. This sequence of assignments provided opportunities to examine multiple examples of discourse in a variety of media while maintaining the focus on rhetorical situation concepts.
Over the course of the last two semesters, I played around with the scheduling of these assignments and classwork in my three sections of 1020 (e.g. one section had the rhetorical situation lecture delivered prior to the blog activity). The above description represents what I feel may be the best approach. The two individual responses were graded while participation in the classroom activities affected the participation score at the end of the semester. The culmination, the rhetorical analysis paper on their chosen work of media discourse (I include documentaries and speeches) was valued at 15% of the overall grade.
Bradley Stabler is a PhD student and GTA in the English Department at WSU. Although he is primarily concerned with chivalric romances of the late middle ages, he enjoys the challenge of molding his 1020 students into critical thinkers and efficient communicators.