I use this helpful poster from CCC to define and discuss “rhetorical situation” with Basic Writing (ENG 1010) students. In particular, we make liberal use of the diagram below (from the poster) by (a) fleshing out each of the words represented and (b) plugging multiple examples into the diagram to see how it pans out.
With regard to (a), I find that sometimes students need multiple words to comprehend the different aspects of a rhetorical situation. Therefore, I have them jot down some of the following on their diagrams.
- Composer: writer, author, speaker, designer, artist
- Audience: readers, listeners, users, viewers
- Context: background, setting, culture, ongoing controversies/debates, institutions, historical timeframe
- Text-Genre-Medium: piece of writing, speech, poster, website, type of artifact
- Subject: topic, subject matter, content
Note: In the written text of the poster, “exigence” and “constraints” are explained. In my experience, I have to show the students where and how these terms fit into the diagram. I tend to place the former in Context, and the latter in Text-Genre-Medium, but that’s up for debate, as the aspects of a rhetorical situation by nature bleed into one another.
With regard to (b), the students and I start by filling in one aspect of the diagram. Often, the “text” is easiest to plop in the middle. We then allow a domino effect to unfold, wherein we are able to generate information about the other aspects of a rhetorical situation by inferring knowledge from the prior aspects discussed.
This is bit like a game or like a mystery to solve, and I find that students tend to enjoy the approach of systematic breakdown and brainstorming. We start with the following text: Liam Corley’s “Brave Words” (attached below) from College English, which they have all read for their first summary paper in the class. I find that it helps to start with a common text about which students have more than a cursory understanding.
We then move to other kinds of texts from less academic and more popular cultural contexts. The Wayne State homepage, for example, is a nice bridge from the academic to the popular. Since students are ostensibly within the audience for that text, they often have a lot to say about this example. (I have them note, too, the kinds of student bodies left out of the representations on this homepage). I have found that students can easily nail down the concept of genre when Wayne.edu is compared to homepages from University of Michigan and Michigan State. I then ask them for a random university to Google and we can see how similar conventions (or, constraints) play across multiple university websites.
From here, I move to a text that is more off the wall. I choose a text that I think will stump and challenge the students, and I tell them this in the spirit of good fun, assuming we have the appropriate classroom rapport for that. For example, I’ll wear the following t-shirt from the time of Hurricane Katrina and see what they can come up with in terms of its rhetorical situation.
Because, given traditional students’ age, they often don’t know that much about Hurricane Katrina, this t-shirt helps us to talk about context, subject matter, and audience.
In small groups, we just keep using and experimenting with this diagram as many times and with as many examples as it takes to flesh out rhetorical situations and really grasp the concept. As a follow-up, in a subsequent class, I ask students to draw from memory a diagram of rhetorical situation to see what they remember. Most forget about context.
Of course, one doesn’t need to always start with a text in the middle. For example, one could start with the following pairings of terms and examples, and students could then predict what kinds of “texts” and rhetorical dynamics would likely grow out of these scenarios.
Composer + Subject
- President Obama + Ebola Outbreak
- Failing Student + Grade in Class
- Best Man + Friendship with Groom
Context + Audience
- Campus Tour + Prospective Students’ Parents
- Super Bowl Halftime Show + American NFL fans
- Library Story Hour + Toddlers
In general, no matter how it is taught, the “rhetorical situation” makes it clear that we aim to understand not just what a piece of communication says but what it does. We want to know how a text both emerges from and has effects upon the context surrounding it. Such an understanding is indeed part of what motivates composition specialists to claim that writing is a form of social action.
Karen Springsteen is Senior Lecturer in the English Department at Wayne State University where she specializes Basic Writing instruction. Dr. Springsteen has facilitated community writing groups with military veterans as part of the national Warrior Writers project and has reviewed veterans’ creative work for the nonprofit organization Military Experience and the Arts (militaryexperience.org). Her publications on art and activism appear in the collections Composing(Media)=Composing(Embodiment) and Generation Vet: Veterans, Composition, and the Post-9/11 University.