Strategies for Analyzing the Rhetorical Situation

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					WRT 209, Spring 2005

                          Strategies for Analyzing the Rhetorical Situation
    Adapted by Elisa Norris from Trimbur, John. The Call to Write, 2nd Edition. NY: Longman, 2002.

The goal of analyzing the rhetorical situation is not just to understand the content of a piece of writing or
how the writer put it together but to understand its context. Analyzing the rhetorical situation involves
asking questions like these:
     Who is the writer?
     What called on the writer to put his or her views down on the page?
     What kind of relationship is the writer trying to establish with readers?
     How does the writer’s work relate to the larger context of discussion about an issue?

Certainly the following set of reading strategies will not be needed when you read sports scores, recipes,
weather reports, or gossip columns. But there are occasions when analyzing the rhetorical situation is
important because you want to get a fuller picture of what you’re reading. For example, if you are reading
arguments about ballot measures in a coming election, the more you know about the writers and their
purposes, the better you will be able to interpret their writings and decide if and how they should influence
your own position. The same is true in any kind of discussion where the issues are disputed—whether the
dispute is about advocacy of a living wage for all workers at your college or about how literary critics differ
in their interpretations of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.

                         Three Strategies for Analyzing the Rhetorical Situation

Strategy 1: Using Background Information
Background information about the context of issues, the writer, and the publication where the writer’s work
appears can be useful in understanding the rhetorical situation and how the writer identifies the call to

As you will see, the information you turn up about the context, the writer, and the place of publication does
not speak for itself. You need to interpret this information in order to determine what it means for your

The Context of Issues
To understand the context of issues for the writing you’re analyzing, you’ll need to fill in some background
information. Here are some questions to help you do so:
      What do you know about the particular topic the writer is treating? If your knowledge is limited,
         where can you get reliable background information?
      What have people been saying about the topic? What do they think the main issues are? What
         seems to be at stake in these discussions?
      Do people seem to be divided over these issues? If so, what positions have various people taken?
         What proposals or interpretations have they offered?

The Writer
Information about the writer—his or her education, credentials, experience, politics, prior publications,
award, institutional affiliations, reputation—is often summarized briefly in an author note following an
article or on a book’s dust jacket. The background information can give you some clues about the writer’s
authority to speak on the topic and the perspective he or she is likely to bring to it. Such background
information can also make you aware of the assumptions readers might make about the writer. Here are
some questions you may find useful:
      Based on what you know about his or her background, how much authority and credibility can you
          attribute to the writer? Is there reason to believe that the writer will provide informed accounts and
          responsible arguments, whether you agree with them or not?
        Does the information you’ve found offer suggestions about why the writer was moved to write on
         the topic? What political, cultural, social, or other commitments is the writer known for? How are
         these commitments likely to influence the writer’s argument?
        How do these commitments relate to your own views? How is this relationship likely to influence
         your evaluation of the writer’s argument?

The Publication
Type of publication can also provide you with some useful background information. Readers are likely to
form very different impressions based on the type of publication in which a writer’s work appears. Here are
some questions to ask about the type of publication:
     What do you know about the publication? Who is the publisher? Is it a commercial publication?
        Does it have an institutional affiliation—to a college or university, an academic field of study, a
        professional organization, a church? Does it espouse an identifiable political, social, cultural,
        economic, or religious ideology?
     If the publication is a periodical, what other writers—and types of writing and topics—appear in
        the issue?
     Who would be likely to read the publication?

Strategy 2: Analyzing the Writer’s Relationship to Readers
The purpose of analyzing the writer’s relationship to readers is to understand where the writer is coming
from, on whose behalf he or she is speaking, and the common ground the writer is asking readers to share.
In some instances, the writer will address one particular audience, while in others the writer will try to
appeal to many different audiences. In either case, the writer will have to make some key assumptions
about readers’ knowledge of the topic and their point of view on the issues it raises. Analyzing the writer’s
relationship to readers is an especially important reading strategy where the issues under consideration are
contested and the writer is attempting to line them up on one side or another. It can help you figure out
where you stand on the issues and where your own allegiances reside. Here are some questions to help you
identify the writer’s allegiances and relationship to readers:
      Based on what you have read and the available background information on the writer, can you
          identify on whose behalf the writer is speaking? Whose interests does the writer seem to
          represent? Where do her loyalties seem to reside?
      What assumptions does the writer seem to make about readers? Is the writer trying to establish
          common ground with a particular audience or with many different audiences? Does she seem to
          assume that some readers are already predisposed to share her perspective and social allegiances?
      What would it mean to agree with the writer? How would agreement position readers in relation to
          what the writer and others have said about the topic? Would agreement align readers with certain
          groups, individuals, points of view, institutions, values—and put them into opposition with others?
          What would readers have to believe to agree with the writer?

Strategy 3: Analyzing the Writer’s Language
Words and phrases carry powerful associations that can sway readers to share or reject what a writer is
saying. It is one thing, after all, to refer to business executives as “corporate leaders” or “entrepreneurial
visionaries” and quite another to call them “fat cats” or “robber barons.” The choice of terms reveals the
writer’s attitude and the perspective the writer is inviting readers to share. For this reason, it is useful to
look at some of the ways writers use language to influence their readers. Reading closely the actual words
that writers use can give you some clues to understanding where they are coming from and what they are
trying to accomplish.

The tone in a writer’s voice is one of the first things readers respond to because tone projects the writer’s
attitude and a sense of the writing’s intended effect. The tone can be serious or lighthearted, formal or
informal, stuffy or down-to-earth, distanced or intimate. Sometimes readers can hear sarcasm, anger, self-
importance, flippancy, and many other attitudes in a writer’s tone.

Words have precise meanings, which you can find in the dictionary. These are their denotative meanings.
For example, the denotative meaning of a virus is “a microscopic organism that can replicate only within
the cells of a living host,” and nationalism means “a feeling of loyalty to a particular country.”

Nonetheless, the meaning of these terms is not exhausted by their denotation. They also conjure up
connotative meanings, depending on the circumstances in which they are used. Connotation means that
words take on a certain coloring and emotional force based on how writers use them. Nationalism, for
example, might call up images of unity and belongingness, but it can also release fears of war and ethnic
antagonisms. Virus may lead the reader to think of new and mysterious “killer diseases” invading the
country from the Third World.

Figures of Speech
Figures of speech compare one thing to another. You have probably learned that similes use the words like
or as to make a comparison. Metaphors make an implicit comparison, as though one thing is actually
another. Often figures of speech are used to describe—to set a scene or create a mood. Figures of speech,
however, are not simply decorative. They also provide ways of thinking, and carry judgments on the
writer’s part.

Stereotypes are oversimplified representations that fit people into unvarying categories. These broad
generalizations break down under careful scrutiny but appear to carry powerful (and often self-serving)

“Women are more emotional than men” is a classic stereotypical statement that justifies why women won’t
do well under the stress of positions of authority (and therefore shouldn’t be promoted over men). Along
the same line, stereotypes of poor and working-class people and racial and ethnic minorities have created
popular images (of “white trash,” “drunken Indians,” “welfare queens”) that make subordination of one
group to another seem necessary and inevitable. They are used to shame people who fall under the
stereotype. In this sense, stereotyping people, events, and behaviors can stigmatize others and thereby
distance us from their fates.
January 26, 2005

At Stanford, Tutoring Helps Make a Janitor Less Invisible
ALO ALTO, Calif.

DOROTEO GARCIA worked his usual morning shift as a janitor in the art museum, set along the palm-
lined promenade leading into the Stanford University campus. Hours before the doors opened and the
tourists arrived, he moved nimbly in heavy work boots, well practiced in making himself unobtrusive and
being ignored.

He passed amid the Egyptian mummy case and Zulu beadwork, the silver dragons from China and the
Rodin bronzes, all those treasures, vacuuming carpets, mopping floors, dusting shelves, sponging tables,
emptying garbage cans, scrubbing toilets. He earns $10.14 an hour at a university whose students pay
nearly $40,000 a year in tuition, fees, and room and board.

Then lunch break came on this blustery January day and Mr. Garcia zipped up his jacket and headed for his
English lesson. Through the arches and across the tiled arcades of the campus, this hacienda with
skateboards and latte, he reached El Centro Chicano, the hub for Stanford's Hispanic students. Eric Eldon,
the Stanford senior who tutored him, was waiting.

They sat in a small conference room with posters of Cesar Chavez, the late leader of the United Farm
Workers, and opened a binder of lessons. Today's was titled "Making Requests." With his high rounded
cheeks and hooked nose, Mr. Garcia had a profile like something from a bas-relief at Chichén Itzá. Mr.
Eldon, with spiky black hair, scruffy beard and very horizontal glasses, looked more like a character from a
Gus Van Sant or Richard Linklater film.

An immigrant father, age 41, and an American-born student of 23, they bent together over a list of "polite
expressions" for a janitor to use with his boss. They lingered over the phrase "Can I bother you?" as Mr.
Eldon explained that, yes, bothering someone is usually impolite, but in this sentence meant something
more like, "Is it O.K. if I ask you?" They went through dialogues of a Stanford faculty or staff member
requesting a janitor's help.

Before the lunch break ended, Mr. Garcia was on the final page of the lesson, developing a more
sophisticated kind of request - a letter to the governor of California on the issue of allowing undocumented
immigrants to obtain a driver's license. Hardly anyone around Stanford beside Mr. Eldon knew it, but Mr.
Garcia had grown up in Mexico reading the political novels and essays of Octavio Paz, Carlos Fuentes and
Gabriel García Márquez. When you are a janitor in a university of affluence, a university of soft hands,
there are a lot of things people don't know about you.

Bridging that divide was one of the major reasons for creating the tutoring program at Stanford and several
other campuses in the Bay Area. Jointly operated by student volunteers, janitorial contractors and Local
1877 of the Service Employees International Union, the project brings together as many as 55 pairs of
janitors and students at Stanford.

For the union and its members, 85 percent of them immigrants from Mexico and Central America, the
English classes meet both immediate and long-range goals. Learning even the rudiments of English can
save a janitor from being fired for not responding to a request he does not understand. With some fluency, a
janitor can get off the night shift and onto days. A rank-and-file janitor can try to become a shop steward.
An immigrant can try to pass the citizenship test.

For the Stanford students, meanwhile, the tutoring provides a sense of purpose and human connection that
cannot be taught. Many of these undergraduates won admission partly by doing "community service" for
the most cynical of reasons, to build their résumés. Their courses here resound with the armchair radicalism
of Orientalism, neocolonialism, deconstructionism, white studies, critical race theory, queer theory, blah
blah blah.

"There's a lot of privilege in this place and a lot of ignorance about that privilege," Mr. Eldon said. "People
are used to having maids and servants. If they trash their dorm, they're used to having someone else clean it
up." He continued, "You can take classes on all sorts of highfalutin political theories and trends. But to me,
none of them teaches as much as being connected to people outside of Stanford."

Fittingly, then, the tutoring program arose from an alliance between Local 1877 and Stanford students as
the union was engaged in several bitter rounds of contract negotiations in 2000. One outcome of the union's
organizing efforts statewide, meanwhile, was the establishment of an educational trust fund, with
employers contributing one cent for each hour worked by each janitor. Local 1877 put its share of the fund
toward the tutoring system, both at colleges and high-tech companies (where paid teachers lead the literacy
classes). Most of the project's current budget of $500,000 a year, though, comes from state aid.

IN the three years that Mr. Eldon has known Mr. Garcia, three years of barbecues and soccer games as well
as English lessons, the student has crossed the actual and metaphorical divide between Palo Alto and its
hardscrabble neighbor, East Palo Alto. There, beyond the 101 Freeway, Mr. Garcia splits a one-room
apartment with his son Ernesto, a Stanford janitor and community-college student. His wife and younger
son remain in Oaxaca. Mr. Garcia keeps his snapshots of them on the wall, and he keeps a native Mexican
cactus outside the front door.

Sometimes, in sentimental moments, Mr. Garcia writes poetry about the people and place he left nine years
ago. At a distance, it is easy to remember the good parts, not the failed economy that sent him from high
school into the farm fields, from the depleted fields into town to sell tools, and from town to El Norte.

After nearly four years of tutoring, Mr. Garcia has become at least a bit less invisible. He has spoken to
incoming freshmen as part of orientation. He wrote an op-ed column for the student newspaper. And he has
even written a poem about his time on the night shift that is now part of the curriculum for his fellow
janitors. It reads in part:

He doesn't carry books or binders

He uses a mop and feather duster

Instead of a computer

he works with a vacuum

He keeps the university clean

while everyone else sleeps...

But now at one in the morning

a janitor dreams while awake

hoping for a better future

for his kids.

SAMUEL G. FREEDMAN is an award-winning writer and professor at Columbia University. A former
reporter for The New York Times, he is the author of four acclaimed books.

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