- Rhetoric: Your Toolset for Understanding Language
- A Rhetorical Look at Language in Three Contexts
by Chris Blankenship and Justin Jory
Few would argue that this is a radical claim; in fact, it’s probably so obvious that most don’t stop to consider why or how it matters.
For instance, to call a person or group “radical” is to presume their beliefs are extreme and to ask others to as well. Or think about any building on your campus. It may seem like a strange place to go when talking about language, but that building is the product of language. E-mails led to proposals, proposals led to budgets, budgets led to plans, and plans led to the construction of the building. Or think about any resume for any job opening. Within that text is language that encourages readers to view the writer as educated, experienced, and skilled in particular ways that are suited to the job expectations. In other words, it’s language that allows the writer to be—or at least appear to be—the best candidate for the job.
In each example above, language is generative—it creates something. In one instance, it generates a way of understanding, and thus a way of interacting with an individual or group and their beliefs. In another, it facilitates collaboration that eventually creates a new space for teaching and learning. And in the last, it constructs a professional identity, which can lead to a new job and a better salary.
The fact that language is generative is why it’s worth paying attention to; it’s a resource we can use to do things, make things, and be things in the world. In your writing classes at SLCC, we will spend time exploring this perspective on language. Ultimately, we believe that by being more mindful of others’ language and more deliberate about your own, you can become a more effective communicator. And this is true whether you already consider yourself a strong writer or not.
Ask anyone who studies rhetoric what it is, and they’ll tell you it’s difficult to define. This is because rhetoric has been around as a discipline of study for over 2,500 years, and at different times people who study it have been interested in different things. Most basically, though, rhetoric is a discipline built on the notion that language matters. People who study rhetoric and those who practice it believe that what we say and how we say it is worthy of study, and they use concepts from the discipline to systematically research the impact of language in society. We’ll spare you the nitty-gritty details. What we want you to know about rhetoric here is that it provides a set of tools you can use to raise your awareness of language and to be more deliberate about your own language practices.
But how does it work?
Like any other discipline, rhetoric has a vocabulary that helps us think and talk about its subject matter: language. Three concepts that will help you think about language and texts in your writing classes at SLCC are audience, purpose, and context. While these are by no means the only rhetorical concepts you’ll learn about, they provide a place to begin.
To think rhetorically about audience is to ask particular questions about the knowledge, beliefs, and values of the people whom texts are written for:
- Who is the audience?
- What do they know or not know about the issue?
- What are their relevant experiences?
- What stance(s) might they hold?
- What’s the best way to reach this audience?
To think rhetorically about purpose is to ask particular questions about the motivations and goals that lead writers to produce texts:
- What issues, events, or problems led the writer to take action?
- What is the writer’s response?
- How does the text support this response?
- What is the goal of this text?
- What does the writer want his audience to do, feel, or believe?
To think rhetorically about context is to ask particular questions about social, political, historical, ideological, institutional, and cultural factors that shape the way writers and audiences experience a text:
- Has any action been taken on this issue recently?
- What laws or social norms may influence the perception of the text?
- What limitations might the context place upon the writer’s arguments, evidence, or medium of composition?
At SLCC, we believe a defining characteristic of effective writers is their ability to be flexible, to adapt to the demands of the task before them, and this requires an attention to language that rhetorical thinking makes possible. Mentioned above are examples of the questions that rhetorically savvy writers use to adapt their language in ways that achieve their goals for communication. These questions can be useful in nearly every communication situation. The following scenarios represent different “everyday” situations where attention to language matters and knowledge of rhetoric can assist writers in responding in ways that allow them to achieve their goals.
After graduating high school, Robbie finds a good job that pays well and is close to home. He works in this job for several years but after applying for a promotion he is told that the position requires a college degree. He decides that after investing so many years with the company he will take up the challenge and earn this degree. Robbie’s company specializes in growing organic produce, so he decides that biology might be a good major to help him advance in the company. He starts to investigate the biology program at the local college. On the biology department’s website, he finds this description of the major:
The study of life is the study of chemical processes. A major in biology trains you in the experimental techniques used to probe the structures and functions of biologically important molecules. This degree provides students with a rigorous general background in the field of biology to prepare for graduate or professional school or science-related jobs requiring Bachelor’s-level training. Our students address basic biological principles using both plant and animal model systems. Much of a student’s work in our department is focused on answering physiologically relevant questions by using the latest cell and molecular-based biological approaches. The curricular requirements in chemistry, mathematics, and physics have been selected to optimize students’ future opportunities. The degree provides a rigorous background in fundamental biology and similar areas and prepares students for professional or research-oriented careers and graduate work in a selected area of biology.
After reading this description several times, Robbie still doesn’t have a good sense of what he would be learning in this major or how it might allow him to learn more about topics important to his company. He looks further on the website, but all he finds is a list of courses available; some, like BIO 2030: Animal Behavior, sound interesting, but others, like BIO 3400: Plant and Animal Model Systems, just seem confusing. Robbie really wants to attend this college because it is close to home and is affordable. However, based on this description, he’s not sure whether this is the right major for him or whether it is even the right college.
We argue that rhetoric can help Robbie find his answer. Rhetoric begins with observation. In this case, it is noticing things about the language that is leading Robbie to a feeling of uncertainty. Perhaps the most obvious observation about the text is the difficult, disciplinary language. For example, there are a number of terms and phrases that would be unfamiliar to someone like Robbie who is outside the field of biology: “plant and animal model systems,” “molecular-based biological approaches,” “physiologically relevant questions.” There are also terms and phrases that may not be unfamiliar but remain vague without specialized knowledge. For instance, what does it mean to “probe the structures and functions of biologically important molecules”? Or, what exactly is “fundamental biology” and what are the “similar areas” that this degree provides a rigorous background in? Where does Robbie’s interest in organic produce fit in these descriptions?
From this careful attention to the language of the program description, we can see that there is a disconnect between Robbie’s knowledge and the knowledge necessary to understand this text.
Why does this disconnect exist in the first place? Thinking rhetorically about audience, purpose, and context can give us further insight into this rhetorical problem. For instance, many colleges across the United States do not expect students to declare a major until their second year; therefore, the specialized language in this description is likely intended for an audience of students who have already taken introductory courses in biology and will have more familiarity with the specialized terms. Therefore, the purpose of the program description is not to persuade people to join the major but to explain the degree to students who are already biology majors, perhaps helping them interpret and synthesize their experiences in the program.
By looking at this text in context, we can see that the gap is not a deficiency on Robbie’s part but exists because he is not the intended audience for the description. Robbie hasn’t started college yet and he is not a biology major. However, knowing this does not help Robbie answer his question about whether the biology major is right for him. To bridge this gap, Robbie would have to move from reading rhetorically to writing rhetorically by thinking about audience, purpose, and context as a writer would.
In this situation, a fitting response would be to write an e-mail requesting more information. Many colleges have a faculty member who serves as an undergraduate advisor for their majors, who would be an appropriate audience for this purpose. Such a response could look like this:
Dear Professor Smith,
My name is Robert Jones, and I’m considering enrolling in Local College as a biology major next semester. I have worked at a local company specializing in organic foods for many years and have recently discovered that I need additional education to advance my career within the company. After reading through your department’s website, I’m not sure if the biology major at Local College is the right one to help me advance in my profession. Does this degree let me specialize in a way that would fit with my career goals? Any information that you can send me about your program would be helpful and very much appreciated.
Thank you for your time,
We can see several rhetorically savvy language choices in this e-mail. It establishes credibility with the intended audience by showing that the writer has already begun an initial investigation of the major. By showing that he’s already done some research, it establishes that he needs new information, which is not readily available on the department’s website. The language of the e-mail is quite formal, which suggests the writer understands the professional context of the communication. Together, establishing credibility through research and using formal language suggests that the writer is proactive and interested, and this demonstration of rhetorical awareness can help him build a relationship with a potential teacher and mentor, Professor Smith.
This is an example of how, with rhetorical thinking, you can make language work for you.
Marcela recently graduated from high school and has just started her eighteen-month religious mission in South America. Every Monday afternoon Marcela and her fellow missionaries are encouraged to write letters and e-mails home to their friends and family. Marcela usually only has one chance a week to write correspondence and has to write to multiple people, leaving less time than she might like or need to think about and craft her correspondence. Marcela’s first e-mail is to her mother, her strongest supporter and the person she most wants to maintain contact with.
We made it to Brazil in one piece! Everyone has been really nice and helpful. Our apartment is nice and me and Sister Jones have been working together a lot. The first couple of days were really tiring but a really great experience! Brazil is such a beautiful place, but I miss home a lot. Is everyone doing okay? Say hi to Gizmo for me and give dad a kiss. I love you!
The next day Marcela receives a response from her mother.
I’m so glad you made it safe and that everyone has been so nice and helpful! Where is Sister Jones from? I’m glad the experience has been great. What kinds of things have you been doing? Have you had any good conversations with locals? I know it’s early but have you met with any investigators yet? I saw on the news there was an earthquake in Bolivia. It makes me worried about you!
Let us know how you’re doing.
When Marcela receives her mother’s response, she expects to get an update on what’s happening at home but instead finds only questions about what she’s been doing in South America instead. She loves hearing from her mom, but she doesn’t feel as connected to home as she wants because the e-mail from her mom was nothing but questions for Marcela. The next week when she starts to write her reply, she’s not sure whether to spend her limited time answering her mother’s questions or asking her own questions that will get her the updates that she needs to feel less homesick.
Thinking rhetorically can be a useful way for Marcela to understand this disconnect in communication. In her first e-mail, Marcela’s rhetorical purpose for writing is to give her mother an update about her arrival in South America. Her mother’s response indicates a similar expectation from the e-mail but shows a desire for more specific detail in order to more deeply understand Marcela’s experiences. Context is equally important. In her mother’s response, there are questions about the mission itself and her success reaching others to talk about their faith. These human interactions are the key reason why these missionaries spend one-and-a-half years of their lives away from their families.
Marcela’s reaction to her mom’s e-mail reveals that she also, as an audience, has expectations about what this weekly correspondence will accomplish. While she recognizes the importance of her mission, it’s the first time she’s been away from her family for this length of time. She wants these e-mails to be her link back to home so she can feel she’s still connected to her family, friends, and the place where she grew up. The response from her mother provides little information to help her to feel connected to home.
Thinking more intentionally about the different purposes and audiences in the correspondence can help Marcela write more effective e-mails home. Such an e-mail could look like this:
Things are going great here! We’re settled now and got to talk to two different families so far. One of the daughter’s names is Mary, and she loved it when Sister Jones and I sat with her to read 3 Nephi 14:25 (I know you’ll know this one!). Sister Jones was in theater at her high school in Seattle, and she’s helping me get more comfortable talking to groups of people. We’ve also been talking to people about the earthquake to start our conversations. It’s been all over the news, but we didn’t feel it here and some of the families thought it was funny we thought it was such a big deal. We’re going to see Mary’s family again next week, so maybe I’ll have some good news about her in the next e-mail!
Is everything good there? Is Jeff doing okay in school? I know he was worried about math this year without me to help him out. Have Mr. and Mrs. Gunderson found a new babysitter yet? I hope Sophia doesn’t miss me too much. Say hi to them for me when you see them at church!
Let me know how everyone’s doing! It makes me feel closer to home when I can hear all about what’s going on there.
We can see that this e-mail includes much more detail than Marcela’s first e-mail. These details help both of the audiences (Marcela and her mom) get what they want and expect from the e-mail correspondence. She answers the direct questions her mother asked; for example, the sentence that mentions high school answers the question of who Sister Jones is while also providing details about how Marcela’s missionary work is unfolding. To give her audience cues about what she wants from the weekly correspondence, Marcela’s e-mail includes more explicit questions about people back at home and a direct request for more details. Through addressing both Marcela’s and her mother’s purposes for the correspondence, and the context of missionary work, this new response demonstrates greater rhetorical skill because it is responsive to audience expectations and needs.
Recently, on his way home from work, Jason noticed signs in his neighbors’ yards for Proposition 12.
- Don’t Regulate How We Recreate. Yes on 12.
- Just Say No to Prop 12.
Usually, he doesn’t pay attention to signs like this but he’s noticed a lot of them. On his way to meet his friends for dinner he notices a group of protestors outside the courthouse downtown who are also holding signs about Proposition 12.
- Don’t Regulate How We Recreate. Yes on 12.
- Where there’s smoke there’s fire! Yes on Prop. 12.
- Fight Crime, Not Fun. Vote for Prop 12!
- Legalize Don’t Penalize. Prop 12 ✔
- High there? High here! Vote yes on 12.
- No Victim, No Crime. Make 12 happen.
The signs don’t tell Jason much about the proposition. His friends aren’t sure what it’s about either, so one of them pulls out a phone, does a quick search, and announces that Proposition 12 is a vote to legalize recreational marijuana in the state. Immediately, Jason’s friends are enthusiastic supporters, but Jason isn’t sure whether or how he should vote.
The immediate gap is in Jason’s understanding of the issue. While a quick internet search tells him that Prop 12 is about marijuana legalization, he still has very little information about why people would support or oppose legalization. Like Robbie and Marcela, Jason can develop a better sense of the situation by thinking rhetorically about the texts he’s seeing. At first glance, the signs simply seem to be supporting the proposition, but if we read them more critically we can see the values expressed through the language they use. For instance, “No Victim, No Crime” suggests the author of the sign wants the audience to think that activities that only affect the individual shouldn’t be considered crimes by the government. And, as another example, “Don’t Regulate How We Recreate” suggests the author wants the audience to view marijuana use as a form of normal personal recreation, which downplays any move to tie it to dangerous or deviant behavior. In both examples, the authors value individual rights over government regulation of those rights, particularly when there is no harm done to others.
However, in viewing this situation rhetorically, we can also see that all the texts so far present only one perspective on the issue-at-hand. Jason hasn’t noticed any signs that opposed Prop 12, and he therefore needs to research this perspective to be able to make an informed decision about his vote. Again, rhetorical thinking is a useful way to investigate topics of interest. Even a simple Google search, when done mindfully, can be rhetorical. For example, after thinking about the messages of the signs above, if Jason is most interested in the idea of individual rights, he could type “proposition 12 individual rights” or even “proposition 12 harm to others” into a search engine. While looking through the results he could choose to read statements written by people who oppose the opposition that specifically address the issue of individual rights as it relates to Prop 12. This would help him get a sense of the rationale behind their objections, which can also give him a better understanding of the values that support their reasoning. While using online research to learn more about the issue, he might also notice the people and organizations who associate themselves with each position. He might also consider what he knows about his neighbors who have signs in their yards. This information provides another way for him to determine how to cast his vote.
Though Jason is not writing a response like Robbie or Marcela are, he is still using rhetoric to act. In his case, he’s thinking rhetorically in order to learn about a key issue in his state. When he meets with his friends next, he can fully participate in the conversation, contributing ideas and possibly even trying to persuade them of a different point of view. When he goes to cast his vote on a proposition that could lead to social and cultural change in his state, he can be confident that he’s making an educated choice.
All three of these scenarios show how careful attention to language and the contexts that surround it can help individuals understand the communication challenges they experience and effectively respond to those challenges. In the writing program at SLCC, we use rhetoric as a way to investigate, understand, and use language. Working with language is difficult and it’s messy. It’s a skill you have to learn and practice; rhetoric gives you a framework to make that process easier. It’s a method that you can use systematically as a way of revealing and handling the complexity of language. In short, rhetoric is a tool to make language work for you.
Though it may not always be apparent in your courses, rhetorical thinking transfers across contexts. You can use it to understand writing tasks in other college courses, on the job, and in your personal life. Where there’s language, there’s potential for rhetorical thinking. It’s the rhetorical thinking that we want you to take with you from these courses. And this is why rhetoric matters.