Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Rhetorically Analyze This

It's not a favorite assignment of mine, but I know many teachers who ask students to perform a rhetorical analysis of a commercial.

Something like this:
Name the speaker, the purpose, and the intended audience; then describe how the message was crafted to achieve the purpose. It helps students understand what rhetoric is, and that's a good thing.

The results students produce, however, are often boring:
  • The ad shows us attractive cool people using the product, and the intended audience wants to be cool and attractive...
  • The ad presents a logical argument on price and value...
  • The ad makes us feel afraid of what might happen if we don't buy the product...
But these results are not boring because, as some might assume, students are boring.

Commercials are boring.

I don't ask students to write up rhetorical analyses of commercials because the most visible marketing campaigns often rely on easy rhetorical appeals - making for easy (read boring) papers.

What if, however, our students had to pick marketing material like this?

Trying to Describe Writing Ability

Yesterday, I asked my students to define "writing ability."

That may sound like a reasonable request to make, but it was not reasonable.

Try it. Try to write up a sentence or two that describes "writing ability."

I was happy when students recognized it begins with basic scribal skills. You need to be able to use the tools that create letters, words, and sentences. But that wasn't very satisfying. We all knew it was an incomplete description.

When teachers from other departments, policy makers, or professionals complain that 'this person' or 'that person' can't write, they are not talking about scribal skills.

So, what does it mean to say a person can write?
Or can't write?

It is a central question in the discipline of rhetoric and composition, which is a polite way of saying, "We don't know."

We have theories, and many of those theories are well supported.

The answer each scholar gives, however, often leads to more questions. And while that's true in many disciplines, it's particularly troublesome for writing teachers, because most people think they know what "writing ability" is.

Until people actually try to articulate an answer, they assume it is an easy question:
"What's writing ability? Well... It's the, ahh, ability to write, right?"

I don't want to give my students my answer (yet). I want my students to generate their own answers and build their practices out of those answers.

But what about you, dear readers?
How would you define writing ability?