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Mere Rhetoric

Welcome to Mere Rhetoric, the podcast for beginners and insiders about the ideas, people and movements who have shaped rhetorical history.

Nov 14, 2017


Welcome to MR the podcast for beginngs and insiders aboutt he ideas, people and movements who have shaped rhetorical history. I’m Mary Hedengren. This last week I graded my students’ rhetorical analyses. For many of them, this was the first time they had been asked to write a rhetorical analysis and this assignment always makes me nervous. I give them sample papers. We practice writing a rhetorical analysis together. We discuss in depth examples and abuses of ethos, logos, and pathos, but many of them struggle tremendously. I know I could write a 3-page rhetorical analysis in 20 minutes; why do my students take hours and still fail the project?


David Bartholomae wondered, as I do, how students approach projects they’ve never been asked to weigh in on before. In my students’ case, they just barely learned what “ethos” is--how are they supposed to assert how it impacts a particular audience? Writing in the early 80s, Bartholomea, like a score of composition scholars like Mina Shanessey and Linda Flower, were interested in the needs of a population sometimes called Basic Writers. Basic writers are those who, in Bartholomae’s words “shut out from one of the privileged languages of public life” in academic writing, although they are “aware of, but cannot control” that language (64). Not having been exposed to reading or writing much of it, they must fall back on what they think academic writing is supposed to sound like. They have to invent what “university writing” is. This is where you have all those errors that make your students sound like robots on the fritz: “utilization,” “the reason for this is because that,” and endless “therefore”s. It impacts big-picture ideas, too. B mentions that commonplaces that many students fall back on: “mistakes are because of a lack of pride,” “creativity is self-expression,” “the text you assignment to read was life-changing and insightful, o teacher mine!” This is where we roll our eyes and feel slightly manipulated, but the students aren’t being malicious when they try to give us what we want--they’re simply not confident at being able to give us what they want, too.


And every time the task changes, students can find themselves flummoxed. “A student who can write a reasonably correct narrative may fall to pieces when faced with a more unfamiliar assignment,” Bartholomae points out. A student can write smooth, error-free prose in a form that makes sense to them, but asked to assume new authority, and they panic in the new register. And who can blame them? They’ve never encountered it before. Imagine being asked to give a public speech in Japanese without knowing the language. Bartholomae’s students were exposed to many of the same forms ours are “test-taking, report or summary--work ...where they are expected to admire and report on what we do” (68). Certainly I saw that in the rhetorical analyses I read. The background research on the author was good, relevant and cited appropriately. The articles were summarized fairly, with occasional quotes from the text. But when I ask them to apply their knowledge of rhetorical terms to argue how the articles were working and they fall to pieces, just as Bartholomae says. Many of them have never been asked to defend their own scholarly opinion or assert another’s through conjuncture. They can’t possibly make a scholarly argument, so instead they are made by it. They put on a mask of “scholar”--”They begin with a moment of appropriation, Bartholomae says, “a moment when they can offer up a sentence that is not their as though it were their own” (69).


But students who are outside of the academic discourses they write also recognize that it is not fair that they have to be outsiders. Even when they are given supposedly non-academic discourse to write-- “explain kairos to a classmate”--students are thrown into assumed authority: how on earth would they explain kairos--they just learned about kairos! They don’t know anything more about kairos than anyone else in the class! It is, in Bartholome’s words “an act of aggression  disguised as an act of charity” (65). Being put into a position of insider to which they beleive they have no claim, some students doggedly imitate while others also subtly criticize. “The write continually audits and pushes against and language that would render him [or her] ‘like everyone else’ and mimics the language and interpretative systems of the privileged community” (79).


What is the solution then? Bartholomae suggests that we meet students on the grounds of their own authority--instead of encouraging them to give tidy, pat answers that imitate what they think the professor is looking for, “well within safe, familiar territory” (80). This can seem quixotic, especially when a grade is on the line. While Bartholomea doesn’t give a comprehensive solution, but he does mention the work of Particia Bizzell and Linda Flower as useful starting points--determining, for example, what the conventions of the discourse community to teach them explicitly. This can mean anything from pointing out the expectations of MLA citation to providing templates of academic discourse. Another strategy is to look broadly at where students are all falling short together--is everyone falling back on summary instead of moving into analysis? Is everyone asserting the opinion of the audience without reasoned conjecture? Seeing where students depart, like a big-picture Error and Expectation, can give insight into where students feel uncomfortable acting as insiders.


Because, no matter how frustrated we get when we grade student work, they aren’t dum-dum heads who didn’t understand anything that we taught them. They’re paying attention--they’re writing the way that they think we want them to write and the way that they think we write. Batholomae, however, wants to to consider they way they write and what they want to write about.