How Rhetorical Writing Assignments Prepare Students for Their Futures
The term "rhetoric" often gets misused to criticize someone's language as "empty, one-sided, ill-considered, and unfair" (as in, "that politician is just using heated religious rhetoric to get votes.") However, its historical definition, dating back to Aristotle, shows that rhetoric is not just about hollow verbiage.
Most advanced rhetoric and composition classes teach that, according to Aristotle, rhetoric means "discovering in a particular case all the available means of persuasion." Often, "the art of persuasion," is also used. Notably, these definitions emphasize an audience to convince. It is this idea of rhetoric that rhetorically based composition classes teach as the foundation of good writing.
What gets upended with this definition is the idea that good writing can be judged by how well it follows certain rules, which traditionally include formal grammar, five paragraphs, and avoiding sentence-ending prepositions. Without ignoring these rules entirely, educators must move beyond their rigid and often arbitrary nature to help student writing succeed in conveying its message and affecting a desired result--both of which can happen while a writer breaks all the usual rules.
Persuasion Over Correctness: Breaking the Rules
Embracing persuasion over standard correctness certainly complicates an instructor's job. And it makes assessing student writing all the more challenging. But rhetorically based writing instruction is the key to preparing students for their many future workplace writing demands. Mastering five paragraphs does not entirely prepare you for reports, invitations, emails, evaluations, requests, press releases, or promotional material. Moreover, in our image-driven age of digital media, good persuasion involves far more than just words. A whole field of visual rhetoric concerns itself with the persuasion of images, symbols, and design principles.
When instructors claim the historical definition of rhetoric, they can evolve assignments and pedagogy beyond the standard essay--beyond, even, any traditional kind of writing. Here are several ways instructors can teach rhetorically to deeply engage students in audience analysis, research, modes of appeal, and multi-genre composition.
Demonstrate Mastery in Any Genre
The academic essay genre has one, and only one, audience—the instructor. But this list of genres can imagine multitudes of real readers, whose needs and expectations must be understood by the student writer to demonstrate subject mastery and successful persuasion. The instructor's job is not to replace writing assignments, but rather expand them with multimodal forms of persuasion.
- Brochures, pamphlets, flyers
- Instruction manuals
- PowerPoint or Prezi
- Reports (technical, annual, usability test, white paper, funding request)
- Instructional material (quiz, assignment sheet, rubric)
- Videos and podcasts
- Resumes and cover letters
- Emails, letters, memos
- Website, LMS, blog, ebook
Most importantly, give students examples of genres they will produce, with models to learn from and emulate. Typically, students are asked to analyze one genre, then produce an entirely different one for their assignment--they'll read a novel then write an essay; or watch a film and write a review. Often, they never learn from a successful example. In the case of the five-paragraph essay, it's usually because there are no professional examples; the essay lives only in classrooms.
Technology in Rhetorical Assignments
With an expanded arsenal of genres, based in a historical understanding of rhetoric, instructors can turn toward EdTech as part of the assignment process and product. As an inescapable part of our students' current and future writing requirements, technology should be made familiar and useful to students, as well as remain open for analysis and critique.
Consider these writing assignments that use technology as a platform, or as a means to writing:
- Create student blogs within your LMS
- Create an original organizing principle for the class discussion board
- User-test your classroom LMS and write a usability report for students or teachers
- Create or revise a Wikipedia page
- Design a logo for an existing organization, with a written design justification
- Write an FAQ for a historical figure or event
- Translate one media into another (video into essay; article into PowerPoint, etc.)
Most of these assignments already contain written components, but should also require a separate overview, summary, justification, explanation, or report, so students articulate their processes and persuasive techniques.
How to Evaluate Multiple Genres
Assigning different genres shouldn't create uncertain evaluation standards. In fact, every genre carries its own requirements for an organizing principle, tone, formality, visual components, writing style, and constraints, which can be shaped into clear evaluation rubrics. When instructors and students explore genres, then collaboratively agree on best practices, every member of a classroom claims a voice and vested interest in an assignment's success.
One good place to start the conversation is by examining some extremely rigid genres, like a personal check or a mailing envelope. There are many non-negotiable genre constraints driven by users' needs and expectations. Once you master these, variation and creativity become possible, and even welcome.
Make Your Assignments Rhetorical
Rhetorical assignments all have a clear:
- Set of constraints
When students know why they're writing and who they're writing to, their innate rhetorical skills shine. (Watch a student negotiate a deadline extension and you will see what natural persuaders all humans are.)
Within audience, students must know their intended readers' needs, values, and wants, and the writer's available modes of appeal: ethos (credibility); pathos (emotion); and logos (reason and research). After that, instructors can endlessly adapt rhetorical assignments to the particular outcomes of their accreditation standards.
Rhetorical teaching and writing with technology joins ancient wisdom with modern tools to teach students true writing agility. Beyond correctness, this new kind of writing embraces outcome and impact, while maintaining rigorous demands for research, engagement, and mastery.