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Audience Awareness and Rhetorical Contexts

Defining a rhetorical context is crucial to students' ability to write effective arguments. Some teachers believe this skill is so important that they establish matching purpose with audience as the baseline criterion for essays in the second portfolio: they simply refuse to read a piece if the rhetorical strategy chosen by a writer does not match the target audience. The idea here is that regardless of a piece's stylistic verve, impressive focus, organization, or development, it is not going to persuade its chosen audience if the writer has selected a rhetorical strategy inappropriate for that audience. Therefore, students need lots of practice in two areas: learning to see how other writers have written within specific rhetorical contexts and learning to match a given audience to a specific argumentative strategy.

To encourage students to think about the importance of audience, many instructors begin by asking students to analyze magazine ads or articles for their intended audiences. Marisa Harper's activity in this section is one good example of such an exercise. Even if you do not do this kind of activity until your students write their first research-based essay, you can begin teaching the importance of rhetorical context during the critical reading unit. Some of us have asked our students to analyze each of the essays they will summarize for rhetorical context, thereby encouraging students to see discrete arguments as parts of a larger and dynamic context. Giving your students essays with editorial headnotes makes this easier. Included is a set of questions about rhetorical context from Aims as well as Kate's handout on realm, a rhetorical analysis based on Bitzer's work.

Most of us ask our students to really get into audience analysis when it comes time to write that first essay whose purpose is to convince a particular audience about something. As you'll see, though, the example activities span the semester.