Unit 1:  Learning to Write to an Academic Rhetorical Situation




1)      Introduce students to the importance of a text’s purpose, audience, and context as part of the rhetorical situation

2)      Teach students how to make choices about their own texts based on context

3)      Move students from more familiar, personal responses to more academic modes of discourse appropriate for the expectations and needs of academic contexts

4)      Teach principles of objective, academic summary of texts as a basis for effective response

5)      Develop skills in reading nonfiction texts critically


Unit 1 establishes the course’s larger goal of having students recognize that writing is a response to a specific context—an attempt to achieve a specific purpose addressed to a specific audience.  In service to that goal, we look at how context defines expectations and values for writing within any given situation.  In this case, we’ll be moving from a more personal and familiar context in Essay 1 to a more unknown, academic writing context in Essay 2.  This shift to an academic context is designed to highlight the distinctions in expectations and values, as well as the choices students can make in relation to purpose, audience, focus, and use of evidence depending on the rhetorical situation involved.  For instance, instead of merely offering a personal response within a context that is more familiar to them as in the first assignment, Essay 2 calls for students to define and negotiate the needs and values of a less known audience.  By juxtaposing the assignment contexts we call attention to how the new, academic context influences each dimension of the rhetorical situation—from students’ purpose and focus, to the types of evidence students use, to the way they organize their writing.  Moreover, because students develop their own criteria for evaluating a text, they recognize that there is not a single or universal form for their writing, but they instead see that the structure for their writing comes out of the context provided in the assignment. Through audience analysis students generate a list of possible criteria for evaluating the text, opening up different choices for their response to the assignment context.  Both the Essay 1 and Essay 2 assignments offer questions to get students thinking about how they can most effectively approach the assignment context.  In this way, students must define their goals for their paper based not only on the assignment sheet provided, but also on recognizing that assignment sheet as exemplifying and identifying a specific context that they must write to, thereby equipping them for other kinds of academic writing they will encounter.   By continually focusing on choice and analysis of context in writing, we want to show students that these ways of analyzing texts are choices available to them in writing to respond to a variety of contexts in other classes.


Role of Writing/Writing Skills Emphasized:  Unit 1 highlights analyzing a rhetorical context to determine what approaches are available for producing a text.  Students are asked to recognize and analyze their purpose in writing, as well as consider their audience.  Given the academic context, this unit emphasizes the introduction and development of academic writing skills—objectivity and accuracy in summary, the use of evidence in support of a focused response to a reading or set of ideas, conventions for organizing and defining claims—as well as the development of critical reading strategies and skills.  However, it’s important that we emphasize these skills as responding to the context of academia. (Even the personal response in Essay 1 is framed within academic expectations for focus, organization and development.)  These skills, as we know, are not equally relevant in the contexts of business or personal writing.  We do a disservice to students to teach them these “skills” without acknowledging that these “skills” themselves function within certain contexts.


Role of Reading:  Critical and active reading strategies/skills are crucial not only in this unit, but also in most of the academic and professional texts students will encounter in the future.  Therefore, it’s important to help students develop the ability to define a writer’s purpose, position, and main ideas objectively; and understand how those emerge from the context within which that particular writer is writing.  In this regard, it is more important to focus on the argument or main ideas/viewpoints of the texts than understanding and emphasizing each event or example, a way of reading that many students used to reading narrative fiction find particularly challenging.  Although we focus primarily on main ideas of a text, in Essay 2 we also read for specific textual examples and features such as evidence, tone, and organization to use as possible criteria in responding to the context for that assignment.  Noting the relationship between textual features and larger structure is a key aspect of critical reading because students must be able to prove with textual evidence that their analysis of main ideas in a text is valid.  Finally, a satellite function the readings serve is to connect to the theme of cultural influences that will help set up deeper analysis of the cultural implications of writing in Unit 2.


Tips from Experience: 


Some things to consider or anticipate in this unit:


·        Most students seem to arrive at CO150 much more accustomed to reading “literature” (i.e., narrative, poetry) than many of the nonfiction texts they’ll encounter in this course.  Their experience helps to explain their tendency to recount events rather than ideas.  You may want to make “IDEAS, not EVENTS” your mantra for this unit, especially when we read narrative texts such as Wong or Chapkis.  Students need to learn to FOCUS their summaries on a main idea or thesis, which is sometimes helpful to think of as the writer’s argument.  At any rate, in their first summaries, be prepared for many of them to mention things you don’t even remember from the narratives but they present as central events to the text.  For example, we used to read the Rose essay in the PHG for summaries, and we all got a lot of descriptions of Rose’s bus ride to school that none of us even recalled from the text! 


·        In regard to the use of personal evidence, there are two main things to watch out for:

-         First, many students have had hammered in their heads the idea that personal experience is never acceptable in academic writing, and many will be fearful that they will be struck by lightning if they use the word “I.”  You may want to discuss why this was the rule in the past and why it’s slowly changing now, even in the sciences, where “objectivity” was always the rule.

-         Second, when using personal experience, many students have a very difficult time using detail.  For example, they will say they agree with an author’s point because they “remember that from high school” and leave it at that.  Gently remind them that you (and probably no one else in the room) went to high school with them, so they will have to explain this point more.  Point out to them how a writer like Chapkis manages to give us necessary details of her life without losing focus of her main ideas about cultural expectations for appearance. 


·        For students who just don’t think they can “relate” to these essays (and you’ll hear this a lot—“relating” to an essay is a popular way into that essay), you might notice them trying to force a personal connection to respond to it.  In the past we’ve gotten responses comparing the experience of being a preppie to being a black student from rural Kentucky in an all-white university.  It’s not a good analogy, obviously.  Instead, encourage students to look at why they can’t relate to an experience they have read about and therefore why they might disagree or have a different take on the viewpoint the author of the text they’re responding to offers.  What was their background like that may have spared them some of the difficulties some authors may present?  Focusing on this is more valuable to them than trying to force a false connection to an alien idea or experience and helps further foreground the importance of how the cultural contexts of readers and writers influence interactions with texts.  And again, remind them we’re responding to the main ideas in these readings, not the events or experiences that illustrate those ideas.


·        Also, for Essay 2 you might encourage students to look at how they can’t relate to a certain text and consider how that might serve their purposes in responding to the context of that assignment in their essay.  Would the seminar professor want a text that students could relate to?  How might students being able to relate to a text be useful or beneficial in the freshman seminar class setting?  How could not being able to relate to a text possibly make an essay less effective in that classroom setting? 


·        Another concern to anticipate with Essay 2 is that students need to be continually reminded that their purpose is not to offer a personal response to a text (as they did in Essay 1), but to shape their essay as a focused evaluation of a text to recommend (or not recommend) that reading for the seminar professor’s class.  Emphasize the significant change in context from Essay 1 to Essay 2 and what types of expectations the professor will have for using a reading in her/his class.  Additionally, have students carefully consider how their audience and purpose in this assignment informs their choices for focusing and supporting their evaluations.  Again, we want students to see clearly in Unit 1 that writing involves asking questions about the writing context in order to make the best choices for the texts they produce.


·        Finally, students often consider their reasons for believing something adequate evidence.  For example, they might react to a main idea for Essay 1 and say that smokers should not be allowed to light up in public because second-hand smoke harms non-smokers in the area.  While this certainly might be true, thus far this is only a reason.  A writer must go further to provide evidence to show that this effect actually occurs.  “Reason” vs. “Evidence” will likely be a mantra over the semester.