Adapting to Your Audience

Teacher as Audience

Kate Kiefer, English Department
For most academic papers, the teacher is the explicit audience. But even within the same discipline, professors might expect quite different formats for papers. For example, in sociology, one prof might ask you to write mainly about your own experiences and your reactions to your experience. Another professor might want you to do library or field research about a social problem and never refer to your own experiences or attitudes toward that problem.

Teachers will often try to give students more experience with writing to different audiences by targeting particular readers for a given paper. Then students address the target audience (class members, members of a business community, congressional representatives, and so on), including the teacher as a secondary audience.

Steve Reid, English Department
When asked who their audience is, many students say, "It's my teacher."

I think it's useful for students to widen their sense of audience in order to realize that their specific teacher is, in fact, a representative reader from a particular academic field or discourse community. Their teacher may be a composition teacher, an English literature teacher, a historian, a chemist, a psychologist, or a biologist--and they want and expect writing that is appropriate for their field.

In terms of their expectations about effective writing, each of these teachers "wants' something slightly different, and those differences reflect the expectations of different academic areas. A composition teacher may want an introduction that gradually leads into the topic; a journalist may want an article that begins immediately with the most startling fact or event; a chemist may want to begin with a review of the research. Psychologists, literature professors, and historians may or may not want you to use your own personal experience, depending on the level (informal to formal) of the writing. Not all academic writing has the same requirements, and those requirements are not so much personal whims (Professor Jones hates it when I use first-person or "I"!) as they are the expectations of that particular academic discourse.

So when you are writing an essay, imagine writing not just for your teacher, but for your teacher as a representative of a larger group of readers who belong to that particular academic area. That awareness may help you see that the requirements of that assignment are not just strange or quirky, but make some sense in the larger context of that particular academic discourse.

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