In my writing courses I teach a lot of rhetorical concepts and assign a great many rhetorical analysis activities and papers. However, instead of analyzing what a writer is trying to do and how they are doing it, many students respond by agreeing or disagreeing with the position the writer takes. For example, I recently asked students to find three op-eds taking different positions on an issue they were interested in and analyze the way each writer talked about the issue, how they framed it, what terms they used, etc. They found the articles, but many of them crafted a thesis statement on the issue and used the articles to support their own positions. My instructions were detailed (perhaps too detailed, when many students misunderstand an assignment it is almost always the instructor’s fault), but in this case disregarded.
In part, I think this happened because students did what they had been taught to do. They had an issue, so the thing to do is take a position and support it, something that at this point (a junior-level course in college) they had done many, many times before. They thought that they already knew how to do this.
Taking Things Apart
When I read drafts of application essays by engineering students, they almost always talk about how when they were kids they took everything apart to see how it worked. It’s such a cliche that I usually advise them to take that part out. However, why don’t English majors want to take texts apart to see how they work? That is essentially what rhetorical analysis is. And just as when you take a machine apart, you need wrenches, sockets, screwdrivers, pliers, and other tools, rhetoricians have their tools too.
Tools from Classical Rhetoric and Beyond
Aristotle’s three appeals allow us to investigate the role of the writer, the nature of the arguments, and the effects of emotions on the attempt to persuade the reader. The concept of the enthymeme helps us break down the arguments into premises and tease out hidden assumptions.
The sophistic concepts of “mythos” and “nomos” help us think about the big narratives we all share and the unwritten expectations for behavior that guide every community and shock us when they are transgressed.
Stasis theory and Toulmin argumentation help us figure out where the parties disagree and how well their claims are supported. Dissoi Logoi helps us see who benefits and who is hurt by whatever policy we choose. The concept of “exigence” helps us define the rhetorical situation and our reasons for responding to it.
Descriptive outlining updates the classical concept of “arrangement” and helps us see how a text is organized and how the parts work together.
To move to modern rhetoric, Kenneth Burke’s “pentad” helps us Look at the same situation from different perspectives and track different sources of motivation for acts. We can think about, for example, whether it is just to blame an individual or a particular environment for an act. His concept of “Terministic Screens” can help us see how the language we use affects the world we see. His concept of “identification” can help us see how groups form and re-form and how the terms and symbols they use to signal membership relate to arguments and persuasion.
The Right Tool and the Right Attitude
Selecting the right tool for the text and the purpose is a skill gained through practice. Students will gravitate toward the tools they find most useful to them, but they need lots of practice.
They also need to cultivate what might be called “a moment of neutrality.” They need to step back from the issue and analyze what is really going on in the text at hand. If we really disagree with the writer, but the text also seems very persuasive, our question is “How do they do that?” To combat the opposition, we need to understand their moves. But it is also the case that if we can cultivate this moment of neutrality, we may be able to understand where they are coming from and find some common ground.
Finding common ground is the most effective persuasive strategy of all.