Analyzing Everyday Texts

English professors spend a great deal of time and energy teaching and analyzing complex literary texts.  Rhetoricians often focus on great speeches delivered on momentous historical occasions.  However, the vast majority of texts produced in our society are ignored by scholars.  Such texts facilitate the business of the world, yet are considered too ordinary, uninteresting, and mundane for study.  One of the goals of my “Pedagogies of Reading” seminar is to change that view.

This week I succeeded in doing so, at least for my 22 students.  I gave them an official letter written by Toyota Motor Sales, U.S.A. to Toyota owners about hazardous floor mats.  I divided the students into groups and asked them “What is going on in this letter?  How does it work?” and lively discussion ensued.  We ran out of time before we could discuss all of the insights we had about this letter.  More about this letter below.

Much of what my students had to say derived from a book I regularly assign in this seminar: Analyzing Everyday Texts: Discourse, Rhetoric, and Social Perspectives, by Glenn Stillar.   This is a short but very ambitious book.  Stillar’s analysis triangulates linguistic theory derived from M.A.K. Halliday, rhetorical theory from Kenneth Burke, and social theory from Pierre Bourdieu.  Stillar’s task in the book is to explain how each theoretical perspective works and fit them together into a complementary whole so that we can understand the linguistic, rhetorical, and social functions of any text we encounter.  The presentation appears to be orderly and logical, but there are some problems.  Stillar’s structure is essentially that of an outline, but in presenting an outline in prose, it is hard to maintain the different levels of subordination.  That problem is hard to fix.  Another problem is that Stillar shifts the order of topics without apparent reason or warning.  For example, the subtitle of the book is “Discourse, Rhetoric, and Social Perspectives,” and indeed that is the order of presentation in the book.  However, on page 10, as he summarizes his approach, he discusses rhetorical theory first, then social theory, and then discourse.  This kind of shifting about happens several times.  A third source of confusion derives from shifting  between Halliday’s terms and his own.  Stillar says that a text performs three functions: organizing, representing  and interacting . Halliday calls these functions “textual,” “ideational,” and  “interpersonal.”  Stillar uses both sets of terms.

Confusion about levels of subordination, shifts in the order of presentation, and shifts in terms, especially in the early chapters, make this ambitious book a difficult read for students.  However, it is well worth the effort.

I ended up making an outline of Stillar’s theory of discourse analysis so that my students could keep the categories straight.  The chapters on Burke and Bourdieu are less problematic.  In fact, the Burke chapters gather together into one discussion useful concepts from a number of important books, no easy task as Burke has new theories in each book.  More about this in a future post.

What I would like to do in this post is work toward a presentation of some of the basic insights of Stillar’s adaptation of Halliday that would allow undergraduate students to use these concepts.

What Stillar calls the “organizing” function is mostly about devices of cohesion and coherence, things such as article usage, pronoun reference, and demonstratives that make text stick together.  Let’s put that aside in our focus on teaching undergraduates.  Stillar is building a set of tools for research in discourse analysis.  In our pedagogical orientation, we want to focus on what students can be taught to notice, and what they can do in responding to a text and in their own writing.

Stillar says of the “representing” function that a text is “about” something in that it “names and arranges participants, processes and circumstances” (18).  The “interacting” function constructs “forms of interaction between an addresser and an addressee in particular social roles” (19).  Exploring these functions is clearly relevant to teaching students to understand and deploy the rhetoric of everyday texts.

Let’s look at the first paragraph of the letter from Toyota:

This notice is being sent to you in accordance with the requirements of the National Traffic and Motor Vehicle Safety Act. Toyota has decided that a defect which relates to motor vehicle safety exists in certain 200_ through certain 200_ model year [name of model] vehicles. The defect is the potential for an unsecured or incompatible driver’s floor mat to interfere with the accelerator pedal and cause it to get stuck in the wide open position. Toyota has determined that this defect does not exist in vehicles in which the driver side floor mat is compatible with the vehicle and properly secured.

The first sentence indicates that the letter is being sent in compliance with a law. Toyota does not want to write to the addressee, but is being compelled to do so by another agent, in this case the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA).  This statement “arranges” the participants: the NHTSA as the coercive authority, Toyota as the unwilling correspondent, and the car owner as the hapless addressee.  Stillar suggests that in determining “what is going on” in a text, we first look at the main verbs, which he says will represent action processes, mental processes, or relations.  The “action” in this sentence is cast in passive progressive, “is being sent,” making the grammatical subject “this notice,” clearly reducing Toyota’s agency in this matter.  The two verbs which do have “Toyota” as subject, “has decided” and “has determined,” represent mental processes rather than actions.  The “defect” which is the motivating theme of the letter simply “exists” without cause or culprit.  Stillar would characterize this use of “exists” as relational, although it represents a non-relation more than any relation to any participant.

The final sentence of the paragraph indicates that the defect does not even “exist” in vehicles with the right floor mats properly secured.  Up to this point, the text has done everything possible to keep Toyota from being a responsible agent.  This last sentence begins to renegotiate the interaction among the parties.  If the defect does not exist in vehicles with floor mats of the right type properly installed, but does exist in some vehicles, then the defect is caused by whoever installed the floor mats.  That is likely to be the car owner.

Toyota is in a difficult rhetorical situation.  They don’t want to be responsible.  They want to blame the customer, but they can’t do that overtly without potentially losing future sales.  This leads to a very carefully constructed letter, in some ways as rich in complexity and nuance as a literary text.

I think that this sort of analysis reveals more about the rhetorical effect of a text than what is offered by the tools that students are normally taught, such as the Aristotelian appeals and Toulmin argument.  More on this in future posts.

Note: I created a “Document Analysis Checklist” that draws mostly on the traditional rhetorical categories of audience, purpose and form, but includes a “Stylistic Choices” section at the end that draws on insights from the Stillar book.  I wrote questions that are designed to help students do the kind of analysis I did with the Toyota document above.  I will test it this quarter in my English 301 course.

3 thoughts on “Analyzing Everyday Texts

  1. I tried to create a simple set of questions that would help my ENG 301 students use these concepts. I said:

    In a nutshell, as you analyze your documents, it is useful to ask yourself the following questions:

    –How does the document arrange the participants, processes, and circumstances?
    –Do the main verbs express actions (doing), mental processes (seeing, feeling, liking, understanding), or relations (existing, being something, appearing to be something)? How do these verbs represent the actions and situations in ways that are favorable to the purpose of the writer?
    –Is passive voice used to blur who the real actor is?
    –How does the text assign roles to the participants? How does this serve the interests of the writer?

  2. I think this kind of analysis will definitely reveal more about the rhetorical effect of a text than simply having students look for Aristotelian appeals — and I say this as someone who would regularly have students look for the appeals in assigned readings. As I think I said during our last class, I’ve come to see Stillar’s system as a tool for helping students increase the intensity with which they analyze a text. I think this is really important because it can lead to students feeling more empowered as readers. This is one reason why analyzing everyday texts is essential: students need to understand that everything can be analyzed. The critical reading skills they practice in class don’t apply only in the classroom. It’s something they can take with them.

    Of course, using this system can also help students become better writers. I think that just understanding how writing “works” can prompt students to feel better about their own writing — and by “better” I mean more hopeful about their own potential to write. I’ve often felt that part of what I needed to do as a teacher was to demystify the act of writing so that students realize they are capable of engaging with it in different and interesting ways. It seems to me that a lot of students think of writing in very passive terms. It’s something they do because the teacher gives them an assignment, end of story. They don’t regard it as an opportunity to create a specific experience for a reader. So just helping students see that writing is always doing something — always creating an experience for a particular audience — can prompt them to invest a little more in what they produce. I’ve had feedback from students telling me that this is the case.

    Finally, I think it’d be useful to have students use the system on their own writing. Once they have some familiarity applying the system to other authors, they should be asked to turn the lens on themselves. I always had students perform a final revision and reflection exercise on the day that their final drafts were due. Among other things, they’d have to answer a series of questions about their writing. The particular questions varied depending on the genre of the essay. The reflection for the argumentative essay required them to perform a basic rhetorical analysis of their argument. They’d have to refer to themselves as “the author” as they evaluated the use of Toulmin and of the Aristotelian appeals. I think it’d be great to use the set of questions you’ve devised in this way. It’d provide a perfect way to move from global concerns — which I now think is what my questions were asking — to local concerns.

    I just thought of one more use for Stillar: in the past I’ve had students focus very narrowly on the rhetorical potentials of punctuation (I designed a lesson around a simplified version of John Dawkins’ Hierarchy of Functional Punctuation Marks from his essay, “Teaching Punctuation as a Rhetorical Tool”). Again, Stillar would be excellent here, because his system provides a kind of bridge to move students from an extremely close analysis to a wider but no less rigorous one.

  3. Albie, this is a great comment! So much of writing instruction focuses on either large scale organizational structures (the five-paragraph essay and its robotic brethren) or micro-level grammatical issues. We almost never get to stylistic effects and the ways in which texts construct a social reality, which is where a lot of the real work of a text gets done.

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