How Texts Construct Readers: A Mini-Module

A key text in my “Pedagogies of Reading” seminar is Analyzing Everyday Texts by Glenn Stillar. The second mini-module I presented at the 2018 ERWC Leadership Conference draws on ideas from this book. I have a previous post on it here.

Rhetorical analysis usually starts with some conception of audience and purpose. A detailed analysis will look at the particular characteristics of the audience addressed and what arguments and strategies the writer uses to persuade that audience. However, an aspect that is often neglected is how the text defines and arranges the participants in the situation, including the reader. The text may in fact construct an imagined reader that the actual reader does not want to be. The tension between the reader constructed by the text and the actual reader is an important rhetorical effect. An important question might be, “Do you want to be the reader constructed by this text?” Another way of asking this is, “As a reader, are you willing to play the role the writer wants you to play?”

To support this kind of analysis, I have created a “Document Analysis Checklist” that helps a student work through the traditional categories of audience, purpose and form, but also includes a section on “Stylistic Choices” that asks questions about the roles of the participants in the situation, the way the situation is constructed, the attitudes and values reflected, and the accuracy of the presentation. All of these factors are reflected in the word choices made by the author.

The module itself explores these ideas using this sign, which has been posted at entry doors all over the Cal Poly Pomona campus:

SmokeFreeIMG_0216

The curious thing about this sign is that it welcomes and prohibits at the same time. The analysis gets into questions such as “What does ‘our’ mean here?” “Who is ‘welcome’ and who is not?” and “Is the campus being defined by its purity from certain substances and behaviors?” Then we try putting other descriptors into the “smoke and tobacco free” slot. Much is made of these eight words.

I was talking about the rhetoric of the “Welcome to our Smoke Free Campus” sign in our department with one of my rhetoric colleagues. The Shakespearean across the hall overheard us, and came over to defend the sign, saying that her asthma made tobacco smoke intolerable for her. It took us about five minutes to convince her that as rhetoricians, we were discussing how the sign worked, not the issue it was trying to address. She thought we were arguing against a smoke free campus. I think she is still suspicious. However, she also said that the sign had been effective. The smokers, instead of clustering around the doorways, were now hiding in surreptitious corners and off in the shrubbery. So the sign is rhetorically effective.

I asked a linguist about the way “welcome” is used here. It looks like an imperative, but for that to work we would have to read it as “be welcome” with the “be” elided. My informant thought it would be better to read it as “We welcome you to . . .” with the additional words elided. However we interpret it, it involves ellipsis. She also said that it was a very Californian way to express a prohibition. It is like saying “Don’t even think about smoking here!” with a big smile.

The module has the following learning goals

Students will be able to:

  • Read public notices with greater understanding of their rhetorical complexity
  • Analyze the linguistic devices used by writers to construct roles for the participants in a situation
  • Become particularly aware of verb choice in constructing a situation
  • Question the way a text constructs the reader
  • Present their findings in a written analysis

The writing assignment is this:

Our world is full of signs communicating rules, prohibitions, slogans, messages and information. Find a sign in your daily world that you think would be interesting to analyze. It may be helpful to take a picture of the sign with your cellphone. Repeat the process of analysis we engaged in for the “no smoking” sign above. Write a one-page essay describing the sign and its purpose.

In more advanced courses, I ask students to choose an issue that involves a dispute between three parties, often a corporation, a government agency, and the public. The recent scandals involving unintended acceleration in Toyota automobiles and cheating on pollution control devices by Volkswagen are good examples. Then they gather documents related to the issue–press releases, open letters, blog posts, court documents, news stories, etc.–and apply the “Document Analysis Checklist.” These documents turn out to be surprisingly complex and sophisticated in deploying strategies to deflect blame, reassign responsibility, minimize bad consequences, and present intentions in the best possible light. This sort of analysis can make what would seem to be boring bureaucratic documents quite engaging to students. They feel like they can say, “I see what you are doing there.”

The student version of the mini-module is available here:

How Texts Construct Readers

One thought on “How Texts Construct Readers: A Mini-Module

  1. Pingback: Analyzing Everyday Texts – Teaching Text Rhetorically

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