Writing a Rhetorical Analysis

Note: This post assumes you are familiar with Aristotle’s terms, ethos, logos, and pathos. If you are not, you may want to read “Three Ways to Persuade” first.

A rhetorical analysis paper is a common assignment in university writing courses from First Year Writing to graduate courses in rhetoric. The assignment offers an opportunity for the writer to see rhetorical concepts in action, doing real work in real contexts. It is an exercise in critical thinking, pulling the curtain of language aside to look at the rhetorical machinery at work behind it. It is also a step toward being able to put these concepts to use in one’s own writing. However, many students struggle with this type of analysis. Some end up merely paraphrasing the text they are examining. Some go on a search for strategies to identify, pointing out that the author “uses” ethos here and pathos there, but without connecting the strategies to a purpose or an audience. Others make arguments about what the author is doing, but don’t support those arguments with evidence from the text.

This is not really surprising. Most students have been trained to do literary analysis in a close reading, non-theoretical way. Rhetoric is both intuitive and counter-intuitive. It is intuitive in that we are all natural rhetoricians using rhetorical strategies every day. It is counter-intuitive in that thinking deeply about rhetorical strategies makes us see that what at first seems obvious is in fact quite complex and perhaps even devious.

A good starting point for a rhetorical analysis is to produce what is called a “rhetorical précis.” This strategy was first presented in a 1988 article by Margaret Woodworth in Rhetoric Review. The rhetorical précis, as designed by Woodworth, is a paragraph that answers four questions:

RhetoricalPrecisChart-cropped

This semester, my Professional Writing class looked at a resignation letter written by Kelly Mehlenbacher, who was State Operations Director for the Kamala Harris presidential campaign. The letter was published in an article in the New York Times.

A rhetorical précis of the letter might look like this:

Kelly Mehlenbacher, State Operations Director for the Kamala Harris campaign for President of the United States, wrote a resignation letter (dated November 11, 2019, published in the New York Times November 29, 2019) stating that she is resigning because she has never seen a campaign treat its staff so poorly. She supports her argument by describing the lack of a plan to win, laying off staff without notice and without regard for personal consequences, low morale, and divided leadership. She says that she writes in order to cause serious consideration of the structure, goals, internal communications, and values of the campaign. Her immediate audience is the campaign leadership, though once it was published in the newspaper, the audience expanded greatly to include newspaper readers and most importantly, potential campaign donors (Harris dropped out of the race on December 3).

The rhetorical précis is only the beginning of a full analysis. Though it doesn’t go into specific rhetorical strategies, it establishes the basic context–the author, the thesis, a summary of the support, the purpose, and the intended audience. Anyone doing a rhetorical analysis should solidify their grasp of these basic elements first.

The First Paragraph

Now we are ready to start looking at the actual language of the text. One of the books I sometimes use in the professional writing course recommends making a “mental movie” of the reader reading the text. This is a moment by moment imagining of the reader’s responses. This letter starts out

It is with a heavy heart that I submit my resignation as State Operations Director at Kamala Harris for the People, effective November 30, 2019. This is my third presidential campaign and I have never seen an organization treat its staff so poorly.

Often there will be an ethos move in the beginning of a document like this. However, the phrase, “It is with a heavy heart,” cliche or not, signals an emotional state, or an appeal to pathos. The reader knows that bad news is coming. The writer doesn’t like what she is about to do, but she is going to do it. We don’t know whether this letter is a surprise to the reader, or expected, but it is not good. The ethos move comes in the second sentence, with “this is my third presidential campaign.” She is a seasoned campaigner. And then she complains, not about how she herself is being treated, but about how the campaign is treating its staff in general. She is sad, she is experienced, and she is principled and trying to stand up for her people. There is a lot going on in those first two sentences.

After establishing herself as knowledgeable and principled, she delivers the devastating payload of this letter. She writes,

While I still believe that Senator Harris is the strongest candidate to win in the General Election in 2020, I no longer have confidence in our campaign or its leadership. The treatment of our staff over the last two weeks was the final straw in this very difficult decision.

She states that she still believes in the candidate, but not in the campaign or its leadership. The poor treatment of the staff is not the real issue, but a symptom of poor leadership. As we move into the logos of this letter, we have two possible enthymemes. One might be

  • Successful presidential campaigns require dedicated and talented staff.
  • Successful presidential campaigns treat their staff well.
  • The Kamala Harris campaign does not treat its staff well.
  • Therefore, the Kamala Harris campaign is not a successful campaign.

That makes it all about the staff. The implied recommendation would be to treat the staff better to have a better result.

The Second Paragraph

However, at the end of the second paragraph, a paragraph that resonates with the word “unacceptable,” she writes,

It is unacceptable that with less than 90 days until Iowa we still do not have a real plan to win. Our campaign For the People is made up of diverse talent which is being squandered by indecision and a lack of “leaders who will lead.”

We might write this enthymeme as follows

  • Successful presidential campaigns require decisive leaders with a real plan.
  • Decisive leaders with a plan use their staff resources well.
  • The Kamala Harris campaign does not use its staff well.
  • Therefore the Kamala Harris campaign needs decisive leaders.

The rhetorically interesting issue here is why focus on the issue of the treatment of the staff when the real issue is about leadership? This is the kind of issue that is often missed when a student is simply focused on finding instances of ethos, pathos, and logos. The writer is using a sub-issue to get at the more difficult issue from an indirect perspective. The text provides one enthymeme, but another is lurking behind it.

The Third Paragraph

The third paragraph continues to focus on staff morale, trusting in the expertise of the staff, and listening to honest feedback. But mixed in are references to the campaign manager and the campaign chair (the candidate’s sister Maya) who have not addressed the staff “to explain, apologize, or reassure us of the decisions being made and the path forward,” and have refused to confront mistakes.

The Fourth Paragraph

In the final paragraph, the writer says that she hopes that her departure “might result in some serious consideration of our structure, our goals, our internal communications and what our organizational values are.” She does not say who should be doing this consideration. The letter is addressed “To whom it may concern,” not to the campaign manager or chair. She has already indicated in the first paragraph that she does not have confidence in their leadership. It is unlikely that she thinks her resignation will change their capabilities. I think a case could be made that the actual intended audience for this letter is the candidate herself, Kamala Harris, and that this is a plea that she fire both Maya Harris, her sister, and Juan Rodriguez, the campaign manager. What happened instead is that Kamala Harris ended her campaign.

Conclusions

What comes out of this analysis is a tension between what the text says and what it does. This tension is designed into the document. The concern for the welfare of the staff is an acceptable theme. A direct attack on the competence of the campaign leadership is much less likely to provoke the desired result. It’s all about rhetorical strategy. Notice also that the rhetorical précis doesn’t get at this. The précis is about the surface, while the in-depth analysis gets at what is really going on. But the précis is a good starting point.

In this analysis, I have been using Aristotle’s three appeals and the concept of the enthymeme, which is the main component of logos, at least for Aristotle. I also noted the repetition of variations of “it’s unacceptable” in the second paragraph, a kind of anaphora or repetition.

However, we could also invoke kairos at this point. This resignation comes at a crucial point in the campaign, a point that comes in most campaigns, where things are not going well and money is short. Money for a campaign is a chicken and egg sort of problem. More money can mean more success, which can lead to more money. However, this campaign is in a downward spiral in polls and in donations. Drastic measures and brilliant leadership will be necessary to turn things around. Kelly Mehlenbacher doesn’t see that happening. It’s time for her to leave.

Works Cited

Martin, Jonathan, Astead W. Herndon and Alexander Burns. “How Kamala Harris’s Campaign Unravelled.” New York Times, 29 Nov. 2019, https://www.nytimes.com/2019/11/29/us/politics/kamala-harris-2020.html. Accessed 18 Dec. 2019.

Woodworth, Margaret K. “The Rhetorical Précis.” Rhetoric Review 7 (1988): 156-64. Print.