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Rhetorical Situation: Context, Topic, and Author

Rhetorical Situation: Context, Topic, and Author

Author: Gavin McCall

This lesson defines the rhetorical situation and explains purpose and audience.

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Welcome to English Composition. I'm Gavin McCall. Thanks for joining me. What are we going to learn today? We're going to learn about the rhetorical situation. In order to understand the rhetorical situation in which a text was written, you need to consider the author's purpose, presumed audience, the cultural and historical context, and how that context influences topic choice in the author's perspective and background. Today we'll focus on the context and topic of the essay, as well as the author's perspective.

First, let's look at how context influences topic choice. For our purposes, context means both the personal reason or reasons why the author chose a particular topic, as well as the broader historical and cultural elements that influenced the choice, and all the other choices the author made during the writing process. Both of these aspects of context contribute to an author's development of a topic.

If, for example, a student chooses to write an essay arguing for stricter tobacco control, in part because his grandfather recently died of lung cancer, that would be a personal impetus. But writing it in the wake of the dozens of statewide smoking bans in bars and restaurants that were passed a few years ago would be an example of both the historical and cultural atmosphere in which the text was written.

Keep in mind that context also influences the reading of a text. If, for example, a reader of the smoking essay works at one of those bars or restaurants that had their policy changed, he or she is much more likely to read sympathetically than would a pack-a-day smoker who used to frequent those establishments. And a young reader, someone who grew up in a state like California, which has had a public smoking ban for almost 10 years, might not even understand the purpose of the essay because it argues for something he or she takes for granted.

The last aspect of the rhetorical situation we'll look at is the author's background, perspective, and experience. These contribute to the piece by influencing the author's choice of topic, as well as how he or she approaches that topic. For example, a writer who grew up in a small agricultural community is probably going to have a different set of experiences and perspectives on the issue of population control than would someone who spent their entire life in a major city. These differences will remain, whether they agree or disagree.

The author's background will also influence the writing of a text, either by enhancing it with personal experiences and insight or by preventing the author from considering possibilities outside of his or her own experience. For example, a writer whose family moved across state lines many times when she was a child would probably have some very useful insights into what it means to make a place home. But she might have trouble understanding the plight of someone born and raised in a now gentrified neighborhood, unable to understand why he or she doesn't simply leave. So you can see a different experience and a different perspective are both a strength and a weakness, depending on the subject. The point is to be as aware as you can of the strengths and limitations of your own background, your own context, as well as those of the writers whose work you encounter.

What did we learn today? We learned about the rhetorical situation and how the context in which something is written affects its topic, as well as how the author's background and experiences can influence the way a text comes to be. And all of this will help us, as both readers and writers. My name is Gavin McCall. Thanks for joining me.