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Using the Rhetorical Situation in Reading and Writing

Using the Rhetorical Situation in Reading and Writing

Author: Gavin McCall

This lesson defines the rhetorical situation and demonstrates its value in reading and writing.

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Source: Article Sample on presumed innocence: Train, Arthur. Courts and Criminals, Gutenberg eBook Released March 26, 2009.

Video Transcription

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Welcome to English Composition. I'm Gavin McCall. Thanks for joining me.

What are we going to learn today? We'll learn more about the rhetorical situation, by looking at how it can help us better understand a text we've read, as well as ways that rhetorical awareness can help writers in the creation of their own texts.

Remember that the rhetorical situation of any text includes the author's purpose and presumed audience, the cultural and historical context, and how they influence topic choice, and the author's personal background. Why is this so important? If you want to really understand a piece of writing, you need to consider its rhetorical situation, since those are the elements that went into making it. Being rhetorically aware is an important part of engage reading, and it can provide useful insight into whatever text you choose to apply it to. Let's look at a couple examples.

For our first example, I selected a passage from an essay titled, "The Pleasant Fiction of the Presumption of Innocence." Pause the video here, and take as much time as you need to read this section thoroughly.

So what would you say was the author's purpose in writing this? Just from the title, if not from the whole paragraph, we should be able to infer that Mr. Train is setting up an argument that not only is the presumption of innocence in criminal matters a fiction, it's a pleasant one. And by inference, the truth is less pleasant.

And what about the context in which this text was written? I've provided the dates during which the series of essays from which this was taken were printed, so we know it was written sometime between 1905 and 1910. But even from the language, you could probably tell it was written a long time ago.

And Train's use of a deacon as his example tells us something, too. It tells us he was writing about, or perhaps writing to the kind of church going people who might not participate in exactly this kind of gossip, but who would have at least witnessed it. Whether this is also an indicator of class or social standing, as well, we can't be sure. But I think it's likely.

As far as the author's background and perspective, a quick Google search will tell you that Arthur Train was a lawyer in New York who got famous by writing fiction novels about the law, lawyers, and crime. This wouldn't be for another 10 or 15 years after he wrote "The Pleasant Fiction of the Presumption of Innocence," but still, it gives you a sense of who the writer is, which is always useful. Even though he hasn't yet started writing fiction, we can already see what that writing might be like, and we can better understand his interest in the subject matter.

For our second example, I've chosen a very different text. Give yourself a minute to read it. And as you do, think about what the writer's purpose and assumed audience might be, and keep an eye out for clues about the context it was written in, and for, and for indicators of the author's background and perspective.

So, what do you think? The purpose seems pretty clear. The writer wants to inform us about this place, and devotes a lot of time to describing what kind of place it is, in part by describing the kind of people that occupy it.

But what about the assumed audience? What can we tell from the text? We know the writer assumes we're unfamiliar with the place, yes. But look at the last long sentence, where it states that people living elsewhere wouldn't have to drive an hour to see a traffic light, and where they have more neighbors than cows. It's pretty clear this was written from a rural perspective, but it's also clear, if you read closely, that's been written to an urban, or suburban one. That's the intended, or the assumed audience.

The author's perspective is also pretty clear. It should be pretty obvious from the vaguely nostalgic tone and the oddly proud phrasing that this place is important to the writer. This isn't just a bit of travel journalism, is it? Can we assume the writer lives in Wood Valley, or at least used to? Probably. And that would, if you have the rest of the essay, inform your reading of the text, since people writing about their homes almost always write differently because of it.

OK, time for a disclaimer. I was kind of cheating at this last rhetorical analysis, since I know for a fact that the writer used to live there, because I am the writer. But nonetheless, with a careful, attentive, engaged reading of any text, you can find all kinds of clues, clues that will make you a more informed reader.

The rhetorical situation doesn't only apply to existing texts, but also to those that have yet to be written-- like yours, for example. Being rhetorically aware, by which I mean understanding your own backgrounds and perspectives, as well as the cultural and historical context that surrounds you, can help you in many ways. It can help you enhance your writing process, by revealing your personal biases and assumptions, and it can help you develop a writing project by revealing issues that may be more important to you than others. Often, these are things we take for granted.

To better demonstrate how this can happen, let's make up a hypothetical person. Let's say our writer to be is a young woman, named Sarah, who was recently assigned an essay on a controversial topic, abortion. This is something many students, and scholars, and experts in various fields have written about, so Sarah knows she needs to find a way to make her argument real.

Let's say Sarah is pro-choice, though she's never really thought about it much. But now that she does, she realizes there is something about her background that could offer a useful perspective for her essay. Sarah was adopted as a baby. And even though she never met her birth mother, she knows that if abortion had been legal two decades ago, there's a chance she would never have instead.

This doesn't change her opinion. Sarah still believes abortion should be legal for women who want it. But obviously, this awareness of her own history will complicate her essay, in a good way. Besides her past, Sarah should also consider her present situation-- what she knows, and does not know about her topic. And since Sarah has never been in a position to consider abortion herself, nor does she have any family or close friends who ever, to Sarah's knowledge at least, experienced an unplanned pregnancy, she knows there's a lot about the subject she doesn't understand on any kind of deep, emotional level.

And before writing, Sarah needs to consider two more things. The first is the context in which she's writing. The topic was assigned to her, but Sarah should still make sure she knows everything about the climate surrounding her topic. If, for example, she lives in a state that's had legal abortions for years, but just last month a bill was passed that limits the situations in which an abortion can be performed, that would, or should impact her argument.

And the last thing Sarah needs to consider in order to create a rhetorically sound argument is her audience. Who is she writing this for, or to? Her teacher? Her classmates? The Politicians who passed the bill? Depending on her audience, Sarah's essay would, or should, take different shapes in order to be most effective.

This has been an oversimplification, obviously, but still something like the process our fictional Sarah goes through should happen every time you sit down to write. If you're going to put in the time and effort it takes to write, you owe it to yourself and your project to consider the rhetorical situation first.

So, what did we learn today? We learned about how understanding the rhetorical situation of a text can help you become a more informed, engaged reader. And we looked at how the same kind of awareness can help you get the most out of your own writing projects. I'm Gavin McCall. Thanks for joining me.