How I teach rhetorical analysis in first-year writing

After the jump you’ll find several links to materials I use for teaching rhetorical analysis as well as explanations of how we go through these different steps. I’m not going to argue that the way I do it is perfect, and I’d be glad to get your feedback if you have some suggestions for improvement.

It takes about 3 or 4 weeks to get from start (introducing the concepts) to finish (gathering up all of the completed essays). Roughly speaking, this is how things happened this semester, when I’m teaching a TTh schedule; if I were to do this in a MWF schedule, I would break things down differently.

If any of the links don’t work, please let me know. You’re free to use any or all of this material, if you choose to.

At the end of a class session, I’ll take maybe 10 minutes to explain the concepts briefly and then assign these 2 “Zero Tolerance” OpEd pieces for our next meeting.

Assigned reading: “Zero Tolerance” OpEd pieces
For their homework (leading to in-class discussion), students are required to

  • Read both essays
  • Decide which one is more persuasive
  • Explain their reasons (in an online forum).

We’ll spend the next class session discussing the 2 OpEd pieces, whether we find them persuasive, and why. Towards the end of that discussion, I bring us back to the basic concepts of rhetoric and the rhetorical appeals. I’ll then assign students to read the following:

Assigned reading: Three Rhetorical Appeals

  • Defines rhetoric for the purpose of our course.
  • Explains the difference between
    • A student evaluating whether or not a writer is persuasive, and
    • A student evaluating whether or not a writer has persuaded (or is likely to persuade) a particular audience.
  • Explains (and gives examples of) the following concepts:
    • Persuasion
    • Rhetor
    • Audience
    • Ethos (extrinsic and intrinsic)
    • Pathos
    • Logos (including specific strategies for using logos)

In the next class session, we’ll continue discussing the 2 OpEd pieces, but this time in terms of rhetor (in this case, a writer) and audience (in this case, readers of I’ll point out to students the difference between on the one hand, whether or not each of them (as an individual student) is persuaded, and on the other hand, whether or not the audience of readers is persuaded. This assignment asks them to evaluate whether or not the audience being addressed is persuaded. For their homework, students go back over the 2 OpEd pieces, pulling out what they think are examples of the rhetorical appeals.

The next time we meet, I have them take some sticky notes and (on each one) write down an example of one of the authors using a particular rhetorical appeal. I then draw a grid on the white board and have students place their sticky notes in the appropriate locations (see pictures below).

In-class sticky note exercise: rhetorical analysis of assigned reading
Describes (and documents with pictures) an activity that took place in my Summer 2009 section of English 101.
(Since doing this exercise, I’ve decided it’s best to spend at least a day discussing each of the 3 rhetorical appeals in terms of the assigned reading.)

We’ll actually spend several days discussing the different appeals. Doing so helps to clear up any misconceptions students might have about how the rhetorical appeals work and what it is I’m asking them to do: not explain why they (as students) might or might not find one of the OpEd pieces persuasive but instead asking them to evaluate whether or not the audience of readers would find the OpEd pieces persuasive.

At some point along the way (I cannot remember exactly when) I give them the assignment description, and we identify some topic that’s current about which contradictory OpEd pieces have been written. For this semester, the topic was President Obama’s address to schoolchildren. I found several different OpEd pieces, asked students to look them over (as homework) and then had them vote on which 2 they wanted to analyze.

English 101, Essay Assignment #1: Rhetorical Analysis
Analyze 2 different works of persuasive writing on the same topic but in disagreement with each other.
Use the three rhetorical appeals as a framework.
Decide which would be more persuasive to an audience of Upstate South Carolina readers
Write an essay arguing for your decision (using the three rhetorical appeals as a framework)

Students wrote a draft of their essay and then participated in a draft workshop a week before the final draft of the paper is due. I spent about 5 or 10 minutes at the start of the draft workshop discussing the criteria by which I will be evaluating their essays and instructing them to use those same criteria when providing feedback to each other during the draft workshop.

English 101 and 102 Grading Criteria (PDF)
This is what we list in the course syllabus, and I’ve turned it into a rubric (which is not an official Composition Program technique, but I’ve found it works for me). I should probably replace the letters that run down the lefthand side with something like Roman numerals so that students don’t get confused and think the letters represent grades.

I welcome your feedback!

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One thought on “How I teach rhetorical analysis in first-year writing

  1. Hi, Dr. Williams,

    I can’t believe I stumbled onto your website after Googling “George Williams” and “18th century.” God, I love the Internet. The reason I was trying to get your school’s name is because I needed the information to complete the recommendations part of my CV to apply for a travel scholarship to attend 4C’s in Louisville this March. So, I wasn’t stalking, honest.

    What makes my finding you now even cooler is that I am in the midst of teaching rhetorical analysis to my 101 class this fall. I am using two websites– and It’s a great activity to get them involved in a historical issue, but to practice “civilized discourse” in class where they share their opinions, but the writing project requires an objective analysis. They are pulling their hair out trying stay focused on rhetorical appeals and generic features.

    Well, I will cease rattling on, but I think of you often. You really were the perfect professor with the perfect course for the beginning of my re-entry into an academic career. After I finish my MA in rhet and comp, I plan to get a degree in Library Science so I can study to be an archivist.

    I am totally going to use your ideas for class discussion. You are so right that it should take 3 to 4 weeks to stew in this stuff. I’m using a syllabus schedule that moves way too quickly relegated by Queen Rhetor at KU who also, BTW, wrote the book we are using. Our approach is through genre analysis. Anyway, I need to move on. I am feeling like I have all the time in the world only for tonight because we just started our Fall Break.

    Anyway, I hope you remember me. I love print culture and the history of the book because of you.

    All the best,

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