Learning how to be a scholar of rhetoric is tougher than it appears. I assume that most (or likely all) of you have come from high school with a very good understanding of how to analyze a text. I suspect that you probably have some finely honed skills for investigating great literature. We’re asking you to back away from what you already know and have been doing to do a different kind of work on different kinds of “texts.” In the case of our first assignment, you’ll be investigating an artifact. In this post, I’m going to try to pull some loose strings together for you by reiterating and expanding on some of what we’ve been talking about in class.
The Scientific Approach
Forgive me if I’ve said this too often, but it bears repeating, as we all have trouble sometimes with backing away from the object of our investigation and analysis to see it with new eyes. None of you have trouble moving into scientific-thinking mode, and that’s precisely what you’ll need to do at first in order to collect information about your artifact. Last fall I had a student who worked on the swastika. I was immediately concerned that he would be unable to give a speech that went beyond, “Swastikas are bad! Nazis are bad! Therefore, my civic artifact is a bad, bad thing.” Of course he proved me very wrong. This student recognized a symbol that had/has a great deal of civic weight in that it evokes strong nationalist sentiment or provokes anger/fear/sadness about the power the state can have to destroy large groups of people. But he started by looking at the symbol itself: what are its origins? How did its use and meaning change over time? With just a little bit of research, he found some bits of information that allowed him to piece together a complex view of the swastika’s role in civic life (I did encourage him to stay reasonably focused, as the swastika has a long history across many cultures). In this same way, I’ll ask you to be a scientist from Mars who knows nothing about Barbie, Black Lives Matter, “We Are Penn State!”, Check Your Privilege, or whatever your civic artifact is. Take this to heart, please, especially if you are very fond of or despise the artifact you’ve chosen. You don’t want to “cheerlead,” nor do you want to do the opposite (anti-cheerlead, if you will).
Going beyond description & getting to analysis
Before I say a few words about analysis, I want to make it clear that you will need to describe your artifact for your audience. As with most things I’ll say, effective description is easier said than done. Most of you will choose civic artifacts that are easy to describe or are already familiar to your audience. Additionally, you’ll provide your audience with an image of your artifact at the beginning of your speech (if possible). However, when you are ready to write your rhetorical analysis paper, you’ll need to be ready to do a careful description that doesn’t take up too space and bore your readers.
So first you’ll want to describe your artifact and provide context which, for some of you, will involve a bit of a history lesson. I’m going to take a sentence here to remind you to avoid stating the obvious; you’ll lose your audience quickly by telling them too much of what they already know. After you accomplish description and context, you’ll want to make sure that you dive into analysis. You’ve got lots of ways to do this, and since the speech is short, you should choose the direction that’s most relevant to your artifact. The list of questions we used in class might be of use to you in getting at what’s most compelling about your civic artifact.
Let’s break down the assignment
- You will want to draw upon course concepts to explain how the event or opportunity in question can be seen as civic
Go back to Chapter One for help with this one if you need it. Maybe the most compelling assertion you’ll make about your civic artifact is that it has a civic component. If you choose the parking meter as your artifact, I assure you that making the argument that parking meters say something crucial about civic engagement could certainly be the heart of your speech. You will be sure that the civic is addressed in any case.
- and what ideologies and/or civic commonplaces are contained within or assumed by the artifact.
You don’t need to list every possible commonplace. For example, if you are working on the engagement ring, you couldn’t possible cover everything there is to say about civic commonplaces (our discussion in class made that clear!). However, your primary job is to consider ideology/commonplaces. Your reading covered ideology and commonplaces, but it didn’t do a thorough job of explaining the difference between the two concepts. If you feel comfortable using both terms appropriately in your speech, feel free to do so. If not, you might want to focus on commonplaces. This is a question we can focus on in office hours if you’d like.
- Your speech might also explain how context and the rhetorical situation inform the piece’s message
If your civic artifact was created in order to work persuasively (the “Check Your Privilege” posters, for example), you will certainly want to consider some elements of the rhetorical situation (audience, purpose, message, etc.) including available means (there are lots of possibilities here, but students usually want to jump to ethos/logos/pathos)*. As I noted above, context is likely to be important for all of your civic artifacts. As for the piece’s “message,” I’m thinking of this in terms of the rhetorical situation as well. For example, “Black Lives Matter” has a message(s) (it was intentionally created with an audience and purpose in mind). Thanksgiving dinner? One could identify an audience, purpose, rhetor, and so on, but working through that rhetorical situation is probably more sophisticated than we’re prepared to do–especially in a 3-4 minute speech. It’s okay to focus on other elements of your civic artifact if sorting through the rhetorical situation doesn’t feel like the most compelling approach to your analysis. We’ll be diving into it headfirst with your rhetorical analysis paper.
- and how the artifact is framing the very idea of civic engagement.
This last element of the assignment description circles back to the beginning with the addition of “engagement.” The assignment is asking you to discuss the ways in which your civic artifact asks a group of people to participate in their community.
“But how do I get an A?”
In class on Monday, Teresa mentioned the trouble with rubrics, and I’ll reiterate what she said. Rubrics suggest that if you do this thing, this thing, and this thing, that you’ll get an A. When you take a look at the rubric for this assignment, I want you to understand that rubrics are not meant to be prescriptive. The assignment as I examined it above is what you should consider when you are trying to determine if the content of your speech has done its job. Every successful speech or paper offers an unusual, fresh perspective on its topic that demonstrates deep investigation and analysis. It takes into consideration the unique properties of its subject and avoids formulaic fulfillment of the assignment.
I think I’ve probably said too much here, but I hope that something of what I’ve discussed will be useful as you move forward with your work. Don’t hesitate to be in touch!
*You will see more on the rhetorical situation very soon. Stay tuned!