Chapter 1 College Writing, Rhetoric, and You

Cynthia Kiefer

1.o Introduction

Chapter 1 introduces the purpose of first year composition courses in your academic, career, and lifelong learning contexts.  In this chapter, we introduce key rhetorical concepts and terms we will use throughout this text while engaging you with an exploration of the multiple identities and personal elements you bring to your academic literacies. 

By engaging in and reflecting upon the content, processes, and assignments in this textbook, you will begin to develop an identity as an academic “insider” and a competent college writer, reader, and researcher.  We hope you will experience a growing sense of  empowerment as a person who can harness their literacies and rhetorical knowledge most effectively to inform, persuade, and even entertain others. We also hope you will see the value of these skills and knowledge as tools for meeting your personal purposes and as a foundation for lifelong learning. Through the readings, exercises, and assignments presented in this textbook content, you will explore the relationships among your multiple personal and academic literacies and your sense of empowerment to use these literacies to achieve your desired outcomes in any given situation.

1.0.1 Your unique voice and life experiences are relevant and welcome 

Throughout this introductory chapter, we ask you to connect with the idea that you are a rhetorical being, that is, a person who communicates with others for multiple purposes by making intentional choices to deliver a message, request, or thought most effectively to the intended audience. If you have ever tried to inform another person how to make the best cheeseburger or to persuade your friends to go to the restaurant where you would prefer to eat or to amuse your classmates with a story about the time you tripped and flipped over a platter of sizzling calamari on customers dressed in formal evening wear you were serving, you have engaged in rhetoric.

Through the content, activities, exercises, and writing assignments in this chapter, we will ask you to recognize the wealth of knowledge and experiences you bring to the study and practice of writing, reading, and researching rhetorically. Even in academic writing and speaking,  your unique voice and life experiences are relevant.

1.0.2 Why First Year Composition Matters to You Now—and Later

The purpose of this first-year composition course and textbook is to provide instruction and writing experiences that require various forms of writing, critical thinking, reading, and academic research. Through the course readings, instruction, assignments, and engagement with peers, you will expand your academic and personal writing, rhetoric, and research skills while investigating key issues in our culture and the local, national, and global issues that affect us most directly today. These experiences and skills will provide a foundation for your academic success, career advancement, and lifelong literacy growth.

As a student who has already completed one semester of college composition, you probably understand the purpose of learning to write well to meet college level expectations, but you may not be sure how these skills translate to the work world. A recent Association of American Colleges and University (AACU) report, How College Contributes to Workforce Success: What Matters Most to Employers presents employer survey findings indicating how important the very skills taught in this course and text are to employers. According to the report, only six in ten employers “say that recent graduates possess the knowledge and skills needed for success in entry-level positions at their companies or organizations” (Finley iv). These five survey findings are particularly relevant to the curriculum reflected in most second semester college composition courses and to the learning outcomes and objectives in this text:

  • 90% of employers surveyed felt it was very or somewhat important that students enter the workforce with the ability to communicate through writing.
  • 91% of employers surveyed felt it was very or somewhat important that students enter the workforce with digital literacy skills.
  • 93% of employers surveyed felt it was very or somewhat important that students enter the workforce with the ability to locate, evaluate, and use information in decision making.
  • 93% of employers surveyed felt it was very or somewhat important that students enter the workforce with the ability to integrate ideas/information across settings and contexts.
  • 95% of employers surveyed felt it was very or somewhat important that students enter the workforce with critical thinking skills. (Finley 6)

The critical thinking, writing, reading, research, and digital literacy skills emphasized through the writing and research practice presented in this text will be essential to your academic and career success and provide a mindset for lifelong learning. However, a Forbes magazine article suggests that most students who graduate from college do possess these skills and did practice them frequently in college, but they are not aware that these academic skills are so important to employers and, therefore, fail to highlight them in their resumes and interviews. The author suggested the gap is not in the skills college graduates possess, but rather is an “awareness gap,” which author Ryan Craig explains is “the inability for college graduates to make employers aware of the skills they actually have.”

Can you explain and discuss your critical thinking, writing, digital literacy, information, and research integration skills in speech and in writing? Metacognition plays an important role in articulating, practicing, and reflecting upon these skills. Throughout this text, you will have many opportunities to develop awareness of your critical literacy skills and use this knowledge to empower your sense of agency as a rhetor (communicator) who can effect change with  language  through a combination of  literacies and rhetorical knowledge.

Learning Objectives and Aligned Course Level Competencies

In this chapter, you will learn:

  • to develop an authentic purpose for engaging with the course content and assignments.
  • to reflect on the strengths and values you bring to your study of writing, rhetoric, and research.
  • to research, identify, and document literacy and genre norms and expectation in your field of interest, academic discipline, or career area.
  • to identify key rhetorical concepts and terms.
  • to define and identify types of ethos and reasons for developing your ethos as a college writer.
  • to compose a personal essay presenting a rhetorical analysis and reflection upon the way you present and participate in your discourse communities.
  • to demonstrate understanding of personal essay genre norms (i.e. personal essay, tone, organization, content, conventions).
  • to engage in self-reflection to understand how you can use your rhetorical awareness and knowledge to effectively engage in your discourse communities.

Aligned English 102 Course Competencies:

  • Write for specific rhetorical contexts, including circumstance, purpose, topic, audience and writer, as well as the writing`s ethical, political, and cultural implications.  (MCCD #1)
  • Organize writing to support a central idea through unity, coherence and logical development appropriate to a specific writing context. (MCCC#2).
  • Use appropriate conventions in writing, including consistent voice, tone, diction, grammar, and mechanics. (MCCCD#3)
  • Use feedback obtained through peer review, instructor comments, and/or other sources to revise writing. (MCCCD #7)
  • Assess one`s own writing strengths and identify strategies for improvement through instructor conference, portfolio review, written evaluation, and/or other methods. (MCCD #8)
  • Generate, format, and edit writing using appropriate technologies. (MCCCD #9)

1.1  Literacy: Are you a metaliterate Learner?  

Decorative black and white line image containing computer, pencil, world, and key symbols. Created by Eucalyp and obtained from the Noun Project
Computer, pencil, world, and key symbols by Eucalyp

Oftentimes, when we use the term literacy, we are referring to competence in the acts of reading and writing. The 2003 National Assessment of Adult Literacy defines literacy in terms of skills as thus: “Literacy is the ability to use printed and written information to function in society, to achieve one’s goals, and to develop one’s knowledge and potential.”  In 2003, the NAAL measures were designed around “everyday” adult literacy expectations and were assessed through three literacy tasks: prose, document, and quantitative tasks.

In today’s world, the literacy demands on all of us demand far wider range of literacies across all aspects of our lives. You may have heard terms such as digital literacy, financial literacy, information literacy, health literacy, emotional literacy, media literacy, and scientific literacy, just to name a few. In fact, a new literacy term, metaliteracy, is emerging from the information literacy field. Just like metacognition involves critically thinking about your thinking, metaliteracy involves critically thinking about your literacies and how you can most effectively use them to meet a desired goal as a consumer and/or producer of information.

Exercise: Developing Your Identity as a Metaliterate Learner

Purpose: The purpose of this exercise is to help you understand the role of literacy in your learning

Open  “Metaliteracy and Your Role as a Metaliterate Learner”  in your browser and respond to the practice quiz questions below as you read.  The article explains the Metaliteracy Framework and your role as a metaliterate person, a person with the knowledge, skill, and agency to make decisions about which literacies and what roles in social learning are best selected for a given purpose , in any given situation (context). In a follow up activity, you will reflect on this reading and your identify as a “metaliterate learner.”

After obtaining a brief understanding of what metaliteracy is and testing yourself above, read the brief companion page “2018 Metaliteracy Goals and Learning Objectives” to learn what the learning domains  and the four overarching goals for the metaliterate learner are.

1.1.1 Reading Reflection

After you have read the articles and responded to the knowledge-based content questions above, it is time to do some further thinking about your thinking on metaliteracy. The purpose of responding to and noting your responses is to help you develop a greater sense of your own identity as a metaliterate learner and to further deepen your response to the written reflection assignment below. Understanding and growing your metaliteracy knowledge and skills will empower you as a college student and, later, in your career and day-to-day lives.

Exercise: Connecting Your New Knowledge about Metaliteracy to Your Experience

Purpose:  Completing responses to these prompts will help you connect the reading to your past, current, and future roles as a metaliterate learner

Directions: Paste the prompts below into a document and respond to them in text or jot down responses in a notebook.

  • Why do the authors think we need a new and expanded metaliteracy framework? Why wasn’t the term “information literacy” sufficient?
  • What are the domains of the metaliteracy model? How might they apply to you in a practical situation when you are learning something new?
  • Do you generally think of yourself as a consumer (passive) of information or a producer (more active participant)? Think of some specific examples.
  • Under what conditions does your best learning take place? Give an example.
  • Of the roles described in the outer ring of the model, which do you see yourself as being most likely to take on?  Do you think you take on different roles in academic versus non-academic situations? In what way?
  • Then discusses new responsibilities that come with a new information environment. What are these? How do you generally take them on in your role as a social media user? In your role as a college researcher? In your role in your future career?
  • Of the goals and objectives listed toward the end of the document which of them most resonate with you? What is one way you might immediately go about incorporating more of these skills into practice?
  • In the end, what’s your biggest takeaway from these metaliteracy readings?

Small Group Discussion or Discussion Board: The questions are best further explored and discussed in a small group, if possible. Learning how others interpret the reading and connect their experience to it could inform or expand your understanding of yourself as a flexible and metaliterate learner as well.

  • Discuss your responses with other students in small groups or in a discussion board assignment.
  • Compare your “takeaways” from the reading with your peers, noting similarities and differences.
  • Consider how your peers’ responses influenced or impacted your own thinking.
  • Discuss the group’s takeaways and report out key discussion points.

1.2 Learning About Literacies in Your Future Career/s

This is a decorative black and white symbol with a star at the center and four rotating heads around it. This is meant to symbolize different roles we take on in various contexts.
Created by Naha Tyagi from the Noun Project.

As you learned above, the forms of literacy keep evolving as has the importance of literacy in career advancement and lifelong learning. Also, each of us is unique in the way we absorb and interact in the culture around us. Because our personal literacies are developed from within the contexts of our personal culture and the larger social and historical settings in which we live as well as through our formal education,  personal  interests and talents, and interactions with others, each of us possesses a unique identity as a literate person.

Consider the literacies you possess currently as your literacy strengths. Each of us brings our unique literacies with us to every context in which we find ourselves. For example, if your financial knowledge and insights are strengths for you, your friends may come to you with advice about handling their finances.  You could claim that financial literacy is a strength for you. Or maybe musical knowledge and experience are strengths for you. What special literacies do you posses as a musician? Can you read music? Write music? Investigate the historical influences on music? If you grew up steeped in your native culture, what cultural stories do you bring with you into every setting? What cultural and historical understandings have you developed as a result of your cultural knowledge and experience?

Take a moment to reflect and jot down your literacies as you would describe them to another student. What literacies would you claim for yourself?

Now, consider your major, general field or interest, or certificate program. Do you know what literacies are associated with your career path? What literacies do your college professors and future employers expect you to possess? What are the expectations, that is, the kind of documents, research, writing style, and critical literacies necessary to be academically successful in your major, field, program, or career path? The following research-based exercise will help you identify the skills, knowledge, and critical literacies required in a given field or career area.

Exercise: Learning about Literacy Expectations in Your Potential Career

Purpose: The purpose of the following reading exercise and writing assignment is to help you identify the literacy and genre expectations in your chosen field. Even if you are not sure about your field, go ahead and select a career of interest to you or use the sites in the exercise to help you identify a few, then narrow to one career area after you have skimmed a few options.

Sources for This Exercise: Before beginning, review a few examples before you dig into your own career or field. Before you watch the related video, open both these pages in your browser and skim these pages.

Reading and Notetaking Directions

First: Go to the Occupational Outlook Handbook, published by the U.S. Bureau of Labor. Select your career and read the summary.  Then, select the gray tabs “What They Do” and “Work Environment” and read the content closely. Jot down a list of literacies you think are needed to perform this job as you read.

Second: Search the same job or career on O’Net Online, a platform from the U.S. Department of Labor Training Division that will help you dig a little deeper. Read and take a few notes from the Summary, then click on the gray tab “Details.” You will discover a much deeper level of literacy-oriented skills applied in this field.

Third: Look over your notes and reflect on your literacy strengths and needed improvements. Which of the literacies you listed are potential strengths for you? Which do you need to improve? What literacies in this career field surprised you, if any? Reflect on the genres employees in this field must understand and be able to produce whether you have strengths in this area or need more development.  What kinds of written documentation and other types of communications is someone in this field expected to produce?   Overall, what actions would you take now that will help you later in terms of preparing for that job’s literacy and genre demands?

(This exercise is another good one to discuss with your peers in a small group.)


Reflection ESSAY Prompt

Compose a three to five paragraph reflection essay in response to this exercise and specifically address these three reflection topics that were presented in the third phase of the exercise above:

  • your current literacies as related to the demands of your possible career,
  • the genre expectations of this career, and
  • the actions you see yourself taking to prepare to meet the literacy and genre expectations in this employment area.


1.3  Writing Basics: Process, Purpose, Genre, and Audience

This is a decorative black and white image with writing symbols. Created by Flatart from the Noun Project.
Created by Flatart  on the Noun Project

As a college composition course textbook, our central disciplinary focus is a study and application of rhetorical knowledge in traditional academic writing and research genres using a composing process and supported with metaliteracies. However, we will also engage in digital forms of writing and communicating through other modalities. Whether composing a paper, a speech, a lab report, a visual presentation, or a podcast, all these genres share one goal: to effectively communicate a message crafted for an intended audience using the best available and relevant to the rhetorical situation.

How do you achieve this? By following a , intentional composing process, investigating your intended audience’s values and background knowledge, smoothly integrating your well-chosen supporting detail and evidence, and skillfully using rhetorical language and strategies, you empower your message in any context. As a review of the writing process and the essential decisions a writer must make, this section presents background knowledge on approaches to writing in the college context.

Writing, reading, and researching are all process-based, recursive activities. You should expect to engage in these processes several times right up to the point the task at hand is completed. In this section, we will focus on the writing process to review first semester academic writing basics and to prepare you for the first major writing assignment coming up at the end of this chapter. The most import understanding is that this process is not static and the steps are not completed like a check list. You can find yourself circling back through the stages of the process several times.

Writing is a process-based series of actions that typically begin with an external or internal impulse.  You may be given a prompt (“compose an argument essay on a human rights topicNo matter the context, when you respond to a writing or speaking task,  begin by identifying your purpose and audience, then select the appropriate genre. of your choice”), a genre prompt (“write a letter to the editor to express your views on student loan debt ”), or an idea (“I want to jot down some notes for a novel plot I am thinking about”). No matter the context, when you are given a writing or speaking assignment, you should begin by identifying your purpose and audience. When  writers do not identify their purpose and specify their intended audience for a writing task,  they can end up making rhetorical decisions that derail their effectiveness or even turn off their audience.

1.3.1 Purpose

Generally, most of us write with a purpose in mind. We write to inform, persuade, entertain, learn, create, and/or reflect—or with a combination of these. If your task is defined or bounded by a writing prompt, as most writing assignments in college are, determine an appropriate purpose and select a writing form for communicating your response that you know the audience will expect. Knowing your purpose will help you write a focused paper and achieve your purpose when your audience is clear on what you want it to learn, know, say, or do as a result of reading your paper.

Writing organizes and clarifies our thoughts. Writing is how we think our way into a subject and make it our own. Writing enables us to find out what we know—and what we don’t know—about whatever we’re trying to learn.”
William Knowlton Zinsser, from Writing to Learn: How to Write–And Think–Clearly about Any Subject at All as posted on Goodreads.

1.3.2 Audience

In the academic environment, your professors are often your audience for your work. However, in some instances, such as discussion boards, speeches, social media posts, multimedia presentations, and peer reviewing your audience may include your fellow students. In all of these rhetorical situations, the tone and genre expectations will vary. Also, when you are writing a formal argument, you generally have an intended audience in mind, people and entities who have the power to act on the issue at hand. Therefore, your intended audience might include college administrators, Congress, social justice organizations, and corporate executives.

In order to respond to college writing prompts, be prepared to imagine your intended audience. When you enter the workforce, though, the audience becomes a very real factor when you find yourself writing client proposals, marketing plans, memos, and other common workforce genres. In an employment situation, identifying your audience and assessing their needs and values accurately can help you meet with success in workforce writing and communication efforts. Take the time to understand your employer’s, your client’s, and your colleagues wants, needs, and values.

Keeping your audience in mind will help you connect effectively with your intended audience and avoid serious communication problems that can arise when you have not assessed your audience accurately and thoroughly. An audience who feels marginalized or “unseen” will probably reject your proposal or presentation and maybe even reject you. This is why we ask you to learn more about your rhetorical self, the ways you connect to and communicate with others, and how to use disciplinary and workplace genre expectations to meet with success in delivering your message to your intended audience.

1.3.3 Genre

One way to assess what the expected genre is when you are given a prompt is to consider the key verbs in the prompt. These verbs signal the complexity of the composing task and are often associated with specific writing forms. These same verbs can guide your approach to reading a text for a specific purpose.

Explain how the chemical reactions in the experiment lead to the results in your lab summary. Detail each stage of the reaction. explain how

detail each stage (process)


Lab report, process analysis with description
After reading Sherman Alexie’s essay “The Joy of Reading and Writing:  Superman, and Me,” reflect on on your own experiences as a student growing up. Compare your experience to Alexie’s How were your experiences similar or different to Alexie’s?  Explain your response and provide examples to illustrate similarities and differences. reflect




Personal essay written in the first person using the following patterns of development:  comparison/contrast, explanation, and illustration with personal examples and personal narratives.
Research a current controversial issue in American society and take a stance or position on the issue.  Support your argumentative thesis with clear discussion points and relevant, credible research. take (a stance or position; argue)


support (your argument)

Researched Argument Paper or Essay


1.3.4 The Writing Process, a Guideline

As this text is written as a textbook for the second semester of first year composition, we assume you have experience with various writing processes and strategies. While there is no one way when it comes to writing, following a process and creating a rough plan can help you save time, compose a well-organized response to a writing task, and provide enough time for revising and editing instead of rushing through these important phases of the process. Once you have identified your purpose, audience, and genre expectations, you are ready to start generating content, creating an organizational plan, and drafting your composition. Expect to circle back to invention, research, and planning  as you draft and refine your writing. Most writers find themselves returning to earlier phases in the process such as gathering additional research, focus free-writing on a discussion point that is not coming together, revising a thesis statement, or reorganizing the order of your body paragraphs.

“Work on a good piece of writing proceeds on three levels: a musical one, where it is composed; an architectural one, where it is constructed; and finally, a textile one, where it is woven.”
― Philosopher Walter Benjamin, One Way Street And Other Writings from
  • Pre-research: If your composition is a personal essay, you might want to read what others have written on similar personal topics to get a feel for the genre. Magazine articles, memoirs, creative nonfiction journals, and personal blogs are common sources for personal and expressive writing. In most your college courses, however, you will be writing arguments, analyses, and reports based on readings and research. If you are given an assigned topic, do some pre-searching to see what the current “conversation” is in the public discourse and to gain some background knowledge. Keep an open mind as pre-searching should be conducted in a spirit of inquiry, rather than  trying to support your existing sense of the topic or an opinion.
  • Invention: The first phase of the writing process is known as invention. You might know  this activity as “brainstorming.” Methods of invention include webbing or mapping, listing, free writing, focused free writing, reading through pre-research, verbal brainstorming, and discussion. Sometimes talking your ideas over with your classmates and/or instructor can provide invaluable feedback.
  • Research: Once you have determined your ideas, you may need to do further research or consult the core readings for the writing task. If your writing assignment requires researched evidence, it is time to engage in robust research process. At this point, head to Chapter 3, “Rhetorical Research.”
  • There is a classic business that is relevant here: “Plan your work and work your plan.” 
  • Planning: Whether you create a flow chart, a traditional outline, a “bubble map,” or a bullet point outline, creating an organizational plan up front will save you time and help you  keep control of your ideas. Add your researched evidence and the citation that goes with it into your outline or plan. This is another time saver. Creating an organizational plan will help you see the gaps in your supports or a lack of  logic in the sequencing of your points. Twenty minutes creating a rough outline could save you two hours in front of a blank screen! 
  • Drafting: I recommend setting aside about two hours to focus on writing your first draft based on your plan. As mentioned above, if you added your citations into your outline, you will not waste time creating citations.
    • When you stop your writing flow to do research or create citations, you will slow down the process and may lose your focus.  If you become stuck or “hit a wall” on one discussion point, go onto the next one. 
    • Another strategy I recommend is to make notes to yourself in the text of your draft noting what you need to revise or add content. Highlight the notes and use them to help you create a check list for your next writing session. I have shared this tip with many students, and for some, it has been a game-changer because they were so accustomed to writing from beginning to end, from point A to point B, it had not occurred to them they could jump ahead if they become stuck. 
    • Similar advice I give to students is to write the introduction after you have written the paper. It is much easier to write an introduction that sets your reader up with an interesting hook, narrowed topic, background information, and a smooth transition to the thesis once you actually know where you are taking your reader.  Think about it: How can you set your reader up for the journey without knowing for sure the final road they will travel with you.  Write as much as you can, then jot down a list of the specific actions you need to take next before you work on the next round, and come back to the draft the next day. 
    • Once you have a solid first or second draft, review your draft with peers, a Writing Center tutor, and/or your instructor. Feedback is essential at this point.
  • Revising: After you receive feedback and discuss your draft with others, you will know how well your essay meets the prompt, how clear your thesis statement and topic sentences are, what sections of your paper require more credible evidence or a different kind of evidence, and where your paper needs more revision and editing to meet the rubric criteria. 
  • Research: Once you have begun writing your paper, you will discover some gaps in your evidence or a need for a specific type of evidence. So, once again, you are circling back to research. Like the composing process itself, research is a recursive process, and you may be conducting additional research right up to the point you are making the final edits.
  • Editing: You are probably aware of the conventions or “mechanics” issues you should be concerned about in your paper because of previous writing feedback. If you know sentence structure, comma placement, and clarity are key issues for you, set up a tutoring session at the Writing Center and focus just on those issues. 
“Work on a good piece of writing proceeds on three levels: a musical one, where it is composed; an architectural one, where it is constructed; and finally, a textile one, where it is woven.”
― Walter Benjamin, One Way Street And Other Writings from

1.3.5 Purpose and Genres for Writing in Our Everyday Lives

All of us write in a variety of situations throughout our day, but often we overlook this fact. Writing is so essential to communicating with others and so embedded in our activities,  we often do not realize how many times a day we are crafting a message for a specific purpose and a specific audience. To achieve our purposes in writing, we often reach for a specific genre as described in the last section.

Now, consider all the writing you normally do over the span of a week or two. In the table below, you will see several areas of our lives in which we commonly write. This writing can take the form of filling out a car service ticket at work, writing a poem for a friend, or writing a lab report. For each context, take a few minutes to brainstorm a list of your typical writing activities and list them in your notebook or a make a copy this Google doc. Or, if you want to work with a small group, share one Google doc link per group or make a copy of this Jamboard and use the post-its to add to each column.

Work-related Academic Social  Personal Creative



Exercise: Reflection & Discussion Prompts


Directions: In your notebook or document, respond informally to these questions. 

  1. After completing this exercise, what would you say about the ways you use writing to inform, persuade, entertain, learn, create, and reflect in your everyday life? Did you gain any insights to your writing activity?
  2. Compare your lists with another student or group of students. Discuss similarities and differences in the lists. What factors influenced the genres and amount of writing you and other students do in your everyday lives?
  3. Do you feel the same level of engagement and competence in each area? Why? Why not?
  4. Reflect on a previous writing experience you found memorable—positive or negative. Beyond writing to earn a grade, what was your purpose in writing? What genre did you choose for this writing? A science lab report, a customer form, a memo, a spreadsheet? Were you successful in achieving your purpose? Was it well received by your audience? Why or why not? How did this experience make you feel about your writing?
  5. How do you see your writing activity in each context above changing over the course of the next five years?

1.4 Rhetoric and the Rhetorical Situation 

Two people - one person speaking the other listening. The listener has a giant ear. Pixabay image.
Speaking and Listening

Do you want others to seriously consider your thoughts and opinions? Do you want to communicate your ideas as effectively as possible in a given situation, whether that situation is a personal exchange among your group of friends or a researched argument essay written for an academic professor?  Do you hope that others view you as a credible source, someone with integrity and honesty who considers their audiences’ needs and values? Do you arrive at your opinions through close examination of credible evidence and a full understanding of the issue? Most of us want to be taken seriously  as individuals with worthy thoughts and ideas. This is why the study and practice of rhetoric can be a significant and life-changing  experience. However, there are limitations to the use of rhetoric. Consider the purposeful misuse of rhetoric to promote the perpetuation of misinformation or to  mislead your audience. That is an idea this chapter will circle back to later.

To establish your own sense of as a person who has valuable ideas to contribute on a given topic given conversation you must merge several key disciplinary terms into your rhetorical vocabulary. When you study keywords in any discipline, we recommend exploring the meanings and word histories or of those terms. This practice will grow your capacity to learn new academic and disciplinary vocabulary more quickly as you begin to associate word roots with meaning and see similar patterns in other words. Every time you enroll in a new course with new terms to learn, study a new hobby or interest, or develop new workplace knowledge and skills, you are engaging with new terminology in that field or discipline. Knowledgably applying disciplinary vocabulary in your course work, specific workplace terms in your job, and even your social discourse communities signals you are an “insider.”

When you learn new terms, your additional word exploration and repetition will begin to cement the new words and their meanings into your memory and create a for knowledge around that term. Voilà! After studying the terms intentionally, you will now know and can begin using those terms knowledgeably. In any subject, intentionally noting and using the subject’s specific terminology, rather than expressing knowledge or thought in unspecific or vague terms, will increase your comprehension and learning of new concepts.

Yes, this intentional practice takes a little extra time up front, but it becomes a time saver as you more easily comprehend and retain your reading and/or listening content. This is a simple “work smarter” approach to learning new vocabulary that also signals to your readers and listeners that you are an “insider” in terms of the literacy expectations of the situation and group.

1.4.1 Rhetorical Keywords

The first key rhetorical term to learn in this chapter is rhetoric.  According to the Oxford English Dictionary, rhetoric is:

The art of using language effectively so as to persuade or influence others, esp. the exploitation of figures of speech and other compositional techniques to this end; the study of principles and rules to be followed by a speaker or writer striving for eloquence, esp. as formulated by ancient Greek and Roman writers.

The Oxford English Dictionary further provides the etymology of key terms. The word came to Anglo-Norman English from the Middle French rethorique, the “art of speaking and writing well and persuasively or with eloquence.”  The Middle and Old French forms are based in the Latin rhētoricē or rhētorica and the ancient Greek term for the “art of public speaking, oratory.” A common, simplified general definition of rhetoric is “the use of all available means to inform, entertain, or persuade.”

View The Online Writing Lab at Purdue’s “Introduction to Rhetoric” vidcast explaining more what rhetoric is and how rhetoric relates to writing. This vidcast defines rhetoric as “primarily an awareness of the language choices we make.” It gives a brief history of the origins of rhetoric in ancient Greece. And it briefly discusses the benefits of how understanding rhetoric can help people write more convincingly. The vidcast provides an excellent primer to some basic ideas of rhetoric. Also, read the “Rhetorical Situation” page and view the powerpoint slides on this page.

The second key term to learn is . To understand the term, consider the roots and current meanings of both words. Situation means “(t)he exact position of a person or thing in relation to another or to surroundings; the arrangement or position of people or things in relation to each other or to surroundings.” This is not the first meaning of the word, but it is the meaning as used in this textbook. It is a good practice to read all definitions of a term you are learning as words are used differently in different contexts. The word situation has not changed much over time, and we often find this to be the case with words with a Latin etymology that came to English through the French after the Normans (the French) invaded Britain in 1066 as we saw with the roots of rhetoric. In the French, word is the same (situation), and the historical form in Latin is situation and situatio.

If rhetoric is the use of all “available means of language to inform, entertain, or persuade,” and as we use it in this textbook, situation means “(t)he exact position of a person or thing in relation to another or to surroundings; the arrangement or position of people or things in relation to each other or to surroundings,” what do you have when you put the two words together? The rhetorical situation describes the environment in which a rhetor communicates to a specific audience. The Online Writing Lab (OWL) at Purdue University is an excellent source to help you more fully understand what the rhetorical situation and other rhetorical concepts are.

Video, Online Writing Lab (OWL) at Purdue University. Click “CC” on the lower right side of the video to view closed captioning. This 14-minunte video was created by graduate students in the MA in Professional Communication program at Clemson University, and you are free to copy, distribute, and transmit the video with the understanding: 1) that you will attribute the work to its authors; 2) that you will not use the work for commercial purposes; and 3) that you may not alter, transform, or build upon this work.

Also, review OWL’s slide presentation, “Understanding Writing: The Rhetorical Situation” by the OWL Staff at Purdue University.

1.4.2 Rhetorical Situations in Our Everyday Lives

Now that we have introduced the key rhetorical terms used in this text, we can move on to exploring how rhetoric and a grasp of rhetorical situations operate in your daily life. You have a sense of what rhetoric is because you already make rhetorical decisions to inform, persuade, and entertain others by selecting rhetorical appeals that will best support your interactions with others. Some might claim we even use rhetorical strategies on ourselves when we engage in self-talk to problem solve and rationalize our behaviors!

In a given day, you might pack a romantic note in your partner’s lunch, convince your boss to give you a raise, tell an amusing anecdote to your friends at happy hour, post a holiday picture of your family on Instagram, and write a thank you note to your grandmother. You write the note to remind your partner (your audience and purpose) that you love them and are looking forward to your weekend escape (the message, an emotional appeal). You collect evidence (relevant supporting detail, or logos) to support your argument that you deserve a raise (the message and purpose to inform and persuade) and then convincingly present it to your boss (the audience).

Maybe you are a storyteller. You know your friends (the audience) find your zany stories amusing (your purpose is to entertain), so you regale them with your latest mishap (the message or story) at the gym when you pressed the speed button up instead of down, flew off the treadmill, tripped the guy next to you as he was trying to get on his treadmill, and although you were unhurt, he ended up with a scraped nose. You then realized the man was the handsome news anchor on your local news station.  You did feel bad about that obvious bump on his nose when you watched him on the news last night.

Sometimes you have several motives for your rhetorical choices, so you make rhetorical decisions that serve several purposes and engage multiple audiences. You post that family image of your kids in their Halloween costumes because their grandparents live 1500 miles away, and you want to keep them connected to their grandchildren. However, your less altruistic motive for posting the pic is to show your friends the original and creative costumes you made for your children in hopes of receiving lots of hearts and thumbs up icon clicks and comments to validate your effort.  Even the note you wrote your grandmother and sent in snail mail was written for more than an audience of one. You know she loves showing the ladies in her retirement community the clever and heartfelt cards and letters you send her, so you make sure the original poem you include with touch the hearts of them all.  

Reflecting on Rhetoric in Your Everyday Life: Consider the rhetorical situations in which you have found yourself  in your everyday life.  Can you think of two or three examples in which you crafted a message to  influence or shift the perspective of someone else?  Did you appeal to the person’s/other peoples’ needs, wants, and values? Or, did you press your perspective without considering your audience? How did that go?

During this chapter thus far, I have presented rhetoric as a means of empowerment and effective communication for the purpose of informing, persuading, or entertaining others. Earlier, I briefly mentioned that rhetoric could be used dishonestly to advance or  manipulate an audience. Rhetoric has supported and perpetuated the shared values of a nation, and rhetoric has shattered the founding ideals of nations. When we possess rhetorical skill, we can use that gift to benefit the greater society (like TED Talk speakers do, for example) or we can use it to get our way and mislead people.  Can you think of situations in your life or in American society that illustrated this dark side of rhetoric?

In the TED Talk below, the speaker Douglas Tappin makes this point. Please watch the video below and jot down notes in response to the following questions:

  • What is the relationship between rhetoric and truth? Between rhetoric and the rhetor’s ethos?
  • How does Tappin use rhetoric to encourage his audience to consider the limits as well as the benefits of rhetoric?
  • Your thoughts: Does everyone have equal access to the power of rhetoric. Why? Why not?



Tappin, Douglas. “Rethinking Rhetoric.” Youtube, TedX29. Oct. 2018, Douglas Tappin is a writer and composer born and educated in the United Kingdom. A former Commercial Attorney, he practiced as a Barrister (lawyer) in England for eleven years. In his talk delivered at TEDxToledo #WhatNow, Douglas brings awareness to the effectiveness of rhetoric and how its used in all human communication.

1.4.3 Ethos and the Academic Writer

A rhetor is a person who intentionally crafts communications to inform, persuade, and/or entertain their audience and achieves their purpose by appealing to their audience’s values, needs, and even genre expectations. Most of us want others to take their ideas, whether written or spoken, seriously.  How can you, as a college student, convey to your readers or listeners that you are trustworthy and a credible source of information? As a college student writing for a variety of audiences about a variety of subjects, how can you build your own credibility as a rhetor?

As a rhetor, you can take specific approaches to creating your audience’s trust and belief that you are trustworthy in the ways you support your views and signal your ethical values. When a rhetor establishes this sense, we say the writer or speaker has .

Learning rhetorical language and strategies alongside critical thinking skills really helped me shape myself into the person I am today. – Seth

Along with logos, pathos, and Kairos, one of Aristotle’s key appeals is ethos, an appeal to values and ethics. Communicators use the ethical appeal effectively when they integrate credible support for their message from credible external sources, experts, and moral leaders. This is known as external ethos.

When rhetors establish their credibility and trustworthiness with their audiences, the rhetor is said to possess internal ethos.  If you want your readers and listeners to take you seriously, to trust you, to believe you are credible, you want to convey your character and credibility through your rhetorical identity and external ethos you choose bring to your message.  So, what strategies can you use to create trust, a sense of your ethos, and even a shared bond with your audience?

Key Takeaway: How to Establish Your Internal Ethos

  • Acknowledge your audience’s values and needs and connect with those you share that are relevant to the message.
  • Establish your rhetorical identity. In other words, how do you want your audience to see you? Compassionate? Informed? Reflective? Curious? As an advocate for social justice?
  • Cite your sources and give credit where credit is due.
  • Support your claims with credible sources and experts to establish the external ethos of the sources.
  • Represent your source information ethically; that is integrate the support with the meaning associated with it in its original context.
  • Cite a variety of credible, trustworthy sources rather than supporting your perspective with one source that matches your own.
  • Use language that reflects careful thought and specificity, but words and phrasing that will not make your audience feel as if they are an outsider to the message you are communicating. Treat your audience with respect using language to set a tone appropriate to the subject, intention of the communication, and reflects the quality of your character.
  • Demonstrate you have examined or research alternate views and discuss them respectfully, even when you are countering them.
  • Be generous in conceding points in argument.

If your audience trusts you and your character and you make the effort to connect to your audience’s values, experiences, goals, beliefs, wants, and or needs if good faith, your audience will take your essay, speech, or project seriously. Establishing a rhetorical sense of yourself as a rhetor with internal ethos will build your agency as a communicator. Your audience will know who you are and what you stand for. You will have claimed your voice, and your message will be heard.

1.5 Your Discourse Communities

Colorful image of a diverse group of people with speech bubbles over their heads. Accessed on Pixabay_1825513_1920

As explained by Dan Meltzer is his Writing Spaces chapter, “Understanding Discourse Communities,” “(w)riting teachers and scholars have come up with the concept of ‘discourse community’ to describe a community of people who share the same goals, the same methods of communicating, the same genres, and the same lexis (specialized language)” (111). What are your discourse communities? These discourse communities can be informal skateboarding groups, fan fiction groups, biology class study groups, musical bands, family groups, online gaming groups, work groups, chess clubs, interest or hobby groups consisting of people who use a common vocabulary, share common goals, and apply the literacy and genre expectations the group expects. These discourse communities often shift with our interests and responsibilities throughout our lives, but there is no doubt their influence upon us is significant.

Exercise: Your Discourse Communities

Purpose: to identify, explain, and reflect upon your participation in one or more discourse communities.

After reading “Understanding Discourse Communities,” reflect on you own participation in several discourse communities.  Your discourse community/ies can be formal or informal groups in which common goals and norms define the nature of the group. Keep John Swales’ discourse community criteria below in mind as you select two groups to present and describe in a discussion post or small group.

  1. A broadly agreed upon set of common public goals
  2. Mechanisms of intercommunication among members
  3. Use of these communication mechanisms to provide information and feedback
  4. One or more genres that help further the goals of the discourse community
  5. A specific lexis (specialized language)
  6. A threshold level of expert members (Swales, as paraphrased by Melzer 102)


Think over your participation in two of your discourse communities and jot down a few notes. To facilitate your reflection, feel free to make a copy of this discourse community analysis and reflection chart document to help you develop and capture your discourse communities, their features, benefits, and limitations, and the way you engage with them.  What do/did you enjoy about your participation in this group?  What did you contribute to the community? How does one become an expert in the group? What did you/have learned through your participation in the group? What are the norms for providing feedback to members of the group? How has the community changed you, affected you, or helped you grow in some way?  How does someone become an expert in the group? Were there experts in the group who mentored you? How so?


Select a discourse community from your notes above and prepare to give a description of the community and the community norms, especially those associated with language and communication. Also, prepare to discuss how engaging with this group expanded your knowledge, skills, or abilities in some way.

1.6  ESSAY ASSIGNMENT: Uncovering Your Rhetorical Self Essay

Personal looking in a mirror meant to evoke reflection or introspection. Created by Gan Khoon Lay from the Noun Project.
Created by Gan Khoon Lay

Before you review and begin working on this essay assignment, consider and take a few notes on these aspects of your day-to-day self-representation. What do these rhetorical choices communicate to others about your identity, values, interests, and literacies?

  • What you wear, how you look, clothes, jewelry (How do others “read” you based on appearance?)
  • Your language and mannerisms in different contexts (work, hanging out with friends, in class)
  • Your social media activity (your digital footprint, online bio, photos, post topics, responding and sharing activity, icons and commenting activity, etc.)
  • Brands you like
  • Music you choose to listen to and music you choose to share


This essay prompt asks you to consider the way you self-represent to others in your various discourse communities. This assignment requires reflective self-analysis to examine influences on your rhetorical selves through your general everyday rhetorical choices as well as in your participation in specific social, digital, workplace, and academic discourse communities.

In a discourse community, typical means of self-representation include shared words or phrases (the “literacy stream” you swim in with them), mannerisms, clothing, music, value signaling, cultural identification, digital interaction norms, written genres, etc.  What shared values and interests do you mirror to others in the discourse community? How do you represent them?  Were you an insider to these groups or an outsider when you joined? Are you an insider now or did you leave the group as an insider? Who helped you become an insider in the group? How does your language, behavior, literacy choices, and other behaviors adjust to meet the norms of your key discourse communities? What feedback do you receive from discourse community members and how do you use that information to self-represent in the discourse community? (See discourse community questions listed at the end of this assignment or use this brainstorming chart.)


Write a well-organized, multi-paragraph essay in which you identify, analyze, and reflect upon the ways you communicate elements of your rhetorical self in daily contexts as well as in two specific discourse communities in which you participate.

The essay should contain 800-1000 words, be presented in MLA 8 format, and written in the first-person point of view in a mature, reflective, and authentic voice and serious tone. Use this assignment description, invention prompts, and rubric to guide your development, revision, and editing of this paper. Your careful editing prior to submission is essential for meeting the expectations of this assignment. (Remember, our Writing Center tutors are “there” for you!).


This essay rubric provides detailed assessment criteria.


  • To become more effective and aware of yourself as a rhetor who makes intentional rhetorical decisions to achieve their purposes as they engage with various audiences.
  • To engage in reflection and metacognition to define and describe your rhetorical selves to your audience.
  • To identify and describe your self-representation as a rhetorical act connecting you with the characteristics, language, literacies, and behaviors of the discourse communities in which you participate.
  • To identify how your self-representation in digital context leaves a “digital footprint.”


  • To compose a personal essay presenting a rhetorical analysis and reflection upon the way you present and participate in your discourse communities.
  • To demonstrate understanding of personal essay genre norms (i.e. personal essay, tone, organization, content, conventions).
  • To engage in self-reflection to understand how you can use your rhetorical awareness and knowledge to effectively engage in your discourse communities.


  1. Write for specific rhetorical contexts, including circumstance, purpose, topic, audience and writer, as well as the writing`s ethical, political, and cultural implications.
  2. Organize writing to support a central idea through unity, coherence and logical development appropriate to a specific writing context.
  3. Use appropriate conventions in writing, including consistent voice, tone, diction, grammar, and mechanics.

INVENTION Heuristic for the Assignment:

  • What values and interests do you communicate to others in the discourse community and how do you represent them?
  • How do you want others in your discourse communities to see you?
  • What do you think others in your discourse communities know about who you are through the identity/ies you choose to present in your interactions with them? By using the invention prompts below, develop (“invent”) content to help you explore possible key points and provide specific evidence for your rhetorical self-analysis.
  • Start by freewriting about the various ways you represent your identity to your family, friends, teams, work groups, fellow students, and people in your other discourse communities, physical or virtual. How do you hope to be seen by people in these various social groups? How do you speak and act in your various discourse communities?
  • Consider quickly writing a short focused free write or jot down a list with details and events that illustrate how you self-represent to each significant group. When you stop writing, look over what you wrote and note what is constant in your self-representation across these groups and, more importantly, what is different. Then follow up by narrowing to the two or three discourse communities that resonated most with you and write a longer focused free write to help you generate more detailed content for each.

QUESTIONS to kickstart your freewrites:

  • Is there some aspect of your rhetorical self that you make known to everyone who interacts with you?
  • How do you want others in your discourse communities to view you, your values, your actions, and your words?
  • Do you/how do you change some aspect of your identity, appearance, words, or actions to fit into a discourse community? Is the identity you represent to your musician friends the same as the one you represent to your supervisor at work or your college professors? Are you the same person in your online communities/social media accounts as you are with your close group of friends or parents?
  • What is something “fixed” (that is a quality, value, belief you do not change depending on the social context) in your identity you think people in every group would say about you?
  • How do you make sure others understand your values and what is important to you? That is, how do others know what you stand for?
  • What values or qualities about yourself do you want others to know and “see” about you through your words, actions, and appearance?

Organizational Plan

Review your invention exercise content. Do you see any patterns across the free writes on each group? Some similarities and differences in how you self-represent across these groups? Possibly, you might want to reach for a comparison/contrast pattern of development for your paper’s structure. Or, maybe you want to select two to three discourse communities as a lens to explore the ways you alter your rhetorical self within these groups and write an essay with an explanatory structure. Another strategy is to select two or three ways you alter your identity when you are engaging with others in your discourse communities and explore those separate actions as key points for your body paragraphs. Whether you prefer a traditional linear outline, a mind map, or bullet points, DO plan your essay before you start writing. Afterall, would a film maker begin a film without a storyboard? Think of your rough outline, map, or list as your storyboard, your game plan, or your Google map to a finished paper.

FORMAT of the Essay

Please read and follow the rubric criteria carefully. Format the essay in standard MLA format, with heading, pagination, title, double spacing, Times New Roman 12-pt. font, and indented paragraphs. The word count range is 800-1000 words with four to six paragraphs. Any images you bring in from an outside source must contain a credit or credits (the source).  The essay should contain the following components:

An introduction giving an introduction of your rhetorical self. It should explain how you define yourself and how you hope to be seen by the various public groups with which you are affiliated. Your introduction should lead your reader to your thesis statement which should be written as one complete and clear organizing statement forecasting your discussion points.

description and analysis of your self-presentation modes in at least two discourse communities and how these contribute to your rhetorical identity.

Evidence in the form of specific, concrete examples of language, expected literacies (i.e. online bios, posting norms), common behaviors, visual cues including clothing and other aspects of personal appearance, aural preferences such as music, the values shared, etc. Personal narratives can serve as evidence in this paper. Also, feel free to provide screenshots and images as support. Be sure to cite or attribute any external sources you reference in text and add the source to your Works Cited page.

conclusion exploring the rhetorical effects and even future possibilities of the choices and actions associated with your rhetorical self-presentation. How can knowing your rhetorical selves be an advantage to you?

A Works Cited page, IF you referenced external sources. If you need tips on how to format a Works Cited page, OWL at Purdue is a good place to start. If your MLA skills need a refresher, I recommend attending a tutoring appointment to receive coaching for MLA in-text citation and source attribution strategies and Works Cited formatting.  A half hour with a tutor can save you hours of frustration!

Assignment Rubric

Please link to the assignment rubric pdf or Word doc and use it to guide your planning and as a checklist before submitting your final paper.


  • To develop and apply your understanding of the following key threshold concepts in writing studies:
    • Concept 1: Writing is a Social and Rhetorical Activity
    • Concept 2: Writing Speaks to Situations through Recognizable Forms
    • Concept 3: Writing Enacts and Creates Identities and Ideologies (Naming What We Know)
    • Concept 4: All Writers have More to Learn
    • Concept 5: Writing is (also always) a Cognitive Activity (Adler-Kassner and Wardle, Naming What We Know, Classroom Edition, Utah State University Press, 2016)
  • To apply and develop your understanding of the following  Writing Program Administrators (WPA) First Year Composition outcomes:
    • Learn and use key rhetorical concepts through analyzing and composing a variety of texts.
    • Gain experience reading and composing in several genres to understand how genre conventions shape and are shaped by readers’ and writers’ practices and purposes.
    • Develop facility in responding to a variety of situations and contexts calling for purposeful shifts in voice, tone, level of formality, design, medium, and/or structure. (WPA Outcomes for Rhetorical Knowledge)

Textbook Authors’ Note: This assignment is loosely adapted from and inspired by a similar assignment created by Jodi Nicotra in her textbook Becoming Rhetorical (Nicotra 22-24). In addition, an assumption of this assignment is that students have read and responded to class discussions and reflections on Dan Melzer’s “Understanding Discourse Communities” from Writing Spaces, 2020. (See pages 102 and 111).

  1. What are the goals of the discourse community?
  2. What are the most important genres community members use to achieve these goals?
  3. Who are the most experienced communicators in the discourse community?
  4. Where can I find models of the kinds of genres used by the discourse community?
  5. Who are the different audiences the discourse community communicates with, and how can I adjust my writing for these different audiences?
  6. What conventions of format, organization, and style does the discourse community value?
  7. What specialized vocabulary (lexis) do I need to know to communicate effectively with discourse community insiders?
  8. How does the discourse community make arguments, and what types of evidence are valued?
  9. Do the conventions of the discourse community silence any members or force any members to conform to the community in ways that make them uncomfortable?
  10. What can I add to the discourse community? (Meltzer 111)


Conceptual Key Takeaways

  • As a college writer, you bring your education, life experiences, culture,  and interests to all literacy tasks.
  • Every discipline and field is associated with expected critical reading, writing, and research skills and genre expectations.
  • Communication in any form exists in and is determined by the cultural, historical, and social contexts at a given point in time as well as the communicator’s experience, education level, and other personal factors.
  • Writing expectations in academic contexts require careful consideration of the multiple contexts and expectations you and the institution bring to establishing the purpose, audience, and genre of an academic writing assignment.
  • Understanding how rhetoric informs and can enrich your daily communications across every situation empowers you to be heard and understood in those contexts.
  • Your discourse communities, just like your academic majors, certificate programs, and career fields, engage in various means of connection and communication reflecting the group’s literacy norms and common genres.
  • The academic literacy skill, genre knowledge, and rhetorical awareness you develop as a college writer, reader, and researcher empower your skill in communicating to meet a purpose while helping you develop your internal ethos.

Works Cited

Adler-Kassner, Linda and Elizabeth Wardle, Eds. Naming What We Know: Threshold Concepts of Writing Studies [Classroom Edition], Utah State University Press, 2016.

Jacobson, Trudi, Mackey, Thomas, O’Brien, Kelsey, et al. “2018 Metaliteracy Goals and Learning Objectives.” Metaliteracy, 2018,

Mackey, Thomas, and Trudi E. Jacobsen. Metaliteracy: Reinventing Information Literacy to Empower Learners. Chicago, Neal-Schuman, 2014.

Nicotra, Jodi. Becoming Rhetorical. Cengage, 2019, pp. 22-24.

White, Sheida, and Michael McCloskey. Framework for the 2003 National Assessment of Adult Literacy (NCES 2005-531). U.S. Department of Education. Washington, DC: National Center for Education Statistics, 2003,

Further Resources

Adler-Kassner, Linda and Elizabeth Wardle, Eds. Naming What We Know: Threshold Concepts of Writing Studies, Utah State University Press, 2015.

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