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Class is English 101 The assignment is:Please read Laura Bolin Carroll‘s essay, “Backpacks vs. Briefcases: Steps toward Rhetorical Analysis.” Then, in your response, please briefly summarize Carroll’s essay. What were her main points? After you have summarized her piece, I would like you to answer the first two questions listed under the “Discussion” section of her essay (What are examples of rhetoric that you see or hear on a daily basis? What are some ways that you create rhetoric? What kinds of messages are you trying to communicate?). In answering these questions, you are analyzing your own rhetorical choices. You might also include some questions you have about rhetoric, analysis, and so on.


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Backpacks vs. Briefcases: Steps toward
Rhetorical Analysis
by Laura Bolin Carroll
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Writing spaces : readings on writing. Volume 1 / edited by Charles Lowe
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ISBN 978-1-60235-184-4 (pbk. : alk. paper) — ISBN 978-1-60235-185-1
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1. College readers. 2. English language–Rhetoric. I. Lowe, Charles,
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PE1417.W735 2010
Backpacks vs. Briefcases: Steps
toward Rhetorical Analysis
Laura Bolin Carroll
First Impressions
Imagine the first day of class in first year composition at your university.* The moment your professor walked in the room, you likely began
analyzing her and making assumptions about what kind of teacher she
will be. You might have noticed what kind of bag she is carrying—a
tattered leather satchel? a hot pink polka-dotted backpack? a burgundy brief case? You probably also noticed what she is wearing—trendy
slacks and an untucked striped shirt? a skirted suit? jeans and a tee
It is likely that the above observations were only a few of the observations you made as your professor walked in the room. You might
have also noticed her shoes, her jewelry, whether she wears a wedding
ring, how her hair is styled, whether she stands tall or slumps, how
quickly she walks, or maybe even if her nails are done. If you don’t
tend to notice any of these things about your professors, you certainly do about the people around you—your roommate, others in your
residence hall, students you are assigned to work with in groups, or a
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Laura Bolin Carroll
prospective date. For most of us, many of the people we encounter in
a given day are subject to this kind of quick analysis.
Now as you performed this kind of analysis, you likely didn’t walk
through each of these questions one by one, write out the answer, and
add up the responses to see what kind of person you are interacting
with. Instead, you quickly took in the information and made an informed, and likely somewhat accurate, decision about that person.
Over the years, as you have interacted with others, you have built a
mental database that you can draw on to make conclusions about what
a person’s looks tell you about their personality. You have become able
to analyze quickly what people are saying about themselves through
the way they choose to dress, accessorize, or wear their hair.
We have, of course, heard that you “can’t judge a book by its cover,”
but, in fact, we do it all the time. Daily we find ourselves in situations
where we are forced to make snap judgments. Each day we meet different people, encounter unfamiliar situations, and see media that asks us
to do, think, buy, and act in all sorts of ways. In fact, our saturation in
media and its images is one of the reasons why learning to do rhetorical analysis is so important. The more we know about how to analyze
situations and draw informed conclusions, the better we can become
about making savvy judgments about the people, situations and media
we encounter.
Implications of Rhetorical Analysis
Media is one of the most important places where this kind of analysis
needs to happen. Rhetoric—the way we use language and images to
persuade—is what makes media work. Think of all the media you see
and hear every day: Twitter, television shows, web pages, billboards,
text messages, podcasts. Even as you read this chapter, more ways to
get those messages to you quickly and in a persuasive manner are being developed. Media is constantly asking you to buy something, act
in some way, believe something to be true, or interact with others in a
specific manner. Understanding rhetorical messages is essential to help
us to become informed consumers, but it also helps evaluate the ethics
of messages, how they affect us personally, and how they affect society.
Take, for example, a commercial for men’s deodorant that tells you
that you’ll be irresistible to women if you use their product. This cam-
Steps toward Rhetorical Analysis
paign doesn’t just ask you to buy the product, though. It also asks you
to trust the company’s credibility, or ethos, and to believe the messages
they send about how men and women interact, about sexuality, and
about what constitutes a healthy body. You have to decide whether or
not you will choose to buy the product and how you will choose to
respond to the messages that the commercial sends.
Or, in another situation, a Facebook group asks you to support
health care reform. The rhetoric in this group uses people’s stories of
their struggles to obtain affordable health care. These stories, which
are often heart-wrenching, use emotion to persuade you—also called
pathos. You are asked to believe that health care reform is necessary
and urgent, and you are asked to act on these beliefs by calling your
congresspersons and asking them to support the reforms as well.
Because media rhetoric surrounds us, it is important to understand
how rhetoric works. If we refuse to stop and think about how and
why it persuades us, we can become mindless consumers who buy into
arguments about what makes us value ourselves and what makes us
happy. For example, research has shown that only 2% of women consider themselves beautiful (“Campaign”), which has been linked to the
way that the fashion industry defines beauty. We are also told by the
media that buying more stuff can make us happy, but historical surveys show that US happiness peaked in the 1950s, when people saw as
many advertisements in their lifetime as the average American sees in
one year (Leonard).
Our worlds are full of these kinds of social influences. As we interact with other people and with media, we are continually creating
and interpreting rhetoric. In the same way that you decide how to process, analyze or ignore these messages, you create them. You probably
think about what your clothing will communicate as you go to a job
interview or get ready for a date. You are also using rhetoric when you
try to persuade your parents to send you money or your friends to see
the movie that interests you. When you post to your blog or tweet you
are using rhetoric. In fact, according to rhetorician Kenneth Burke,
rhetoric is everywhere: “wherever there is persuasion, there is rhetoric. And wherever there is ‘meaning,’ there is ‘persuasion.’ Food eaten
and digested is not rhetoric. But in the meaning of food there is much
rhetoric, the meaning being persuasive enough for the idea of food to
be used, like the ideas of religion, as a rhetorical device of statesmen”
(71–72). In other words, most of our actions are persuasive in nature.
Laura Bolin Carroll
What we choose to wear (tennis shoes vs. flip flops), where we shop
(Whole Foods Market vs. Wal-Mart), what we eat (organic vs. fast
food), or even the way we send information (snail mail vs. text message) can work to persuade others.
Chances are you have grown up learning to interpret and analyze
these types of rhetoric. They become so commonplace that we don’t
realize how often and how quickly we are able to perform this kind of
rhetorical analysis. When your teacher walked in on the first day of
class, you probably didn’t think to yourself, “I think I’ll do some rhetorical analysis on her clothing and draw some conclusions about what
kind of personality she might have and whether I think I’ll like her.”
And, yet, you probably were able to come up with some conclusions
based on the evidence you had.
However, when this same teacher hands you an advertisement,
photograph or article and asks you to write a rhetorical analysis of it,
you might have been baffled or felt a little overwhelmed. The good
news is that many of the analytical processes that you already use to
interpret the rhetoric around you are the same ones that you’ll use for
these assignments.
The Rhetorical Situation, Or Discerning Context
One of the first places to start is context. Rhetorical messages always
occur in a specific situation or context. The president’s speech might
respond to a specific global event, like an economic summit; that’s part
of the context. You choose your clothing depending on where you are
going or what you are doing; that’s context. A television commercial
comes on during specific programs and at specific points of the day;
that’s context. A billboard is placed in a specific part of the community; that’s context, too.
In an article called “The Rhetorical Situation,” Lloyd Bitzer argues
that there are three parts to understanding the context of a rhetorical
moment: exigence, audience and constraints. Exigence is the circumstance or condition that invites a response; “imperfection marked by
urgency; it is a defect, an obstacle, something waiting to be done, a
thing which is other than it should be” (Bitzer 304). In other words,
rhetorical discourse is usually responding to some kind of problem.
You can begin to understand a piece’s exigence by asking, “What is
Steps toward Rhetorical Analysis
this rhetoric responding to?” “What might have happened to make
the rhetor (the person who creates the rhetoric) respond in this way?”
The exigence can be extremely complex, like the need for a new
Supreme Court justice, or it can be much simpler, like receiving an
email that asks you where you and your friends should go for your road
trip this weekend. Understanding the exigence is important because it
helps you begin to discover the purpose of the rhetoric. It helps you
understand what the discourse is trying to accomplish.
Another part of the rhetorical context is audience, those who are
the (intended or unintended) recipients of the rhetorical message. The
audience should be able to respond to the exigence. In other words,
the audience should be able to help address the problem. You might
be very frustrated with your campus’s requirement that all first-year
students purchase a meal plan for on-campus dining. You might even
send an email to a good friend back home voicing that frustration.
However, if you want to address the exigence of the meal plans, the
most appropriate audience would be the person/office on campus that
oversees meal plans. Your friend back home cannot solve the problem
(though she may be able to offer sympathy or give you some good suggestions), but the person who can change the meal plan requirements
is probably on campus. Rhetors make all sorts of choices based on
their audience. Audience can determine the type of language used,
the formality of the discourse, the medium or delivery of the rhetoric,
and even the types of reasons used the make the rhetor’s argument.
Understanding the audience helps you begin to see and understand the
rhetorical moves that the rhetor makes.
The last piece of the rhetorical situation is the constraints. The
constraints of the rhetorical situation are those things that have the
power to “constrain decision and action needed to modify the exigence” (Bitzer 306). Constraints have a lot to do with how the rhetoric
is presented. Constraints can be “beliefs, attitudes, documents, facts,
traditions, images, interests, motives” (Bitzer 306). Constraints limit
the way the discourse is delivered or communicated. Constraints may
be something as simple as your instructor limiting your proposal to
one thousand words, or they may be far more complex like the kinds
of language you need to use to persuade a certain community.
So how do you apply this to a piece of rhetoric? Let’s say you are
flipping through a magazine, and you come across an advertisement
that has a large headline that reads “Why Some People Say ‘D’OH’
Laura Bolin Carroll
When You Say ‘Homer’” (“Why”). This ad is an Ad Council public
service announcement (PSA) to promote arts education and is sponsored by Americans for the Arts and NAMM, the trade association of
the international music products industry.
Since you want to understand more about what this ad means and
what it wants you to believe or do, you begin to think about the rhetorical situation. You first might ask, “what is the ad responding to? What
problem does it hope to address?” That’s the exigence. In this case, the
exigence is the cutting of arts funding and children’s lack of exposure
to the arts. According to the Ad Council’s website, “the average kid is
provided insufficient time to learn and experience the arts. This PSA
campaign was created to increase involvement in championing arts
education both in and out of school” (“Arts”). The PSA is responding
directly to the fact that kids are not getting enough arts education.
Then you might begin to think about to whom the Ad Council targeted the ad. Unless you’re a parent, you are probably not the primary
audience. If you continued reading the text of the ad, you’d notice that
there is information to persuade parents that the arts are helpful to
their children and to let them know how to help their children become
more involved with the arts. The ad tells parents that “the experience
will for sure do more than entertain them. It’ll build their capacity to
learn more. In fact, the more art kids get, the smarter they become in
subjects like math and science. And that’s reason enough to make a
parent say, ‘D’oh!,’ For Ten Simple Ways to instill art in your kids’ lives
visit” (“Why”). Throughout the text of the
ad, parents are told both what to believe about arts education and how
to act in response to the belief.
There also might be a secondary audience for this ad—people who
are not the main audience of the ad but might also be able to respond
to the exigence. For example, philanthropists who could raise money
for arts education or legislators who might pass laws for arts funding
or to require arts education in public schools could also be intended
audiences for this ad.
Finally, you might want to think about the constraints or the limitations on the ad. Sometimes these are harder to get at, but we can
guess a few things. One constraint might be the cost of the ad. Different magazines charge differently for ad space as well as placement
within the magazine, so the Ad Council could have been constrained
by how much money they wanted to spend to circulate the ad. The ad
Steps toward Rhetorical Analysis
is also only one page long, so there might have been a limitation on the
amount of space for the ad. Finally, on the Ad Council’s webpage, they
list the requirements for organizations seeking the funding and support of the Ad Council. There are twelve criteria, but here are a few:
1. The sponsor organization must be a private non-profit 501(c)3
organization, private foundation, government agency or coalition of such groups.
2. The issue must address the Ad Council’s focus on Health &
Safety, Education, or Community. Applications which benefit
children are viewed with favor—as part of the Ad Council’s
Commitment to Children.
3. The issue must offer a solution through an individual action.
4. The effort must be national in scope, so that the message has
relevance to media audiences in communities throughout the
nation. (“Become”)
Each of these criteria helps to understand the limitations on both who
can participate as rhetor and what can be said.
The exigence, audience and constraints are only one way to understand the context of a piece of rhetoric, and, of course, there are other
ways to get at context. Some rhetoricians look at subject, purpose, audience and occasion. Others might look at the “rhetorical triangle” of
writer, reader, and purpose.
An analysis using the rhetorical triangle would ask similar questions about audience as one using the rhetorical situation, but it would
also ask questions about the writer and the purpose of the document.
Asking questions about the writer helps the reader determine whether
she or he is credible and knowledgeable. For example, the Ad Council
has been creating public service announcements since 1942 (“Loose
Lips Sink Ships,” anyone?) and is a non-profit agency. They also document their credibility by showing the impact of their campaigns in
several ways: “Destruction of our forests by wildfires has been reduced
from 22 million acres to less than 8.4 million acres per year, since our
Forest Fire Prevention campaign began” and “6,000 Children were
paired with a mentor in just the first 18 months of our mentoring
campaign” (“About”). Based on this information, we can assume that
the Ad Council is a credible rhetor, and whether or not we agree with
the rhetoric they produce, we can probably assume it contains reliable
Laura Bolin Carroll
information. Asking questions about the next part of the rhetorical
triangle, the purpose of a piece of rhetoric, helps you understand what
the rhetor is trying to achieve through the discourse. We can discern
the purpose by asking questions like “what does the rhetor want me to
believe after seeing this message?” or “what does the rhetor want me
to do?” In some ways, the purpose takes the exigence to the next step.
If the exigence frames the problem, the purpose frames the response
to that problem.
The rhetorical situation and rhetorical triangle are two ways to
begin to understand how the rhetoric functions within the context you
find it. The key idea is to understand that no rhetorical performance
takes place in a vacuum. One of the first steps to understanding a piece
of rhetoric is to look at the context in which it takes place. Whatever
terminology you (or your instructor) choose, it is a good idea to start
by locating your analysis within a rhetorical situation.
The Heart of the Matter—The Argument
The rhetorical situation is just the beginning of your analysis, though.
What you really want to understand is the argument—what the rhetor
wants you to believe or do and how he or she goes about that persuasion. Effective argumentation has been talked about for centuries. In
the fourth century BCE, Aristotle was teaching the men of Athens
how to persuade different kinds of audiences in different kinds of rhetorical situations. Aristotle articulated three “artistic appeals” that a
rhetor could draw on to make a case—logos, pathos, and ethos.
Logos is commonly defined as argument from reason, and it usually appeals to an audience’s intellectual …
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