You Cannot Escape Rhetoric Josiah Hayes Ohio University



Repeat after me, “I can use I.” Schools or other academic establishments would tend to disagree with the former statement. It is generally seen in the academic world as unprofessional to use subjective writing. Students like myself were taught to always be completely objective while writing up our assignments unless we were given clear instructions that stated otherwise. My belief is that academic establishments should not place such a high emphasis on “objective” writing. Through the works of Donald Murray, Margaret Kantz, and Christina Haas with Linda Flower, I will explain how completely objective writing is practically impossible to attain. Also, I feel that academic institutions should teach students to be conscious of the context in which their book/article/text was written and read. If students do not look at the intentions and motivation of the rhetor, they could easily miss the purpose of the text as well as “why” the writer communicates in the way they do. Briefly, we will look into what the authors mentioned above have already stated. Donald Murray’s article “All Writing is Autobiography” deconstructs the argument of keeping academic or professional writings objective. Murray uses multiple types of media (fictitious works, poetry, and newspaper articles) subjectively to prove that professional work can be personal. Margaret Kantz’s article, “Helping Students Use Textual Sources Persuasively,” explains how context is crucial for students to examine. The idea of writings being personal from Murray connects to Kantz idea of writers having reasons for why they write in the way they do. Kantz explains that understanding the context in which the rhetor was writing will benefit students as they can create more original arguments based off of their understanding. Finally, Christina Haas and Linda Flower published their research findings in “Reading Strategies and Construction of Meaning.” The two found that students who, like Kantz suggests, use “rhetorical reading strategies”



(strategies that question the context, motivation, and intentions of the rhetor/writer) will benefit more than the students who do not. The report explains how examining the text with a more critical and questioning eye can lead to students grasping the main arguments or concepts of the text they are examining. First and foremost, academic institutions and teachers should be aware that writing is very personal. It is often stressed in academia to have the majority of writing assignments to be solely objective. I feel that this objectivity should not be emphasized as much as it is within schooling systems. Instead, I feel like academic leaders should allow for students to be more independently subjective in their assignments. From personal experience, every student in my high-school English class thoroughly enjoyed having writing assignments that allowed for a more subjective form of writing. Because I and my classmates were writing about ourselves, the assignments became more personal and rewarding. The work of Donald Murray supports the idea of writing being highly subjective, even when it is meant to be objective. Murray claims in his article that all texts are autobiographical in their nature. As evidence, Murray explains “We are autobiographical in the way we write…I have my own peculiar way of looking at the world and my own way of using language to communicate what I see” (1991, p. 58). This statement makes logical sense as each person on Earth is an individual, and will thus communicate to others in their own way. To drive this point home, Murray also comments, “My voice is the product of Scottish genes and a Yankee environment, of Baptist sermons and the newspaper city room, of all the language I have heard and spoken” (1991, p. 58). While there is still a need for academics to teach students how to write objectively, as it is the most “professional” way of writing, I still firmly believe that there should not be as high of an emphasis on objectivity in modern academic institutions. If students are already being subjective in their writings, I feel like



it is the duty of academia to enhance its students to their maximum potential. I believe that the system of so highly focusing on objectivity in writing is obsolete and incomplete. Young writers of academia should be encouraged to pursue subjective writings in order for them to grow fully in their writing style. Our worldview and, thus, our ways of communication will be altered by our personal experience. Now that it is clear that writing is personal, I feel like academic institutions should also focus on teaching students to examine the contexts of existing writings. If students look at the context of which their text has been written and traditionally read in, the students will have a greater insight and appreciation for their materials. Margaret Kantz’s work highlights how students benefit when they have a deeper knowledge about the context of their readings. Kantz first explains how students should not take a “fact” at face value. Kantz’s belief is summarized by such statements like, Many students do not understand that facts are a kind of claim and are often used persuasively in so-called objective writing to create an impression. Students need to read source texts as arguments and to think about the rhetorical contexts in which they were written rather than to read them merely as a set of facts to be learned (1990, p. 72). Kantz then gives an example of a student studying a historic battle. The student, although quite apt at English, was not aware of the situations or the motivation of the rhetors/authors of her two example books. Because of this, the student discredited a “fact” about the battle (the size of each side’s army) since she found two different answers. The first answer was collected from a French authored book, and due to nationalism, the estimates of size of the French army was smaller than the British army. The authors’ nationalism (as well as their target audience) affected



the way in which the authors portrayed the armies as they did not want it to seem like the French army was grand but still got defeated. The British author describing the same battle could easily skew the numbers of the armies to make Britain look more powerful. Because the student did not take into account “why” the authors communicate in the way they do, that student’s grade on their paper suffered. The example gives even further accreditation to Murray’s claims that even “objective writings” (a history book) contains a personal essence of the author. This also reinforces Kantz’s idea of being conscious of the historical, social, and economic context of each rhetor when looking at a text. This awareness in students would allow them to more fully understand the texts they come across. Therefore, I believe that there should be a greater focus on teaching students how to be aware of the intentions of their text’s authors, who the text was meant for, and why the author communicates with the language that they do. I feel like “reading for the facts,” just to regurgitate said facts on a test, lessens the lessons that writings offer students. In addition to the values of understanding the context of a text, it has been shown by Christina Haas and Linda Flower that practicing questioning of the intentions of rhetors benefits students in comprehension of text. The reason that Haas and Flower both viewed what is called “rhetorical reading” is that it was evident that rhetorical readers could gain more substance from the texts they encounter. However, not every reader will look at a new text with a rhetorical eye. The reason for this, Haas and Flower postulated, was If reading…is a process of responding to cues in the text and in the reader’s context to build a complex, multi-faceted representation of meaning, it should be no surprise that different readers might construct radically different representations of the same text and might use very different strategies to do so (1988 p. 120).



With this hypothesis in mind, Haas and Flower then set out to see how a more experienced reader responded to a text as compared to a capable, but novice college reader. They obtained a sample text, and had readers analyze it without any knowledge of the original context as to where the reading was from, who it was intended for, or any clues as to what the passage was about. What their research showed was that the experienced readers could infer that there were two major claims in the sample reading, as well as being able to make educated guesses about the main context of the reading. The novice readers, on the other hand, only understood one of the claims within the text and they did not accurately guess the context in which the reading was purposed for. Haas and Flower also found that the less experienced readers took a more “facts-retention” approach versus the rhetorical approach used by their more experienced peers. The research collected by Haas and Flower has affirmed my belief that students should be taught rhetorical reading skills earlier in their schooling rather than later in their academic lives. Being exposed to the rhetorical reading methodology, I believe, will be exponentially beneficial to the students’ comprehensions and retentions of their texts. With the works of these authors in mind, it is evident that teaching rhetorical skills is both pertinent and beneficial to students. Murray’s work shows how all texts contain some form of a personal touch. With all writings being autobiographical, there is not a chance that an author would have escaped using rhetorical tools in their writing. Because there will be rhetoric present in text, it would make logical sense to teach students how to become aware of the intentions and motivations of every author when encountering new texts. The work of Haas and Flower shows that there is definitely a gap between someone who is reading with a rhetorical approach and a person who is reading without taking a rhetorical approach. Kantz also shows how having the awareness of context and desires of the rhetors can be exponentially beneficial in fully



understanding a text. A student who is not aware of the rhetoric of texts, like the sample student in Kantz’s article, could have easily been misled by the contradicting “facts” of two history books. Instances such as these are why I am a proponent of teaching rhetorical reading strategies to students at an earlier level than a junior’s college course, or even a graduate course. If we teach students these rhetorical strategies early on, I believe that they will be more successful in their reading as well as being highly effective when breaking down a text passage. Each of these works were a very valuable contribution to the English using academic world. Murray shows his readers that it is almost completely impossible to wipe out the author’s voice from any type of work. Kantz, along with Haas and Flower, demonstrate the benefits of using a rhetorical approach to reading. It is quite boggling, then, for academic institutions to place such heavy emphasis on “objective” writing. The completely “objective” work is nonexistent, so why should students be forced for years and years of schooling to stay away from anything subjective? It could only help students to understand that their required texts were written by someone for someone else; there is purpose, motivation, and reason for each rhetor’s work. With a strong focus on rhetorical reading strategies, it was proven that students can effectively comprehend the claims of passages/texts as well as make educated postulations about why the author is communicating in the way that they do. The earlier we teach students this, the more practice they will be able to have. By the time they reach a college level course, they should be very well versed in fully comprehending any text they may encounter.



References: Haas, C., & Flower, L. (2011). Rhetorical Reading Strategies and the Construction of Meaning. In E. Wardle & D. Downs (Eds.), Writing about writing: A college reader (pp. 120-138). Boston, MA: Bedford/St. Martin’s. Kantz, M. (2011). Helping Students Use Textual Sources Persuasively. In E. Wardle & D. Downs (Eds.), Writing about writing: A college reader (pp. 67-85). Boston, MA: Bedford/St. Martin’s. Murray, D. M. (2011). All Writing Is Autobiography. In E. Wardle & D. Downs (Eds.), Writing about writing: A college reader (pp. 56-66). Boston, MA: Bedford/St. Martin’s. **We talked about me using sources outside of the book only if I needed them. I did not feel the need to include one, so that’s why my sources are just from the book.

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