Evaluating Rhetorical Context

Learning Objectives

  • Identify the rhetorical context of a passage

For example, suppose in a music education course you are asked to read the following speech and then compose an opposing argument:

It is high time for music education to enter the digital age. In its current form, high school music education focuses almost exclusively on large instrumental and vocal ensembles grounded in classical music and conducted by one individual, typically the school’s music teacher. However, today’s average teenager listens to music for four hours a day, most of which is created digitally and produced through computer software, drum kits, and keyboards. Additionally, teens are taking to the internet themselves, recording their own work and sending it out to the world, with approximately 12,000 covers of songs being uploaded every 24 hours.

As a former high school band conductor and current music professor at a state university, I train professional musicians and study music education curriculum, and I believe that current music classes are not providing what most students desire and what most future professionals need. As a consequence, high school students are abandoning school music classes. Initiative 952, with its emphasis on digital recording and production, would entice students back to music class and set them on a lifelong love of musicianship. I respectfully urge the board to vote yes on Initiative 952 and fund the education of tomorrow’s musicians.

To understand the rhetorical context of the speech, you must ask yourself the following questions:

  1. Who is the author, speaker, or composer?
  2. What is the author trying to accomplish? What is his or her purpose?
  3. What is the author writing about? What is his or her topic?
  4. Who is the audience?
  5. What is the occasion, or external motivation, for writing?

In the speech above, the author is a music professor who was formerly a high school band director. His purpose in writing this speech is to persuade school board members to fund Initiative 952. His audience includes, narrowly, school board members and, more broadly, anyone interested in music education. His topic is changing the focus of high school music education to digital composition through the funding of an initiative. The occasion for the speech is a meeting at which the school board will vote on funding the music education initiative.

Now, how does knowing the speech’s rhetorical context help you in writing an opposing argument? Let’s consider your rhetorical context.

  1.  Who are you as a reader of a text and an author of a response?
  2.  What is your purpose in reading and then writing?
  3.  What are you reading and writing about?
  4.  Who is your audience?
  5.  What is the occasion, or external motivation, for your reading and writing?

Your assignment requires you to read and respond as an author opposing the original speech. Your purpose is to persuade readers that the speech’s argument is flawed. Your topic will be the speech and the proposed initiative. Your audience is your professor. The occasion, for you, is a course assignment and probably the desire to do well on the paper.

How can you use the rhetorical context of the music professor’s argument to help you meet the rhetorical context of your assignment?

Knowing that the author is a music professor, you decide to Google him to learn more about him. On his university’s website, you learn that his specialty is contemporary, digital music. You wonder if his scholarly interests might have affected his position on this argument and begin to consider ways that you could address his bias in your own paper. You also note that several other professors in his department are specialists in classical music and decide to investigate what they have written on the topic, finding several have written in support of the classical approach to music education. Your own professor has emphasized using academic sources, so you decide to use some of the classical music specialists as sources for your paper.

You also find the author’s LinkedIn page where he mentions an online product he has developed to bring digital tools to music classrooms. Since the occasion of his writing is a school board meeting where members could potentially vote to purchase such a product, you wonder if his motivation for funding the initiative might be linked to his desire to sell his product. Since your assignment requires you to oppose his argument, you decide to raise the possibility that the speechwriter may be motivated by selling digital tools rather than improving music education.

Examining the rhetorical context in which a writer is operating helps you understand an author’s biases and agendas as well as the influences surrounding the writer that may have affected his or her composition. Examining the rhetorical context in which you, as a reader/responder, are operating helps you situate the text rhetorically, become aware of your own position, and respond to the text appropriately.

Two circles overlapping to create a Venn diagram. One circle is the rhetorical context for readers and the other circles in the writer's context.

Figure 1. Both the writer and the reader are influenced by their unique rhetorical contexts for any given situation.

Try It

Below is an excerpt from the advance text of a speech then-Senator John F. Kennedy gave just a few days before he won the election to become the 35th U.S. president. Read the excerpt, and then answer the questions.

We live in a fast-moving nation. But one thing constant from the birth of our Republic has been our faith in education and our determination to make it available to all our citizens.

It was Aristotle, more than 2,000 years ago, who said: “The neglect of education ruins the constitution of the country.” And Thomas Jefferson echoed these principles when he wrote to a friend in 1786 that “the most important bill is that for the diffusion of knowledge among the people. No other sure foundation can be devised for the preservation of freedom and happiness.”

Thus the value and importance of education was at the foundation of Western thought—and was again present at the foundation of the American Republic. . . .

Today I want to discuss education with you—the current crisis in our educational system is a crisis caused by our failure to meet our responsibilities over the past 8 years; and tell you what I think we must do in the future to build an educational system to meet our expanding needs. . . .

Where, then, have we failed in the past eight years? And what must we do for the future?

First, we have failed to provide adequate classrooms for our expanding school population. Today we have 131,000 classrooms fewer than we need—and, at our current rate of construction shortage is actually increasing. The result is double shifts, obsolete, overcrowded, and even dangerous classrooms.

In one community a dog kennel was converted into a school where four classes were being held. In an adjoining town the school superintendent said, “I only wish I had a dog kennel to use.” In another area the school board is renting 2 windowless, cinder block factories to house 883 children—while in other cities kindergarten children are being taught in firetraps. . . .

Second, we have failed to provide enough well-trained and well-paid teachers. Today we need 135,000 more teachers. Almost three million schoolchildren are being taught by teachers working on substandard certificates. And as our school population expands in the next decade, one-and-a-half million more teachers—one-third of all our college graduates—will be needed to keep our educational system going. We are not attracting bright young men and women into teaching because the salaries which we pay our teachers are shamefully low. . . .

Therefore, I propose the enactment of a Student Loan Insurance Act—modeled on the highly successful program which has been adopted by my native State of Massachusetts. Under this program the Federal Government—in return for a small premium—would guarantee student loans made by colleges and universities. Thus colleges would be able to secure funds adequate to meet the pressing financial needs of all of its students—so that no able student would have to leave school because he could not pay his expenses. Although a small special revolving fund would be required, Federal payments would be made only in the unlikely event of default. Basic responsibility for repayment would be in the hands of the student, and the loan program itself would be administered by the individual college or university. In this way we can make sure that no bright young American is denied a college education. . . .

Abraham Lincoln once said that “He has the right to criticize who has the heart to help.” We of the Democratic Party criticize our educational system—and the leadership which has permitted it to falter—because we have the heart to help, and, even more, the programs and the leadership which can build an educational system of which all Americans can be proud.[1]

  1. John F. Kennedy: "Speech by Senator John F. Kennedy, Beverly Hilton Hotel, Los Angeles, CA - (Advance Release Text)," November 2, 1960. Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project. http://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/ws/?pid=25930.