Rhetorical Context

Learning Objectives

  • Define the concept of rhetorical context
  • Identify writers’ rhetorical contexts
  • Identify readers’/responders’ rhetorical contexts
Rhetorical context: author, purpose, topic, audience, occasion

Rhetorical context

Rhetorical context refers to the circumstances surrounding an act of reading and/or composition.  Rhetorical context includes:

  • the author
  • the author’s purpose for composing
  • the topic
  • the audience
  • the occasion, or external motivation, for composing

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 but, 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 speech writer 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.

Rhetorical Context for Readers and Writers