Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Rhetorical Analysis Essays and Following Directions

I have just corrected the first batch of my students' rhetorical analysis essays. They were...not as strong as I would have hoped. One of the most frustrating elements was the students' inability to follow simple directions. They were limited to using the textbook and the piece of rhetoric they had chosen to analyze and needed to be approximately five pages long, double-spaced. 

For students, and even for some professors and instructors, the requirements of assignments often seem arbitrary; why the textbook and not online sources, if it's the same information? And why five pages? What if we can do it in two? And why a rhetorical analysis?

Seemingly arbitrary assignments that ask students to fulfill certain requirements are not, in fact, arbitrary and actually teaches them practical skills like knowledge transfer and good, old-fashioned following directions. Placing limits on the students' resources was meant to focus their attention on the task instead of research. The page count was framed to let the students know that the depth of analysis required will take about five pages. The one piece of rhetoric was, again, selected to allow students to focus, read and re-read, as well try and accomplish the proper amount of depth in their analysis. And finally, why a rhetorical analysis? Considering the amount of rhetoric students are exposed to, it seems like a worthwhile exercise to get them to think more critically and deeply about it.

Some of my students ignored the page count. Others, the resource limitations. And still others seemed not to bother with the analysis part of the assignment. These are all elements that we discussed at length in class, which they had been reading about for homework, worked on in small group discussions, and went through in the guided peer review and self-assessment. I prepared them as much as I could to fulfill at least the minimum requirements of the assignment. And yet.

They will probably never have to do another rhetorical analysis essay in their lives, although they will use rhetoric, whether they intend to or not. But they will have to follow directions, deal with seemingly arbitrary limitations, and produce quality work in less than ideal with even less guidance than I provided. Job applications, reports, presentations, bureaucratic paperwork, emails, and everything in between all have their own set of rules and directions to follow which can change in mid-stream. Plus, it's not a poor grade that the student will have to deal with, but the very real possibility that they won't get the job, promotion, sale, or even lose their job.

But students also need to be able to think critically and independently, because often they won't receive direction but a set of parameters and expectations that they need to meet. The only advice that they will get is to figure it out. While I don't expect my Freshmen and Sophomores to do their assignments with so little guidance, I do expect them to begin to actively work in order to eventually get there. It's not just about the grade; it's about their employment future.

So while I am fulling the student learning outcomes set forth by our university, I am also trying to get students prepared for life after college. Follow directions and meet parameters. There is nothing arbitrary about it.


  1. I always find it interesting that they will complain that the course is not relevant to future employment (meaning the content) but then resist the things that actually do make a difference in employment.

    If your boss says 3 page report, she means 3 page report. Not 1. Not 5. If she says analysis, she means analysis. Not description of what's out there so she can decide what she means herself. And if she says Tuesday. She means Tuesday. Possibly even Monday. Not Wednesday or Friday.

    Making this point really clearly to them is worthwhile.

  2. I think you and the above commenter make really good points. A lot of students come to college to get a job and complain that classes aren't geared toward the real world. But they don't realize that we're trying to get to learn skills that WILL take them further than our classes. But then they don't want to learn them! So frustrating!

  3. I agree with Jo's point as well. I also find it interesting that universities in general and professors more specifically are often criticised, now, for the supposed lack of employability of university graduates. Yet these skills mentioned in the post and in Jo's comment--time management, ability to figure out and follow instructions without explicit supervision, etc,--these things have to some extent always been part of the "curriculum". Turns out that those of us teaching in universities are not divorced from a mythic separate "reality" of the workplace in the way that many critics seem to imagine.

  4. Thanks everyone. I have a love/hate relationship with the job/economics stick to get students to care enough to take my class seriously. But it is the dominant way we discuss and think of higher education today, and since it's the case, I'll use whatever I need to. And if they accidentally learn something else in the process, well, I can take some credit for that, too.

  5. Yes, please, keep writing things like this. And saying them in class. A lot. And you too, @redlips, and everyone else!

    As our beloved politicians have demonstrated, if you repeat things enough they will become common wisdom; unlike them, you're actually promoting something wise -- concrete examples of skills kids don't have but can get from a class, connected to actual employment situations! Yay! But there's an enormous gap to fill, as so many people have been promoting the 'useless' argument for so long.

    I grew more and more explicit with my classes on these points, and I think more profs need to take such a pragamatic approach. The kids will tell their parents, the parents will tell the admin, etc. Or so we hope...

  6. I totally hear you on this one. My students have actually debated with me about page limits and requirements in class. I actually had one student who argued so much that I said, "Fine. You can give me less than the word limit, but than you have to write me a detailed analysis of why your word count is more effective than the one I assigned." He ended up giving me the full word requirement. haha. Overall, I try to make it very clear to them that I am not arbitrarily choosing my standards and outline how my requirements fulfill learning objectives. I think that's the most we can do. The rest is about their respect for teachers, their desire to learn, and whether or not they are just plain lazy. Those are things we usually have little sway over.

  7. I just love how you write. Reading your blog for me is like sitting down and having a conversation with you. You always make me smile and you have a way with words.


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