For all the writing any student has to do in school, it is remarkable that writing is still such a difficult task. At any age or level of education, writing is an ordeal, an exhausting endeavor at making yourself sound clever, or well read, or at least like you know what you’re talking about. It’s rough stuff but writing, like a bad breakup or an awful movie, is something for which it helps to have friends around. That’s why the University Writing Commons exists: to work through the hardest parts of writing. And that’s also why the Writing Workshop Team exists: to help in all the ways the Commons cannot and to be around when you’re trudging through another paper; we’re there to trudge with you.
If you were ever seized by the desire to read rhetorical theory, then Lloyd Bitzer’s “The Rhetorical Situation” is where you should begin; it’s a quick read and from it you may learn everything you need to be a persuasive writer and a persuasive person. Bitzer outlines the Rhetorical Situation itself as a situation with an exigence, an audience, and constraints. The exigence is your purpose in the situation, what you want to happen; the audience is the person or group that can help you accomplish your purpose; the constraints are what hold you back from meeting your goal. The rhetorical situation is is the foundation of the workshops we have been hosting for three years; here is our rhetorical situation.
Exigence: We want to help students write and we want to do that in a way the UWC cannot. Instead of going over one student’s writing assignment, we have opted out of working with assignments at all and teach writing skills instead. The UWC’s work is specific; it helps students immediately, it helps their grade one assignment at a time. With the workshops, our goal is to work on the big picture, to improve the skills students apply to all their writing assignments.
Audience: Students! All of them because they all write. Something we hear from students a lot is that their area of study will not require writing after school. These are the students that benefit most from the impossibility of time travel because their future-selves would strike down their youthful bodies for not learning that emailing is as much a writing process as an essay, that lab reports are not magically completed by lab-fairies, that memos, flyers, Craigslist ads, personal blogs, sappy love notes are all writing, and writing takes work.
Constraints: Writing, as I’ve noted, is pretty hard work and who really wants to exhaust themselves with something they don’t think will be relevant outside of school. I put about as little effort as possible in my high school math classes because I knew I wouldn’t be taking integrals in the future past the final exam. That’s the attitude we’re working against, the feeling that writing is irrelevant. Our largest constraint is that students don’t want to work on their writing and that is a shame because they’re just delaying the inevitable or they’re promising themselves disappointment when a potential employer doesn’t hire them because they can’t write.
It has been our goal to work with students to help them improve their writing, to help them foster lasting writing skills that will help them after college. We have hosted workshops for three years and each year we get a little better at finding ways to work with student writing. The workshop team will continue to work with students, we’ll keep trying to convince people that writing is necessary outside a classroom, and we’ll be around for anyone who needs help writing for a while.
Justin Kanzler is mostly adequate. That’s how he explains the tagline for his personal blog http://www.noneuclideansofa.com. He is a senior at Northern Arizona University. He lives with a cat.
In The Rhetorical Situation, Lloyd Bitzer suggests that when analyzing a speech or essay, the reader must go further than just understanding the setting of the piece. Instead, it is imperative to recognize the full context, how the writer is responding to this context, and how this advances the creation of rhetoric. A rhetorical situation has three primary components, the exigence, the audience, and the constraints. For example, I am an English major and in my creative nonfiction class we are expected to submit at least one essay to a literary magazine. The essay I am going to submit is a brief composition that centers around my sister’s battle with anorexia. So the exigence, or issue at hand, is eating disorders and how they affected my family. The exigence effects why I chose to write the essay and why I think it is important for people to read. My audience is multifaceted, I need to impress my professor to get a good grade, I need to
The essay I am going to submit is a brief composition that centers around my sister’s battle with anorexia. So the exigence, or issue at hand, is eating disorders and how they affected my family. The exigence effects why I chose to write the essay and why I think it is important for people to read. My audience is multifaceted, I need to impress my professor to get a good grade, I need to appeal to the literary magazine if I hope to be published, and my essay needs to draw in my peers because they are the type of people who would read the magazine. My teacher wants me to write a braided essay with many elements, my peers mostly just want to be entertained. I want to send my essay to magazines like Tin House and Prairie Margins because magazines like this actively seek out undergraduate unpublished authors, as well as frequently publish creative nonfiction. All of these elements have to be taken into account when editing my essay. Finally, constraints affect the variety and gravity of information I will provide to the audience.
While the essay is personal, I want to also reach out and relate to others who are affected by eating disorders. However, I do not want to come off as preachy or generalize those suffering from disorders and these are examples of constraints. While working in the University Writing Commons I hear the writing assistants reinforce these concepts to students all the time, especially to undergrads like myself who are grappling with recognizing and implementing rhetorical devices for the first time. The goal writing assistants strive towards is to fix more than just surface formatting and grammatical issues. Instead, they delve into the framework of the paper, who it is written for, how it can appeal to them, and how effective students can make a short assignment.
Ashley House is a student at Northern Arizona University. This is her first semester as a Student Assistant at the University Writing Commons.
Some days in the Writing Commons go a little something like this:
“Hello, how are you doing today?” I ask my first student of the day as she sits down in the chair next to me.
“Fine,” the student says with an air of skepticism, or maybe it is apprehension that a friend will walk by and see them getting help on their writing.
“What are we working on today?” I ask so they know I am in this with them. Together we will find a way to make their writing even better.
As I wait for their response I think, Please, don’t say grammar. Please, don’t say grammar. Please don’t say grammar, with a smile plastered on my face.
“I was hoping you could fix all my grammar errors,” the sweet student says already looking through the status updates they missed on their phone since they sat down.
Shoot. Keep smiling, I tell myself.
“Of course we can work on grammar together. Is there anything in particular that you think we could start with? Like subject-verb agreement or article usage?”
“Huh? I just want you to read my paper and fix my grammar, isn’t that what you do here?”
“I can help you with grammar, but I was hoping you could tell me specifically what you were struggling with so we could address it and you would know how to fix it in the future on your own.”
“My professor told me I would get extra credit for coming here and having you fix my paper. Can’t you just read my paper and fix my grammar?”
The writing assistant turned copy editor are the Writing Commons experiences I dread the most. The days when I am relegated to a copy editor and not asked to teach or assist are not days I look forward to.
Even though that is how some of my Writing Commons experiences go, it is not the norm. My favorite Writing Common experiences are when a student comes in and asks for help with something that seriously matters to them.
I have had the opportunity to work on resumes, capstone projects, cover letters, and personal poetry projects. I love when a student seeks assistance to improve something they have worked hard on and are proud of. They have taken the time to polish their words and craft something meaningful that will either aid them in their class or in practical, real world, out of college experiences.
Of course, during the course of working with students on the things they are passionate about their grammar is usually addressed. Working and reading through their work with a writing assistant shines a light on some of the errors they have overlooked. They are relieved to fix their work, and usually are capable of fixing the errors on their own.
I love when a student leaves confident in their work and confident in themselves. The best of Writing Commons is when I work with a student for thirty minutes and help them find that they already were a good writer. Good writers can become even better when someone sits down alongside them.
My favorite part about working at the University Writing Commons as an assistant is that I have the opportunity to work with students from every discipline, and with that, I have the chance to witness how writing pertains to each specific field. When I first began working as a writing assistant this semester, I assumed that it was my role as the assistant to help save the struggling students. Yet, through my work, I’ve discovered that this isn’t the case: it is the writing assistant’s job to work with the student. Instead of viewing the attendees as individuals who need saving, I’ve learned that it is our job as assistants to learn from the student, and help the student learn too—it is a collaborative effort. Through my work this semester at the UWC, I’ve come to view each session as a process of learning for both the consultant and the student.
In one of the first meetings that I had this semester at the UWC, I was surprised to find that the student who showed up to work with me wasn’t a struggling student with an assignment from a class. Instead, he decided to come to the writing commons to gain feedback on a grade appeal that he was writing to the university. The student came to me frustrated about a teacher that—in his opinion—had wrongfully given him a bad grade. It was at this very moment that I realized, as his assistant, it wasn’t possible to have all the answers—I had no idea how to write an appeal to the university. We spent our session working together to understand how an appeal should look and sound, and who it should be sent to. I shared my expertise as a rhetoric student: I showed him that when writing any type of letter, the writer has to consider the rhetorical situation by appealing to the audience, and by being straightforward in the purpose of the letter (Bitzer). After I explained the necessity of rhetoric, he shared his expertise as a business student. We discovered together that the best way to set-up the appeal would be to address it as a business letter, and to write it as a persuasive and respectful argument paper. My work with the student convinced me that writing assistants can’t possibly have all the answers. Instead, we have to work as a team with the students in order to understand the deeper meaning of their writing task.
My experience with this student also taught me that it is empowering for people to learn through collaboration rather than solely earning information from one teacher who has all the answers. It is more effective to have students learn by coming together to share ideas, and acquire knowledge as a team (Gee 32). While I still recognize that I am the teacher in each session, I want the students to not only learn from me but to also teach me. That way our session doesn’t turn into a lecture that I lead, but instead, a collaborative effort to achieve learning on both ends.
While it is my teaching strategy to aim for collaborative learning, I understand that at times it is easier to say than do. There are days when I show up at the UWC, tired, hungry, and worn-out from my day as an English 105 teacher and a full-time graduate student. These are the days when I recognize that it would be easier to grab the student’s paper “fix” it, hand it back, and send the student on their way; it is easier to pretend that I hold all the knowledge about writing than it is to humble myself and learn with the student through collaboration. On days when I’m feeling stressed, I have to take a minute and remind myself of the UWC’s mission: we work as assistants to learn, teach, and help inspire students to gain confidence in their writing through collaboration.
Bitzer, Lloyd. “The Rhetorical Situation.” Philosphy and Rhetoric. (1968): 1-14. Web. 26 Sep. 2015.
Gee, James. “What is Literacy.” Teaching and Learning2. (1987): 3-11. Print.
Criminal justice, sports sciences, English, psychology, and nursing are just a few of the subject areas that are represented by students at the University Writing Commons. While the disciplines may vary, the rhetorical approach writing assistants take with students stays consistent and may be the only dependable piece of the otherwise ever-changing nature of writing centers with different writers with different needs. The term “rhetorical principles” may sound foreign to those outside of rhetoric, but these principles really rely on considerations that we all use to navigate our way through communication on a daily basis.
Lloyd Bitzer, a very popular and well-known rhetor, argued that we must first consider the situation of a text (whether the text be an essay, a speech, or anything else) before we look at the audience, exigence and constraints. Likewise, The Oxford Guide for Writing Tutors explains the importance of rhetoric in composition as it “fills gaps” in the pieces we create (Fitzgerald 169). When working in the Writing Commons, the situation of students’ essays would be their class and the assignment based on the content of the course. Of course, one of the first things a writing assistant asks for from the student is the assignment prompt, so that the assistant can get a better feel for the situation as well. Next, the assistant would ask the student about the professor and if there will be anyone else participating as an audience for this text; maybe the essay will be presented to people in the course or even an audience that is not familiar with the course, as in the instance of journalism or teacher certification students.
After determining the audience, the assistant would talk to the student about what constraints are naturally imposed because of the assignment (situation) and the audience— what are the expectations based on the genre of the assignment? What will the audience already know? What should the writer expect to explain or give additional background information on? All of these questions define the scope of the piece and can be applied to any text for any discipline; the main goal is to help others understand the text in a way that allows them to make meaning from it. And finally, determining the exigence, or reason for choosing the topic of the text, is important in defining the purpose of the text and what the writer hopes to achieve by the end. If a student is writing a nonfictional piece about a past relationship for a creative writing class, their exigence may have been to cathartically release some of their emotions through writing. The purpose of that exigence may be to allow the audience to share in these emotions as they read. So it would be the Writing Assistant’s job to help the writer achieve that purpose, giving feedback on how they understood the text compared to what the purpose was.
All of these terms sound fancy, but how many of us have changed our word choice or tone when talking to a parent versus talking to a friend (audience)? How many of us experience exigence after going to a movie and hating it so much we just have to talk to someone about it and convince them to not waste their money on that awful film (purpose)? How many of us realize how much time we have to talk to someone or know a person’s background and use that to convince the audience of our argument (constraints)?
Aristotle’s rhetorical appeals and rhetorical context, including the pieces listed above in the image, are likewise very important when crafting any argument (and all essays are arguments — everyone wants a good grade right?). By considering how best to persuade our audience to agree with us, we are better able to come closer to the goal of an A. This teacher was using rhetorical analysis in her classroom and ended up analyzing Beyonce with her students. Teachers use it, students use it, even writing assistants use rhetorical analysis when determining what a paper still needs to (or could better) say. By accepting rhetoric as a boon that serves all content areas and all communication, we can better help students and ourselves in our own coursework, research, and personal lives.
Bitzer, Lloyd F. “The Rhetorical Situation.” Contemporary Rhetorical Theory: A Reader. ed. John Louis Lucaites, Celeste Michelle Condit, and Sally Caudill. Guilford Press, 1999: 217-25. Print.
Fitzgerald, Lauren and Melissa Ianetta. The Oxford Guide for Writing Tutors. New York: Oxford University Press, 2016.
In my first semester as a writing assistant, I’ve learned a lot about myself as a teacher and I’ve learned a lot about the students who have come to see me. Oh, and a lot about the students who have completely avoided the writing commons in general, but whatever. Some of the sessions I’ve had were super duper failures. The successful ones? They knew how to take advantage. Here’s how to be one of them:
Be on time to your appointment. Do I even need to say this? You’re a semi-adult now! Step away from the Netflix and learn how to budget your time. We’re waiting for you!
Have a goal for the appointment. We only have half an hour. If you show up with a ten page paper expecting me to go through every paragraph with you, you’ll end up with maybe two or three really polished pages and the rest will be untouched. Do some self-reflection. What do you kind of suck at? What do you kick ass at? If you know your strengths and weaknesses as a writer, together we can focus on the suck-y parts and make them fabulous (Fitzgerald and Ianetta, 124).
Oh, speaking of having goals, my goal is to be in a good mood all day every day. Unlikely, but guess what!? You can help!!! When you come to the session with a good attitude, not only does it put me in a good mood, but we’re gonna make way more progress. I promise that I will contribute to this too! I promise to encourage you and I promise that your writing is great (Fitzgerald & Ianetta 61).
Your writing assistant is not a dictionary. Nor am I a citation manual. I’m also not a research database. I’m just a writing assistant, standing in front of an assistee, waiting for him/her to ask me what online resources they can use instead of asking me randomly specific questions about how to cite the Bill of Rights. Here are some of my favorites:
Bring your assignments. I don’t mean your rough drafts (well, bring these too obviously), I mean the actual writing prompt that the teacher gave you. When we know what the teacher has asked of you for the assignment, it gives us the framework of what you’ve done right and what you need to work on.
Don’t blame it on your teacher. I’m not here to commiserate about how annoying your teacher is and how unfair his/her grading is. I’m here to help you improve your writing. Don’t be offended by teacher feedback. Soak it in. Embrace it. It’s like plucking your eyebrows: stings at first, but how else would they be on fleek?
Literally just come to the writing commons. Like, I’m sitting here waiting for you. Make use of me. I think I’m pretty damn helpful and I know that my colleagues are too. Have a writing date with me? Perf, k thanks.
Fitzgerald, Lauren, and Ianetta, Melissa. The Oxford Guide for Writing Tutors: Practice and
Research. New York: Oxford University Press, 2016. Print.
At the Writing Commons there are days when an English language learner student walks in and, with barely discernable English, asks me for help with “grammar and words.” Oh, my heart sinks with audible movement and, for a split second, I dread the next thirty minutes. How did this person, translating their conversation with me, assisted by a dictionary on their phone, become a senior at this university? I think the answer is: guts. I look at the face, like and unlike mine, and I see a brave person. This student flew across oceans to live in a foreign world barely understanding the language. It is a warrior sitting next to me, asking for help on a senior level paper, fighting for more discourse yet word-processing in characters I do not recognize.
Audre Lorde, a self proclaimed warrior and identity champion asks, “What are the words you do not yet have? What do you need to say? What are the tyrannies you swallow day by day and attempt to make your own, until you still sicken and die of them, still in silence?” (Lorde 19). For the “grammar and words” student, the tyrannies could come from a tutor like me. The tyrant may say, “you do not know English” or “I do not edit papers.” But these sickening words will not come from me; I will be the meeting place for discourse. Discourse is the foundation for literacy. James Paul Gee defines discourse as, “a socially accepted association among ways of using language” (Gee 29). He explains that every human, outside of severe disability, has at least one, and usually many plainsof discourse. The language he uses is much like the language Lorde and other underrepresented groups use to describe identity.
There is an identity, a language, a discourse, within the home. The discursive identity within the home is then challenged and shifts as students explore social and academic circles. It is the mastery of discourse as it complicates that allows for literacy. Gee explains that discourse “is for most people most of the time only mastered through acquisition, not learning. Thus, literacy is mastered through acquisition, not learning, that is, it requires exposure to models in natural, meaningful, and functional settings” (36). It seems to me that the Writing Commons is exactly the situation for language to function in “natural, meaningful, and functional settings.”
Academic discourse is difficult for students whose first language is English with varying dialects and economic histories. A new facet to personal identity is often discovered as discourses become comfortable places that foster literacy. Consider again the “grammar and words” student. The levels of discourse multiply exponentially for the student far from home, learning in a second or third language, among strangers and instructors that may or may not want them to swallow tyrannies of one kind or another. Maybe at the Writing Commons there is an opportunity, not only for language to be used naturally and meaningfully, but maybe it is a place for literacy and identity to grow.
“Become a Wayne State Word Warrior.” Today.wayne.edu. Wayne State University, 1999. Web. 5 Nov. 2015.
Gee, James Paul. Teaching and Learning 2. (1987): 3-11. Print.
Lorde, Audre. The Cancer Journals. San Francisco: Aunt Lute, 1980. Print.