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Audience Anyone?

posted: 9.27.11 by Steve Bernhardt

We are deep into our first major assignment in my introcomp, which involves a summary/critique of a text, with special attention to the author’s argumentative strategies. We are trying to establish terms of analysis—a common vocabulary we can use throughout the term. I also want to see how well students can read and respond to a source text. Students had the choice of responding to one or more texts: a Michael Pollan piece on why and how individuals should respond to climate change, a recent essay in The New Yorker by science journalist Michael Specter about attempts to culture protein cells in the lab as a potential meat replacement, and a TED talk by Josette Sheeran, head of the UN’s World Food Program, titled “Ending Hunger Now.” All three are engaging arguments by powerful communicators—just the fodder we need for rhetorical analysis.

I started worrying about audience, as I tend to do. Is there any real audience for such assignments, ones that call for close reading and analysis, followed by summary and critique? Sure, we can say “Your peers are your audience,” or “You are writing to a college-educated audience,” or even “I am the real audience, your professor.” However, none of these constructions is particularly useful in offering novice writers the sense of a real audience, or even a seriously imagined one.

Then two pieces came my way that encouraged me to keep thinking about audience. Cathy Davidson, writing in the Chronicle (of Higher Education) Review, observes that her Duke students’ online writing in class blogs was “incomparably better” than the writing they did on her traditional assignments (term papers and structured academic writing). Oh no, I panicked, I am teaching traditional writing! I should be doing blogs instead with my first-year students and they would not demonstrate the “jargon, stilted diction, poor word choice, rambling thoughts, and even pretentious grammatical errors” that Davidson found in the “traditional writing” of her students. They’d discover a real audience in the blog community and immediately write well.

But then this morning, I was reading a piece by Carol Severino and Mary Trachsel, both University of Iowa rhetoric faculty (“Theories of Specialized Discourses and Writing Fellows Programs,” Across the Disciplines. Spring, 2008.) They nicely tease out two schools of thinking—that we are either preparing students for general academic writing tasks, or we are preparing students to become specialists within disciplinary contexts. Lo and behold, their evidence suggests, contrary to everything I believe, that the tasks students frequently face, confirmed by the experience of embedded writing fellows and feedback from disciplinary professors, are actually quite limited and general. Students most frequently encounter a generalized kind of academic writing that requires a response to a text. Whew, I am safe. I am doing just what students need to learn. Panic allayed, without drugs. Just take two articles and get a good night’s rest.

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