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Multimodal THURSDAY: It’s all Greek to me…until someone writes an e-mail

posted: 9.25.14 by Andrea Lunsford

Guest blogger Diantha Smith is a PhD candidate in English and the Teaching of English at Idaho State University. She teaches both online and face-to-face composition classes and loves incorporating a variety of media into both. In this post, Diantha offers a digital writing assignment to introduce students to rhetorical terms and concepts.

Many students are introduced to rhetorical terms in freshman composition courses, but whether or not they will remember, let alone apply these terms, is another story. After teaching for several semesters and receiving blank stares every time I said ethos, pathos, or logos, I realized that I needed to find a way to make these terms applicable to students’ everyday lives. I have found the medium of e-mail especially useful for helping students see how rhetorical appeals fit into both writing and revising. Although the assignment below is directed to an online class, it could be adjusted easily to fit a face-to-face course as well.

To introduce students to rhetorical terms (ethos, pathos, logos, kairos, telos) and give them practice identifying these terms in others’ writing.

Background Reading

  • Everything’s an Argument, pp. 22-29, Audiences for Arguments, Appealing Audiences
  • The St. Martin’s Handbook, Ch 20a, Composing Academic and Professional Messages
  • The Everyday Writer, Ch 2e, Use Media to Communicate Effectively
  • Writing in Action, Ch 2f, Use Media to Communicate Effectively
  • EasyWriter, Ch 4a, Planning Online Assignments

The Assignment

Part 1: Rhetoric & E-Mail Writing
The principles of rhetoric are important in every kind of writing, even simple e-mails. Since our main medium of communication will be through e-mail, it’s important and valuable for you to see how rhetorical strategies can help you communicate effectively with me throughout the semester.

  1. Click HERE to watch a five minute overview of the rhetoric and e-mail. (For instructors: The Prezi version is available here.)
  2. Choose one of the sample e-mails below and write 50+ words about why it is effective or ineffective. Be sure to use some rhetorical terms (ethos, pathos, logos, kairos, telos) in your post, and don’t forget to comment on at least two of your classmates’ posts. Click emails below to view a larger version in a new tab.

Part 2: Rhetoric & Revising
Some of the most important rhetorical choices we make in writing happen when we revise. Some examples include

  • ethos: may cause us to change way we present ourselves (i.e. personal vs. distant, first name only vs. full name and title, attention to grammar/mechanics)
  • pathos: may cause us to change tone by adjusting our word choice and punctuation (especially exclamation points) to communicate our emotions
  • logos: may cause us to adjust the format or style we use; may also cause us to include or exclude other media (pictures, video, etc.)
  • kairos: the timing of our message isn’t always under our control, but time may influence how much we say and whether or not we flag a message as “urgent”
  • telos: may impact the entire message as we ask ourselves “What do I want to accomplish?” and/or “What do I want to avoid?”

Watch the following video and see if you can identify the rhetorical moves the writer makes as she revises this e-mail to her crush.

Do one of the following:

  1. Choose 2-3 questions below and write 100+ words about what you notice about how ethos, pathos, logos, kairos, and/or telos influence her revision.
  2. Choose one of the sample e-mails from part one and revise it. Then add a short summary (3-5 sentences) explaining how your understanding of rhetoric influenced your revision.

(To help students think about the overall rhetorical situation)

  • What reaction is the writer hoping to get from her audience? What is she hoping to avoid?
  • What other choices might she have made? What results might those choices have?
  • What can you tell about the writer of the e-mail? What evidence would you use to back up the personality/life you think she has?

(To help students consider specific rhetorical strategies)

  • Why does the writer worry about correctly writing “your or you’re” in this message?
  • When and how does the writer edit highly emotional content? Why?
  • Why are the greeting and closing parts of the e-mail changed multiple times?

One of the most important points that comes out of this activity/discussion is the importance of knowing and understanding the intended audience. Most of the best/worst sentences in the sample e-mails can be directly tied to the writers’ (lack of) awareness of what a teacher expects. In the YouTube clip, the writer is constantly thinking about her intended audience (to the point of obsession) and her prediction of the audience’s reaction causes her to make huge changes in her writing.

Part 3: Composing
The writing assignment below allows students to demonstrate what they’ve learned about rhetoric by writing an e-mail to their instructor. After explaining the assignment in class, I encourage students to ask any clarifying questions (i.e. What title do I prefer? Dr.? Ms.? First name only? How formal do I expect their language to be? Why do I want to know about my students and their expectations for the class? What will I do with this information?).

Based on what we’ve learned about rhetoric and e-mail, and based on what you know about me from our class discussion, you should have a pretty good idea about how to address me in an e-mail. I would like to get to know you better, too. Please write me an email where you:

  1. Briefly introduce yourself
  2. Tell me about your strengths/weaknesses in writing
  3. Let me know about your expectations for this class. Please be specific about what you would like to learn, what concerns you have (if any), and feel free to include any questions.

You will be graded on how well you meet the criteria in the five parts of the rhetorical arch. If needed, please feel free to refer back to the video.

Overall, I love using this assignment to introduce rhetoric because it helps students to understand that when we write and revise—whether a short e-mail or a ten-page persuasive research essay—we also need to be very aware of who the audience is and how we can best appeal to their needs, wants, and values. The more students see rhetoric in their everyday lives, the more they will apply good rhetorical strategies in all of their writing.

Want to collaborate with Andrea on a Multimodal Monday assignment? Send ideas to for possible inclusion in a future post. 

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