Reading Notes for “The Rhetorical Situation” by Bitzer

Reading Notes:   Bitzer                                                          Ed Lessor

Key Terms and Concepts
When I teach this essay, I ask the students to familiarize themselves with the following concepts:

Exigence: “Imperfection marked by urgency.” What happens or fails to happen? Why is one compelled to speak out? Exigence may or may not lead to a rhetorical situation, the exigence may or may not be one that can be removed, and exigence may come and go without a rhetorical situation arising. I like them to keep in mind that the exigence may be compound as well as cyclical in nature. Overall, I want my students to understand that the pragmatic nature of rhetoric means that it arises out of a need.

Persons: Who is involved in the exigence and what roles do they play? This is a great opportunity to explore the power dynamics that go along with any given argument. What are the stakes of the issue, and who has the most to win or lose?

Relations: What are the relationships, especially the differences in power, between the persons involved?  How does this relate to the constraints placed upon the situation? Are constraints always negative, or can these shape discourse in a positive manner?

Location: Where is the site of discourse? Does it matter if the discourse is a microphone, a newspaper, a video, or a peer-reviewed journal? Do tweets count?

Speaker: Who is compelled to speak or write? Is the speaker always a writer? What power does the speaker have to empower change around the issue?

Audience: Who does the speaker address and why? The audience may be your self—must be able to modify the exigence. What is the difference between a rhetorical audience and other types of audiences?

Method: How does the speaker choose to address the audience?  This is a good place to bring in questions about multi-modal approaches to argument.

Institutions: What are the rules of the game? How is the discourse constrained? Can any of these constraints contain constructive tensions?

Kairos: This concept is not included in the essay, but I include it here as a way to help my students think about the timing of rhetorical situations. It is useful to consider how much needs to come into alignment at the right time in order for a rhetorical situation to “mature.”

Student Reception
I take “The Rhetorical Situation” to be a foundational text for CO 300. A feature that distinguishes an Upper Division argument course from an introductory course such as CO 150 is the fostering of a “sophisticated” understanding of the rhetorical context for the essays that students write and read. There is generally a bit of resistance to the theoretical language presented in the essay, but this is easily overcome by a discussion of the rhetorical situation for this particular piece of writing. The students appreciate having the key terms laid out for them as they approach the essay. The ability to analyze the rhetorical situation for a given argument leads to a much deeper understanding of the overall context in which the writing takes place. As students draft their own arguments later in the course, understanding the rhetorical situation for their arguments also helps them to nuance their understanding of their intended audiences for their writing.

Unit Goals:
After we read the essay, I usually have the students do an analysis of the rhetorical situation for some of the sample essays that we are reading in class. We also follow this class with a reading of the essay by Swift that analyzed the rhetorical situation of the “I had an abortion” t-shirt. The goal for this analysis is to gain a deeper sense of the “situatedness” of an argument even before we begin to analyze the actual claims and reasons presented by the arguer.

Once we have mastered the language of the rhetorical situation, we continue to use the concept throughout the course. In Units I and II we formally discuss the rhetorical situation for source materials in order to demonstrate a deep understanding of the context for the arguments. In Unit III we employ concepts from the rhetorical situation to explore our own background as writers, and to target a very precise audience for our final arguments in the course.

Course Goals: This essay aligns well with many of the course goals for CO 300:

Extend knowledge of rhetorical concepts, demonstrated by a student’s ability to:

  • Read and discuss theoretical texts from rhetoric, discourse studies, communication, and related disciplines
  • Analyze texts reflecting disciplinary/professional/specialized discourse
  • Compose effective arguments in different genres (such as academic and public media) and different modes (such as alphabetic, auditory, and visual modes, as well as multimodal texts that combine these strategies) designed to achieve multiple and specific purposes for multiple and specific audiences
  • Reflect on the synthesis and communication of knowledge in alternate modes of composition

Extend experience in composing processes, demonstrated by a student’s ability to:

  • Hone strategies for generating ideas, revising, editing, and proofreading mono- and multi-modal texts in disciplinary/professional/specialized discourse
  • Critique one’s own compositions and the compositions of others
  • Evaluate sources for accuracy, relevance, credibility, reliability, and bias

Extend mastery of argumentative conventions, demonstrated by a student’s ability to:

  • Adapt genre, mode, and other compositional choices to meet audience and purpose
  • Select, evaluate, and integrate appropriate evidence for multiple genres, modes, and rhetorical situations
  • Use audience appeals, including pathos, ethos, and logos
  • Anticipate and address audience questions and objections

Extend the application of advanced rhetorical concepts, demonstrated by a student’s ability to:

  • Compose arguments in different modes for specific audiences and purposes
  • Adapt content and style to respond to the needs of specific audiences and rhetorical situations