Reading Notes for ” ‘I had an Abortion’: the Rhetorical Situation of a Planned Parenthood T-Shirt” by Swift

Reading Notes:   Swift                                                                                  Ed Lessor

Key terms and Concepts

Swift discusses exigence, constraints and audience in a very pragmatic manner here. These crucial concepts from Bitzer’s “The Rhetorical Situation” are often difficult for students to grasp, so it is nice to offer them a grounded example of this type of analysis. I think that Swift does a strong job of demonstrating that the Planned Parenthood T-Shirt is an appropriate response to a rhetorical situation. Particularly useful is her discussion of exigence—she demonstrates that the exigence for the writing is a compound one that responds to an upcoming national march by women, a recent ruling on partial-birth abortion, and an upcoming national election that will result in the appointment of several Supreme Court judges. She also demonstrates the cyclical nature of this type of exigence—the issue is bound to heat up whenever the potential for appointing new Supreme Court justices arises. Swift also does a nice job demonstrating the complexity of the speaker here—the actual writer of the text will tend to be displaced by the wearer of the T-Shirt.  Even though it would be highly unlikely for the wearer of the T-shirt to be the actual writer of the claim, they are automatically associated with each other due to the nature of the message. Swift also discusses the constraints built into this rhetorical situation. You will be expected to defend your position if you wear this shirt. Would you wear it to church? To school? Would a sequined halter top version make sense? While these constraints can be viewed as limiting factors, they also serve positive functions for the wearer of the shirt. If you do choose to wear the T-shirt into certain public settings you are calling for a kind of dialog that could then be turned in a constructive way. The shirt also includes a web-address for further information—thus complicating the very simple message of the discourse.

Student Reception
I have to admit that I was a little concerned about teaching an essay with the title, “I had an Abortion: the Rhetorical Situation of a Planned Parenthood T-Shirt.” After having worked with this for several semesters, however, I can say that the focus of our discussion has always been so directed towards the strategy and context of the writing that the controversy over the hot button issue of abortion that I had expected has not arisen. I have not found discussion of the topic of abortion to lead to fruitful discussion in the past, but my students seem to be quite capable of taking the discussion on its own terms here. With that said, I should say that I teach this essay both as a practical demonstration of the potential for an analysis of the rhetorical situation as well as a limitation for understanding the rhetorical situation in analyzing an argument.

Unit Goals
Swift outlines several implications to her analysis of the rhetorical situation here—she finds the T-Shirt to be an appropriate response according to the principles of the Rhetorical Situation as outlined by Bitzer, and suggests that this piece of rhetoric has set a precedent for further interventions within the issue. What she does not really get into here is an analysis of the merits of the actual argument. For me, this is a good example of the limitation of this approach as a form of actual analysis. Bitzer suggests that a great deal can be learned about a specific rhetorical act by analyzing the rhetorical situation out of which it arises, but this is the beginning of a process of analysis rather than an endpoint. We read this essay just before students begin to craft the Rhetorical Context section for their Unit I papers. This sets the bar fairly high for what can be accomplished in this section, while reminding students that critical response and evaluation will require much more analysis and support for their claims about a given essay.

Course Goals: This essay aligns well with several of the larger 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
  • Reflect on the synthesis and communication of knowledge in alternate modes of composition

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

  • Adapt genre, mode, and other compositional choices to meet audience and purpose
  • Focus and sustain arguments in different modes using effective arrangement
  • 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:

  • Adapt content and style to respond to the needs of specific audiences and rhetorical situations