My Torrid Love Affair with Rhetorical Analysis

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The first writing assignment I ever taught was a rhetorical analysis of an advertisement, and I have been obsessing over the infamous "ad analysis" ever since.  Undoubtedly, the origin of my zeal must come from my first job as an advertising agency copywriter, a job I left just days before I started teaching.

Even though the rhetorical ad analysis paper can be frustrating for teacher and students alike, I am convinced that when students master this writing assignment, they have come a long way toward understanding academic analytical writing.  Over the years, I have recognized that students struggle so much with this analysis assignment because in high school they were often rewarded for summarizing a text well.  Indeed, many students have difficulty imagining what I mean by analysis.  I realized that this conceptual problem actually starts on the sentence level, so I developed a handout to show what analytical sentences do.  The handout, along with a sequence of in-class activities, teaches students how to pair description with analysis, especially in the topic sentences, and helps them with organizing their arguments.  

Adjusting to this analytical writing mode--where they make claims and support them--is quite the challenge for students, and so is recognizing the ideologies and commonplaces at work in advertisements that students often take for granted. Our class discussions of ideology and subtext are crucial in developing students' critical thinking skills and getting them to ponder the workings of rhetoric. Often, their first stabs at analysis begin with pat formulations of rhetoric, such as "The advertisers create an eye-catching ad to persuade their audience;" or, "The advertisers use sex to sell their product," or "The advertisers lie to us/use rhetoric to persuade us." I steer students away from these say-nothing statements in the drafting stages, but these facile formulations are pernicious! I've now added a checklist for lame analysis on the draft workshop sheet, which has seemed to help, and absolutely demand a thesis-driven argument that addresses the subtext and ideology put forth in the ad. In keeping with trends in literary analysis, I also steer them away from reconstructing the advertiser's intention and get them to formulate their thesis in terms of how the reader can interpret the rhetoric operating in the piece.

Because these ad analysis papers are so tough, I comment on drafts first, then teach a second rhetorical analysis assignment, if possible, which asks students to compare media reports on the same news event. Students do very well with this assignment, a sweet reward after their long and bitter struggle with the ad analysis. Unlike advertisements, news reports are not supposed to be persuasive--only informative; but, of course, the rhetorical choices (headline, choice of photo, inclusion of context, arrangement, use of quotations) of the contrasting pieces soon reveal their persuasive aim. The students like the civic dimension of this assignment; they come to appreciate how purportedly "unbiased" or "fair and balanced" news reports can manipulate how audiences interpret the story (and that makes them all jaded and cynical, which is kind of adorable in eighteen-year-olds). After conferencing with me about both rhetorical analysis papers, the students turn in final drafts of the papers a week later in a portfolio with a reflective letter of introduction.

What I love most about these rhetorical analysis papers is that they teach students good academic writing habits and develop their media literacy skills, which are far, far less sophisticated than we assume.  Teaching media literacy is an imperative for me. The U.S. is the only First-World country that does not have a government-mandated media literacy program, and of course we are the most media-saturated country in the world. Hmmm.

What I don't love about these analytical writing assignments is their tendency to stifle creativity. This is the downside of teaching students, more or less, the correct way to write analytical sentences and arrange their papers.  When I teach rhetorical analysis next time around, I will include creative exercises, such as allowing the students to come up with their own sets of contrasting headlines in class, blog about other possibilities for an ad campaign (including hilariously inept ones), and hold a revising session in class to spice up their introductions with punchy sentence fragments and word play. 

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7 Comments

Thanks, Jessica. Helpful to get some pedagogical perspective on this assignment.

Any chance you could take a look at the links? For me, at least, they're currently going to pages with lots of garbage characters and no formatting.

I always enjoyed the rhetorical analysis assignment, but the difficulty was always getting them to choose subjects worthy of a full on rhetorical analysis. Advertising was a good way to illustrate the basic appeals and manipulations that are frequently utilized, but I found reading several pages of analysis of a beer ad a bit ridiculous.

As a result, I switched to rhetorical analysis of political speeches. This worked really well during the election cycle, but I found it to be less effective when I used classic speeches from MLK, Malcolm X and George Wallace. That, and I was depressed by how superficial the analysis tended to be...

I think the media coverage assignment might actually work really well for me. It'll be more immediately relevant for the students and will lend itself to papers of a reasonable length. I'll have to give it a try the next time I teach 15.

Hey, I think I fixed the links! I don't know if this was a Mac-related issue or what. I uploaded the files as RTFs with the file extension, then, after saving, edited the .rtf extension out of my prose. Jeesh.

Matt, the only issue with the media coverage assignment is that sometimes some students have trouble finding apples-to-apples coverage. They usually do find something eventually, though. The assignment really helps them to understand connotation and rhetorical choice. Even though it can seem a little mechanical, with most theses reading something like, "Publication A presents event X as this, while Publication B presents event X like that," it teaches them how to make claims and set up analysis. It's less like literary interpretation and more concrete for them. I agree that ad analyses are painful to read, and so are analyses of political speeches! This one is much easier for everyone and helps them to become critical readers.

This is excellent, Jessica. Thank you so much for sharing your insights.

Wow, great detailed roadmap to follow, if I ever get a chance to teach English 15 again.

Do you also use it with ENGL30 and/or any 202s?

Hey Alison,
This is the template I use for an English 15 class linked to a CAS 100 class (we share the same 24 students). Then I go on to teach a rebuttal, policy paper (both of which match up a bit with CAS speech assignments), then a Facebook advocacy project, with which you are familiar, which matches up with the principles (and sometimes the content) of the CAS 100 "Motivational Speech."

I do literary analysis and ad analysis in my English 30 consumer culture class.

As I mentioned, I'm kind of a zealot about analysis!

Hey Alison,
This is the template I use for an English 15 class linked to a CAS 100 class (we share the same 24 students). Then I go on to teach a rebuttal, policy paper (both of which match up a bit with CAS speech assignments), then a Facebook advocacy project, with which you are familiar, which matches up with the principles (and sometimes the content) of the CAS 100 "Motivational Speech."

I do literary analysis and ad analysis in my English 30 consumer culture class.

As I mentioned, I'm kind of a zealot about analysis!

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