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.