What’s Your Rhetorical Situation?

By: Dr. John Burkett

Arguably, the most important development in rhetorical theory in the last fifty years is the situation (see Lloyd Bitzer, “The Rhetorical Situation,” Philosophy & Rhetoric 1, no. 1, 1968). During the same decade (1960s), President Kennedy created the White House Situation Room to gather intelligence for responding to crises. Journalists later started “The Situation Room” to report worldwide situations. Certainly situation is now a concept. The rhetorical situation recognizes that all communication and action is responsive (or classically dialogical), responding to prior rhetorical situations. The concept’s lesson is that situations call for reflection and research.

The Apostle Peter implies this concept when he instructs Christians how to prepare for the ultimate rhetorical situation: “But sanctify the Lord God in your hearts, and always be ready to give an answer (apologos) to everyone who asks you for a reason (logos) for the hope that is in you, with meekness and respect” (1 Pet. 3:15). In classical rhetoric, logos means a reasoned statement like a thesis statement (Aristotle, Rhetoric 3.6.2), and apo– signifies reply; so the key noun “answer” (apologia) means to give a reasoned response. To be ready, one needs to assess the situation and the best answers to it.

Writing handbooks start with this concept: “Begin by taking a look at your writing situation” (Rules for Writers 1a). Assessing the rhetorical situation starts with two questions: “Who is my audience?” and “What is the question or problem?” Many successes and failures of communication can be traced back to how well a writer has considered these questions.

In the Writing Center and composition classes, I ask student-writers of all levels: “Who are your target readers?” and “What problem are you seeking to address?” Most student-writers are unprepared, never considering that they face a rhetorical situation and that how they understand it determines to a large extent the effectiveness of their writing and the efficiency of their writing process. For the research question defines focus and purpose. Then the audience (or how one imagines audience) shapes everything else: what genre is expected, what sources one selects, what reasons and evidence one writes, as well as choices of style, tone, and voice. These in turn shape your reader’s motivation.

The rhetorical situation not only helps writers but also readers start well. For instance, the first assignment a student usually encounters in a semester is the critical book review. So in the Writing Center, I ask, “What motivated the author to write the book?” A reader can only understand a book in relation to its situation. Every writer picks up a pen or taps a keyboard in response to some perceived problem or opportunity. Thus, a book reviewer should ask certain kinds of questions: What problem prompted the author to write? Has the author understood the situation accurately and fully? What qualifications and perspective does the author have to address the problem? Has the author proposed an adequate or significant thesis in reply to the problem? These “rhetorical” questions generate critical thinking for writing a review.

The situation is a foundational concept of communication: helping readers to understand, writers to compose to the point, leaders to respond wisely, and all people to speak or act appropriately. In the words of wisdom, “He that answers a matter before he hears it, it is folly and shame to him” (Prov. 18:13). The rhetorical situation extends this wisdom asking for reflection and research, especially for being “always ready to give a reasoned reply” for your faith, hope, and love.

Dr. John Burkett serves as Assistant Professor of Rhetoric and Composition, and Director of the Writing Center at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary.

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