Introductions for Analysis Papers: Kairos & Rhetorical Context

When my students compose analyses of speeches, articles, or visual texts, I ask them to craft an introduction that sets the scene for the text, that describes its kairos and rhetorical context.
I feel my students often struggle with introductions because they rely pretty exclusively on two rules for introductions: 1) start broad and 2) catch the reader’s attention. Students take broad to mean clich├ęd statements about “the beginning of time” or “today’s society.” Broad is relative to the rest of the paper, though, and the advice of Catherine Prendergast at First Year Comp describes the issue well: “In reality, the best introductions start specific. After that, they get even more specific.” As students try to grab the audience’s attention in the introduction, they often don’t realize it should be relevant and tone-appropriate. So, they sometimes create an “imagine you are x” or “picture it” scene.

For me, introductory hooks (like beginning with a question, opening with a startling fact or statistic, or crafting a narrative) only become useful if students also 1) create a substantial rhetorical context that 2) teaches the reader something new. Audiences are often interested if they feel like they are learning from reading. I invite students to provide content with a quick web research trip: what was happening at the time your author wrote that dealt with the topic?

Here’s the lesson/handout I give them.

Using Sources to Create Rhetorical Context in Introductions
Authors always speak, write, or perform within contexts. They respond to various statements, events, structures, and beliefs that came before they took part in the “conversation” on their topic. Your author, too, is in dialogue with other texts. As you introduce the text you are analyzing, then, you will want to consider the following questions: Why did this writer contribute to this topic at this particular moment? What cultural contexts do they draw on? What motivated them to communicate now? One of my students called this the “trigger," while rhetorical scholars call it kairos. You can create powerful introductions by discussing the timeliness  and occasion of the text, those things happening contemporaneously or which have historically informed the text.

In the following example, I provide the rhetorical context for a short dialogue. You can apply the principles and questions to your own article.

            Ben: Want to grab dinner with me tonight?

Cara: Sure, where are you thinking?

Ben: I’m pretty hungry, but I don’t know what I’m in the mood for.

Cara: Well, I know you usually don’t like Italian, but a new restaurant down the street is getting good reviews. They have pizza and salad, too, if you don’t want more traditional dishes.

Now, say we are analyzing Cara’s final argument. Cara wants to convince Ben to eat Italian food. What is the rhetorical context for her claim?

Rhetorical Context
Some Principles of
Rhetorical Context
Application Questions for Rhetorical Context
Ben spoke directly to her in conversation
Writers often respond directly to the words or actions of others. Writers join a conversation with people talking about the topic at the same time—sometimes directly (as here), sometimes indirectly.
Who else was talking about this issue around the same time your author was? What conversations is (s)he entering?
A critic released a review of the restaurant
Writers often respond to experts commenting on an issue in a new study, statistic, interpretation, or argument.
What experts presented findings on the author’s topic before (s)he wrote the text? What statistics emerged to show the significance of the issue?
The restaurant just opened
Writers often respond to current events, cutting-edge ideas or revivals of older ideas.
What events dealing with the topic occurred around the time the author wrote the article?
Ben doesn’t like Italian
Writers often respond to prevailing attitudes from individuals or from the culture at large.

What are the prevalent cultural attitudes about the topic? Does the author go with or against the grain of these attitudes?
Ben and Cara are hungry
Writers respond to things that affect them, their personal experience. Biography always informs writing.
What personal interest does the author have in the topic? Did something happen to the author to make her/him deal with this topic?

Assignment: Locate 2-3 academic sources that help build the rhetorical context for your text.
Think of it as setting the stage or describing the social milieu. In other words, you will want to provide relevant contemporaneous information about the issue/debate the speaker is addressing (e.g, overuse of technology, gun control, dedication of a new monument, etc.).

Your sources might describe current/historical events, disagree with your author and so show the debate, or provide biographical information. Your goal is to provide context for your readers who will know less than you about the article and its historical moment. Teach them something new.

Find Sources: You might start with a general web search on the topic of your text. First, limit it to the year the text was published.  You can always expand the date range if you need to. Read especially reputable sources like newspaper hits. You might also start with newspaper sources to get the facts first. For access to many newspapers at once, use your library website’s subscription to Proquest Historical Newspapers Database. If you don't have access, you can conduct a similar search through Google News Archives.

Student Examples:                                          

Question: I originally went looking for a text that addressed the changes to Medicare coverage for obese patients. So, what news articles can help me get the facts about the Medicare obesity debate in America around 2004?
Method: Search Proquest Historical Newspapers Database through library website
Search Term: Medicare Obesity 2004
Source: Found good news sources in New York Times
Question: What other (reliable) writings can I find on the Medicare obesity debate in America around 2004?
Method: Search Google. Look for reputable sources, not just random blogs or pages.
Search Term: Medicare Obesity 2004
Source: Found a lot of sources such as  Washington Post and Gallup

Question: What else was happening with obesity around 2004 in America when this comic was published?
Method: For web keyword search (google), Work on specific search terms: what, when, where?
Search Term: Obesity America 2004
Source: Found a useful statistic

Sample Introductions to Critique:
1. By 2004, more than one in three adult Americans were obese (Ogden et al.). In response to the problem, the United States government changed Medicare policies to cover certain obesity related treatments. Specifically, "the new policy... remove[d] the phrase 'obesity itself cannot be considered an illness'" to newly qualify treatments (Glassman). The legislation spurred debates over funding obesity with proponents of the plan arguing that the change would provide life-improving interventions and prevent premature death (McMurray). Yet 75% of Americans in a 2004 Gallup poll reported believing that obesity was due to "bad eating and bad lifestyle habits" as opposed to a "disease" (McMurray). Political cartoonist, Jeff Parker, sides with this majority. In the cartoon "Sick of Fat," Parker argues that Americans are to blame for weight problems and that the United States government not only inflates these problems by claiming obesity is an illness but also ignores the real problems of other countries.

Works Cited
Glassman, Mark. "Deletion Opens Medicare to Coverage for Obesity." New York Times 16 Jul. 2004.
Higgins, Marguerite. “Obesity Deemed an Illness.” The Washington 16 July 2004. 10 Aug. 2004.
Ogden, CL and MD Carroll, LR Curtin, MA McDowell, CJ Tabak, KM Flegal. “Prevalence of Overweight and Obsesity in the United States, 1999-2004.” Journal of the American Medical Association 295.13 (5 Apr. 2006): 1549-55. 

2. Obesity carries many stigmas in contemporary American culture, such as lazy, sedentary, and excessive. These labels reflect the prevailing view that obesity is a behavioral and therefore preventable problem. But as obesity affects more and more Americans—over one-third of United States adults were obese as of 2004—the United States government has displaced blame away from the individual American (Ogden et al.). In the summer of 2004, the United States Health and Human Services decided to “remove language in Medicare’s coverage that states obesity is not an illness” (Higgins). This change will allow individuals on Medicare and Medicaid to receive funding for obesity related treatments, and more broadly, it will influence the way Americans think about obesity. In “Sick of Fat,” political cartoonist Jeff Parker argues through the juxtaposition of American and the “third-world” that obesity is a moral disease caused by the excesses of American life. In contrast to the third world, America maintains excessive wealth, excessive power, excessive self-interest, and excessive disinterest in other countries.

Works Cited
McMuray, Colleen. "Public: Lifestyle, Not Disease Causes Obesity." Gallup.
Ogden, CL and MD Carroll, LR Curtin, MA McDowell, CJ Tabak, KM Flegal. “Prevalence of Overweight and Obsesity in the United States, 1999-2004.” Journal of the American Medical Association 295.13 (5 Apr. 2006): 1549-55. 

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