LEARNING GOAL – Rhetorical Awareness


Developing rhetorical awareness is a learning goal for this class both because it relates to our class theme, of exploring the rhetoric of gender and sexuality and because the class is offered by the Program for Writing and Rhetoric.


“Rhetorical awareness” is, in some ways, a fairly simple concept, and in other ways, a really difficult one. On a simple level, being “rhetorically aware” means being aware that any act of communication you engage in has an audience and a purpose, and that the success or failure of your communication is based almost entirely on how well it meets the needs of that audience and fulfills that purpose.

Sounds easy enough, right? Some people have naturally good rhetorical awareness, or what is often called “good people skills,” meaning that they know how to read people and deliver messages to them in the format best suited to that particular group of people. They may not even be conscious of it, but they know which strategies to use to appeal to which audiences, and they’re keenly aware of how their message is impacting their audience.

For example, a rhetorically aware teenager knows better than to beg her parents to pay for a trip to Cancun for Spring Break by pointing out that “all my friends are doing it.” As a persuasive strategy directed at parents, that one is a miserable failure. The rhetorically aware teenager would take a different approach, like pointing out that this is an opportunity to learn responsibility or to explore other cultures. But that would only work if the teenager was genuine in her reasoning. If she’s not genuine, then those are just manipulative tactics that aren’t very rhetorically savvy.


It’s actually somewhat rare for children and teenagers to be rhetorically aware, as such awareness requires a focus on the “others” of one’s audience, rather than on one’s self. So that’s why you don’t start learning about rhetorical awareness until you’re in college, when you’ve matured to the point that you’re able to see things from other people’s perspectives more easily. And when you can see things from your audience’s perspective, you can make much better decisions as a writer than if you only focus on your perspective.


In order to help you develop rhetorical awareness, this class will ask you to engage in the following activities, with the hope that you’ll be able to apply what you learn to new rhetorical situations you encounter elsewhere. In other words, you might think of these as learning outcomes.

Become a Rhetorically Aware Reader

  • Accurately identify the rhetorical situation (audience, author, purpose, genre, occasion, conversation) for messages you encounter as a reader, listener, or viewer and analyze how each element contributes to your understanding of the message
  • Accurately identify the rhetorical strategies (appeals to ethos, logos, and pathos) used to support the claims made in the message and critically evaluate the strengths and weaknesses of each strategy
  • Analyze the factors that impact the extent to which you allow a message to influence your own beliefs and compare those to established measures of credibility
  • Identify the rhetorical moves common to different types of messages, particularly those published in new media formats, and understand the role those moves play in influencing audiences
  • Recognize the impact of design and layout on a writer’s message, and identify elements that make a message more reader-friendly

Become a Rhetorically Aware Writer

  • Choose the appropriate timing (the “kairotic moment”) for your message
  • Study the discourse community (or communities) that serve as your target audience to better understand their needs, expectations, and familiarity with your topic
  • Use what you know about your audience to select an appropriate genre and medium for your message and to format the message for maximum readability
  • Use appropriate rhetorical strategies to connect with your readers, accomplish a specific purpose, establish your credibility, and communicate meaningful messages that don’t waste the readers’ time
  • Select sources of evidence your target audience will deem trustworthy, and document them using the citation style appropriate for your audience and publishing venue

Nearly all of your class activities ask you to address a particular audience, for a particular purpose, using genres and rhetorical appeals appropriate to that rhetorical situation. You’ll practice writing different kinds of messages to your classmates, your instructor, other CU students, other college students in general, university administrators, and other audiences you select for your projects.

To help you better understand what you’re learning in the process, and to help me evaluate what you’re learning, you’ll also write reflections or “rhetorical rationales” that explain the choices you made based on the particular characteristics of your audience and purpose.


Read this handout to learn more about rhetorical appeals and rhetorical situation: What is Rhetoric?

I will also discuss rhetorical awareness throughout course materials, in paper assignments, calendar entries, and class discussions, as a way of helping you better understand the concepts. But it’s worth keeping in mind that rhetorical awareness is the sort of skill that takes many years as well as a certain degree of emotional maturity to learn, given that it requires that you think empathetically about the need and expectations of your audience, rather than about your own needs and wants. In other words, it requires that you step outside of your own perspective and see your messages from the perspectives of people who may be very different from you.

In fact, the concept of rhetorical awareness — and why it’s so important — may not really start to sink in until you’ve graduated from college and find yourself having to produce writing on the job whose worth will be determined entirely by whether it meets the needs and expectations of your target audience — i.e., your rhetorical situation. Then you’ll be glad you learned about these concepts in this class! 🙂