A Rhetorical Approach to Writing at Stanford
PWR's Rhetorical Approach
PWR courses are fundamentally courses in rhetoric. Although rhetorical studies spring from an ancient tradition, contemporary scholars from physicists to philosophers have increasingly begun asking rhetorical questions—not only about the most effective means of persuasion, but about how competing discourses shape our thoughts and actions.
A rhetorical approach to writing examines texts primarily as acts of communication or as performances rather than as static objects; rhetoricians study both production and reception of discourse. With this emphasis, PWR differentiates itself from other writing-intensive courses Stanford undergraduates are likely to encounter. This means that PWR students gain knowledge and skill in assessing communication situations, in understanding and evaluating the discourse of others, and in making an impact through their participation in conversations, including research conversations.
Students in a rhetoric-focused class become more effective problem-solvers in communication—they are more able to seize an opportunity, to establish credibility, to state a case responsibly, to argue ethically, to understand and contribute to a community.
The PWR instructor's commitment, then, should be to the development of the student's skill and knowledge in rhetorical problem-solving, and not to a particular writing behavior, genre, or set of rules. Students will be best served by PWR if they are able to identify and pursue their own rhetorical goals within the frame of the class.
Though there is variety in the ways PWR instructors familiarize their students with rhetoric, all introduce some rhetorical concepts early and repeatedly within their classroom activities and assignments.
Rhetoric vs. rules
The rhetorical approach recognizes that what works in one situation may not work in another; communicators must be attentive to the contexts and communities in which they hope to work. Thus rather than drilling students in a particular structure, PWR helps students evaluate specific audiences and contexts to make informed choices about structure based on an assessment of the rhetorical situation.
For example, rather than insisting that every paragraph must have a topic sentence (a structural rule), a PWR course asks the student to be a problem-solver, helping them address key questions: What's the central purpose of this paragraph, and what elements need to be in place for the paragraph to have the desired impact on an audience?
Similarly, rather than requiring students to memorize MLA style (under the misguided but widely-held idea that knowledge of MLA style is transferrable to other disciplines), a PWR course should challenge students to identify a style sheet of long-term utility to them. In this way, the student must become a rhetorical problem-solver: rather than following a simple rule, the student must identify their communicative goals (e.g. becoming a successful communicator in biology) and make decisions about how to pursue them.