• Andrew

Lesson Plan: Writing for New Audiences

In many writing classes, there comes a time when our students learn how to write for an audience other than their teachers. Whether we find readers for them somewhere "out there" or just pretend to be real people when we grade their public-facing projects, the fact remains that our students need to learn how to address more than one kind of audience if they are going to be rhetorically savvy. It just won't do to write researched essays in every situation.

So, when my classes start to make the transition from academic to public audiences, I like to throw in a lesson that gives us a chance to look back at where we've been (academic writing) and to look forward to where we're going (public writing). Not only that, I like to sneak in a little more rhetorical analysis practice, just to remind everyone that rhetorical know-how isn't just for school.

The Activity

To begin this classroom activity, I explain that a new audience requires a new set of rhetorical strategies. If I'm feeling particularly ambitious, I'll remind students of the work we did at the beginning of the semester, working through the rhetorical challenges of the trolley problem. We reflect on the need to adapt discourse to the characteristics and attitudes of different audiences.

It's good to say that savvy writers adapt to their audiences, but it's better to see how it works. So, rather than just talk about it all day, I tell my students that we're going to watch a couple of videos. While we watch, they have a few tasks:

  1. Try to decide who the creator's audience is

  2. Identify specific aspects of the video that lead you to your conclusion (i.e., How do you know, based on details in the video, who the audience really is?)

  3. Think about how the strategies this creator used compare to strategies that you have used so far in your academic writing

Then I play the first of two videos:

After we watch, I ask the class to describe the intended audience of the video and to tell me how they know that that's who the intended audience probably is. Students eventually acknowledge that the audience is made up of people like classmates, professors, or "people who sit in dimly lit rooms and think" (I'm assuming that means academics). They point to elements of the presentation like the matter-of-fact narration, the focus on facts and dates, the PowerPoint-slides feel of the visuals, &c. as evidence for the conclusion. It isn't hard to make connections between the academic feel of this video and the academic writing that students have done up to this point in the class.

Once we've worked the video over sufficiently, I hit play on the second video. Again, students are asked to consider who the audience for the video might be and to identify details in the video that point them to their conclusion:

It doesn't take long for students to realize that this video is for a very different audience. With dinosaur nuggets, shrimp stuck on melons, and fried jelly babies, this video's take on Heidegger's philosophy fits into a wildly different rhetorical niche compared to the first. This video probably wouldn't be mistaken for a philosophy class project: it clearly has in mind an audience made up of people closer to the general public than the first one has in mind.

With the differences between the two videos fresh in our minds, we shift our discussion to ask why. Sure, these videos look different because they address different audiences, but why these changes? Why does throwing a trotter in hot oil seem (debatably) more appropriate for a public audience than an academic one?

As we work through the dynamic and sometimes disturbing visuals of the second video, its reliance on metaphor, humor, background music, and energetic narration, students often point out that the second video does what it does to keep its audience interested.

This is where I tell students that I will always read their work from start to finish no matter how good or bad it is—because that's what I'm getting paid to do. Readers out there in the "real world" aren't getting paid, though. They can stop reading whenever they want to. Thus, it isn't enough just to do your subject matter justice when you're writing for public audiences. Your teachers might give you an A just for getting the facts right, even if your paper is unfathomably dull. Real readers won't do that, though: no matter how good your facts might be, a public audience isn't going to stay with you to the end if you haven't engaged them and made them want to keep reading through to the end. Whether or not we think the second video has done the "right" things in addressing a more public audience than the first, we cannot deny that it's trying to be engaging in a way that transcends the dutiful transmission of its source material.

We wrap up the activity with some time to reflect (usually freewriting) on how students plan to adapt their rhetorical strategies as they begin composing for public audiences. That is, while they continue to produce accurate, ethical work, what will they do to produce more engaging work as well?

Note on video selection

Obviously, any pair or set of videos will work for an activity like this one. Why did I pick these two?

  1. I wanted two videos that talked about the same thing but in different ways (so that differences in content didn't obscure our focus on rhetorical strategies)

  2. I was reading Heidegger at the time

I've stuck with these two videos in other terms because I think they illustrate the point in an especially clear way. The first fits so comfortably in the academic camp while the second reaches outrageously away from academic norms. Illustration by extremes. My goal here is to communicate big-picture principles clearly, not to grapple with subtle nuance. There's always time for that, but not when I'm introducing a new concept.

This is a long way of saying an obvious thing: don't feel pigeonholed by my choices here. Find videos that suit your purposes and your tastes. There's no chance that I'll ever know—and even less of a chance that I'll take it personally.