Rhetoric is the art of speaking or writing to
the public--and not always a friendly or familiar public. Rhetoric is the art of
persuading others that our course of action is a correct course of action. The art
is in knowing our audience, in shaping our voice, audible or written, so that our audience
clearly understands our message and is persuaded--maybe not always persuaded to act, but
at least persuaded to acknowledge that another point of view is possible.
Academic writing is "a specialized
discourse" which students must "appropriate." Students must learn to
write "as though they were easily and comfortably one with their audience, as though
they were members of the academy, or historians or anthropologists or economists; they
have to invent the university by assembling and mimicking its language" (Bartholomae 408).
Two challenges, then, exist for each college
student when writing for the academic audience--an audience also not always friendly or
familiar: persuading a (presumably) more knowledgeable audience that the student clearly
understands her subject, and shaping how she talks or writes so as to approximate--if not
appropriate--the "specialized discourse" of her audience. But this is true
of any public voice by which we seek to gain influence.
The Rhetorical Square is simply a mnemonic
device to remind us that, both as readers and writers, we need to be conscious of the art
of writing. Sometimes that means being a skeptical reader, questioning a very
persuasive text, and, at other times, that means attempting to hear our own words as that
skeptical audience might--a kind of schizophrenic, out-of-body experience.
Using the Rhetorical Square can help prompt
critical questions as we read and as we write, but we need to understand that the concepts
of the Rhetorical Square are interrelated--that is, they are each influenced by the other
As a result, we cannot consider one concept
without considering how it relates to the others. A letter to a friend, for example,
announcing a new job with better pay would certainly be worded differently than a letter
of resignation to our present employer; the message might be similar ("I have a new
job that pays better"), but the purpose of each letter would probably be different.