Conspiracy Theory
PWR 1 Fall Quarter 2008
Jonah G. Willihnganz
Stanford University

The Rhetorical Analysis
Audience: Freshman Class of Stanford University
5 pages, double-spaced
Due on Coursework Friday, October 10 by 12 noon (in Materials folder)

What a rhetorical analysis is:

A rhetorical analysis is an examination of how a text persuades us of its point of view. It focuses on identifying and investigating the way a text communicates, what strategies it employs to connect to an audience, frame an issue, establish its stakes, make a particular claim, support it, and persuade the audience to accept the claim. It is not, as we have noted, an analysis of what a text says but of what strategies it uses to communicate effectively. You must, of course, begin your analysis with what the text says—its argument—but the work of the essay is to show how the text persuades us of its position.  You might think of the piece you choose to analyze as a particular kind of engine whose machinations produce particular results. An analysis of the engine examines all the parts, how they work in isolation, together, etc. to see how the engine does what it does, or makes what it makes.

Your task:

Your task is to produce a rhetorical analysis of one of the pieces (or pair of pieces) listed below. Your goal is to show how the essay, debate, or story's structure, rhetorical appeals, and strategies attempt to persuade us of its/their point of view. In your essay you should have a clear thesis of your own about the piece (or pair of pieces) you are analyzing and supply strong textual evidence to support your thesis. I would suggest that before you begin you read the guidelines below and the Evaluation Rubric that we will use to assess essays in this course (in the Course Materials section of the web site). There you will find the six principle criteria for a successful essay.

  1. Maclolm X, "The Ballot or the Bullet"
  2. Martin Amis, "The Last Days of Muhhamad Atta"
  3. Joseph McCarthy, "Repsonse to Edward R. Murrow" on See It Now

The Form of the Essay:

As we will discuss, there is no set form, no five-paragraph standard, for writing essays such as these. But since your goal is to convince your audience of an argument, you need to use the best strategies to do so. Persuasive writing, we have seen, gains the attention and establishes a connection with its audience, provides a context for the argument it will pursue, and pursues that argument (often declared near the beginning of the essay, but not always) by building the strongest case possible. So in your first paragraph or two you will probably want to capture the attention of your audience, provide the context of the analysis you are making, and provide either your claim or your purpose (with the actual claim to come later).

The form of your essay will flow from the thesis you invent, so constructing a strong one is crucial. Make sure that your thesis obeys the prescriptions we have discussed in class. Your thesis needs to be an argument, concrete and specific (vs. abstract and vague), and of appropriate scope (defensible within the constraints of the essay). An argument, as we have said, is something with which someone might conceivably disagree. Your goal here, as we have said, is to
show us how a text works, what strategy or strategies it uses. Therefore a general statement such as "This story has very powerful rhetorical strategies " does not qualify as an argument, but "This essay's consistent use of war analogies encourages the audience to emotionally identify with its position" does.

Be sure to give your essay a good title, one that signals the slant and/or value of your analysis. In this essay, the only citations you need to provide are the page numbers of directly quoted passages of the text you are analyzing.

Some suggestions about the process of writing this essay:

Successful essays are approached in stages. Writing, we have said, is a process of thinking, and so to produce a piece capable of persuading others we almost always need to write in stages. The first stage is pouring out our first impressions, our "first take" on a text or subject. This draft, notes or outline—whatever form it takes—is usually some record or story of our thoughts. It is important to recognize that this then needs to be transformed in a second stage into something that is much more like a "performance"—something carefully calculated to persuade a particular audience of the position we have developed. Make sure you submit for scrutiny this second stage.

We have done a bit of this kind of analysis in class, so the activity of thinking about the texts should feel familiar.  When we write essays that try to perform a clear but sophisticated analysis, it is sometimes helpful to approach the task in discrete steps.  When producing a rhetorical analysis, you might try the following. Take notes at each stage of these stages and write out full sentences as often as possible so that you begin to make your formulations early-on. 

First, describe for yourself as fully as possible what you take to be the general meaning/message of the piece. Do the same for more specific, particular effects. Then begin your examination the piece's strategies by looking at whether/how the work signals in any way its audience, purpose, and context.  Begin with what the works do for you—that is, start with your experience.  This isn't a license to say anything you like, or, for example, to speak simply about what the works remind you of, since you will have to account for the effects you describe and how they are produced. 

Second, identify the most prominent strategies the work uses to produce the meaning/effect you have described. Use terms and concepts we have discussed in class—the Aristotelian forms of appeal, metaphor, metonymy, analogy, common ground, etc—and any others that seem useful.  Look in particular for any patterns that are developed by the work.  Finally, decide what seem to be the most important elements of the work for you—that is, identify what is for you to be the most striking, meaningful effect(s) of the work and methods used to achieve it/them.  This will help you hone in on a thesis.

Third, craft a few sentences that explain why, in your view, the piece works the way it does. Try to craft these sentences so that they set up, first, a description of what the meaning/effect of the piece is, and, second, what strategies, elements, etc. help produce that meaning/effect. Then isolate the textual evidence you will use—probably only a portion of what you have noted.

Fourth, write the draft. Make sure you give us your thesis or an indication of your thesis early.  (You can give us the whole argument right up front, pose a question you'll explore, whose answer will be your thesis, or give us a general version of your thesis that you'll refine for us by the end of your essay.)  However, since you are writing not for a teacher but to interest and then convince your classmates about something, abandon the traditional, academic 5-paragraph form (thesis, 3 or so points of evidence, recapitulation of thesis).  In its place, try to write a narrative of your analysis—you might use phrase such as "when I/one first encounters. . ." "what is striking about. . ." "I/one realizes, begins to recognize. . ."  Take us on the journey of your own discovery, a discovery that is expressed as a claim about the works under consideration.