We compiled this web site because the variety of assignments being given to Calvin students keeps growing (essays, speeches, posters, lab reports, project pitches…), and each assignment requires different skills and strategies.
We identify questions that you need to ask about your assignments, offer resources that can help you answer those questions, and offer guidance on how to use those resources.
We break the questions into two categories:
- Questions you need to answer for every assignment
- Questions you need to answer for the specific assignment you are working on
Four considerations for every assignment
In college you’ll need to consider two kinds of purposes.
Professor’s purpose: What does your teacher want you to learn by doing the assignment?
Acquire skills (learn how to conduct scientific research). Master knowledge (develop expertise on a key event in political history). Develop virtues (interpret a novel with empathy). If the assignment itself doesn’t answer this question, ask your teacher—the single most reliable resource for answering.
Student’s purpose: What are you trying to accomplish for your audience?
Inform for the purpose of understanding a complex subject Persuade for the purpose of changing minds or inciting action Recommend for the purpose of guiding future action. If your purpose is not given in the assignment, you will need to decide on a purpose, possibly with help from your teacher or a Rhetoric Center consultant.
Sometimes you are uncertain about your purpose for completing an assignment, but it can be staring you in the face. Look at the first line from two assignment sheets:
- “Your task is to interpret a passage from a novel of your choice and use your interpretation to help your readers gain clearer insight about what the novel means.” (Purpose: Interpret to clarify meaning of a piece of literature.)
- Develop a hypothesis about the effects of absent fathers on children’s cognitive development; use the database in your Moodle course to test your hypothesis. (Purpose: Demonstrate your ability to use scientific data analysis to test the validity of a hypothesis.)
2. Audiences and authors
Except in the rare case when you compose for yourself—a diary, for example—you always compose for some audience who will read, listen to, or look at your work. It follows that you, as the author, present a character (your reliability, expertise, passion) to your audience. So you always need to answer these questions:
Who is my audience?
How might the demographics, attitudes, beliefs, and values of my audience impact my message and approach?
What does my audience expect and need from my work?
How can you identify audience expectations that, if not filled, will leave your audience unsatisfied? What need can you satisfy for your audience?
What is my relationship with my audience?
What might my audience know about me that might affect how my audience perceives what I am saying? Have I presented myself, my knowledge, and my research as reliable? (This last question should direct you to questions about and resources for practicing “information literacy,” your skill in finding, using, and documenting reliable research [Find those resources in the information literacy link].)
Your teacher as your audience.
When you are writing for a school class and your teacher will read and grade your work, the teacher is usually your primary audience. So apply the three questions above to your teacher.
3. Central point
We all experience situations when we’re reading, listening to, or looking at something, and we wonder, “What is the point!!?”
We never want an audience to experience that frustration. So always ask yourself:
What is my central point?
For student authors, deciding on a point depends on a complicated set of questions that are grounded in a disciplinary context (e.g., humanities, sciences, professional programs).
What kind of central points does the discipline expect and allow?
Scientists, for example, don’t think that philosophical or emotional knowledge can be tested for scientific accuracy. They study the natural world, and the points they make about the natural world are backed by experimental or observational data.
What form does the discipline use to express a central point?
In the humanities (e.g., English, history, philosophy) the central point of an essay is usually expressed as a thesis statement—an arguable claim, supported by evidence and logic, but not “proved” as factually certain. In the social and natural sciences a central point is suggested by a hypothesis—a claim that is tested and proved true or false through experimental data. The point of a business report might appear as a set of recommendations, based on data, that guide the business to more profitable practices.
One feature that a central point has in every academic discipline is that it expresses an answer to a “research question,” a question that you believe is important to answer and that guides your research.
This section may be the most obvious: You always need to have something—some content—that’s worth sharing with your audience and accomplishes your purpose. So the questions you’ll always ask are fairly self-evident:
- Do I offer my audience content that has value for them?
- Do I offer content that supports and clarifies my central point?
- Do I include all the content that is necessary to answer my research question?
- Do I offer the kind of content that the discipline and audience consider valid (for example, coherent logic in an essay, experimental data in a lab report, observed facts in a journalism story)?
Pivoting to questions and resources about particular assignments: Genres and modes
Many of your assignments will be in a simple, familiar genre.
Examples consist of writing an opinion essay and composing a persuasive speech. These two sample genres (essay and speech) are each in a single mode: respectively, writing and speech.
So you need to know the genre that you’re using. Are you composing an essay, a lab report, an oral presentation with visual aides, a poster, etc.? The genre will almost always be identified or implied in the assignment sheet; if it isn’t, ask your professor.
For the purpose of deciding which section of this web site (written rhetoric, oral rhetoric, or visual rhetoric) to visit next, ask yourself these questions about your assignment and its modes:
- Are written words the primary mode for your genre (even if written words will be accompanied by spoken words and/or images)? Visit Written Rhetoric.
- Are spoken words the primary mode for your genre (even if spoken words will be accompanied by written words and/or images)? Visit Oral Rhetoric.
- Are images the primary mode for your genre (even if images will be accompanied by written and/or spoken words)? Visit Visual Rhetoric.
Many of your assignments are in genres that require combinations of modes: oral, written, and visual rhetoric. Examples: poster presentations, web pages, and oral presentations using visual aids. Each of these can combine writing, speech, and images.
For these “multimodal” compositions you need to consider how the various modes can work together. You can best think about combining modes by first working on each different mode. Ask how each mode can provide efficient ways to convey content and clarify your point (Example: Is there an image that would emphasize and clarify the emotional element of a topic?). Ask how different modes work might support each other (Example: How do words work with an image on a PowerPoint slide?)
Questions about organization and style
You’ll also always have to answer questions about: organization (How many parts do I have and how should I arrange them?) and style (How should I balance tradition and individuality to create an effective written, oral, or visual style?)
But you’ll answer these questions in context of each particular assignment, its genre and modes.