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Teaching Audience

In Arts & Letters, Communication, Pedagogy, Rhetoric, Rhetoric & Communication, Teaching, Writing on October 21, 2011 at 12:04 pm

Allen Mendenhall

The following post comes from a journal entry I wrote to myself in the fall of 2010.  The post addresses the importance of audience to writing, and more specifically to the teaching of writing.  Other posts on this site have addressed this topic: see here, here, here, here, and here

I’m sitting here at a small wooden desk in my hotel in Destin, Florida, beneath a window that overlooks crowded parking lots, ivy-lined tennis courts, swaying palm trees, and beyond all these, white sand and an emerald-blue ocean.  I haven’t shaved all weekend.  I’m slightly sunburned.  I feel refreshed, except that Giuliana keeps insisting I get a haircut before I head back to Auburn and she to Atlanta.  Instead of walking the beach with her, I’m reading The History of the Kings of Britain and considering what I’ll teach my college freshmen this week. 

I’ve skimmed my syllabus and revisited each underlined phrase and barely legible marginalia from my teaching notes, and now I’m considering a line by Douglas B. Park.  It says, “Locating and discussing the audience for a given piece of prose can be frustrating.” 

Indeed it can.  Just this week I gave my students an assignment that I hoped would teach a thing or two about audience.  I handed out two pieces of paper on which I had copied and pasted three articles about Cancun, Mexico.

I had drawn the first article from the website of a tourist agency, the second from a newspaper, and the third from a literary journal.  I asked my students the same question that Park posed to his students: “Who or what. . . is the audience for this piece?”   

My students replied that tourists—surprise, surprise!—were the targeted audience for article one (perhaps “brochure” is a better term than “article”).  But they couldn’t name the audience for the second and third articles.  They responded with things like “the general public” or “the average reader,” categories so broad as to lack any clear referent.  So I tried, without really knowing what I was doing, asking something like Park’s next question: “How does audience manifest itself to writers writing?”   

I think I put the question more simply: “What’s the point of each piece?”

Perhaps stuck on the first brochure, my students answered, “To persuade you to go to Cancun.” 

I was making progress, but not enough. 

“How,” I asked, “does the article accomplish that?”

One student said, “By bolding words like ‘vacation,’ ‘beach,’ and ‘fun.’”

“What could make this article more effective?” I said.

One student, in so many words, said, “More adjectives.  Some pictures.  Maybe a story or two.” 

The students seemed to “get” article one.  But articles two and three were harder to pin down.  When I repeated my question—“Who is the audience for this piece?”—the students said something like “smart people.” 

Not until this weekend did I realize why my exercise failed.  The failure had something to do with Park’s claim that in the “case of unstructured situations where we would call the audience ‘general,’ where no simple, concrete identifications of audience are possible, the whole concept [of audience] becomes much more elusive.”

Articles two and three were elusive.  Or maybe my exercise for articles two and three was elusive because it created an unstructured situation. 

What documents could I have used to show how different kinds of writings signal different audiences? 

One problem with my activity was that even I couldn’t determine the intended audience for articles two and three.  Presumably there were several audiences.  The point of advertising, after all, is to appeal to as many audiences as possible.     

To satisfy my students, I lumped together articles two and three and said something like, “Now you see how a persuasive piece is different from leisure reading or newspaper reading.” 

That was that.  My activity failed.  I learned, however, about what Park calls the “elusiveness of audience in written discourse.”  I learned that I needed a better exercise to show my students how to anticipate their audiences. 

Park says of such exercises,

Aside from its considerable intrinsic interest, the sort of mapping of the territory of audience…should be of considerable practical usefulness.  Most teaching of audience in composition courses is, I would judge from experience and from textbooks, relatively unsystematic, weak upon theory, heavily dependent upon ad hoc examples.  We need to be able to approach the subject more systematically and precisely. 

Park offers some fine points, but he never provides any clear-cut solutions or suggestions for the teacher who is struggling to teach “audience” in a systematic way. 

How do you teach students to write for different audiences?  One possibility is to have students write for particular people whom they might have to deal with in the so-called “real” world (a boss, a senior partner, and so on).  Susan McLeod offers another possibility when she talks about inviting “teachers to think about how they might place students in the rhetorical situations that approximate those they will encounter as professionals in their fields and learn to use the appropriate genres and discourse conventions.”

Great advice.  But how, pray tell, do we do this, besides assigning a paper and then determining the audience for the students?  Students ought to learn how to anticipate their audience without the teacher telling them how to do so. 

What is the best way to teach audience?  What activities would help students become aware of varying audiences, genres, and discourse conventions?  Please leave your comments below. 

 

Works Cited

Douglas B. Park. “The Meaning of ‘Audience.’” CE, 44 (March, 1982).

Susan McLeod.  “The Pedagogy of Writing Across the Curriculum.”  From A Guide to Composition Pedagogies.  Gary Tate, Amy Rupiper, and Kurt Schick, eds.  New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001.

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  1. Why not tell the students what their audience is? In real life, they won’t have to figure it out or be told. It will just be.

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