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Beth Ritter-Guth

I believe we should provide what Alan November calls "an authentic audience." By crafting real world assignments, our students have the opportunity to polish their writing for use in portfolios. Additionally, we prepare them for writing demands of the workforce.


Been awhile since I've read Elbow's article, but of course, audience matters. Can audience (as Elbow continually suggests) hinder writers’ abilities to shape their texts? Yes, power relationships will do this, especially for many community college students who have failure on their minds more than textual purpose. And escape buttons are very tempting, for if a student chooses not to play the writing game (or college or work game), he or she doesn’t fail but instead declares the game irrelevant. So as Beth says, “real world” assignments, perhaps with service learning components, do “authenticate” student writer purposes. Peer review, going public, and facing working world challenges all bring together a conscious raising of written exigence.

However, “authenticating” writing assignments also troubles me because it exchanges the grade game for a new currency. Sure, it’s good to say that composition isn’t about preparing students for academic audiences only, but preparing students for the workforce is tentative at best. I could never have imagined the kind of writing I do today back in college, and I’m certain my professors were incapable of teaching it directly--as professors, we can’t predict the rhetorical moves and situations in which our students will be writing. What writing courses can prepare people for is an understanding of how to make use of audiences, including sometimes ignoring them while we draft. Producing materials I cared about and writing peer responses in a playwriting workshop made me a much better writer than any term paper or research assignment. Besides service learning, another response to audience development might be the WAC model where the instructor doesn’t assume to know what all writers should do but instead represents how his or her discipline goes at a particular writing task. In the end though, students reflecting so that they may develop their own purposes and testing theories/approaches strikes me as a most worthwhile goal.


I agree with Beth. In our courses at Salt Lake Community College, we assign a community writing campaign. Students have to identify a real issue in the community and respond to it in writing--typically in the form of a public genres (letters, brochures, commentary, etc.). The assignment is designed to get students to identify a specific audience outside of the classroom. Still, it's a challenge. It's difficult to get students to think in those terms because they are so accustomed to viewing the instructor as their audience.

I haven't read this Elbow essay, though. Now you've added another thing to my list.


I'm with the authenticity crowd. Also, I believe that mixing up assignments and audiences is a way to jiggle loose the rigidity of thought and draft that students sometimes bring to the classroom.

Beth Ritter-Guth

I accept the suggestion Richard makes in the prediction of workplace writing needs. I, too, "could never have imagined the kind of writing I do today back in college." But, I don't agree that "my professors were incapable of teaching it directly."

I believe it is our duty to know about the workplace writing world of today and to think about the ways it might change based on current trends. Our students will need to be more globally aware; they will need to know how to discern good and bad internet information. They will need to think about collaboration and what that means in terms of intellectual property rights. They will need to know how to identify a spoof, lie, or fabrication. They will need to know how to write analytically, think critically, and assess appropriately.

I studied women's literature in college and graduate school. While that is my area of expertise, it isn't what my students will need to know to be chem techs at Aventis. It is my job, as educator, to find out how to prepare them for writing in science. Since I know nothing about chemistry, I have to partner up with other academics who do know the score (the UsefulChem Project between Drexel and LCCC is an example. You can read about that at or I believe I am obligated to connect my students to the best information, and, sometimes (maybe even most of the time), that information has nothing to do with archetypal patterns in American women’s literature.

I also believe (strongly) in active community engagement. The problems of this world are too great to allow students (or colleagues) to be complacent. We must advocate for the "change [we] wish to see in the world' (Ghandi). Service learning provides a foundation for lifelong service...for lifelong compassion...for lifelong awareness.

This isn't to say, of course, that we shouldn't prepare our students for the intellectual demands they face outside our walls, but we can rely on the accepted canon and the new "social" canon to prepare our students.

Richard is right in saying that "we can’t predict the rhetorical moves and situations in which our students will be writing." But, I believe we should make every effort to try. Providing an authentic audience will allow our students the opportunity to meet the demands of today; it allows them to gain real experience in real time in a world they will help to change.


Since this discussion on audience opened with a (re)reading of Elbow, it seems appropriate to respond with a (re)reading of Bartholomae. In studying for my exams, I was just sitting here (re)reading "Inventing the University." In this essay, Bartholomae argues that the problem of audience awareness is not solved by “giving students privilege and denying the situation of the classroom” (595). I am in agreement with this idea, but Bartholomae argues that the answer, then, is not to give students privilege/authority by having them write to an audience “outside” the classroom or an audience less knowledgeable than the writer (e.g. peers/other students), rather the student writer should write to the reader who knows more about the subject matter than s/he does. But as Bartholomae’s own writing exercises and assignments contained in Ways of Reading eventually show is that changing the audience does not necessarily lead to an accurate portrait of the “classroom situation.” By this I mean that while writing assignments like those contained in Ways of Reading allow students to "try on" various positions of authority, writing for various audiences, in various contexts, they never ask questions about the discourse of the intended audience. Bartholomae simply assumes that that audience should be academic and the discourse should be suitable. This seems to leave out the "classroom" situation where students come from varied backgrounds with varied access to this privileged language. It leaves out the question of whether or not the appropriation of academic discourse is the ultimate goal.


I use a simulation project in my comp two classes that require students to engage with multiple audiences (me, fellow classmates, a group of more informed classmates that have an elevated position of authority within the project, and other, non-classroom audiences) and to engage with an issue in the community by competing to put together the best solution to a problem in the community. The groups have to actually implement their solutions to see to what degree they do or do not work, which requires quite a bit of interaction with relevant community sources, and convince a committee in the class that their solution(s) was best. It's an awesome way to practice academic discourse and to practice workplace-type writing, also, as the students are required to put together cover letters, request for proposals, presentations, etc. as part of the project. Students are also able to develop their own ideas, to test them, and then to dissect what happened during their testing: The most important part of the simulation is the assignment right after the simulation that requires students to analyze what happened during the project using their experience with the project, as well as research. I know not all instructors are comfortable with inquiry-based teaching methods, though.


I'd be interested, macncheese, to hear a couple examples of such projects that have worked well. It sounds like an exciting approach, but it seems challenging to find appropriate community-based problems and to get such a project completed in a semester's time.


Ah, and the even crazier part is that I've been using this project in 8 week, web-assisted (half online) classes and seeing amazing results. . . I've been stunned at how well students have figured out organizations to work with. Basically, I hammer in their heads that they have to come up "realistic, feasible solutions" that can be implemented within the given time frame. I have them write a Topic Exploration Paper where they research their topic of interest, and their purpose with the paper is to decide if feasible, realistic solutions to the problems exist that can be carried out in our time frame. This sets the stage for the project--they find out pretty quickly whether or not their topic will work, and in their research, they also find applicable organizations and/or businesses that they could help out as part of their solution(s). For this paper, I emphasize that students choose topics of interest to them, and I've found many students already know about or are involved with organizations/issues that they care deeply about and bring these personal connections to the project. The Topic Exploration Paper also gives the class a jump start because the person whose topic is chosen usually has already made some useful connections.

So far, the following projects have seen the most success: improving the entertainment options in our mid-sized Midwestern city (a group ended up in the city planner's office and found out what's happening and what needed more work), improving the lives of impoverished residents of our city through a local organization (the groups raised money in different ways and also collected several truckloads of donations in two weeks), and improving the lives of nursing home residents (the groups put together various group and individual projects to interact with the residents, raise money for social service departments of nursing homes, and leave tangible objects such as memory books for the residents--all in two weeks). Other topics that were considered this semester that would also have worked well were working with CASA to increase volunteer numbers and donations, working with a local literacy organization, and educating people about reducing energy use through local organizations and campus efforts. At a school where I used to work, I had a class research improvements to the campus and ways to decrease identity theft (sounds weird but it worked), and I saw some extraordinary results there, as well. I leave the topic open enough that classes can choose to tackle anything, but they must be able to implement feasible, realistic solutions.

To give a little more context, it's only recently, after seeing a class that had the potential for especially concrete results from the project, that I made the classes actually implement the solutions to see if they worked. When I made this change, the classes tended to take off in the direction of community involvement. I've liked the results so far (the learning has been just as good if not better even in the short classes), so I've stuck with it.

Professor V

You bring up an interesting point. I think that having students consider audience is crucial to their writing because it shapes what they write. As a standard practice, I have students determine who their audience is (I don't generally dictate it with the exception of saying that it should be formal writing, not informal, chat speak). I ask them to do an audience analysis- who is their audience? What does their audience know about the topic? Why would/should their audience want to know about the topic? I think this thinking combined with their other prewriting activities forces them to think more in depth about their subject.

I also do assignments where I ask them to analyze how they might have to change their writing to fit another audience. Or, I ask them to analyze example essays to understand who the audience is and how the author addresses that audience? And when I am feeling particularily inspired, I ask them to explain what assumptions the author has about his/her audience based on the text.

Also, in my comments on text, especially on superfical, undeveloped papers, I question them on audience- and how this text would reach their audience. I guess I fall in with the authenticity crowd, in the sense that I believe that students must have a real purpose for writing- and part of that purpose is who they are writing for. I hope they will see that there are a variety of writing contexts and that the way they write will shift for each of them- just like the way they speak shifts in different contexts.


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