The Three Audiences of my Re-Purposed Paper

In class today we discussed the three very distinct types of audiences one will encounter when writing a paper. Who you are writing to, who you are writing at, and who you are writing about. Each case assumes different power relations and rhetorical positioning. While speaking “to” someone requires a sense that your audience has a sound moral capability, speaking “at” someone works as it’s opposite, assuming that the audience is not capable of speaking back to you or engaging in your conversation (or lack-there-of). Speaking “about” someone is also an interesting case, as it puts the writer in a position of power, or responsibility (depending on how you look at it) to represent this group to the reader. In thinking about these three different audiences for my re-purposed paper, a memoir, I can see the to and the about audience, but I struggle to see the at. Upon deeper probing of my piece, I have come up with the following three as my audiences.

1. Who I am speaking to:

My re-purposed paper speaks to people who can identify with my experiences involving the performing arts before attending college. I see this audience as one who would want to engage in my memoir to reflect on their own experiences and choices they have made. For this reason, my memoir could be a site of their own exploration, one which they can talk back to and actively and critically engage in.  This active role is what makes these people my “to” audience.

2. Who I am speaking about:

The most obvious answer here when regarding a memoir is that I will be mainly be speaking about myself. With this notion aside however, there is another audience in which I will be researching and discussing in order to inform my own choices regarding college/career paths. This audience is entertainment industry professionals, specifically talent agents and casting directors. Discussing this audience will help in my own making sense of my experiences. Additionally, this will work to help make clear my points to the audience I am speaking to, and help reassure the audience I am speaking at.

3. Who I am speaking at:

As I mentioned above, this audience was the hardest for me to identify. In probing these ideas, I realized that I was originally lumping this audience into the same audience I am speaking “to”, which was an assumption that could have been detrimental. The audience I am speaking at are people who are currently in high school, and are just starting to think about college. More specifically, I am speaking at those people who have a dedicated passion for the arts, but do not want to make it their career path. The time when a student must decide on colleges is when these difficult decisions are to be made. My memoir will speak at them in the sense that it could be used as an example, or a guide, of a way to remain passionate about the arts, while pursuing non-performance colleges/career paths. This is more of a passive engagement, as this audience has not yet had the experiences I have had. In this sense, they have more trouble talking back to my memoir.

Explicit and Implicit Relationships With Audiences: When to use what?

We were prompted this week in class to write two separate paragraphs to our intended audience for our upcoming ‘re-purposed’ assignment. The first paragraph took the position of an explicit relationship with the audience, and the second, an implicit relationship. In working through this seemingly simple assignment, I realized something interesting. For my particular re-purposing project, addressing the audience directly (the first paragraph) was extremely easy. I am planning on turning a professional personal statement into a personal memoir. The very format of my paper will be using the word “I”, so in writing to my audience I found the explicit address natural. I was able to explain my story, the way I felt about it, and my intentions in creating for my audience member in a genuine, personal, and casual way. This is similar to the type of reflective memoir I plan to write. This form gave me the honest language I needed, and I found it afforded me a personal and genuine voice. The second paragraph was an extremely different story.

In attempting to write about my re-purposed assignment with an implicit relationship to the audience, I felt that I all of a sudden took up an arrogant tone. I had trouble writing about my plans for the memoir, and intentions behind it, in the formal, impersonal voice. To me, I thought this voice made it sound as if I believed the memoir that was going to be a perfect example of the exact steps to take in life for those who are not yet there, but have had similar passions and life paths ahead. I thought I came off with a rhetorical tone that undermined my reader, and made me sound like a no-it-all. Talking about my personal paper, without the use of the word “I” felt disingenuous and unnatural.

The struggle I had in my particular case revealed to me how the gains and losses of the two different relationships with your audience completely depend on the context of what you are writing. I believe that my experience could have been very different from some of my peers who are re-purposing very academic, argumentative essays. For these people, the implicit relationship may have been the perfect tone for accounting on researched information that will be presented in a logical argument. Often, formal rhetoric is used for these papers, as one would not find the use of the terms “you” and “I” to be appropriate for all academic work. This type of relationship could very well be similar to the relationship they will take for much of their papers, and it could work in their case.

Both positions seem to be beneficial, but not in all contexts. I believe that explicit relationships can give you sense of honesty, and levelheadedness, however that could run into trouble for certain academic and formal papers. Misuse could come off unprofessional, unintelligent, and could ultimately hurt your argument. On the other hand, implicit relationships with your audience can often help you better form a more academic and critical tone, which is also perfect for those who need it. Both perspectives can be useful, as long as they are used in the proper context.

Arguments: When and When Not To Bother

The necessity of an argument depends on the rhetorical situation. To me, it seems as though there are many instances in which making an argument is necessary. In my previous English class, Professional Writing, I was taught a broader understanding of rhetoric. It came to my attention that we, as interactive and communicative beings, are almost always in a rhetorical situation. Whether it be a job interview, a romantic date, or writing an academic paper, we are almost always trying to make some sort of argument, or case, about something…even if that “something” is ourselves.

In this mind-set, you can see how I find very little times in which making an argument, and I do not mean an aggressive argument involving curse words and yelling, is a bad choice. In almost any verbal or written interaction we are trying to convince the listener or reader something, so in order to do so, the argument is necessary. Additionally, arguments, when done effectively, expose multiple sides of an issue at hand. Whether it be an argument between to people, or a one-sided argument someone is making, good ones incorporate other perspectives, play “devil’s advocate”, if you will. For this reason, I think to arguments are necessary when all of the facts of a situation need to be a presented, especially in high-stakes environments like political action.

As for times when an argument can be a mistake, I think depends on the intentions and execution. If an argument is being made from a completely individual thinking, and not accurately displaying examples or other perspectives, the argument is a mistake. In order to make someone believe you are correct, one must effectively present it. When motives behind an argument absent-minded and singular to the person making the argument, they have no hope in convincing others and simply should not argue it in the first place. Arguments are very much about perception, and thinking about your audience. Without this, arguments could lead to unnecessary conflict and be extremely unproductive.

I do believe that there are times that an argument can be both necessary and a mistake. Like I said, with the wrong execution and intention, an argument regarding high-stakes issues that need to be resolved can flop. In the case of these situations, the effects can be drastic if an important message is communicated in ways that lead to more damage than entering the argument in the first place. In some ways, Rebecca Solnit’s article “By The Way, Your Home Is On Fire”, is a perfect example of an important argument communicated inadequately. Her shortcomings in her analogy could lead to climate change being viewed as escapable, and individualized. In this sense, the argument she tried to make was necessary, but also a mistake.


No Longer Just a House On Fire

Rebecca Solnit’s “By The Way, Your Home Is On Fire”, discusses the serious threats of climate change, and large corporation’s unwillingness to make the decision’s necessary to attempt to fight against it. Her passionate argument attempts to emotionally engage the reader to understand the complex issues of the status quo of ignoring this looming threat. In her attempt to relay this issue of climate change, she uses the analogy that someone’s house on fire, and that person is having an under-reaction to it. Although she uses effective, and emotional examples such as 9/11 and the Tohoku earthquake and tsunami, her analogy simply does not hold the same weight.

A house on fire is inadequate in reference to climate change because although it may add a sense of shock value, it fails to mimic the idea of climate change. The threat of climate change is something that everyone experiences the effects of, and also, it is inescapable. If my house was on fire, I can simply save myself, find a new one, and (likely) not have to worry about it again. Also, no one else would be affected besides myself. Climate change, unlike a burning house, effects the entire human race. We only have one world we can live on, and if climate change wins we cannot get up and move somewhere else. We are all stuck on this planet, and we all are facing the same threat. Additionally, a fire in someone’s house can easily be no one’s fault and out of one’s control, however climate change is not only somewhat in our control (if we act fast) but also, for the most part, our fault. A house on fire does not suffice for the choices that can and need to be made regarding climates change, and the barriers that hold people from reacting to it. A house is isolated and personal, the one and only planet earth is not.

Although not perfect, an alternative analogy could be related to a concept in social psychology called the bystander effect. Imagine you are walking down a busy street in NYC when you hear a child’s voice calling for help. You look around for a second at the busy street, and not one person has stopped to even acknowledge the cry for help. In this moment, if the bystander effect holds true, you keep walking without trying to help because, well, not only is no one else is stopping, and if the person needs help surely one of the hundreds of other people on that busy street will help. However, your unwillingness to stop could actually result in something much more dangerous. You do not know what the threat is, because you ignored it, and your decision could result in the harm of a child, or even the harm of everyone around you.

Like climate change, in this scenario, people ignore it for several reasons. It is subtle, and takes an effort to know the facts of the threat. Additionally, the status quo is to keep investing in fossil fuel—everyone else is doing it, so why should you have to stop! Lastly, there seems to be the idea that if it really is a pressing issue, someone will take care of it, but it’s not “my” responsibility.

Although this analogy is far from perfect, it digs a bit deeper in the complexity of the issue.