Many of us who teach college composition courses spend a significant portion of each term instructing students how to craft rhetorically effective argumentative research papers. We cover all of the most important aspects of this process, including how to choose a topic, develop a thesis, generate content, and find quality sources to support the paper’s assertions. We also tell students to be aware of who their audience is and to choose the techniques that will be most persuasive to that audience.
That final step has always felt a bit odd to me. In the classroom, a student’s paper will almost certainly be read by only their instructor and perhaps a few of their fellow students. “Audience”, then, is a vague concept in this context, and its vagueness requires students to imagine an audience that goes beyond what the classroom can provide. And, although imagination is certainly an important skill, telling students to “imagine an audience” isn’t enough.
Recently, while revising my syllabus and teaching plans for next semester, I decided that I need to come up with a better way to illustrate to students the importance of keeping their audience in mind when crafting an argumentative research paper. I knew that, in order for such a technique to be effective, I needed to be realistic and to keep in mind the inherent limitations of the classroom. While attempting to come up with a useful technique, I kept coming back to the word “hypothetical”, and soon realized that, although imagination isn’t enough, guided and focused imagining that is done for a specific purpose might be, and that a “hypothetical audience”, precisely tailored to the student’s argument, could provide that necessary focus.
Additionally, the ability to imagine a realistic hypothetical audience is a pragmatic skill and tool in and of itself, one that can be adapted to many contexts. It also provides a way to promote critical thinking and skepticism in the classroom. When instructing students to “imagine an audience”, most textbooks that I’ve used offer rather generic and imprecise directions along the lines of “imagine an intelligent and well-informed audience” or “imagine an audience that is similar to your classmates”. Such directions are inadequate primarily because they omit any discussion of the imaginary audience’s potential reaction to the paper’s assertions and claims. This omission is significant. Before we teach students how to craft effective arguments of their own (critical writing), we explain why it is important to be skeptical towards the arguments of others, asking questions such as “is the author trustworthy? Why? How do you know?”, “Does the author provide sufficient support for each of their assertions, or do they instead rely on assumptions or make unsupported generalizations?”, and “Does their evidence come from high-quality and unbiased sources?” (critical reading). We teach our students how to engage in critical reading, how and why it is important to scrutinize every argument carefully and thoroughly, and how to respond to an author’s arguments with charitable-yet-strong skepticism. When directing students to “imagine an audience”, however, we often forget that this imaginary audience must also practice that same skepticism, and that, without this skepticism, such an audience is a useless invention.
In contrast, because it is done for a very specific purpose, imagining a useful “hypothetical audience” is a worthwhile and useful process, one that requires students to make extensive use of their critical thinking skills. In order to effectively implement this practice in the classroom, instructors would need to explain to students both the rationale behind it and the point of it. More importantly, instructors would also need to thoroughly explain and illustrate each of the necessary steps. This instruction would most likely include directing students to:
- Imagine a hypothetical audience that will respond to their paper’s arguments with the same skepticism that students have been taught to apply to the arguments of other writers.
- Imagine this hypothetical audience’s potential responses to each of the paper’s assertions. This hypothetical audience will critique the quality of and the trustworthiness of the facts and evidence used to support those assertions and will seize upon any assumptions or unsupported generalizations, pointing out why and how they weaken the paper’s argument.
- Decide how to thoroughly and adequately address each of the hypothetical audience’s criticisms and how to fix the “holes” in the paper’s argument. This will determine the changes and improvements that need to be made during the revision process.
Students may also require one-on-one guidance as they proceed through these steps, especially if they have never before considered how a skeptical audience might respond to and critique their argumentative writing. It is simple enough to “put ourselves in another person’s shoes”, but applying such a technique in a directed and purposeful way requires focus and practice. If instructors explain and illustrate this technique in a clear, relevant, and detailed manner, and help students to understand why it is important and helpful, then this focus and practice will pay off.
Such focus and practice is necessary not only in the classroom context, but also in “the real world”. The ability to imagine a hypothetical audience is a skill and tool that can be utilized in many ways, and is one that, ideally, students will also use in relevant non-academic contexts. Outside of the classroom, students deal with real audiences (such as bosses, co-workers, peers, and anyone they want to inform and/or persuade), but the ability to imagine a hypothetical audience, and to use that hypothetical audience as a “sounding board” of sorts, can help students to identify the weaknesses in their written work before presenting it to an audience. Similarly, any of us can (and, I’d argue, should) use this technique as a way to carefully analyze and critique our own arguments before we attempt to persuade an audience of any sort.
The “hypothetical audience”, when used in a careful, precise, and focused way, is a useful tool for the argumentative writer. It also provides us with an opportunity to practice both critical thinking and applied skepticism. I look forward to trying it out in the classroom setting next semester, and I think that it will be far more effective than my prior practice of simply instructing students to “imagine an audience”. Imagination is an important skill, but, in order for it to be useful in this context, it must be done with a clear and specific purpose in mind, and the “hypothetical audience” provides exactly that.
Miranda Celeste Hale teaches rhetoric and composition at a community college in Spokane, Washington Her research interests include the history of rhetoric, rhetorical analysis, etymology, sociolinguistics, public understanding of and engagement with the humanities, the intersection of skepticism and rhetoric/composition pedagogy, and the relationship between clear and precise writing and the effective dissemination of knowledge.