The Riverside Reader

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Most instructors who teach college writing courses use an essay anthology for at least three reasons. First, they want to introduce their students to the rhythms, patterns, and images of good nonfiction, a genre that William Zinsser has called “the new American literature.” Second, they want to engage their students in reading and responding to rigorous assessments of the issues that affect their lives. Third, they want to help their students study and discuss how good nonfiction writers employ a variety of rhetorical strategies. They hope that by reading and talking about these models, their students will learn to incorporate some of these strategies into their own writing.

But instructors who use essay anthologies often encounter problems, particularly if they want to teach a process-centered writing course. One problem may be that when students are introduced to professional essays, they become passive spectators. Because they have no sense of the slow process by which an essay comes into existence, they are intimidated rather than inspired by the finished product. Another problem may be that students want to react to one or two isolated opinions in an essay. Because they are unfamiliar with the principles of rhetorical context, they see an essay as an occasion for declaring rather than developing their ideas. A third problem may be that students have had so little practice in rhetorical analysis that they don’t know how to decipher the strategies an author uses to accomplish his or her purpose. Because they do not see how these strategies work in their reading, they find it difficult to employ them in their writing.

The Riverside Reader is a rhetorical reader designed to help students overcome these problems by emphasizing the relationships between reading and writing, analyzing the reading in a context that helps them understand the craft of writing, and assigning the writing in a way that helps them understand the process by which reading comes into existence. The special benefit of a rhetorical reader is that it focuses on all the elements involved when readers and writers try to communicate with each other. Students are invited to pay attention to the author of the message, the purpose of the message, the audience for the message, and the strategies by which the meaning of the message is constructed. The Riverside Reader stresses the constant interaction between these elements in each essay and suggests ways in which that interaction may also be at work in several short stories. When your students approach this reading from a rhetorical point of view, they can discover the strategies of the writing process and still enjoy the intellectual and aesthetic rewards of well-written, stimulating prose. Here are some suggestions about ways you can use a rhetorical approach in your classroom.


Analyzing the Rhetorical Situation for an Essay

Encourage your students to see that every essay is written in response to what Lloyd Bitzer calls a “rhetorical situation.” Bitzer says that each rhetorical situation must have three components:

1. The occasion that creates the need for a response. Rhetoric can exist only when a writer has identified some problem or issue that needs to be addressed or some change that needs to be made.

2. The audience to which the writing is directed. Rhetoric requires an audience that can act or be influenced.

3. The constraints under which the writer works. These include the amount of information the writer has, the strategies available for persuading the audience, and the limitations of time and space under which the writer is working.
Consider, for example, Steven Weinberg’s “Five and a Half Utopias.” Start by asking your students to speculate about the occasion, or need, that prompted Weinberg to write such an essay. What problem did he want to address, or what situation did he hope to change by writing it? There are several. Certainly, Weinberg realizes that many Americans are disenchanted with the current tax structure; every politician from presidential candidate to city councilman promises tax reform. People want to share the wealth, but they still want to keep the expensive things they own. Weinberg points out that people who are busy searching for utopia are likely to overlook the ideal nature of life as they have it.

For whom is Weinberg writing? Are they people who can make changes in the current tax system? Can they be influenced? They will undoubtedly encounter proponents of each of the utopian visions that Weinberg debunks, and, as voters, they will get to have their say about proposed changes to tax laws. As a scientist, he can advise his readers about which systems will result in the greatest support for research that leads to improvements in daily life. As an aficionado of utopian literature, he can see that all of the new ideas under consideration are merely recycled visions of utopias past.

What are the constraints on Weinberg? What can’t he do? For one thing, he can’t imagine or describe every possible vision of utopia alive in American hearts and minds today. He says nothing, for example, of the survivalists who stockpile weapons and mistrust all forms of government intervention. Because he has spent his life reading utopian literature, he can condense years of secondary research into scattered allusions throughout his text, but he can’t, say, found a utopian community and implement all of his ideas. Since his readers can’t do that either, he suggests only slightly modifying the utopia we already inhabit.

This kind of analysis gives students insights into what goes on when all writers—not just professionals—write. They must draw on their own knowledge and experience and use it to address a problem that will interest and influence readers.

Constructing a Process Scenario

A second way to teach the essays in this anthology is to construct an imaginary scenario in which you and your students try to put yourselves in the writer’s place as he or she creates an essay. This kind of analysis sorts out the various methods the author uses for making meaning.

Try to re-create some of a writer’s actions as he or she worked through the various stages of the writing process. Stress that any scenario you develop is necessarily contrived because no one knows exactly what goes on in an author’s mind and that any scenario leaves out many steps. Indeed, most authors find it difficult to remember all the procedures they explored in composing a given essay. But even if your imaginary scenario is sketchy and tentative, it can be useful in giving students some insights into how writers work. The method is similar to the composing-aloud protocols developed by Linda Flower and John Hayes in their research on the writing process.

For example, you might select George Orwell’s “Shooting an Elephant.” Start by asking your students to read the essay carefully, first to get the gist of the narrative, and second, with the help of the study questions, to identify some of the issues Orwell is trying to illustrate. Most likely you should use the headnote to give the class some background information about Orwell’s lifelong interest in Third World culture. Then members of the class should try to analyze the context for this particular essay. Why did this incident, among the many Orwell probably experienced in his years in Burma, make him so befuddled or furious that he wanted to write about it to explain its meaning?

Then imagine Orwell asking himself, “Who am I writing this for? Who needs to read what I have to say about ‘the real motives for which despotic governments act’?” The people he would want to reach would be Englishmen and other white Europeans who have implicated themselves in the economics and politics of imperialism. Some might suggest that Orwell would be far too cynical to believe that he could influence such people, but that reinforces the point that an author sometimes writes to express anger and frustration. Anticipating his readers’ indifference, he may adjust his arguments to engage them more directly.

Now that Orwell has decided to reconstruct an incident for an audience, he must answer two questions: How is he going to interpret the incident, to underline its meaning? What resources does he have to draw on? First, he has to catch his readers’ attention and gain their sympathy. Can he hook their attention from the beginning? He digs back in his memories of his life in Burma and composes a powerful opening sentence that captures the essence of his experience: “In Moulmein, in lower Burma, I was hated by large numbers of people—the only time in my life that I have been important enough for this to happen to me.”

Next Orwell would ask himself, “What shall I follow that with to make my point about the problems of authority and hatred?” His answer, of course, is to use an extended example from his own experience—shooting the elephant. But he might ask himself, “How can I demonstrate how this experience affected me and other people I knew?” One answer is to record his reaction to the agonizing death of the elephant; another is to report the varied reactions of the crowd, the owner, and the older and younger Europeans. In dramatizing these reactions, he might think to himself, “I’ve got it. The whole event was an extraordinary drama. I can portray the crowd as the audience and myself and the elephant as the chief actors.” His last sentence suggests how he interpreted his role in this drama: “I often wondered whether any of the others grasped that I had done it solely to avoid looking a fool.”

This speculative scenario reflects the way Orwell could have started to write his essay, gradually accumulating his material and shaping it through a number of drafts. You might go on to analyze some of the paragraphs in the essay, talking about why he selected certain details, why he uses dialogue in some places, and how he uses observations to support and qualify his judgments.

Of course, students might come up with several different scenarios for a single essay or might disagree about the author’s reasons for writing. If they do, that’s healthy and productive because they are showing that they realize that writers have options and might use different approaches to reach the same goal. The essence of the writing process is making and remaking choices. Constructing a scenario raises your students’ consciousness about such choices and how they advance the writing process.
A Variant on the Process Scenario.   You can introduce an important variant on the process scenario by bringing your own writing into class and talking about it. Doing so gives you the opportunity to create a scenario that has real authority and perhaps considerable drama. Tell your students what you are writing and why. What biases or expectations does your audience have? What is your deadline? What kind of argument are you making, and how are you supporting your case?

For example, you may be writing a request for a sabbatical leave that requires you to describe a research project in such a way that your university will want to invest its money in your work. Or you may be making a grant application to the National Endowment for the Humanities that requires you to present your ideas in a specific format and within a certain number of pages. Or you might be working on an article for College English or College Composition and Communication that addresses other writing teachers about some aspect of the writing process.

If you are engaged in any writing task, you can make good use of it to illustrate a specific rhetorical situation and to trace the process you are going through as you compose. For example, we brought drafts of the introductions, study questions, and writing assignments for The Riverside Reader into our classroom and shared them with our students. We wanted their reactions to some problems we were having with tone. Often such writing problems stem from not knowing (or forgetting) the assumptions and expectations of your audience. By sharing our writing with writing students, the intended audience for our book, we were able to revise our own writing and help our students understand the process authors go through as they work on a project. You can accomplish the same objectives with your writing.

Using Essays to Illustrate Strategies

A third way you can use an essay anthology to support a process approach to teaching writing is to follow Paul Escholz’s advice in “The Prose Models Approach: Using Product in the Process,” printed in the NCTE book Eight Approaches to Teaching Writing (1980), edited by Timothy R. Donovan and Ben W. McClelland. Escholz suggests that an instructor use professional prose models once a student has completed one or two drafts of a paper. At that time a student is likely to have problems that an instructor can respond to by illustrating how professional writers have used specific strategies to solve similar problems. The advantage of this approach is that it enables you to demonstrate several strategies—the one a writer uses to shape the dominant pattern for an essay and the other strategies he or she uses to extend and enrich the essay.

Suppose, for instance, a student is writing an essay on the relationship between humankind and nature. In her first draft, she has had trouble getting into her topic and has written a rather dull opening paragraph that generalizes about comparisons. You could certainly suggest that she reread how a writer in the comparison and contrast section, Mark Twain, handles the problem. But you might also suggest that she look at the way authors in other sections use personal narrative in an analysis. George Orwell’s observations about the elephant when he first comes upon her munching grass in “Shooting an Elephant” or Stephen Harrigan’s description of confronting Miguel, the tiger who killed a man at the Houston Zoo, in “The Tiger is God” are good examples of this strategy.

Or you might have a student who is writing a paper on how to solve an interpersonal problem. In the first draft the student relies primarily on abstract nouns and adjectives to describe the problem and thus fails to give his readers images and details that would help them understand the solution. You would certainly refer that student to Judith Ortiz Cofer’s “The Myth of the Latin Woman” or Deborah Tannen’s “Rapport-Talk and Report-Talk,” but you might also recommend Flannery O’Connor’s “Revelation” or Alice Walker’s “Everyday Use” to show how a writer selects details that sketch a picture of a person, or Anne Roiphe’s “A Tale of Two Divorces” to show how a writer can record the internal processing that a person undergoes after an unpleasant interaction.

Professional essays can be particularly useful when you want to show students how to support generalizations with concrete examples and specific information. Readers want to learn something when they read, and they learn more effectively when they are given illustrations that explain the author’s points. You can use almost any essay in The Riverside Reader to demonstrate this principle, but several that would be especially effective are Julia Alvarez’s “Grounds for Fiction” (in Process Analysis), Laura Bohannan’s “Shakespeare in the Bush” (in Comparison and Contrast), Phillip Lopate’s “Modern Friendships” (in Division and Classification), Andrew C. Revkin’s “Some Big Ideas Wash Up One Bulb at a Time” (in Cause and Effect), and John Steele Gordon’s “The Golden Spike” (in Resources for Writing).

If you take time to become thoroughly familiar with the essays in The Riverside Reader early in the term, you will have at your fingertips a supply of examples to which you can refer students when you comment on their drafts. In time, as you and they work back and forth between reading and writing, both of you will learn to use the essays in this anthology as a source for writing strategies.


When your students read the essays according to one of these methods, you are teaching them to read rhetorically. They will thus avoid the pitfall of identifying with only one or two notions in an essay. Such identification is often necessary. Indeed, the response questions encourage students to connect their experience with the experience analyzed in the essay. But a more sophisticated reading requires students to see how a writer has shaped an experience for a rhetorical purpose.

For example, Alice Walker’s story “Everyday Use” is a narrative about cultural values and perceptions. But it wasn’t written in a vacuum. If you ask students to think about what they know about Alice Walker as a contemporary African-American woman, or which of her other texts they have read (or seen the movie version of, e.g., The Color Purple), they will see the content of the essay in a larger context. And, if you ask them to think about their response to the essay, particularly since many of them, like the character Dee, have gone to college hoping to “better” themselves, they will see again the complexity of rhetorical context. Different readers see the story differently. This approach recognizes that reading an essay or a story is not a neutral experience: A reader is not uninformed, and a story is not inert. Readers must negotiate a connection between their own experience and the experience the author has shaped by the rhetorical strategies.

You might discuss, for example, how Walker seems to want her readers to respond to Dee’s apparent selfishness or Maggie’s reticence. Why does she tell about Mrs. Johnson’s dream in which she and Dee are reunited on Johnny Carson’s show and she looks exactly as Dee would want her to look? How does she use dialogue to demonstrate the differences between Dee and Maggie? How does she compare the sisters’ attitudes toward handmade heirlooms? Discussing an essay in this way helps students read on two levels: At one level, they are absorbing the ideas in the essay and connecting them to their own experience, but at another level, they are standing back and observing how the writer uses specific strategies to influence their understanding.

Probably the best way to start this process is to ask your students to read the general introduction to The Riverside Reader. Go over the Guidelines for Reading an Essay. These questions are the key to helping students read from a rhetorical point of view. If you encourage your students to ask these questions as they read, they will anticipate the kind of study questions posed at the end of each essay. A good way to demonstrate this process is to apply these questions to David Shenk’s “The Problem with Hypertext” (in the book’s introduction). This exercise will help students see how to analyze and annotate an essay, how to become an active reader rather than a passive reader.

The bonus that should come when students become active readers is that they will gradually learn to ask these same questions about their own writing. They will begin to see writing as a process made up of a number of interrelated activities, a process in which they have been engaging themselves, and one at which they can gradually become more confident and competent.


We have organized The Riverside Reader according to the traditional pattern that begins with Narration and Description and ends with Persuasion and Argument. We have also added a special section, Resources for Writing, that recapitulates the pattern of the text but focuses on one theme. Our rationale is that students should write expressive essays at the beginning of the course, progress through more complex forms of informative and argumentative discourse, and then combine strategies at the end of the term. But we have no proof for this hypothesis, and certainly there is no magic about the arrangement. You might well want to start with the essays in the last section, Resources for Writing, to show your students how each strategy serves as a means for discovering as well as developing their ideas.

We have tried to arrange each section in an ascending order of complexity, beginning with the simpler essays and concluding with the most difficult piece. You shouldn’t assume, however, that you will always agree with us or that our arrangement will work well in your class. By all means, read and evaluate the essays (and the story) in each section before you decide which ones you want to assign. The addition of the short story at the end of each section may prove unsettling at first because it does not fit precisely into the rhetorical scheme established for the essays. But we have included a story for each section to enrich your students’ sensitivity to the thinking processes expressed by each strategy. These processes are so fundamental to the way we perceive, explain, and interact with the world that they can be dramatized in the story.

At the beginning of each section we have tried to identify the major characteristics of each form, explaining the purposes for which it is used, the audiences for which it is intended, and the strategies it employs. We have demonstrated how these characteristics are developed in a restricted space by providing an annotated paragraph at the end of the introduction. The explanation and the example should help students understand how they should approach the essays in the section.

After each essay we have provided five types of questions: (1) Questions for Response to encourage students to negotiate some sort of personal connection between their own experience and the experience analyzed in the essay, (2) Questions About Purpose to help students identify the author’s guiding purposes, (3) Questions About Audience to show students that the essay was written for a variety of readers, (4) Questions about Strategies to demonstrate to students how writers use specific techniques to develop their ideas, and (5) Questions for Discussion to invite students to place the ideas raised by the essay in a larger context. We have not provided answers to these questions because many of them are intended to stimulate varied answers and further questions.

At the end of each section we have provided six writing assignments. Each assignment has been placed in a rhetorical context by suggesting possible purposes, audiences, and strategies other than the classroom. Each of the assignments also evokes one or more of the essays in the section, thus providing one more connection between reading and writing. The first two assignments ask students to write from their own personal experience in the strategy of the section. The second two ask the students to perform some sort of rhetorical analysis of one or more of the essays. And the last two assignments ask the students to use the information and ideas in the essays as the starting point for an essay in a slightly different context. These assignments are merely suggestive of the kind of writing that might occur to students after they have read an essay: (1) imitate it with an experience of their own, (2) analyze it with the tools of rhetorical analysis, or (3) argue with it or from it to create another perspective. But surely you and your students will be able to mix and match assignments from other sections or draft original assignments that will enable a student to identify his or her own way of writing in response to reading.

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