Carnegie Mellon University

Rhetorical Relevance in Reading and Writing

Author: Cynthia Cochran
Degree: Ph.D. in Rhetoric, Carnegie Mellon University, 1993

When authors compose, they must decide what material is relevant to themselves and what is relevant to their readers. Prior research has shown that the selection of relevant textual information in reading and writing is based on textual and intertextual principles and on the nature of the task. However, research has not focused as much on how selectivity specifically relates to writers' perceptions of audience and community. This dissertation examines how writers' chosen audiences, along with their own disciplinary characteristics, relates to their selection of rhetorically relevant information, concentrating on relationships between audience and the kinds of content that writers select for inclusion in their papers. It reports on a study of 31 graduate students in education classes who used three full-length journal articles to write their own papers for disciplinary audiences.

The students varied in disciplinary characteristics, including years of schooling and professional experience, and professional goal. Self-reports show that they also varied in chosen audience: some included classroom members only; some, practitioners as well as classroom members; and some, scholars plus classroom members and practitioners. Results indicate that, on the basis of audience, the writers selected some and not other types of material and, also on the basis of audience, differed in the proportion of source material relative to total content.

In addition to self-reports of chosen audience that reflect writers' intended readers, the study also examines audiences that were attributed to the papers by education professionals, who were asked to use the three categories for chosen audience to classify the papers' apparent audiences. Many mismatches occurred between chosen and apparent audience. Furthermore, papers differed more in content selection when they were grouped by their apparent audiences than they did when grouped by the writers' chosen audiences. Mismatches may have occurred partly because students defined their disciplinary audiences in terms of content relevance differently than did the professionals judging apparent audience.

The pattern of results suggests that disciplinary audiences mattered to these writers when they selected some kinds of information. These findings are discussed relative to theoretical and empirical work and relative to further research.