Foundations of Rhetoric: Pathos

Pathos, the appeal to one’s emotions. Pathos is usually the easiest of the rhetorical appeals to talk about with students. The ease of this conversation is probably because of how seemingly universal appealing to the emotions of the interlocutor are across large swaths of life. It easy enough to bring in a playlist that moves from somber ballads of love lost to driving dance beats about that night in Ibiza to the stirring anthem of personal liberation. Likewise, it’s easy enough to find soft drink advertisements that appeal to a range of emotions. What I find is tougher is connecting pathos to academic writing—getting students to see that there’s room for emotion-based appeals even in the otherwise objective world of academic prose.

In my Writing as Inquiry this semester, I am trying to make it a point to rethink my approach to the rhetorical appeals—something that digs deeper into them and their connection to academic writing and knowledge construction. Reconceptualizing the rhetorical appeals is important to me because I want to move beyond surface-level discussions of these three vital rhetorical tools to more clearly link them to the acts of academic writing and knowledge construction. But, what does this look like in talking about pathos? Especially when students equate objective writing with emotionally detached writing?

One way to do this is to link pathos to its oft-forgotten family member on the rhetorical appeals tree—kairos. Kairos refers to the timing when it comes to entering an argument. However, I’d like to take Kairos down from the macro-level of overall argument planning down to the more intermediate-level of when to deploy which appeals in argumentation and writing. So, if we talk to our students about the rhetorical situation that they are replying to and to consider the kairotic forces at play, then we can begin to highlight for students that there are times in academic, and in professional writing, where pathos appeals may be the best tool in helping them to plan their argument.

A good place to look for authentic readings for students to see pathos being deployed in academic writing are in book chapters and journal articles that make up parts of a debate over some controversial issue in a field. Take, for example, the Farris/Truscott debates over error correction in L2 writing, which appeared in The Journal of Second Langauge Writing. There were plenty of moments across all four, or so, articles in this series of comments and responses where emotional appeals come into effect in a bit to sway the reader. Or, if you really want to lay bare just how sassy academic can be, take a look at the Phillipson/Crystal debates over linguistic variation in English that appeared in Applied Linguistics. There are some great zingers there with anger and upset seemingly dripping off the page.

Now, beyond the sick burns in these collections of articles, they are good examples of when it may be necessary to deploy emotion in our writing and how that influences the reception of these texts. By considering authorial intention alongside audience response, we unlock a potent lesson for our students when it comes to academic writing and emotional appeals. Namely, the decision not to eschew emotional appeals in academic writing becomes a strategic one for the student-author and forces them to consider their audience further.

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