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Evaluating Sources Using the Rhetorical Triangle: Getting Started

Presentation delivered at the MILEX Fall 2011 conference.


For the MILEX Workshop, we would like to present an innovative approach to source evaluation.

The rhetorical triangle is a familiar concept in the teaching of writing. Rhetorical analysis is also an excellent tool for teaching information literacy skills. It illustrates that all messages are social acts, deliberately constructed by individuals or groups to achieve specific purposes and speak to specific audiences. To be effective, writers must make rhetorical choices that suit both the purpose and audience they are addressing. Forms of communication—from personal blogs to television news stories to journal articles—are different in content and style because they allow writers to address different rhetorical situations. Over time, certain information types have developed standard ways of addressing common, reoccurring situations.

All too often, students focus on surface features when evaluating sources. (This is why certain websites often lead students astray: they see charts, graphs, and extensive reference lists, while failing to note that the information itself is inaccurate.) By examining the rhetorical triangle and its affect on the information within a given message, we can help students think more deeply about why certain features are included or excluded. Recognizing the pattern of these choices helps students understand the differences between sources. More importantly, it signals the potential credibility and usefulness of a source in relation to a particular situation.

To help students develop these skills, we have created several exercises that use rhetorical analysis as a tool to evaluate sources. Students are asked to deconstruct a source, conducting a detailed analysis of the author, intended purpose, and intended audience. They are then asked to identify credibility cues within the message, as well as researching the broader context to learn more about the topic. These exercises help students develop critical thinking skills and apply them to source evaluation.

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Laura Wukovitz's picture
Laura Wukovitz
Gettysburg & York Libraries