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Thoughts on Ethos

I’m in the process of reading and annotating the text I’ve selected for my spring class, and I came across what I consider a great paragraph with a great message that I want my students to grasp and understand.

The text is Everything’s an Argument with Readings, 6th edition, by Andrea Lunsford, John R. Ruszkiewicz, and Keith Walters. The passage appears in chapter 3, “Arguments Based on Character: Ethos.”

In fact, whenever you writing a paper or present an idea, you are sending signals about your character and reliability, whether you intend to or not. If your ideas are reasonable, your sources are reliable, and your language is appropriate to the project, you will suggest to academic readers that you’re someone whose ideas might deserve attention. You can appreciate why even details like correct spelling, grammar, and mechanics will weigh in your favor. And though you might not think about it now, at some point you may need letters of recommendation from instructors or supervisors. How will they remember you? Often chiefly from the ethos you have established in your work. Think about it. (45, emphasis original)

To me, this paragraph powerfully evokes the importance of ethos in all writing. As a web manager, I find I’ve developed an “institutional” voice that I use when writing brochure, flyer, catalog, and web copy. Each of these “genres” has slightly difference conventions, but all require the use of a trustworthy and authoritative voice. I work to develop the ethos of a school of the University of Richmond, and as both a graduate and an employee of the University, that ethos is considerable and respectable. I want to reflect my own pride in the institution through the voice I choose as a professional writer.

When I teach research writing, and when I teach Critical Writing and Research I in the spring, I want to be sure that I convey the vital importance of ethos to the long-term viability and acceptance of written work. To be honest, faculty talk to one another (gasps of horror ensue), and when we do we often consider  the “ethos” of specific students—would they be likely to succeed, for example, even if they have to miss a few more classes than usual for personal reasons? Their ethos, as conveyed both in their writing and in their classroom interactions, informs our conversations and assessments. As the text notes, it is students’ ethos, established in their writing, that I am most likely to remember and refer to when writing a letter of recommendation.

At any rate, this paragraph spoke to me in useful and practical ways, and I want to be sure I emphasize the importance of ethos in all writing and rhetorical situations.

Work Cited

Lunsford, A., Ruszkiewicz, J., & Walters, K. (2013). Everything’s an argument with readings, 6th ed. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s.

[Creative Commons licensed image by flickr user ArchiveACT]