Of Bottled Water and Exigency

Justin Sturgeon, Writing Consultant

January 31—the first moments of the semester. You are in an English class, and you’ve just been handed an assignment sheet in which you will spend a great deal of the semester researching a topic of your choice in which you must:

A) utilize scholarly sources to support a well-crafted thesis statement that argues in favor or against some conversation occurring in the field of your topic.

B) create a specific thesis statement that consists of an imperative claim and addresses the ‘so what?’ of your argument.

Maybe you have experienced your fair share of these projects or are beginning one for the first time, or maybe you are entering this mode of writing into your classes now—either as a scholar yourself or as a student in the classroom.

When writing about research, one question that can be challenging is that of answering ‘So what?’ Often, when we ask this question about our research, what we are looking for is: ‘Why does this matter, and how can I get them to care?’ A struggle to answer the “so what” question becomes apparent through hesitations such as: “I am not sure why I am writing about this” and “I have no idea what to say here, especially since I’m not an expert.” Sometimes the “so what” question appears in instructor feedback. Most often when addressing the question of so what, we are engaging with the imperative of exigency. Exigency, coined by Lloyd F. Bitzer in “The Rhetorical Situation,” refers to demand or need for writing on a particular subject or stance based on the context of the situation. Basically, exigence is the why behind what you are writing. When revealing the exigency of a writing project, it often relies on appealing to what is urgently waiting to be said about the situation at hand.  

If someone were to write a paper arguing in favor of stricter regulation for the bottled water industry, they might appeal to the expanding industry and potential harm that a lack of regulation may produce. To convey exigency in a project such as this, many writers would deliberate on the rhetorical device known as kairos, or the timeliness of a message as it is being sent to its audience. In this same example of writing a paper about the bottled water industry, the timeliness of such a paper would make a monumental difference depending on the time in which it were written. Consider writing making an argument against bottled water industries in the 1970s when bottled water was invented. No one would believe that bottled water would become as prevalent as it is. However, the same argument today has a much clearer sense of exigency. The industry today is expected to continue to grow and pervade a number of environmental processes related to water distribution which  has led to issues like The Bolivian Water Wars.

One might say that bigger, larger issues such as the potential crises related to the bottled water industry can be easy for fishing out exigency and building it up. But what about writing related to the everyday? Or to those assignments that we might rather avoid altogether? Finding authority and purpose for small-scale projects can be just as challenging. For example, you might have a two to three page essay about a Shakespeare poem you’ve tried to read over and over again and just can’t find a rhyme or reason to care. It can be easy to think about how important a crisis like the Bolivian Waters is and the large scale implications of such an event. But how can that same sense of authority and urgency be illuminated in an introductory writing assignment about a topic that you might stuggle to find a purpose to write about it in the first place—especially if it’s a topic that everyone already knows about and has written extensivly on? Sometimes writers don’t feel like they are qualified to even say anything about a given research assignment at all!

Certainly, exigency can still be accessed in moments like these as well.  

With even the most over-saturated of topics, how can you find a purpose to continue to write about them? What we often fail to glean from reading written work about unappealing topics is what the initial writer found important or exigent about the topic. Specifically, when being asked to examine the rhetorical devices at play in a given text, we often take for granted the ways we as readers are being asked to think about a text through its rhetorical stratagy.  We tend to overlook in these moments how a text—whether literary or visual—creates reflective nuggets of the world and is informed by various world views. When you tap into analysis on the level of these rhetorical concerns, you often begin to see how nearly every motion of stimuli is a text and is channeled through rhetorical devices that influence the way we make decisions and respond to the world around us.

Even at times when you feel like there is nothing to be said about the topic you are being asked to respond to, finding exigency doesn’t always start with the most compelling or flashiest of reasons for writing, but rather from acknowledging yourself as a reader of a text and calling attention to what response you make of it and then highlighting how you came to that response or how the text lead you to reach that conclusion. From this locus of reflection, you often find that you are faced with a wide assortment of reasons to care about a topic and the implications of choosing one interpreation over another—no matter how seemingly small the impact feels.

Exigence isn’t just timeliness; it’s also why we write what we choose to write about. In the University Writing Center, we love to have conversations with writers about exigency and these strategies. Often, discussing issues relating to finding purpose and authority when writing can be challenging to think through on your own, which is why the University Writing Center is a great place to visit and talk through your thoughts with a consultant. We are eager to discuss these rhetorical building blocks and help you become more comfortable with finding purpose in your own writing. Whether the topic discusses growing concerns about Western consumption habits (like bottled water) and their impact on more vulnerable countries, or examines an Elizabethan sonnet: we are here to listen and see you develop exigency as you navigate writing with purpose.

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