Sure. Purpose and audience are the old standbys in first-year composition. What are you trying to accomplish in this essay? Who are you writing to? What will they think about what you are saying? What do you want to say to your audience? How do you expect them to react?
Familiar, to say the least, which is not to say that the answers are easy to come by or that the answers translate directly into actually composing a text. But those are different matters (sort of) from what I'm thinking about here.
What happens when we try to think of our undergraduate curriculum in terms of purpose and audience?
Yes, I am aware that there remains a very strong notion of English (and other humanities) as a course of study that is not professionalizing, not preparing one for a particular career, but rather as providing a liberal arts education. But that doesn't mean the curriculum is without an overarching purpose, does it? Of course not. Traditionally, the goal was knowledge/appreciation of canonical literature, organized by region and historical period. Except… that wasn't the real purpose, was it? I mean, it was/is an intermediate goal with the idea that the knowledge/appreciation of the canon led to something else (insight into human nature, cultural literacy, eloquence, something). In contemporary versions, the source material has changed and the end goals might be more phrased in more political, less universalizing terms, but otherwise the mechanisms remain the same.
However, the relationships between material, curriculum, and goals have always remained quite vague, and I don't really buy the explanation. And let me be clear, that I am not singling out literary studies here, even if it does continue to dominate the undergrad major. In other areas I think we face the same challenges in articulating the relationship between the specific activities and materials of the curriculum and the putative purposes of liberal arts education.
While we say that we oppose "professionalization," I think one could easily argue that professionalization is exactly what we are doing. When we teach students to do humanistic research, to interpret literature, to conduct rhetorical analysis, to employ "theory," to write essays, etc., we are teaching them the practices of our profession. It's fairly obvious, right? We are professionals. The knowledge we are certified to teach is that of our profession. What else are we supposed to teach?
As I've discussed before, according to an MLA report, 3.8% of English majors 91-99 are post-secondary English teachers. (And let's be clear that certainly a significant majority of those are people teaching first-year composition.) So maybe one or two students in the average English class is bound for a career in our profession. The largest portion are high school teachers. The next largest group are really writers of various kinds. But I digress. We aren't preparing them for careers, but if we were, we obviously wouldn't be preparing them for jobs like ours, right?
There is a way out of this, though, and thinking about audience/purpose isn't a bad start, even if it isn't easy and doesn't lead directly to an answer. Grads of English programs seek out professions where they can communicate, educate, and persuade. They rely upon their cultural literacy, their ability to analyze media, and their skill as composers. We ought to ask who our undergrads are, not just our majors, but students across the campus. We ought to recognize how our majors are seeking to use their education and respond to that. We all know that, nationally, English needs to communicate its value to undergrads more effectively than it has. How do we communicate with those students? What is it that we expect students will do with the curriculum that we provide them?
I'm not saying we need to abandon the things we teach or the expertise we have. Not at all. I'm confident we have something valuable to share with students. I just think we need to be more rhetorical in the curriculum and pedagogies that we build upon our disciplinary knowledge.