Digital Digs (Alex Reid)

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an archeology of the future
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partisan politics and the rhetorical capacities of media ecologies

10 October, 2017 - 09:48

Here’s an idea I’m thinking about developing into something article-length if I can find the right angle. It’s certainly been on my mind a fair bit. Basically it’s about the role of emerging media in the articulation of political identities and communities. At that level, it’s a longstanding topic. I mean we regularly talk about the role of the printing press in the formation of democracies, mass media and fascist/nationalist identities, the “culture industry,” “manufacturing consent,” and so on. The Pew Research Center recently published a report on the increasingly divided, partisan views of Americans. As a CNN article about the report opines,

There are lots of reasons to explain this increased polarization in the country. Self-sorting means we tend to live around people who agree with us all the time. The fracturing of the mainstream media has allowed people to only consume news and information that comports with their pre-existing beliefs. There’s also been a rise in tribalism — using the party you belong to to define not only how you see yourself but also how you see every issue — in the last decade-plus.

The Pew Report happens to report data going back to 1994. While one wouldn’t want to mistake that fact as a suggestion that something actually starts in 1994 (besides the data gathering), the report does chart a slow movement toward increased partisanship that really takes off in 2004 (particularly in terms of how political party identification predicts political views). The CNN article suggests on possible cause. Another related cause might be the introduction of social media, which facilitates the kind of tribalism mentioned.  One might equally point to any number of historical events, starting with the war on terror and our invasion of Iraq, as topics that divided Americans along political lines.

It has to be said that it’s not atypical for Americans to be divided. It’s rare for a president to get 55% of the vote, and in a country where many voters don’t vote that means it’s probably hard to say that even the most popular of presidential candidates inspired more than one third of voters to vote for him/her. Beginning with the 1860s and the 1960s we can identify many decades when the country was more turbulent and indeed violent than now.  So I don’t think the point is that we are more divided now than ever but rather that our division operates in new ways.

Furthermore, it’s fairly obvious (to me anyway) that these partisan maps oversimplify the fractured nature of American politics. The Clinton campaign was unable to build/sustain a coalition of voters on the left. The Republicans don’t appear to be any better off in terms of coalition-building. As such, if one were to look at the role of social media in the formation of political identities, it couldn’t be that it serves simply to intensify Republican-Democrat divisions but also to intensify divisions within those populations. This Pew Report doesn’t seek to explore that. It asks peoples’ views on statements like “The government should do more to help the needy.” That’s fine as far as it goes, but we don’t really coalesce around our dis/agreement with that statement. Instead we fracture over our identification of the needy and what should be done so that some of the more intense disagreements are among people who would answer that question the same way.

To backtrack for a moment… if one wants to make the hypothesis/interpretive claim that social media facilitates the fragmentation of social identity, then presumably one would have to make the correlative claim that prior media forms served to homogenize  social identities. Here one might be verging on some classic Deleuzian business about the shift from macrosocial identities in a disciplinary society to micropolitical identities in a control society. This is evident in the Trump campaign strategy where analytics lead to the micro-targeting of political messages to social media users and groups. The Russians apparently pursued a similar strategy in their efforts to affect the election.

So, in broad strokes, that’s the situation that interests me. The next question is what part a new materialist digital rhetoric (NMDR, just for the sake of my fingers in this post) might play in investigating it. Or put in more pragmatic, personal terms, how might I put my expertise to work here? In brief terms, my NMDR (there could be/are other ones) describes how capacities for rhetorical action arise among humans and nonhumans. To a certain degree I actively and consciously self-select my political associations; e.g., I consciously friend, like, share, retweet, post, comment, etc. One might seek to account for the other actors in those decision-making processes, but at minimum they pass through my conscious awareness. Then there are the data gathering and algorithmic processes of those sites that analyze my participation and make guesses about me. They are performing their own rhetorical activities of audience analysis and persuasion (though they can be overtaken, tricked, or abused by other interests as we see with the Russians and the whole fake news business in general). And there is the entire network of human and nonhuman actors that produces social media as something with which I might engage. What would Fb have been without smartphones and 4G networks?

If rhetorical action (and agency and cognition in general) are emergent relational capacities, then one cannot understand political identity in America without examining the combined role of social media and mobile technology. I’m not saying that it’s more than just a part of the puzzle, but I think it’s a significant part. At the very least, it’s a part that I am prepared to study. At the very least, I think we can agree that digital media ecologies–human and nonhuman–participated in the outcome of our election and many other political conversations. Not determined but also not neutrally mediated or transmitted. A better understanding of their rhetorical operation would seem useful regardless of one’s politics.

Categories: Author Blogs

Blade Runner 2049 and electrate film criticsm

9 October, 2017 - 14:04

Blade Runner 2049 is a film that has generated some divided criticism. To borrow from the comedian Mitch Hedberg’s story about his experiences in a band: “Some people loved us. Some people hated us. Some people thought we were ok.” And really what more is there to say about aesthetic judgment after the fact? Describing the moment of aesthetic experience however is something else. You watch a movie and you feel a range of things. Maybe some nameable emotion through an identification with a character. You also feel excited or bored or tired or interested or confused in some holistic way in response to the film but not only the film, also your own body and the rest of the world around you.

Evaluative and analytic genres and tools offer a means to capture these thoughts and feelings. Shall we talk about plot and character? Or cinematography, sound, and special effects? The scriptwriting? The directing? The acting? Shall we read this symptomatically in terms of contemporary ideological concerns? Or perhaps in the context of the history of filmmaking or science fiction? Pick one or more. Why did you make that choice? Did such tools and choices shape your experience of the film? Probably, in some ways, here or there. It would be unusual not to ask as one watches a film, “What is this film doing?” “What sense can I make of it?” Of course then we aren’t exactly watching the film. We are watching ourselves watch the film. An activity that is open to an endless series of refractions as any analysis or evaluation can itself be analyzed or evaluated. One might fall into a wormhole of in-folding analysis and hardly experience the film at all. Indeed, interpretation will say that the film can never be directly experienced; all that one can really experience is one’s interpretation of the film. An assertion that puts me in mind of an Emo Phillips joke quoted by Katherine Hayles in How We Became Posthuman: “‘I used to think the brain was the most wonderful organ in the body,’ he says. ‘But then I thought, who’s telling me this?'”

In a different ontological formation though, the film and I are not separated by an uncrossable barrier but rather share the same messy material space. We’re really not that different. At one point Ulmer writes, “Part of the point is that technics precedes ‘humanity,’ that a certain animal became human, fulfilled its potentiality, through the prosthesis of tools. With the Industrial Revolution (which is to say, since the inception of electracy), the dominant power in this relationship is on the side of machines. It has been said, in fact, that humans are the sex organs of machines.” Or as DeLanda puts it, from the perspective of some future robot historian “the role of humans would be seen as little more than that of industrious insects pollinating an independent species of machine-flowers that simply did not possess its own reproductive organizes during a segment of its evolution.” In such formulae, analysis and evaluation are probably little more than the memetic-genetic material for future nonhuman generations: grist for the data mills.

In other words, I understand why you… why we… want to analyze and evaluate films and other media, but we make a significant anthropocentric error if we believe these things are for us. Of course we can, and do, make use of them, and I’m not arguing that we shouldn’t. However if we have (or some of us have) slowly managed to get our heads around the idea that the universe might not exist for us and the planet is not here as fuel for our destiny, then can we make the tougher step to recognize the same thing about technology, media, language, and art? It’s tougher because we might reasonably say that we have made those things with purposes in mind… but we realize that’s only part of the story, right?

If there can be a robot historian, can there be a robot film critic? And what would it say about Blade Runner 2049? Following the common thematic tropes this and other sci-fi films present and given the  uncanny encounters with our own mechanistic and programmed operation, might we wonder if are always already robot film critics? Or do we assert, like Deckard, “I know what’s real!” And what would that be?

 

Categories: Author Blogs

(not) being a gun-man

4 October, 2017 - 13:29

One of the more well-known/cited passages of Latour’s work is on the subject of gun control and the quip “guns don’t kill people; people kill people.” In recognizable Latourian fashion, he argues that agency (and responsibility) arises across a network of actants. This is not an argument about legal responsibility, which is a different “mode of existence” as Latour would later put it. Instead it is an approach to describing what is happening. If human subjectivity emerges through exposure, as an exteriority as well as interiority, then the person with the gun, the gun-man, is an emergent subject. And it is not just the gun and it is not just the one person or even just the people who have guns in their homes.

By way of recognizing that the US is multicultural, we can see that there is a particular culture (or set of cultures) where owning and using guns are an integral part of the formation of subjectivities and the perpetuation of cultural institutions, practices, and values. Here are some statistics on gun ownership  from the Pew Research Center. And here are some more.  When one looks at the demographics in the links above, one can see a few trends. Gun owners tend to be white, not live in the Northeast, live in rural areas, and vote republican. Is anyone surprised by that? Not all gun owners, of course, but it is quite evident that the cultural-political discourse on guns is primarily shaped by this demographic. Over time gun ownership has become a partisan subject with 62% of gun owners voting for Trump. As the WAPO article linked here shows, gun owners have long voted republican (though given that they are primarily white and male it’s hard to tell if that’s correlation or cause) but the gap  has widened since 2008.

As Josyln and Haider-Markel (authors of the WAPO article) conclude, just as gun ownership has become a partiasn right issue

not owning guns has also become a politicized identity, with gun-control groups expecting candidates to take particular positions. Sizable majorities of non-gun owners consistently vote for Democratic candidates, expanding during the Obama years – which, clearly, helps expand the “gun gap.”

In our highly polarized and partisan climate, gun-rights groups increasingly advocate owning guns to stay safe, while gun-control groups advocate regulation and restriction for the same reason. Watch for the “gun gap” to continue to expand and become ideologically even more rigid.

Cleary the issue of safety begs the question of what is being saved.

For the partisan gun owners these authors describe, gun ownership is an integral part of identity. Indeed, the prospect of losing those guns is equivalent to the prospect of having their culture and self-identity attacked. I would suggest that for this population, this community, the whole mainstream discourse about gun control makes little sense. For them gun control cannot be about safety; for them, limiting their access to guns is the opposite of being safe. There are a 1000 everyday things in your house that could kill you, and a gun is just one of them. They say owning a gun makes them safer, and I would not dispute the legitimacy of that claim on its own terms.  And perhaps they have good reason to feel that their culture is threatened (though maybe not by the kind of intruder who breaks into one’s home). Equally, those who are not gun owners express the exact opposite view.

For gun owners–and  for many on the other side of the argument–conflicts over gun control are primarily a struggle over the kind of people, the kind of nation, we want to be. You could imagine that gun control is a kind of symbolic argument, a stand-in for a larger set of differences, but I think it’s more than that.  To return to Latour (somewhat), these are ontological questions. People with guns are different from people without guns; cultures with widespread gun ownership are different from those where guns are far less common. This is not technological determinism. That’s not how Latour works. It’s guns-plus: guns plus many other actors, but guns are a kind of lynchpin.

I am not a gun-man. I’ve never owned a gun. I’ve never held a gun. I do not believe doing so would make me safer. I do not want to participate in the culture of gun ownership, and I do not share in the partisan politics it represents. Inasmuch as we live in a partisan and agonistic political environment, I will likely pursue my own political views as others do the same. For me, gun ownership and control is just one of many partisan differences. We can undertake efforts at rational argumentation believing such approaches can lead to compromise and some resolution. And hopefully small steps can be agreed upon. Obviously no one wants another horrific mass shooting, but, for good or bad, that’s not the issue here. And I think that mistakes the nature of the deeper divide at stake here.

I think a better description of recent political history would recognize that over the last few decades cultural differences have been identified, activated, and intensified as political differences. Those cultural differences now signify something that they didn’t for previous generations. Some of shift is the result of political strategy and some is likely a product of larger cultural-historical forces not easily attributed to individuals or political parties. Maybe its fair to say that in the past there was an opposite strategy in place, one that sought to prevent cultural differences from organizing into strong political struggles. Can we unwind those intensifications? Do we want to? Would it be ethical to? Or are increasingly hostile partisan conflicts necessary?

Categories: Author Blogs

Invention, curriculum, and digital humanities

2 October, 2017 - 11:15

In the humanities’ ongoing struggle to find its way back to wherever the students are (or lead the students back from wherever they are), one of the more written about tactics involves the digital humanities. Basically the premise is that many students are STEM focused, so connecting with more technical matters is a way to bridge with students’ existing academic pursuits, and other students, who either are in the humanities (or arts or social sciences) or might choose that path, might appreciate a pathway to developing technical expertise they would not otherwise acquire.

For example, Carnegie Mellon recently announced a minor along these lines, called Humanities Analytics. As they put it, the minor “will provide technical training to humanities students — e.g. classes like “Machine Learning in Practice”— and humanistic training to technical students — e.g. “Intro to Critical Reading”— in the growing field of digital humanities.” They have an interesting strategy for approaching this in terms of curricular design. In short, there are three required courses and three electives. If one is in humanities then one takes technical electives. If one is not in humanities then one takes humanities electives. The link above is just to a PR release, so it’s light on details. I am interested to see how it works out pragmatically. I’m thinking that if a similar minor were delivered here, students in the minor would find themselves in English elective classes with students not in the minor and those courses might not be particularly focused on digital methods (or perhaps not even mention digital methods). So that would be a problem. I’m guessing CMU has a different kind of faculty from ours. I’m less certain how it would work on the technical end, which sound mostly like Computer Science courses to me. A reasonable question to ask is what kinds of technical capacities would one develop from taking 3-4 courses (assuming one is starting from square one with no programming experience, high school math, and no background in statistics).  That’s not to say I don’t think it’s a good idea. I actually do. It’s a way of getting students introduced to how these disciplines can speak to one another. For that matter, it’s a way of getting faculty introduced to this idea.

It does spark my own thinking about such matters, which likely tend to the overly ambitious. Now I see two ways to view “digital humanities.” The first is as a scholarly specialization that employs digital technologies to undertake the study of traditional objects within a discipline (e.g., in literary studies the study of literature by means ranging from creating digital archives to data analytics and beyond). I view that as something other people do. The second perspective sees digital humanities as the coming together of humanities disciplines with digital technologies and cultures resulting certainly in the transformation of the former and hopefully a transformation (or at least better/new understanding) of the latter. And that is very much where I live, professionally speaking. It is with the second view in mind that I think about the design of an undergraduate major.

At UB, a Computer Science degree requires around 80 credits, about half of which are required CS courses. I’m guessing that’s  typical.  Our English degree is 30 credits, which is also fairly typical. So I’m wondering if we could create a DH degree that was 50-60 credits of CS, math, and other technical courses and 30 credits in the humanities? Or maybe it wouldn’t need to be quite that CS heavy. A minor in CS at UB is 22 credits, but to that you’d probably want to add some math/stats courses, so maybe 30 credits on the STEM side and 30 on the humanities side. Either way, I would think those humanities courses would necessarily address technical-professional communication, data visualization, digital composing, etc. but would also have space for courses that address subjects from the other, narrower version of DH (e.g. a course analyzing a large corpus of literary texts) and courses focusing specifically on political, historical, ethical issues. Probably those courses wouldn’t all be in English; they could be history, philosophy, communications, art, media study, etc. I am very wary of the notion of dividing classes into the “practical” and the “theoretical,” which I think does service for no one. But I do think we could divide classes into four broad categories (which isn’t to say there wouldn’t be some overlap):

  • Programming
  • Computer science and mathematics
  • Media production (including writing)
  • History and culture

I think we’d still struggle at UB with getting courses in that last category that really spoke to the others, but we could probably offer one or two per semester. That might be enough.

I guess the real question is whether or not there’d be students attracted to a curriculum like this. I’m guessing there would be. At UB anyway, there seems to be a fairly large cohort of students who go into CS and then figure out along the way that it isn’t really for them. On the flipside, there are students in and around the humanities (and in communications and psychology, which tend to be default majors for some students) who don’t really know what they want to do and sense they probably should be more technically literate than they are. They could just minor in CS, but in a way those courses can be so alienated from their other work. This would be a way of addressing that. It’s true these students wouldn’t have the technical expertise of someone who is double-majoring in CS and math. Probably they aren’t going to get jobs as programmers at Google or whatever. Presumably they’ve figured out that’s not what they want to do (or they would be CS majors). On the other hand, they will develop abilities in rhetoric, cultural analysis, aesthetics, and particular kinds of research. They’ll also acquire an understanding of culture and history and discourses for addressing political and ethical matters. Ideally they will embody the humanities foray into the digital. I’m thinking such students will be as well prepared as conventional non-STEM majors (or even much better prepared) for many of the paths they might follow out of college.

 

Categories: Author Blogs

humanities, universities and sustainability

28 September, 2017 - 12:06

It’s that time of year, when enrollments have been counted and academic job postings have begun to appear, that those in the humanities–though certainly not only the humanities–turn their minds to uncertain future. A recent article in Inside Higher Ed carries on this tradition, comparing the shrinking tenure-track job market to job losses in the Rust Belt. At UB, TAs continue their protest for improved pay, many of them also worried about what they will face after graduation, while the school notes that people with Phds earn 72% more than those with undergrad degrees… though as the commercial warns, past performance is no guarantee of future earnings. The author of the Inside Higher Ed article remarks on his journey from a Yale Phd in Classics to a career in technology and marketing. (It’s good to hear those Ivy League grads are finding a way to land on their feet!)

In my thinking about these matters, the focus is on sustainability. Shrinking–or at least consistently low–undergraduate enrollments, growing–or consistently large–graduate programs, and stagnating tenure track job markets do not make a recipe for sustainability. Obviously sustainability is a difficult mark to reach and in part because one has to ask what one wishes to sustain. On one level, these are necessarily local matters as what will work for one department on one campus will not work for another. However, there is also a degree to which we share a collective fate as well. Some might view sustainability from a conservative perspective, meaning that what we are seeking to sustain is a particular tradition of intellectual-scholarly-disciplinary knowledge and culture. From this perspective one might say that it doesn’t matter how small a discipline becomes as long as we sustain those traditions (which is not the same as desiring that the discipline shrinks of course). A different, more progressive perspective (if progressive is the right word, not sure) would emphasize the material strength and presence of the discipline, even if that meant abandoning traditions (which is not the same as seeking the destruction of those traditions). In the latter approach the question is how does a department evolve from its current state in a way that makes it materially stronger, which probably means one or more of the following:

  • increasing the number of majors (and student enrollment in general)
  • becoming more integral to general education
  • increasing success with graduate programs (which has to do with things like time to degree and job placement)
  • improved scholarly productivity.

And these advances may or may not come at the expense of disciplinary or departmental traditions, though that said it almost certainly requires figuring out ways to leverage one’s existing strengths.

As I’ve written about in other recent posts, this semester I’ve come back to teaching undergraduates in the classroom. One thing that hasn’t changed, from my perspective, is that while students are concerned about the careers they will pursue after graduation, those plans are often fairly nebulous. This seems entirely reasonable to me. I think of my own 18 year old daughter in her second year at Pitt; she’s a computer science and math major. While she has plans and intellectual interests, I don’t think she has a particular career in mind.  There are many opportunities that might arise from her studies. My impression is that a good number of students have a similar perspective. They want to understand the value of the courses they’re taking but I don’t think there needs to be a direct correlation between the curriculum and a job activity in order for students to view a course as valuable.

In English we often cite central curricular principles around the activities of reading and writing. I think it’s fair to say as a general rule that regardless of whether one is in a class in creative writing, literary studies, rhetoric, or one of the other sub-disciplines of English Studies that reading and writing are regular activities. Though of course such activities are quite common across classes on a campus, English Studies is fairly unique in the attention it pays to those activities not only in the classroom but in its research. From this, one might logically conclude that the discipline houses campus expertise in such matters.

And it does, to a certain extent.

What is trickier–and this brings me back to the question of sustainability–are the limits of that expertise. Poets, novelists, literary critics, rhetoricians and such have never really undertaken to be experts in literate practices in general. Instead, our expertise lies in specific literate practices–those of the writers and discourse communities we study and those of our own disciplinary-scholarly genres and communities. Rhetoric is the most expansive of these terms and could–in theory–include all literate practices but any given scholar has a particular focus and the discipline as a whole clusters around certain foci (e.g., composition studies and college student writers in first-year composition classes). At best one can say that rhetoric provides methods that are broadly applicable to the study of virtually any literate practice and might be used to assist one in adapting to new rhetorical situations. (That is, they might be the basis for both declarative and procedural knowledge.) However, even if one accepts that argument, that’s a long, long way from the baseline principle claim of saying “take classes in our disciplines and you will learn how to read and write:” a claim that is either deliberately misleading, while technically true (you will learn to read and write in a particular way), or demonstrates a serious misunderstanding of how reading and writing function. And I’m not sure which is the more charitable interpretation.

I’m not sure how we get from where we are to a more sustainable but yet recognizable version of ourselves. Our arguments often focus on insisting that others value us more for what we already do. That strikes me more as the other strategy–the one that is aimed on our not changing. However if we take ourselves at our own word and say that our principles really are focused on reading and writing, then the question we might ask is what do expert readers/writers do? What capacities do they have–as readers and writers–that set them apart? What makes them valuable? If the Greeks trained citizens to argue in the agora, what’s our version of that? Or rather what are our many versions of that?

 

Categories: Author Blogs

Spending one’s time in the tech comm classroom

11 September, 2017 - 10:53

As I’ve been writing about recently, I’m teaching an undergrad tech comm class for the first time in a long time. We’re now a couple weeks in, and here’s my primary observation. It’s probably fairly obvious and not only to teaching technical writing but to almost any writing focused class.

There really isn’t any time to focus on matters that are not directly related to the task at hand. 

Fundamentally I think of writing-focused classes as learning through practice/experience. I don’t think that’s radical. There are some observations I can make from my experience (and through some readings) that can contribute to making the task at hand a little easier and navigate past some of the more predictable pitfalls, but mostly it’s about doing.

For example, over the last week or so we’ve been working on the first assignment, which is making an infographic. Wednesday is our workshop day, and it’s due in a week. Basically this is what we’ve done class-by-class

  1. Looked at some infographics and tried to figure out what the genre was.
  2. Experimented with some freely available tools and discussed what topics we might select.
  3. Did some short readings from Slide:ology that discussed different strategies for the visual arrangement of information and ways to display data graphically.
  4. Discussed the sources that we’re planning to use and our initial plans for how we’re going to turn them into infographics.

Typically we spend 10 minutes or so with some in-class writing, work in small groups on a task extending from that writing for about 15-20 min, and then end with some class discussion. It’s a 50 minute class.

In the context of this work we discuss issues of accessibility, of cultural differences, of ethical, social, and political concerns. We take up rhetorical analysis in introductory ways to think critically about the information we are using and the way it is presented to us and give some thought to how that might inform our own compositional decisions. But all of that is folded into the activity of the projects themselves. The students develop declarative knowledge (i.e., what they know about rhetoric or technical writing) through procedural knowledge (i.e., the development of know how). I don’t really think of this as a “process approach” as stereotypically defined, which, for good or bad, often devolves into teaching declarative knowledge, i.e., aiming for students to know about the writing process.

Instead, for me, having a practice/experience based approach means relying on the experience of doing (and reflecting) as the primary means by which learning occurs. The consequence is that the classroom activity is aimed at always pushing that doing forward by being a time/place where the doing happens.

Am I anticipating scintillating infographics? No. The constraints of these free tools are fairly significant, and the students have little or no prior experience with doing this. The aim of the assignment (as part of the larger aims of the course) is two-fold. First, through this experience students will hopefully gain an introductory understanding of the rhetorical and compositional challenges of visual communication: What questions need to be asked and answered? What processes are involved? What tools would I need to use? Second, again hopefully, students will find themselves on a path that they might choose to pursue. Maybe their infographics are not going to go viral; maybe they aren’t even as good as some of the others in the class. But they will have an idea of the path, at least the general direction, they’d need to take to improve and a solid notion of the next steps. In other words, they shift from infographics being something they generally give little thought to (even though they probably see them often) to something about which they have some know how and as a genre that is available to them, at least provisionally.

I know a lot of writing courses are thematically and topically structured. I’ve taught that way myself–sometimes as a product of programmatic requirements. While I’m not in business here of telling people how they should teach, what I’m experiencing right now at least is a sense of how hard it would be to help students work through this infographic assignment and spend several classes critiquing infographics, discussing readings that critique the increasing role infographics play in our society in journalism, government, and so on, or more generally studying the cultural-rhetorical dimensions of visual communication.  Those are all crucial topics, each worthy of their own courses. I’d be happy to teaching a humanities general education course on visual rhetoric or offer courses in a professional writing major along these lines. So this is really about a choice I’m making to make this course of composing these various things and seeing what we can learn from the doing.

Categories: Author Blogs

teaching technical communication again for the first time

1 September, 2017 - 15:21

As I’ve recounted here, for the last seven years I served as WPA in my department. As a result I was working almost exclusively with graduate students and teaching undergrads only during the summer and then the course was online. So this fall finds me back in the classroom with undergrads for the first time since the Spring 2010 semester. I’ve been told the nature of undergrads has changed a great deal since then. I guess I’ll find out. After the first week though I’m not sure I see a great difference. Perhaps it’s because my own kids are 16 and 18, so I have some idea of “kids these days.”

The bigger change for me is that I’m teaching technical communication, which I have taught many times over my career but not since before the release of the iPhone. In some respects, teaching a 200-level gen ed tech comm class is not that different. It’s still about process; about audience, purpose and genre; and learning to work collaboratively. But in many other respects the content has changed significantly. The other course I’m teaching this semester is a grad seminar on advanced writing pedagogy that’s focused specifically on technical-professional writing pedagogy, so I’ve been thinking about this question from that angle as well.

These are now all familiar considerations of both digital rhetoric and technical communication: the proliferation of data, the explosion of options for media and interactivity; the shifting rhetorical nature of collaboration and community via online networks; the implications of mobility for data gathering, use, and interaction; and the growing capacity of machine intelligence and agency. Quite obviously this is not all turning out well for us–worries about attention and cognition; fake news, etc.; social media community shit show; privacy and surveillance; cybersecurity black swans; the uncertain future of work, of community, of nation. One might say there’s a fair amount to discuss that goes beyond how to write a clear set of instructions (or whatever one might imagine as the most tepid interpretation of technical communication). Although that said, there can be a lot at stake in clear instructions.

The current situation on the Gulf Coast is so emblematic of this. And I don’t want to get into that here right now because currently there are people in danger. However, years ago, I did a little presentation about Superstorm Sandy and new materialism, which basically asked what is Sandy saying to us? That is, thinking about Sandy as a rhetorical performance, a kind of Latourian moment where the storm was a constituent in the parliament of things. So much data, so much capacity for analysis, so many avenues for discussion and collaboration, so many design tools and options, and some series of activities that result. Technical communication is all mixed up in that.

Getting down to brass tacks, the first assignment in the tech comm class is to create an infographic. Could one devote an entire tech comm class to visual data representation? Of course. This is really about calling some attention to this growing if not ubiquitous genre, getting some taste of what might be involved in making one, and thinking about audience, purpose, and genre once again. You can go look at the rest of the syllabus if you like. I’ll probably be writing more about it as the semester moves along. In some respects it seems like business as usual–a proposal, some instructions, etc. On the other hand, while the genres are abstractly familiar, it seems to me they’ve moved around quite a bit. Now we’re doing instructions on Instructables.com. They’re user generated content rather than some corporate document. They involve taking pics or videos with your smartphone. They’re accessed by all different kinds of devices. They call upon a whole new maker community, as well as many traditional hobbies from cooking to gardening. In a techno-cultural, ideological context where the state macro-infrastructure is increasingly disinterested in supporting citizens but hypothetically individuals and small communities have unprecedented access to data and industrial capacities, do instructions become political action?

It all seems a little vertiginous to step into after a decade, but I hope to get my bearings.

Categories: Author Blogs

on the “many sides” and moral equivalencies of free speech

16 August, 2017 - 10:15

I’m starting this post wondering if I will finish it, if I actually have something to say that hasn’t already been said. I am unconditionally opposed to the ideologies of the kkk and nazis, and I am as sickened as anyone that such statements even need to be made. I am not only opposed to these ideologies but also reject the notion that it is acceptable for others to hold or express such views in our country. Again, it is disgusting that such an opposition cannot simply be assumed.

Defenses of extremism, aside from those that straightforwardly espouse their views, appear to operate through an invocation of free speech and the moral equivalencies the first amendment appears to endorse. As we all have likely seen, this argument goes something like “Americans can believe anything they want and say anything the want. All views are equal under the law.” Certainly the state’s power to restrict speech is heavily constrained (e.g., inciting a riot, yelling “fire” in a theater, etc.). Every right or power, granted to either the state or its citizens, creates capacities that might have a range of outcomes. The freedom of speech, in theory, allows everyone to be heard and to work together democratically for the betterment of the nation. However, it also can divide and destroy the nation. That was the gamble the authors of the bill of rights were willing to take.

Of course, in practice, speech is almost always constrained. At work, in a church, in a place of business, in another’s home, in a classroom, etc: there are often restrictions on what you can say and when you can say it. There are also softer, implied constraints in many instances: e.g., you might not want to go into a bar full of local fans of a sports team and loudly cheer for their rivals. As everyone knows, you can say things that will get you into all kinds of trouble and no one will care about your right to free speech. They’ll still think you’re a jerk. There are very few places in America where someone can spout kkk/nazi ideology and be well-received. You can find such places is on the internet. It’s the long tail of bigotry.

But the first amendment doesn’t say that Americans should say anything they please. It only indicates that the state cannot pass laws restricting speech. The responsibility for ensuring that speech acts do not harm the republic falls upon the people. Free speech is our right and thus our responsibility. The first amendment doesn’t establish a moral equivalency among the views and words of “many sides” but instead leaves their deliberation in our hands.

It is undeniable that there are Americans who seek to remake our nation as some kind of white supremacist theocracy. There are also many Americans who wish to continue the project of establishing our nation as an evolving, diverse, and tolerant democratic community in which all people are treated equally by the state and with respect by their fellow citizens. That project is not easily achieved. In some absolute theoretical sense it might be impossible, but it stands as a set of values to which we aspire. In that project we might and do sometimes disagree very strongly about how to proceed. In such disagreements, the question that is before us is whether or not we will use our right to speech as a way to resolve our differences or as a mechanism for organizing division and violence. White supremacists have no interest in living equally alongside people who look, think, and act differently from themselves. In my view, they have declared themselves to be opposed to the project on which this nation was founded. While the first amendment may prevent the state from enacting a law to prevent their gatherings and speech, as citizens we have no such proscription. Of course, we are restricted from breaking other laws in our response to their speech (that’s another thing you’d wish didn’t have to be said but does). But there are many things we can do within the law to respond to such activities, to make sure that such speech has no place in our national dialogue. Doing so is not a violation of the right to free speech or the erroneous notion of moral equivalence some think it offers. To the contrary, doing so is carrying out the implied responsibilities of free speech in the first place. The Civil War was not simply about eliminating the institution of slavery but also abolishing the idea that one race was superior to others. The first task was accomplished; the second task is ongoing.

Categories: Author Blogs

near futures of professional-technical communication

11 August, 2017 - 09:41

Over the last few months I’ve been going through the process of proposing a graduate certificate in digital communication and professional writing. It’s a long bureaucratic slog in the SUNY system but, with fingers crossed, we’ll have full state approval in the next few months. In any case, it certainly has me thinking about what it is I’m getting myself into.

First, pragmatically speaking, this certificate requires students to take four graduate courses. The idea is to attract students graduating at UB–and at other regional colleges–who might stay one extra semester, current grad students who might fit this into their stay here, and possibly professionals in the local community. The university has had a recent interest in professionalizing and skill-building curriculum at the grad level, related to a kind of general alt-ac movement (it’s not just English Phds who struggle on the academic job market).  Second, as we know, there really isn’t a specific degree or certification one requires to pursue a career as a professional writer, technical communicator, etc. On the other hand, something on paper might give one a leg up, especially if one can back it up in an interview. That said, while I’m imagining some of the people who might pursue this certificate will be thinking specifically of linking the certificate to a job title, I’m also envisioning students who recognize that developing their communication skills will aid their employability and potential for advancement in related careers as a kind of secondary expertise.

I was reading Miles Kimball’s “Golden Age of Technical Communication,” which appears in the Journal of Technical Writing and Communication (actually I was reading a pre-print version on his academia.edu site). I was struck by his analysis about the stagnating prospects for technical writers as a profession. As he points out, the predictions for the demand for technical writers doesn’t really cry out for the creation of more academic programs. That said, at the same time, he argues that more people take on technical writing practices everyday, even outside the workplace where they make how-to videos, wikis, and so on. In short, he ends up arguing for an more expansive technical writing curriculum, integrated with general education and composition. I think there’s some good insight there, and one might say my own career is reflective of Kimball’s observations. I’ve never called myself a technical communication scholar, nor have I published in tech comm journals. Instead I’ve been a new media/digital rhetorician. Long ago, I did some work as a technical writer, and throughout my academic career I’ve done my share of professional and technical writing, as many of us have: policy manuals, procedures, reports, promotional materials, web content, proposals, etc., etc. I’ve also taught technical and professional writing at the undergraduate level and ran a professional writing major for a few years. I’m also like those people Kimball describes who have taken on aspects of technical writing in an extra-professional way–this blog, for example.

As we’re just starting out at UB, I’m thinking that while our certificate certainly does link to careers with titles like “technical writer,” since it is clearly a secondary kind of degree, I see the curriculum as equally linked to careers with different titles where communication is a critical skill. That might not fit neatly into a BLS job category but might instead be a subset of jobs within each category. For example, “computer systems analyst” is a career the BLS identifies as one that will see significant job growth: 118K new jobs over the decade. Do you need some CS/IT degree? Probably, but not necessarily according to the BLS. I’m betting that some portion of those jobs involve writing/communicating as a primary, daily activity. This is Kimball’s point, I think, or at least part of it: the amorphous, spreading nature of technical communication. When I think about a certificate with four courses in it, that’s what I think I’m creating–an add on to an existing set of qualifications that targets a particular set of careers within a profession. Even with 10-12 courses in an undergrad major, I’d still be thinking about how students combined it with something else.

However I don’t want to miss Kimball’s main point about the broader educational role of tech comm. Institutionally speaking, in order to make that happen you need to have faculty with expertise in the field, and in order to have those faculty, you need students in tech comm writing programs generating credits. That is, I don’t think you can get to what Kimball wants without a major. Composition is the cautionary tale in this regard. That said, just as tech comm spreads as a practice across professions and into extra-professional and non-professional spaces, so too these interests spread across campuses and faculty. In my view, the challenge is linking faculty in STEM interested in tech/scientific comm with those in business interested in professional comm with those in art/media interested in visual comm with those in education interested in digital literacy with those in English and communications, etc. etc. What can be built there? Are the interests too tertiary and weak to form bonds? I’m not sure.

 

Categories: Author Blogs

the digital cul de sac in rhetoric and composition

26 July, 2017 - 11:16

I’ve been catching up on some reading this summer and took a look at Courtney Werner’s article in the most recent CCC issue, “How Rhetoric and Composition Described and Defined New Media at the Start of the Twenty-First Century.” She looks at definitions of new media in some 70 articles across four journals: CCC, Research in the Teaching of English, Kairos, and Computers & Composition. Though her method is different, the impetus reminds me of Doug Eyman’s parallel investigation of how the discipline defines digital rhetoric (in his book Digital Rhetoric). I don’t have any substantive complaints about either piece. I think they both do a good job of capturing how the field has approached these closely-related concepts, as well as the broader gestalt that would include terms like multimedia, multimodal, computers and writing, and computers and composition. In that broader sense, I think their definitions, while not identical, are mutually reinforcing.

I would draw a different line across the field’s treatment of digital media technologies. The large majority of this work, like the vast majority of work across the discipline, is humanist and idealist. On the other hand is a far smaller, but still recognizable, segment that might be characterized as an electrate, posthumanist-cum-new materialist digital rhetoric. I’m not here to argue in favor of one over the other. To be plain, I really don’t care how other scholars decide to define their work. That said, I find this particular definitional distinction useful as it identifies a group that pushes up against the fundamental ontological boundaries of rhetoric. So without making comparative judgments about the relative value of different scholarly practices, the latter group offers a substantively different set of descriptions and understandings of digital media–not intrinsically better or worse though probably situationally better or worse for addressing particular kinds of concerns.

So what does this have to do with a cul de sac? I’m not going to argue that we’ve reached a dead end…. unless we do x, y, and z. In fact, there’s a important (rhetorical) distinction between a dead end and a cul de sac. With the typical suburban cul de sac (there are four in my neighborhood), you don’t have to put the car in reverse, make a u-turn, or whatever to get out. You can keep moving forward. You can go round and round the circle. Or, as in the case of my neighborhood, you can cycle among the various cul de sacs and at least have the sense that you progressing, even though you’re just wearing down the same paths. Structurally you can go on like that forever. Materially at some point you’ll run out of gas, the tires will go flat, and/or the car will break down but otherwise you’re good to go.

I suppose one could say that’s how the territorializing function of disciplines is supposed to work, an autopoietic underlining of boundaries. One of the common gestures (i.e. one of the cul de sac roundabouts) is claiming to break apart these paradigms.  For example, one might argue, as I certainly have, that moving beyond anthropocentric conceptions opens new capacities for rhetorical action. I don’t really see that as an argument against humanistic approaches to rhetoric. It’s not an either/or proposition as far as I’m concerned. My point here though is that an argument like that (or one that makes a more straightforwardly political argument for certain action) doesn’t lead one out of the cul de sac neighborhood. Instead, it attempts to enfold new dimensions along its existing paths. Indeed, one can make progress (e.g. improve social conditions, develop as a teacher, etc.) without leaving the neighborhood. So maybe the cul de sac is sufficient.  In fact, there’s really no foreseeable end to the potential topics for research and teaching–social media and consensus, algorithms and deliberation, fake news, mobile technologies, AI, machine learning, big data, etc., etc. If anything the prospects of the field are wider and deeper than ever.

So if the future is so bright, why call it a cul de sac? While the diagram of the cul de sac neighborhood is static, the movement across it maps a series of detours and enfoldings. This has always already been the case with rhetorical practice as technology. Rather than imagining driving around and around, imagine instead a process of weaving or tempering steel or lab experiments or recording music and video: recursive processes that eventually have their recursions, their detours, built into technologies. Imagine writing itself for that matter. From that shift in perspective, one can pick up the disciplinary cul de sac neighborhood and put it to work doing something else. This isn’t an escape from the dead ends. It’s a reconception of our relation to them. Of course, once you’ve done that, then you invariably have to see your practices differently.

Werner’s article led me to reflect on my own efforts over the last twenty years. Certainly I’ve argued for investigating the material, embodied, and cultural-historical conceptions of media technologies as they shape rhetorical practices and our understanding of rhetoric. I’ve argued for the necessity of incorporating instruction in digital rhetorical practices into English Studies and into first-year composition and for considering how the shift from print to digital might lead us to rethink fundamental values in the discipline. That’s how I’ve cruised the cul de sacs for the last couple decades.

Now I think the point is to pick up that enfolded tool and do something with it.

Categories: Author Blogs

republicans and colleges

13 July, 2017 - 07:35

Last week the Pew Research Center reported on “Sharp Partisan Divisions in Views of National Institutions.” Though the survey covers a range of institutions–churches, banks, unions, news media, and colleges–it was the last category that drew the most attention (predictably) among people I work with. The report notes that 58% of those who identify as republican or leaning republican believe that colleges have a “negative effect” on the way things are going in the country. Only the news media was deemed more negative among that group. On the other hand, democrats/leaning democrats viewed colleges as 72% having a positive effect but 73% of them identified churches/religious organizations as having a negative effect. Hence the aforementioned “sharp partisan divisions.”

The partisan division is hardly surprising, but as the report notes, republican attitudes have shifted considerably. As recently as 2015, a majority of republicans viewed colleges as positive, so it possible this is just a blip in response to the presidential election and related politics matters–that colleges are just caught up in the wash of a generally intensified partisanship.

However, I don’t think of this as a blip. Republicans have been attacking higher education since the Reagan era. It was in the 1980s that public, tax-payer support of higher education began to decline; today colleges are basically tuition-driven. The conservative value behind it was that a college education is primarily an individual benefit which should be paid by individuals. During this time, the funding for research also began to turn increasing toward commercial applications, beginning the era of academic entrepreneurialism we see today.

Of course we can go back a few more decades to the sixties.  We all know this story about colleges and the civil rights, peace, and women’s movements. But there’s an even more basic story. Universities were (and are) engines of technoscientific development that have been integral to the establishment of a post-industrial, information economy including not only the expansion of STEM-oriented careers and cultures but also the technocratic managerial practices running from finance to government. Part of that is also a shift in the way gender, race, ethnicity, sexuality, religious affiliation and other macrosocial identifiers operate in society. Colleges were (and are) intended to help citizens move into this (still new) economy and culture. Such matters are obviously sites of social and political conflict. And though academia is founded on the open consideration of ideas and the objective, impersonal evaluation of those ideas, this does not mean that it is (or can be) neutral  in these conflicts. Essentially openness and objectivity are themselves partisan values in this conflict, and those unwilling to hold those values cannot really participate in academia. Put differently, openness (academic freedom) is a particular discursive value; it doesn’t mean you can say anything at anytime or place. And objectivity points to particular rhetorical standards that vary by discipline to some degree.

However, I think it is a problem to conflate these values with those of a particular socio-economic class in the way David Brooks does in his recent op-ed, which begins by identifying “members of the college-educated class,” which he then re-terms the “upper-middle class” and the affluent.  I think Brooks might be relieving his youth. According to the NCES, in 2014, 44% of Americans aged 25-64 had a postsecondary degree. Obviously all of these people are not in the same class. What Brooks is actually doing is laying the blame for America’s woes on a wealthy and urban segment of Americans, who tend not to share his politics. I don’t agree with this attempt to shift the focus from the 1% to the 10%, but that’s a different conversation.

There are two kinds of stories here though that intertwine in a weird way. One, on which Brooks focuses, is about how education is failing Americans because urban zoning restrictions put poor kids in underfunded schools, college is so expensive, and the culture of this so-called “educated class” is alienating. The second is the rejection of education by the religious right and other conservatives. These are people who reject climate science and evolution as liberal plots. It is the conservatives in the second group that have been waging war on education for a very long time. The Scopes Monkey Trial was 1925. The Reaganite claim of college-education as an individual investment was partly an assertion that college education was not a benefit to society. I.e., if you want to go to college to make more money that’s fine, but the society isn’t going to invest in college education because that would mean endorsing the future that it’s creating on a social scale. That cultural war is largely responsible for many of the problems we now have with education.

That cultural war has only intensified in recent years along with the material effects of postindustrial culture. Colleges are an engine of those changes and I think that’s where most of the antipathy arises.

Categories: Author Blogs

Reflections on serving as a WPA

6 July, 2017 - 09:49

I have served as the director of composition at UB for seven years. Technically I’m still director for another month, but at this point, I’m basically done. In a way it was a strange job for me to do because I have always been and remain something of an abolitionist in relation to FYC, though my views have shifted somewhat. I still believe that if English departments and/or colleges are unwilling to invest the resources for FYC to succeed then it shouldn’t be taught. I am also still concerned that the existence of FYC can lead the rest of the university to believe they have little or no responsibility for teaching students in their majors how to communicate in disciplinary or professional contexts. Admittedly it is a bizarre contradiction that one finds across English Studies and higher education. On the one hand is the idea that FYC isn’t really part of the intellectual/scholarly mission of English departments, and on the other hand is the belief that English can teach all kinds of writing and communication to everyone. For me, in choosing to take on this job (and not be an abolitionist) meant working against those two tendencies. But now that’s coming to an end.

So here are a few unstructured reflections…

Almost every WPA will tell you how much work the job is. The research expectations don’t change. Many of the typical service expectations don’t change. My teaching load was reduced by half, which, of course was helpful. By that measurement, I suppose you might expect that being a WPA was estimated to be roughly 20-25% of my job. Heh. This is how that manifested for me. There is a certain amount of work that is predictable and cyclical: creating a schedule of courses, staffing, assessment, committee meetings, etc. Another part is predictable but variable: these are the regular stream of emails–complaints, concerns, questions, etc. Maybe if you were hyper-efficient you could contain 90% of this work within two half-days a week, but I doubt it. Really there is always more one can do, so it’s really more a matter of deciding what work doesn’t need to be done.

For me though it’s another more nebulous part that needs addressing. Maybe it’s just the way my mind works, but honestly I don’t think I’m that special. Basically I’ve spent the last seven years trying to figure out how to make this program work better–for the students, the TAs, the instructors, the department, etc. The wheels are always turning. If you’re a typical English professor, those wheels are probably turning around some research question or maybe around a class you’re teaching, a class which is, more likely than not, connected to your research interests. Perhaps a more disciplined mind than mine would be able to turn this preoccupation on and off. But I devoted a fair amount of cognitive load to administrative, managerial, and curricular challenges: logistical matters related to workflow; handling the politics and ethics of overseeing 80+ TAs and adjuncts; driving large-scale changes such as building a writing center or rebuilding the curriculum; trying to understand and address the shifting needs of students and the university; navigating departmental and university politics. I’m not quite sure that it’s fully hit me that I don’t have to think about any of those things any more. Much as Douglas Adams recounted in Life, the Universe, and Everything this all becomes “somebody else’s problem” and thus effectively invisible to me. Now perhaps that seems unfair, that the reason being a WPA is so difficult is precisely because of this attitude. Maybe. Though I’m not sure having more people involved in trying to figure these things out would have made my job any easier or reduced the amount of mental space taken up in my head by these issues. In any case I know I need to be not thinking about these matters for a couple years.

In any case, my point is that it’s hard to quantify the amount of work involved in being a WPA once one starts to think about it in these terms.

This might be particularly relevant to me as an academic blogger: being a WPA has constrained the nature of my writing. The “good” thing about publishing scholarship is that one can feel fairly secure in the expectation that no one is reading it. However, here on my blog, I’ve taken care to be especially circumspect in writing about anything that could be construed as comments about the program, its instructors, and its students… like this post. Some things are obviously confidential. Other things, like the goings-on of curricular reform, would not be improved by a public discussion. So I’ve learned a lot of things over the last seven years that I simply couldn’t write about here for one reason or another. And I’m not talking about airing dirty laundry, though of course there’s always gossip and such. I’m talking about insights into how universities function, how decisions get made, and so on: in other words, sausage-making. Partly my activity on this blog has declined in recent years because of other work demands, but it has also declined because much of my work and thoughts pertained to things I thought inappropriate to be the subject of a blog post. I’m looking forward to that changing some.

The last thing I’ll say is the primary lingering concern I have for FYC. Undoubtedly it is shaped by my work as a digital rhetorician. This isn’t particularly about the program I’ve run, but it also certainly pertains to it. In the last decade, FYC has started to catch-up with the shift toward digital composing by thinking about multimedia/multimodality. It has recognized the role that digital technologies play in all the “stages” of the writing process for any kind of composing practice. That said, overall it struggles with that curricular responsibility–with adequate professional development for instructors, with appropriate support infrastructures, and with integrating this topic into existing FYC courses. But that’s not my concern. My concern is that the present/near-future of communication is shaped by mobile technologies, the internet of things, the increasing speed and volume of data, and the operation of algorithms and other “intelligent” machinic activity. Basically I don’t think that rhetoric and composition has the first clue how to think through these matters. At best, the relationship of the field to “data rhetoric” (for lack of a better term) might be analogous to where we were in relation to multimodal composing 25 years ago. We are barely in a place where we could talk about what one might teach. But if you could somehow solve that problem, at least provisionally, then I would suggest setting aside objections for a moment and as a thought experiment trying to imagine how, as a WPA, you would get from where you are now–with the instructors, curriculum, classrooms, etc. that you have–to where you’d need to be to actually deliver on a curriculum like that.

Thankfully I don’t have to think about that anymore. I don’t have to preoccupy myself with these thoughts or pester other WPAs with such arguments. I can go back to studying these technological developments and teaching specialized classes for students who are (hopefully) interested in such matters.

Categories: Author Blogs

politics, free speech, and academic freedom

3 July, 2017 - 12:22

Trump on Twitter; Kathy Griffin, Stephen Colbert, and Johnny Depp’s remarks about Trump; academics being threatened or losing their jobs for political statements; academics being threatened or losing their jobs for making racist or similarly inappropriate comments online; conservative speakers having their campus talks either disrupted or cancelled due to security concerns: what do all these things have in common?

I’m going to say next to nothing. Well, they are all subjects of media reporting and social media “conversation” in the last six months. Ok, maybe that’s not totally fair. They all generally are conversations about what “free” means in free speech or academic freedom. What the limits are or should be. So a few obvious things (or at least things that should be obvious).

  1. The first amendment protection of free speech has to do with limiting the ability of the government to restrain speech. I say limited as we all know there are kinds of speech that are not protected (e.g. yelling fire in a theater; computer virus codes). Sometimes it seems important to distinguish between this legal right and general cultural values about free speech.
  2. Academic freedom. One could look at the AAUP statement. The thing with academic freedom is that you’ve got to convince a dissertation committee that your work is valid, then a hiring committee that gives you a tenure track job, editors and reviewers of academic journals and presses, grant funding agencies, and tenure and promotion committees. You don’t just get to say anything you want and keep your job. Also academic freedom is basically bounded by the contours of one’s area of research and teaching.
  3. The typical thing that gets said about college campuses is that they are a place for open investigation and discussion. Sure they are… as is your home, your workplace, your church/temple/etc., and so on. On a college campus, as with any social space, there are rhetorical and discursive structures that shape what may be said, how it may be said, when it may be said, and who might say it. It would be far more accurate to say that colleges and academic disciplines are institutions designed to construct and communicate knowledge according to particular sets of evolving methods and genres.

But you probably already knew those things, so what is the role of the university and academic disciplines in democratic, political discourse? The short answer to this is that they promote an open discussion of political issues within the bounds of established academic genres and discourses. Clearly there are occasional disruptions to these boundaries, such as student protests, that are accepted within other legal limits. However, there are many speech acts that are protected from government restrictions by the first amendment that would be and are prohibited with the bounds of university/disciplinary practices: these range from getting in a profane shouting match in a classroom to plagiarizing or fabricating test results. Universities–like churches, workplaces, shopping malls, and social media websites–get to establish those boundaries for themselves. Of course that doesn’t mean they won’t get embroiled in larger political debates when they do so.

The prevailing idea about free speech is that, in public, you can say just about anything you want… and people can reply however they want. You can be bullied, attacked, vilified, and even threatened to a fairly extreme point without laws being broken. We can fill the internet with this kind of crap; in fact, we have. While protection against government restrictions on free speech are crucial for our democracy, this does not mean that other kinds of discourse communities cannot or should not restrict expression. Free speech never really worked the way we say it should now. Prior to the rise of social media, we basically always lived in such spaces: your own home, other’s homes, your workplace, offices, stores, malls, churches, etc. Even in physical public spaces like post offices, parks, courthouses, town halls, and so on, there are rules that limit expression.

As I’ve written many times on this blog, we don’t have an established rhetorical practice for social media communication. I doubt there can be a single one-fits-all practice that would work for all of the 2 billion people on Facebook for example.  It probably says something about our fantasies regarding rhetoric and language that we would believe such a thing is achievable.

Certainly I’m not interested in getting into the business of telling other people what they should or shouldn’t say or even insisting that universities or disciplines act one way rather than another.  In my reading, what I do see time and again are academics who appear to expect their online audiences to respond to their statements in the same way that academic communities do and/or that do not fully anticipate what that broader audience might be or how they might respond or make use of what that academic has said. And who could really fault them for that? These things can be complicated and unpredictable, and it can be tough to ask people to always be so guarded and circumspect, to make every statement online as if it were going to be subject to blind peer review.

My general response though is not to make the “free speech” or “academic freedom” argument. I think the problem lies in not understanding the rhetorical operation of digital media. I’m not suggesting at all that that’s a response that can work in the context of these heated political exchanges. But I do think it’s worth further investigation. My sense of this ultimately is that rather than saying social media is “broken” in some way because rhetoric doesn’t function like we think it should that we need to be able to recognize that social media reveals faults in our understanding of rhetoric. Of course, that revelation about rhetoric doesn’t mean that social media isn’t also broken. But it does mean that a reconception of the media-technological operation of rhetoric would be an important first step to developing new social media applications and practices.

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