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Reading Notes: Class Meeting 2/25/14

The Entry of Questions

A Theme Continues:

I just can't seem to escape certain ideas this semester. They keep appearing either by professorial design (in which case proving Vatz's argument about the role of the rhetor's choices and selections in constructing meaning for the audience) or by virtue of the message's significance. Whatever the case, the idea that English Studies must merge with technology is inescapable.

I have written about it as a concept appearing in Spinuzzi, Zoetewey, and CHAT, so seeing it appear again in Johnson-Eilola's work is like proof to me that as a student in this discipline, it is up to me to carry this mantle forward. It is a task that ODU also seems to be preparing me for with the New Media emphasis, but it is also one that is fraught with complexity as institutions are slower to turn than a large ship. It is frustrating to hear the call to incorporate digital rhetoric into my work as a student and as a teacher, but not yet have the support systems in place to deliver that to my students. The traditional printed (okay, uploaded) essay is the preferred and required product. How do we break these traditions, especially when we are relegated to contingent faculty positions?

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Johnson-Eilola writes that the "world is already moving beyond conventional, print-based textuality", and that the discipline will continue to be marginalized in institutions if we fail to adapt to new digital modes of communication. We must break down the borders and boundaries between what we consider to be English Studies texts and writing and the technical/digital texts and writing produced in other disciplines. Are these not all acts of composing, requiring consideration of the rhetorical canons like audience, delivery, and purpose?

He continues, "Those 'other' texts, the ones we allow to pass without critical attention because we think they are purely functional or lacking in imagination, may in fact be our ways of leveraging broad social changes" (6). There are two ideas embedded here: our discipline cannot diminish the significance of digital compositions in favor of printed, literary texts and these often disregarded forms of communication can provide means for social change.

What's that? Using the discipline to effect social change? You know I'm in.

Hypertext and "Revolutionary Potential":

Whether it's Zoetewey's civic web sites performing action in a community or Bazerman's and Miller's position that genre produces social action, I am drawn - like a moth to a flame - to scholarship that highlights how the discipline can do more than just think. I don't want to use my brain to just consider and observe; I want to be able to improve my community. That is why I was excited to read Johnson-Eilola argue that "our position should be one of social critique, resistance, and reconstructing..attempting to situate writing and reading as political and social responsibility" (17). Yes! I agree! I want to shout that from the rooftops and in the department meetings. Where is the daring? Where is the revolutionary and unconventional in the current academic landscape of budgets and quantitative measurements of learning outcomes? Where are the voices urging the radical rethinking of and experimentation in the discipline? How can our students use reading, thinking, and writing to critique, resist, and reconstruct? To be political and socially responsible?

Johnson-Eilola seems to suggest that at least in part this can be done through the "revolutionary potential" (13) and the "democratic possibilities" (23) of hypertext. Basically, as more people have fast and free access to information, the more difficult it becomes to exert dominance over them. More autonomy is created and desired. Hypertext removes the barriers of library or university walls and admissions, and that democratic access is a powerful tool needed in creating revolutionary thought and action.

Consider the argument by Google executives Eric Schmidt and Jared Cohen in the clip below. Access equals liberation. Hypertext is the medium through which access is granted.

This clip and Johnson-Eilola's argument are certainly a utopian vision of how the digital realm can lead to revolution, but in the classroom we need to be wary of letting "acts of resistance" denigrate "into empty gestures" (188).

What this means to me is that it isn't enough to just assign digital composition that ask students to think about and speak to political or globally significant issues. We would run the risk of these assignments just being empty exercises. There needs to be authenticity behind the work, and perhaps the potential to continue to do work in the community outside the classroom. This is why I still like Zoetewey's work with civic web sites. these students create a digital product, which we can understand from Johnson-Eilola to have democratic, revolutionary potential, that will spread into a community and help shape discourse and action. How can we do more of this kind of work in the classroom in the context of the institutional pressure to meet measurable goals?

Foucault and Joyce:

In previous reading notes entries, I explored the Foucault assertion that meaning is constructed relationally. I was struck by the similarly expressed idea in Joyce's Of Two Minds.
"Electronic writing is both a visual and verbal description, not the writing of a place, but rather a writing with places, spatially related extension of a network of ideas in the mind itself" (Bolton qtd. in Joyce 23).
For Foucault, discourse and meaning are understood as ideas relate to one another, in thinking about the connections and boundaries between concepts or events. For Bolton and Joyce who agrees with him, electronic writing is also spatial. Hypertext allows for the writer/reader to move through space and thought, to bend boundaries and connect otherwise separate entities. Meaning is enhanced through connectivity and relationships.

It has me thinking. Is everything relational because the brain itself works this way? Bolton seems to argue that the mind works like hypertext. I see that thought does often occur in this way. Just lying in bed sometimes I find myself thinking of something completely random and try to trace backward to the initial thought that sent me down that particular path. We think of one things which reminds us of another that takes us to something else and so on. And these thoughts do not need to be chronological or limited to one area like work or school or family. We think in more than one dimension and make connections across and through and between things. Like a network. Like hypertext. Like Foucault.

Image by Pasieka on Science Photo Library
Can anything be understood without considering how it relates to something else? Is there meaning outside a network?

But Before it Gets Overwhelming...

I posed more questions this week than I answered, which can sometimes be unsettling for a concrete-minded gal like myself. However, I stumbled upon this little gem in Joyce's Othermindedness:

"In an age that privileges polyvocality, multiplicity, and constellated knowledge, a sustained attention span may be less useful than successive attendings" (74-5).

I found this sentiment buoying. I often get frustrated that despite working hard, the understanding may be fleeting or momentary, vague or unstable, or just beyond my reach. But Joyce suggests here that the approach may need to change in this spatially-related world. Perhaps it isn't the brute force of attention that will yield a clearer picture, but in the repeated approaches.

And this seems to be playing out in our class! In our repeated and different ways of accessing and thinking about our complex theories, the meaning becomes more stabilized. This idea decreases my anxiety in the sense that what may not be clear tonight may become clearer in subsequent "attendings."

Works Cited:

Latour, Bruno. Reassembling the Social: An Introduction to Actor-Network-Theory. New York, Oxford UP, 2007. Print.

Johnson-Eilola, Johndan. Nostalgic Angels: Rearticulating Hypertext Writing. Norwood, NJ: Ablex Publishing Corporation, 1997. Print.

Joyce, Michael. Of Two Minds: Hypertext Pedagogy and Poetics. Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press, 1996. Print.

---. Othermindedness: The Emergence of Network Culture. Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press, 2001. Print.