How I Can’t Not Study Digital Rhetoric: An Introduction

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I have a challenge for you: pick three words you’d use to describe yourself. These could be words like “mother,” “son,” “teacher,” or “scholar.” These could also be words like “Muslim,” “bisexual,” or “Californian.”  These words are basically any three self-identifiers you can think of instantly. Don’t over-think this. This should only take a few seconds of your time.

I’d like to know how you self-identified (in a comment at the end of the post perhaps?), but since I’m not in a synchronous conversation with you, I can’t find that out yet. At least in the meantime, I can tell you my three first self-identifying words: reader, writer, student.

This is what I call my "About the Author" picture.

This is what I call my “About the Author” picture.

So I may be self-identifying with my work a bit too closely (scholar problems, anyone?), but to set that concern aside for a moment, I mention all of this because it is this self-identification as a reader, writer, and student that leads me to studying digital rhetoric and serving this year as a DRC graduate fellow.

As someone who has always loved thinking in words and playing with words, I don’t think there’s any way I could not study digital rhetoric. How could I possibly ignore the ways that modes of reading and writing are changing all around me? As I’ve seen the way that my students read and write, that my peers read and write, and even the way that my parents and grandparents read and write change in subtle to dramatic ways, I knew that my graduate study had to be invested in probing at these changes, in thinking through the ways that our writing and reading processes are affected by their material conditions and contexts.

I’m particularly interested in the affect associated with the changing conditions of our writing, specifically the ways that popular conceptions of reading and writing practices tend to be romantically and nostalgically mired in the analog. I’m guilty of this too: for years, my image of a writer perfectly aligned with that of the stereotypical romanticized solitary writing  alone, hunched over his desk, scribbling with a feathered pen on yellowed parchment by the faint glowing light of a dripping candle.

Yet as a graduate student who has become part of the Computers and Writing community and who has devoted her studies to questions of literacy and technology, I’m increasingly interested in how this nostalgia could be productive for us and how we also move forward from that nostalgia (which sounds paradoxical, I know) to see that digital reading and writing practices are rich and exciting in their own ways (even if there aren’t any dripping candles or quill pens involved).

Carolyn Handa‘s definition of digital rhetoric in her most recent (and sadly last) book, The Multimediated Rhetoric of the Internet: Digital Fusion remains the most useful for me:  

“Digital rhetoric is simply (or maybe not so simply) traditional rhetoric applied visually as well as textually. It is not another form of rhetoric. We do not switch from digital to traditional rhetoric. All of the components we are accustomed to discussing in traditional rhetoric, especially having to do with style and arrangement for the purposes of conducting logical, discursive, persuasive arguments, are elements that can occur visually” (p. 18).

This definition is so striking to me because it reveals to me precisely how digital conditions affect the way that we communicate. These changes can be subtle and they can be dramatic, but they always involve the simultaneous investment in the verbal and the visual. A wee part of me is scared by this; I’m verbally quite adept (and if you’ve gotten this far in my wordy post, that’s likely obvious to you), but my visual communication skills? Those could use some work. I see the DRC community and the Computers and Writing community at large as just the place to sharpen my own digital rhetorical practice and to help other scholars become invested in digitally rhetorical ways of thinking.

I hope that some of my projects as  DRC fellow will include creating visual data to document the rich array of resources we have. Imagine a map, for example, that charts the theorists and ideas that have been most influential to our field. What about a graphic organizer that charts the rich content our Wiki has been compiling? These kinds of resources take advantage of the way we process digital information and directly invests us in the practice that we preach in our scholarship.

Leveraging the possibilities for digital rhetoric while acknowledging, confronting, and exploring the constraints of digital rhetoric fascinates me. My goal as a DRC fellow is to expand my own digital rhetorical practice and to consider how we effectively respond to questions that interest our community. So, if you’ve got something you’d like us to explore visually here, let me know in the comments.

We’ve come up with our self-identifiers; now let’s see if we can self-identify our field and invest ourselves in effective digital rhetorical practice.

About Author

Jenae Cohn

Jenae Cohn is a PhD candidate in English and Writing, Rhetoric, and Composition Studies at UC Davis. Her research explores how materialities of reading and writing technologies affect established and emerging writers' perceptions of reading and writing experiences. She works in her university's WAC program as a graduate writing fellow and also serves as a HASTAC Scholar. She blogs irregularly at www.jenaecohn.net and to get herself writing, she lights candles and dons the fuzziest of socks.

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