Session B12: “Coding/Learning/Writing: A Cultural Digital Rhetorical Gathering”
Presenters: Elizabeth LaPensee, Catheryn Jennings, Kristin Arola
Review by Victoria Houser
Panel Description: Interrogating the coding and design of the video game Thunderbird Strike, the ways one learns a heritage language through digital spaces, and one Ojibwe woman’s attempt to rhetorically intervene in a social media attack on her cultural claims, this panel shows how cultural and digital rhetoric can, and should, intersect with our theories, pedagogies, and practices.
This panel struck me as particularly fascinating since the presenters dealt with significantly difficult social issues at the intersection of writing and coding. I have found that framing sites of learning with critical approaches to cultural ideas and practices provides students with tools for understanding and articulating rhetorical thought in their everyday life. What these panelists showcased in their work demonstrates keen reflection on how this kind of engagement unfolds within digital spheres, probing the audience to consider the ways in which cultural/rhetorical gatherings can engage with pedagogy to create spaces for critical thought and action.
All three panelists come from Michigan State University. Elizabeth LaPensee is an assistant professor and her work focuses on writing, design, transmedia, and art in games. Catheryn Jennings is a PhD student studying Cultural Rhetorics and digital communities as well as indigenous rhetorics and queer rhetorics. Kristin Arola is a professor who positions herself as a scholar of American Indian Rhetorics, multimodal composition, and digital rhetoric.
LaPensee was not able to be present at the panel, so she composed a video which was shown as a substitution for an oral presentation. In the video she discussed the release of her game, “Thunderbird Strike,” and dealt with he troubling ideologies which she encountered from public spheres. LaPensee outlined the design and purpose of the game and explained how the game works rhetorically as critique of placing pipelines in indigenous lands. One of the most fascinating elements of the game is that players cannot lose, and LaPensee mentioned that she believes it’s important to have certain games function in such a way for specific purposes. The game itself demonstrates a beautiful and critical approach to a large cultural issue—the exploitation of indigenous land for the purpose of “progress.”
Jennings’ talk took us through a personal exploration of her own experience with learning Cherokee through digital language tools. Throughout her talk the intense connection to the language she was learning and the memories from her childhood were manifest and moving. Jennings walked the audience through a virtual tour of the physical sites tied to her connection with the Cherokee language, showing us the significance of the bond between the land and the language. Her clear explication of how she was learning the language via digital routes brought every thread of her presentation into a clear focus, displaying both the rhetorical and material importance of the ways in which language forms experience.
Arola’s presentation was one of the most singularly fascinating panel presentations I have seen. Using a specific story from a powwow gathering, she powerfully demonstrated the function of indigenous rhetorics and Rhetoric (as symbol action) in an arena of traditional practice and cultural signification. The story that Arola used in her talk involved a woman who had made a jingle dress (an important piece of the Obijaw powwow) which did not conform to the traditional standards for these ceremonies. The woman was openly attacked in digital spaces, such as Facebook and twitter, and the story went viral within this community quickly. Of course, this raised all kinds of important questions—who decides which traditions to keep and why? Why was this woman attacked so openly while others who have taken similar liberties have not been? Arola dealt with these questions and their potentialities through exploring the digital, rhetorical sites in detail, working the possibilities for these kinds of discourses. Perhaps what made this presentation so powerful for me was the very impossibility of “resolving” such tumultuous conversation. What we see at the end of Arola’s discussion is that approaching these conversations of indigenous and cultural rhetorics complicates our understanding of and position toward these topics.
The entire panel, in fact, demonstrated that the conversation about digital and cultural rhetorics is vast and evolving. Each presenter’s topic offered a nuanced approach to the discussion which opened the site of learning to more complicated and diverse understandings of writing, coding, and learning. These approaches show us the importance of stepping into the conversation of rhetorically charged spaces—which could apply to myriad topics—in order to develop our examination of how writing and learning function within complex and difficult interactions.