Watson Session D.12: Public Rhetorics that Matter and Digital Futures

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Presenters: Nicholas Mennona Marino (University of Louisiana at Lafayette), Kim Lacey (Saginaw Valley State University), and Morgan Elizabeth Wentz (Northern Arizona University)

I was drawn to this panel because of the discussion of public and digital rhetorics. Each presenter considered different facets of digital public rhetoric: genre conventions and ethos in online communities, questions about knowledge-making and memory in the digital age, and how to incorporate social media into the classroom.

Nicholas Mennona Marino, “See You on the Boards: Representations of the University on 4chan’s /r9k/”

Marino began his presentation by noting that the focus of his talk had shifted from representations of the university on 4chan, an anonymous imageboard website divided into threads, to how users manipulate the interface. Because 4chan is an anonymous site, Marino discovered that users must build ethos by demonstrating their knowledge and use of 4chan genre conventions. Using approximately twenty screenshots collected mostly in March and April of 2018, Marino identified multiple interface manipulations, but his argument about the use of the chevron was the most developed and interesting for me.

Marino detailed a range of uses for the chevron that demonstrated genre and interface awareness by users. The most common use of the chevron by 4chan users was to create “green text stories,” a genre of posts characterized by green text, all lowercase text, lack of punctuation, and accompanying images. A lack of a chevron, which produced the default black text, was often used as a closing line in “green text stories” to provide commentary. Alternatively, chevrons were also used to quote and call out other users. Marino concluded by arguing that the chevrons both developed ethos for users who correctly employed them and were used to critique inexperienced users.

While the focus of Marino’s presentation shifted to interface manipulation, the examples of 4chan chevron-use came from “uni” or “university” threads where users, who Marino described as “social outcasts,” discussed how to function in school settings. He noted that university instructors could learn from these discussions about social struggles of 4chan users in higher education.

Kim Lacey, “Making Mistakes: The Mandela Effect and Contemporary Epistemology”

Lacey’s presentation on the Mandela Effect, the phenomenon of collective erroneous memories, and contemporary epistemology raised complex and ongoing questions about how the field of rhetoric can respond to recent scientific evidence that individual and collective memory can be manipulated. Connecting the Mandela Effect with the concepts of metamemory, knowledge of one’s own memory-making ability, and confabulation, fabricated, distorted, or misinformed memories that an individual truly believes occurred, Lacey drew on studies by Peter Carruthers on interpretative sensory-access, Kimberley A. Wade, et al. on confabulation, Giuliana Mazzoni on imagination inflation, and Adam Gazzaley and Larry D. Rosen on the distracted mind.

Lacey’s research is ongoing, but she is most interested in moments when an individual is not certain whether they are presenting false information. While Lacey opened with a fun game demonstrating popular examples of the Mandela Effect, her research questions are pressing and vexing:

  • how can rhetoric function without full knowledge that humans can present memory and information sincerely, honestly, or correctly?
  • does rhetoric stand a chance against confabulation?
  • how can we trust ourselves when science shows that we cannot?
  • if we are constantly lying to ourselves, how can we honestly persuade others to believe us?

Lacey concluded by calling on rhetoricians to consider how we might address the reinvention of personal memory, even as scientific research indicates the problem is unsolvable.

Morgan Elizabeth Wentz, “Rethinking Rhetoric: Why Social Media Matters in Composition Classrooms”

Wentz concluded this session by turning our attention to digital public rhetoric in the first-year composition classroom. Motivated by her own experiences as an undergraduate using social media and a lack of discussion of social media in her graduate program, Wentz argues that we should use social media in the classroom to encourage students to become better public writers. By incorporating social media, a form of communication that is tangible to students, first-year composition teachers can provide students with a strong rhetorical education that takes writing beyond the classroom. Based on research and her own teaching practices, Wentz found that students relish the creativity and novelty of social media in the classroom, which encourages students to be more engaged and take control and responsibility of their learning.

In particular, Wentz argued that Twitter provided benefits for both students and teachers. Because of Twitter’s interface students were required to be pithy and to identify particular conversations to engage in. In class, Twitter became an instant feedback tool, a form of collaborative notetaking and brainstorming, and a space to continue the conversation beyond the classroom. Individually, students used Twitter to engage with professionals and authors in their fields of interest, making tweeting a method of community-building.

While Wentz found substantial benefits in using social media in the college classroom, she recognized that this method might not suit all instructors or student bodies. Not only must instructors remain attentive to issues of access and students’ experiences with and beliefs about technology, but tweeting in class can become a distraction, students may not understand how Twitter contributes to the classroom, and faculty may feel centering social media detracts from their authority. Given these challenges, Wentz suggested instructors consider their university and program context to decide whether to integrate Twitter at all. Should instructors embrace social media in the classroom, Wentz recognized that instructors must incorporate “Twitter training” sessions to educate students about the platform. Even with these caveats, Wentz made a cogent argument for the potential benefits of incorporating Twitter, specifically, and social media writing, generally, in the classroom.

Takeaways

The Q&A portion of this session was lively with discussion of the logistics of bringing Twitter into the classroom, further questions about knowledge-making and ethos-building, and how the individual presentations informed one another. Wentz elaborated on the potential conflict of grading social media use—a form of writing that students associate with their personal lives, rather than academic ones—saying that she allowed students to make choices about how they managed their online identities and that she framed Twitter-use as a professional activity that blended the personal and academic. Marino also noted the importance of educating students about the interfaces of various social media platforms. In response to Lacey’s discussion of the Mandela Effect, one audience member asked how the Dunning-Kruger Effect, a form of cognitive bias in which people believe they are smarter and more knowledgeable than they are, might contribute to strong beliefs in false information. Bill Hart-Davidson (who reviewed session H.2 for the DRC) thoughtfully brought together the presentations saying the session pointed to understandings of how seemingly mundane actions, like hashtags and liking, control users.

The presentations and discussion develop a range of takeaways about the future of digital public rhetoric and its place in the classroom:

  • Ethos-building in digital spaces is complex, recursive, and fraught.
  • The field needs to address scientific research that demonstrates our inability to recognize false information.
  • Research and teaching about the interfaces of digital spaces is important for understanding ethos-building and for educating students about how interfaces exert control over and are manipulated by users.

These takeaways have strong connections with session A.13: “Future Digital Histories: What’s (Been) the Matter with Digital Literacies,” which Amy Cicchino reviewed.

About Author(s)

Whitney Lew James is a PhD candidate in rhetoric and composition at Texas Christian University with research interests in translingual pedagogy, digital rhetoric, and disability studies.

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