IDRS Review – Session 1: Ways of Knowing | a pounding base thump of rhetoric’s techno-culture beats: this is rhetoric, amped.



Douglas Eyman, George Mason University
Crystal VanKooten, Oakland University
Thomas Rickert, Purdue University

What follows is a review of the first session of the Indiana Digital Rhetoric Symposium by speakers Douglas Eyman, Crystal VanKooten, and Thomas Rickert. The review pulls together a thought tapestry of digital rhetoric scholarship: ways of knowing.

It is my hope readers of this review (especially those who will learn of the symposium in years to come) find digital rhetoric an emerging sub-discipline with multiple and diverse ways of knowing. More importantly, such ways include fostering a diverse and inclusive community of knowledge contributors who provide/give/support a rich alterity for all who work within/at the edges of digital rhetorical inquiry, as several of the speakers, presenters, conference organizers and supporters, and attendees demonstrated during and after the symposium.

This is only:

one story

one experience

one re[-cog]alization[ition]

Upon entering the high-pitched-ceiling, white-walled room where the Indiana Digital Rhetoric Symposium happened, a small nut formed at the base of my throat. Walking into the academic equivalent of Buffalo Wild Wings, with large computer monitors hoisted on just about every vertical surface possible, left me humbled. Not because I had to give a talk in front of the 50 or so in attendance, but the electrical buzz of the machines and the bright white radiance from the screens pushed my anxiety to the uncomfortable edge of certain failure in front of the very real human bodies filling the room.

After dropping my Timbuk2 on a chair, I skittered out of the room in search of the elixir go[o]dd/ness of most night owls: coffee. The morning buffet table did not disappoint, as two large brown tubs sat alongside fresh fruit and pastries, enough for a morning nosh and pick-me-up.

Act One, Scene One: Disciplinary Definitions & Histories.

Returning to the screened theater, to sit between Elizabeth Losh and James Brown, Jr. (who later engaged in a side-table, lightening talk about machine rhetorics), my focus turned to Douglas Eyman, Associate Professor and Director of the PhD in Writing and Rhetoric at George Mason University, and Senior Editor and Publisher of the online peer-reviewed journal, Kairos: A Journal of Rhetoric, Technology, and Pedagogy. Eyman cultivated his talk from his book, Digital Rhetoric: Theory, Method, and Practice.

With recommendations for those interested in digital rhetoric—monographs by Richard Lanham, Kathleen Welch, Elizabeth Losh, Ian Bogost, Barbara Warnick, and Collin Brooke—Eyman pointed to digital rhetoric’s legs—works lifting rhetorical theory and practice into the minds of readers, who also engage in the hyper-connected information code economy of online and app practices of our modern times.

In a most stimulating move, Eyman talked about software and algorithms. He shared what rhetoricians of any ilk must not forget with any written-only language, humans. Humans (usually mathematicians and computer programmers) develop equations and code. He implored those in the audience: Do not forget the humans behind the code.

Act One, Scene Two: Research Methodologies.

Speaking on research methodologies, Crystal VanKooten, Assistant Professor of Writing and Rhetoric with a specialization in New Media at Oakland University, asked, “What are the global operations, the methodologies, of Digital Rhetoric” and “how might a consideration of these operations and processes help us do the work of identifying digital rhetoric as a field?”

In answering these questions, VanKooten performed a case study analysis of the invited speakers and presenters at the symposium. She examined content from the symposium abstracts, researched speakers/presenters publications, examined professional web presences and social media sites for a collective portrait of a methodological identity of those present doing/performing digital rhetoric.

VanKooten’s results indicated reliance upon rhetorical theory, but with scholars/researchers/ educators drawing upon communications, composition, philosophy, programming, and legal studies to articulate positions in digital rhetoric. Additionally, VanKooten suggested digital rhetoric might head in a direction similar to the digital humanities with cross-collaboration and transdisciplinary work.

Act One, Scene Three. Rhetorical Theory.

Concerned about rhetoric’s future within a segment of online culture, Thomas Rickert, Professor of English at Purdue University, suggested the culture of outrage—expressed through online venues of social media, discussion boards, and comments—calls the future of rhetorical theory and the problem of a general rhetoric into question.

Suggesting rhetoric cannot be general, Rickert conjectured rhetoric, in the new age of posthumanism, new materialist, and digital approaches, as employing moralism at its core—especially in spaces of outrage culture online. In support, Rickert noted, “This isn’t to say, of course, that moralism is simply prior to rhetoric; but it is to say that the advent of the posthuman, for which digital rhetoric’s role is profound, demonstrates that there is no evacuation of the moral strands entwined in rhetoric’s DNA.”

This is all to say in an age of digital rhetorics, scholars/researchers/teachers must explore the connections of moralism and rhetoric to how arguments about moralism perpetuate a cycle of manipulation and judgment—all without employing a Rhetoric of civic engagement for the good of society. Attending to the morals in outrage culture, Rickert argues, is a sign of what is to come for digital rhetoricians.

Post Thoughts.

As the symposium goers took a break from the first session of the day, a pounding base thump of rhetoric’s techno-culture beats vibrated in my thoughts. This is rhetoric, amped. Do not forget the human. Methods help define scholarly identity. Moralism expressed in outrage culture = bad rhetorics. The pulsing shaking(s) of these three talks touched on rhetoric’s core—the human, with an intensification of electronic currents and machine processes carrying the current of communicative exchange.


Weeks after the symposium, I sit on my olive green micro-fiber sofa, with lukewarm coffee nearby, in the afternoon sun, with a cat trotting around the room in search of play to type this review. I think about impressions of these three talks, and what/how to speak back to Eyman, VanKooten, and Rickert with respect and honor for their contributions.

While Douglas Eyman talked at length about the disciplinary definitions and histories of digital rhetoric, left unsaid—albeit during the short window of a 20-minute talk—was digital rhetoric’s relationship with the legacy and history of computers and writing. In his tracing of central works for digital rhetoric, I recalled the [pre]history of digital rhetoric. How the foremothers and fathers led efforts to connect rhetoric and composition to digital spaces—people like Hugh Burns, Charles Moran, Mimi Schwartz, Lisa Gerrard, William Wresche, Helen Schwartz, Kathleen Kiefer, Cynthia Selfe, Gail Hawisher, Paul LeBlanc, Billie Wahlstrom, and so many others who worked in the late 1970s and early 1980s on software development, programming, and computer-based writing for composition classrooms.

Indeed, Hugh Burns’s software development of TOPOI and later MINDWRITER were based in part on Aristotle’s Rhetoric, Kenneth Burke’s dramatism, and Young, Becker, and Pike’s Rhetoric: Discovery and Change (cf. Hawisher, LeBlanc, Moran, Selfe, 1994). Arguably, the focus of the then-newsletter, now international journal, Computers & Composition, as then-editors Kathleen Kiefer and Cynthia Selfe articulated in their first editor’s letter was the role computers played in the composition classroom (1983). However, much of the early work of educators, programmers, researchers, scholars, and students working within/at the bounds of computers and writing came from the integration of rhetoric into composition’s classrooms.

In my mind, as digital rhetoric continues to develop its legs and grows into a sub-discipline, future historical scholarship should focus on the relationship between the two sub-disciplines to illustrate myriad ways of knowing to the communal benefit of both communities. Additionally, I look forward to reading Eyman’s book over the summer of 2015 to learn more about how he traced and historically grounded digital rhetoric’s roots, since we all know: 20 minutes just ain’t enough.

In Crystal VanKooten’s talk, her use of case study to examine the scholarly identities of those working within/at the edge of digital rhetoric illustrated the centrality of methods to digital rhetoric studies. Now what interests me about this particular method is its currency in empirical research. Multiple disciplines–anthropology, psychology, sociology, political science, social work, and composition–use case study for a close examination of a segment of study. As a method, case study does not necessarily have to use digital resources, and it is a popular method for examination.

However, in thinking about what digital rhetoric is and can do/be, what other methods might emerge from the spaces, places, and materials of digital objects people use for rhetorical means? What excites me most about this question is VanKooten’s research in video as method. During coffee conversations and meals, VanKooten talked at length with me about her use of video, and how video changes a researcher’s orientation to the participant(s), the research, and the environment. It’s here that I look forward to learning more about video as method from her in years to come, a method emerging from the contexts of digital rhetoric and composition.

Thomas Rickert’s focus on moralism, outrage, and rhetoric leaves me thinking about the politics of Rhetoric. While the framework for Rickert’s talk placed rhetoric in a political system of a liberal and conservative spectrum, with acknowledgements that gender and race are flashpoints in those systems that rally moral outrage, I contend this is one way of knowing about|of rhetoric. Certainly, the larger argument Rickert cast in his talk comes from the [in]effectiveness of rhetoric when people use morals with outrage; how the location of ideology and critical/cultural theories of the 1980s and 1990s stretched rhetoric into an American political spectrum of values and beliefs.

I witness the type of outrage Rickert described through a white, heterosexual, male, middle-class, abled, American value system of morals (To be fair, I am uncertain if this this type of outrage is what Rickert was speaking back to/on in his talk). However, it is the outrage I experience the most in news cycles and in social media.

However, I also witness additional orientations | approaches of rhetoric in social media spaces, including: Black Twitter seeking solidary while speaking back to dominant discourses; feminist activists coordinating and developing communities of support and diversity, and at the at the Indiana Digital Rhetoric Symposium where Associate Professor of Rhetoric, Composition, and Technology at Washington State University, Kristin Arola, shared how indigenous rhetorics informs a digital rhetorics.

The larger conversation, in my mind, about (digital) rhetoric, is not so much about the [in]effectiveness of a rhetoric in a liberal/conservative spectrum (it is still important to address within such a system of knowing, however), where rhetoric imbues with ideology and moralism, but how (digital) rhetoric functions in other social, cultural, economic, and political systems. Moving from a historical Greek -> European -> American tradition, how does rhetoric function in African, Arab, Asian, Eastern, Indian, Indigenous, Latin cultures, if at all? How does such methodological orientations to rhetoric of storytelling, community, non-violence, and a path to enlightenment, and so on, contribute/[re]figure/totalize/embody a Rhetoric in its own right|way? It’s here I speculate that such continuing research, currently coming from scholars in cultural rhetorics, will integrate into an expansive rhetoric in decades to come.

As a newcomer to digital rhetoric, I  thoroughly enjoyed the contributions of Eyman, VanKooten, and Rickert. Their talks gave rich insight into a history, methodology, and theory of digital rhetoric in ways that it is weeks after the symposium, and I am still thinking about their work.  These thought leaders certainly light the way for many in digital rhetoric, rhetoric, and composition, and I am grateful for the chance to hear them speak about their work.


I am thankful for the opportunity provided by:

the sponsors of the Indiana Digital Rhetoric Symposium: the College of Arts & Sciences, the College Ostram Grants Program, Indiana University’s New Frontiers/New Currents grant program, and the College Arts and Humanities Institute (CAHI),

the conference organizers, Scot Barnett and Justin Hodgson,

and to those who worked behind the scenes to make the conference possible: Jena Hanes, Lisa LePlante, Paul Gutjahr, John Lucaites, Steve Egyhazi, Lydia Wilkes, Martin Law, Katherine Lind, Caddie Alford, Jennifer Warfel Juszkiewicz.

Their collective energies to make the event possible and to sustain work in digital rhetoric will benefit many in years to come.


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