In his book Provocations of Virtue: Rhetoric, Ethics, and the Teaching of Writing, John Duffy explores the role of writing teachers and scholars in the polarized contemporary public discourse and invites us to reconsider the role of virtue ethics in the teaching of writing. Duffy (2017) argues that the choices we teach students to make as writers is not only attributed to the dimension of “rhetorical, linguistic and aesthetic,” but also to the “virtue ethics”–a kind of “rhetorical virtue” that contains acts of “honesty, accountability, generosity, open-mindedness, tolerance, and humility ” (pp. 235-236). In the field of digital rhetoric, Jared S. Colton and Steven Holmes also propose the adoption of a care ethics as an ethical vocabulary to look at issues in remix and digital sampling. Such dispositional practice of “a hexis of care”(p. 76), as Colton and Holmes (2018) argue, calls for us to look at “the specific goods internal to our digital-sampling practices” and “asks the rhetoricians to place themselves in an empathetic relations with those they are responding to” (p. 76). Jiang and Tham (2019) further foreground the discussion of virtue ethics in student’s design practice and propose “design advocacy” as a new space for us to rethink the potential and impact of multimodal design in fulfilling social justice missions.
Echoing the aforementioned call for care ethics and design advocacy in the writing discipline, the first-year composition assignment I discuss here aims to illustrate how ethical dispositions are enacted through a digital interview project. Specifically, I outline the contextualization of the assignment in a classroom setting as well as students’ execution of the interview through digital-sampling and remix editing.
Kenya: What is your earliest memory?
Mother: My earliest memory, probably, is when I was five years old and I moved into a new house with my father and his new wife.
Meeting a person for the first time is exhilarating. We are caught up in the dance of being constantly surprised and continually revising our understandings of them at every turn. But, sooner or later, we feel we have “read” the book or “watched” the movie and quit revising our understandings of them minus the occurrence of some traumatic event (Earl stole my car and robbed the liquor store!). Hence, people will sometimes make the accusation of “I never knew you” when it would be more accurate to say “I closed off my understanding of you too soon.” This happens commonly to stereotyped cultural groups, as well as when students discover their classmates’ different cultural and political views. However, our parents and parental surrogates, the group of people we see and interact with on a daily basis, are perhaps the most significant and simplified characters in our lives.
From the lens of social justice, within a familial unit of the society, one can easily envision how parents might fall into the category of the underrepresented as children’s needs and feelings tend to be more prioritized. If we are to learn to be more sympathetic to other human beings’ experiences and engage in design advocacy to push for their benefits, family seems to be a great place to start.
In my composition class where students compose a memoir book as their main project, I asked them to initiate their writing project with a digital interview. Knowing that not every student will be susceptible to the idea of sitting down with one or both parents and have the conversation recorded, as some of them do not have ‘that kind of relationship” (teaching field notes, Sep 2018) with their parents, I started laying the groundwork for rationalizing the purpose of the assignment early on.
In the very early weeks of the course, each student was assigned to read one memoir book written by a previous student, before they presented the memoir to the class. During this presentation, students also delivered a self-introduction to the class, and answered some questions the classmates chose to ask, selected from a handout sheet of 200 interview questions I prepared. The exact sheet also functions as prompts for them to come up with their own interview questions for their parents. These questions range from easier entry friendly ones such as “What’s the best smell in the world?” to slightly bold and intimidating ones like “In what situations are you most uncomfortable?” and hardcore intimate ones such as “What are your secret regrets?”
This preparatory activity aims to contextualize the interview assignment through students’ experience of being asked some of the same questions they might choose for their parents, while at the same time allowing them to embody the rhetorical virtue of “a hexis of care” through thinking on their feet what questions suit a participar individual so as to strike a balance between the intimacy achieved through inquiring a personal trait and embarrassing the person through triggering traumatic memories. Students did have the option to say “pass” if they don’t feel comfortable with the question, even though no one eventually had to resort to that option throughout the process. Besides the aforementioned questions, the other most popular questions include the following:
What fear would you like to overcome?
What do you do to relax?
What are the best and worst sounds in the world?
What’s something you’ve done that surprised even you?
If you could live anywhere in the world, where would it be?
What’s the most dangerous situation you’ve been in? How did you react?
What’s the funniest thing you’ve ever done?
If you could do something very daring, without fear, what would you do?
Tasha: Where would you go if you could go anywhere in the world?
Father: If I can go anywhere in the world, It’ll probably be to Florida to take you and your sister back to Disney. I miss it. It’s always been a lot of fun. And I love rollercoasters and you girls love it too. All the amusement and all the food, and we always had a good time. All those memories, and doing something like that at your age now and my age now would be very nice. Yeah, that’s where I’d go, right down to Florida, Orlando.
From the initial brainstorming of the interview questions to the final editing, students were given a month to conduct the project, during which time students also worked on their memoir project and completed a half volume of their memoir. Some students told me that the processes of interviewing their parents and crafting their parents’ voices into an audio artifact–adding music, editing out the mumbles, the pauses, the undelivered answers, or not–give students a chance to experience from an outsider’s view who their parents are and what their relationships with them look like. This reframing has helped my students realize that these people are not what they define as “good” parents or “rotten” parents in relation to themselves. They are people with their own mysterious depth, with flaws and virtues, dashed hopes and realized dreams, teen crushes, and even tiny little bits of madness, and probably an inner sense that they’re not much past seventeen themselves.
Dominique, a nineteen years old girl, remarked that she experienced a transformation when she was editing the audio trying to decide whether to keep one part of the audio where her mother was stumbling to come up with an answer. At that moment, she saw how vulnerable her mother was. Her mom is a single mother raising three children, and she doesn’t have the nicest tones when it comes to keeping the household in shape and everyone on track with their study and life. The student, at that point, has written in her memoir about an incident of her mom which greatly affected their relationship. Even though they did not talk about the incident in the interview, Dominique later told me that she’d decided to add a lot more to that section in her book as she did not think from her mother’s perspective and had failed to bring out the nuances of the situation.
Students reflected that sitting down with the parents and treating their voices as artifact worthwhile crafting, the process of exercising “a hexis of care” in digital sampling and remix, has made them realize how much more they would know how to appreciate other people and their opinions when such ethical dispositions were enacted. One drawback of this project is that not all students will have a parent to interview. It is always saddening when my student share with me their traumatic past that involves the loss of their parent(s), which also tends to be how their memoir is themed around in this case. To address this, we do expand our discussion early on to include friends and other family members who are in place of the people we know so well that such an endeavor to deepen our understanding of them can yield the same transformation. Overall, the audio design project prompts students to realize the roles other people play in their life, be it hero or villain, are a matter worth contemplating. This realization, to a degree, functions as a base for the rhetorical virtue that Duffy (2017) advocates for writing teachers and scholars to engage in to create a “good writer” and “better world” (p. 244-246). It is my hope that students will continue to embody such ethical disposition enacted through preserving and crafting the moment of meeting their parents for it to animate in their memoir writing and to create meaningful moments in their life and that of others.
Colton, J. S., & Holmes, S. (2018). Care in remix and digital sampling. In Rhetoric, technology, and the virtues (pp. 74-94). Louisville, CO: Utah State University Press.
Duffy, J. (2017). The good writer: Virtue ethics and the teaching of writing. College English, 79(3), 229-235.
Duffy, J. (2019). Provocations of virtue: Rhetoric, ethics, and the teaching of writing. Logan, UT: Utah State University Press.
Jiang, J., & Tham, J. (2019, February 5). Multimodal design and social advocacy: Charting future directions for design as an interdisciplinary engagement. Retrieved from Digital Rhetoric Collaborative website: https://www.digitalrhetoriccollaborative.org/2019/02/05/multimodal-design-social-advocacy/