Extra! Extra! On Rhetorical Newspaper Analyses

Have I mentioned here before that I work an additional job as a freelance (ghost) editor for a college and career counselor?

Well, I’m mentioning it now and for one reason in particular: the ubiquitous “newspaper rhetoric” assignment.

You know the one: choose three newspaper articles and analyze whether they “effectively” convey their purpose or not. (Something that follows these kinds of standards).

I’ve always had some trouble accepting this assignment and it primarily hinges upon the word, “effective.” Effective to whom? Effective for what? Effective to what ends? This seems to be a key piece missing in the explication of the assignment.

Anyway, as a freelance (ghost) editor, I basically revise whatever my boss sends me to revise. I’m completely invisible to the student; I make line edits in Microsoft Word, send those line edits and documents back to my boss, and he sends my line edits to the students. I don’t think the students know where these magical edits come from. I don’t think these students care.

All of that background aside, I’ve seen a surprising number of these newspaper rhetoric essays recently and, indeed, students seem to respond to them in roughly the same way, citing “objectivity” and “clarity” as signs of “effectiveness.”

Yet interestingly, they often choose newspaper articles that are neither “objective” nor particularly “clear.” Indeed, it seems that in every rhetoric assignment I’ve read thus far, students have been drawn to assessing articles composed as blogs rather than true-to-form “articles.”

My hunch is that students are not choosing blogs because they enjoy reading them; I imagine the student sits in front of the computer, opens the browser, goes to Google, types in the name of a current event, and voila! Blogs from major newspapers emerge as top hits. Students then go on to assume that these blogs serve the same function as “articles.” Boom, assignment completed.

To me, this is a fascinating phenomena for a few reasons:

1. Blogs are appearing as more frequent hits in search engines.

2. The tone of blogs are seemingly indistinct from those of news stories that high school students and college freshmen are familiar with.

3. On major newspaper websites, blog content seems privileged over regularly circulating news content.

Now, point1 gets us into a discussion of search engine optimization and other stuff I don’t really feel like thinking about. But points 2 and 3? Now those, to me, are worth discussing.

I don’t find it particularly troublesome that blogs themselves are privileged as news content. Indeed, we could get abstract here and assert, “What is objectivity, anyway?”

What troubles me is – well – students’ seeming lack of awareness over the ability to distinguish between these two genres. I could be assuming too much about these students; perhaps they DO recognize the blog is a blog (and not an article), but do not have the motivation to keep digging through the Internet to find an article and figure a blog will fulfill the assignment. Either way, apathy is at play. Isn’t that a touch distressing?

I think the solution to this problem comes with greater critical awareness of what it means to use a search engine, of what it means to find different kinds of articles and, perhaps most importantly, what it means to search carefully and discriminatingly.

Perhaps the most important question I have is: where should this kind of work be done? To me, if instructors are giving out these kinds of assignments, it should probably be done in the writing classroom. But, of course, how do high school teachers, for example, balance these kinds of concerns with those of curricular standards? I imagine that these kinds of rhetoric assignments are part of a common curriculum; how do teachers adapt? How do administrators adapt to make sure students are developing healthy browsing habits?

DML Reflections: Or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Start Looking Ahead

I know I’m already three posts into discussion of DML and, for those of you looking for other things on this blog (like, erm, Codeacademy, which I will duly resume at the end of this month), this may not be that exciting. But! The DML experience was really compelling for me and it ties directly into so many of the issues I’ve been grappling with this quarter, not only in my Literacy and Technology class, but in assessing what niche I want to carve for myself in the world of academia.

I maintain my concern that DML did not promote enough writing-centric concerns (for my tastes) nor did it address concerns of teacher education and reaching out to the “non-gamer,” “non-tech” teacher, but with all of that aside, I think DML was an incredible place for fostering dialogue about:

a. rethinking educational paradigms

b. addressing the politics of technology (and its impact on the U.S. schooling system)

c. raising questions about the intersections between industry, non-profits, and education

There’s a lot I could say about all three of these points, but I’m going to take the self-centered way out and focus my reflection on all three of these points in terms of my own anxieties about the future of education: where is change going to take place and how might I best position myself to be a part of this change?

Allow me to clarify: there was an explicit current beneath the whole conference that initiatives to capitalize upon the affordances of digital technology for education will not happen in the classroom. They will happen in the non-profit sector. They will happen in educational start-ups. They will happen in industry.

None of this surprises me. Institutions (and especially the institution of public education) is slow to change.  This is no fault of educators or even of administrators: this is the fault of bureaucracy, the hundreds of people who have to agree to make a decision in order to enact change. Inevitably, there is a group of people who is scared by change, threatened that it undermines their livelihoods and experiences. This is understandable, of course, but fear never propels change. Every change involves a risk and a loss, and when we don’t know precisely what those losses are going to be, of course we’re terrified. As a habitually change-adverse person myself, I can understand this desire to seek the stability and security implicit in what’s known.

But I recognize that as a professional, I can’t avoid change. I’ve entered humanities research at a pivotal moment, a time in which we’re questioning and assessing how students’ ways of thinking about writing are changing with the adoption of digital technology. We won’t have the answers to this right away, and yet we need to begin anticipating how to maximize our teaching and administrative practices to adapt. There’s no point in resisting: the computer is not going away and online usage is only becoming more ubiquitous.

What this brings me to is the importance of developing multiple literacies: as a (developing) scholar, I feel it is my responsibility now more than ever to become functionally, critically, and rhetorically literate. Attending DML has convinced me that I need to be aware of the digital tools available and know how to use them, I need to be aware of the politics of computing practices, noting the “digital divide” and recognizing that the Internet is not always a space for equality, and I need to remain mindful of how my online practices (both in design and in writing) shape meaning.

In short, I need to be modeling the best kinds of digital practices in the hopes of contributing to a more educational, open-minded digital space.

I feel like this is getting into real “Chicken Soup for the Digital Soul” territory (hey, maybe that’s how I’ll make my millions!), but in all seriousness, it’s becoming increasingly clear that those with a handle on digital tools are those that are wielding the power. Huge foundations are looking for new and innovative projects to fund that will do more with the tools we have online. The question I, again, have as an academic is, “How can I look to bridging the divide between industry and academia and how might I see which tools outside of academia could foster the kind of open-mindedness and growth that is not always a part of academia?”

I’m not a self-loathing academic; I’m continually honored to be a part of a strong, welcoming department and to have access to unparalleled research resources. Further, the undergraduates I teach impress me; they are enthusiastic, motivated, and eager to understand new things. I’m happy to be here. But I also recognize that I have to be careful in my professional development; I have to keep grounded goals in mind for what I actually want to do with my degree. I may not be looking at at a traditional, tenure-track route, but as educator James Gee expressed in one of Saturday’s panels, “Academia as we know it is dead.” According to the United States Department of Education, only 30% of faculty in American universities are tenure track. This is a sharp decline from ~47% tenure track faculty in 1989 and is, indeed, a bleak figure for any of us looking for job security in the academy.

I’m inspired by the ideals of connectivity and open sharing at the heart of communities like that at DML. I hope I can keep this momentum going as I continue to assess my goals and how I want to make an impact.

When I Say Literacy, You Say…

… in all likelihood, a number of different things, all of which might have something to do with “language acquisition,” “the alphabet,” “writing,” or – simply – “words.” I know that prior to my study of digital scholarship, I thought of literacy as primarily relegated to the development of reading and writing skills.

Of course, inquiries into digital literacy complicated my definition. After all, developing digital literacy is not just about developing reading and writing skills.

Allow me a brief digression before returning to the main point of this entry:

If you’re reading this page, you’re aware that you’re not simply looking at words. You’ve also likely paid attention to where the words have been placed on this page, the color of the border I’ve chosen, the font in which my writing appears. As Gunther Kress writes in Literacy in the New Media Age, the logic of your reading experience is shaped spatially. To clarify, in writing (and in speaking, for that matter), our understanding is governed by the logic of time; you have to follow the order of words in a book or in a conversation in order to infer meaning (Kress 1-2). However, on a screen, the logic of words is governed by how they are laid out on the page. You may be reading this paragraph in sequential order (as you would in a book), but you may also be more compelled to scan this page, to skip to a later paragraph to see “what the point” is of this blog post.

You may have jumped to this very line because I’ve isolated in from the larger block of text that I just wrote.

If I wrote this in bullet points:

  • You would likely be inclined to pay greater attention to these points.
  • Bullet points always stand for something important, right?

I’ve manipulated your reading experience by introducing these visual cues, but they are increasingly important, especially as we consider the medium by which we find new information and acquire new knowledge on the web.

Phew, OK, so with all of that said:

What is literacy? What do we talk about when we talk about literacy?

To refer to Kress again, literacy may be defined – very broadly speaking – as the process of “mak[ing] messages using letters as the means of recording that message” (Kress 23). Walter Ong seems to define literacy similarly, assessing literacy as the means by which written communication is disseminated. In his text, Orality and Literacy, Ong does not explicitly define “literacy,” yet his synchronous analysis of oral and literate cultures suggests that oral and literate cultures are inherently dichotomous. Although I have not read the entirety of Orality and Literacy, the first part of the text seems devoted to contrasting oral and literate cultures, assessing the “logics” of the two cultures in similar terms as Kress. For example, Ong also acknowledges the difference in “spatial” logic and “temporal” logic as Kress does.

Like Kress, Ong also acknowledges the power of writing mediums (like books and screens) and asserts that “the electronic age is also an age of ‘secondary orality,’ the orality of telephones, radio, and television, which depends on writing and print for its existence” (Ong 3).

This, of course, begs the question, “If the electronic age is an age of orality, where does writing fit in?” After all, as Naomi Baron writes in Always On, writing conducted online more closely resembles “speech” than it does “formal writing” (28).

If this is true, then to what extent is digital literacy inextricably connected to written practices? Is digital writing simply a transcription of speech?

I cannot help but think about Selber again, who defined three different types of literacies that function synchronously when using the web: functional literacy, critical literacy, and rhetorical literacy. Remaining mindful of these three types of literacy suggests to me that digital writing is not simply a transcription of speech.

Because the visual plays such a strong role in online reading and writing practices, I do not think that words themselves are entirely shaped by “speech” patterns. Rather, online reading and writing practices are inextricably shaped by visual culture. In the future, I imagine that the most effective rhetorical arguments will not require mellifluous prose, but rather a healthy balance of text and image.

This shift is already occurring. I’m reminded of a panel I attended at the AWP (Association of Writers and Writing Programs) Conference in 2010 on digital literary journals. The editors-in-chief of two completely digital journals spoke primarily about their approaches to designing their journals’ web pages. One editor asserted that he wanted the experience of reading his journal to mimic the experience of reading a print journal as much as possible, while the other editor designed her journal’s page to reflect the experience of browsing a social network. The first editor’s journal webpage featured a cream-colored background, few hyperlinks, and a minimalist header and footer with basic information about the journal. The second editor’s journal webpage, however, was filled with links and information: as a browser read through a poem published in the journal, the user would have the option of listening to the poet read his piece, of reading an interview with the poet whose piece was published, and to participate in a forum about the poem itself.

These two dramatically different approaches to reading creative writing online are, to me, exemplary of what it means to develop literacy. I find that literacy, then, is rooted in the communication of written messages. However, I’m inclined to broaden Kress’s definition of literacy to suggest that written messages need not only include words and letters, but images and the placement of images.

I suppose I have come to the conclusion of this entry discussing more about what it means to be digitally literate than to be literate. However, I cannot help but believe that these two terms may, inevitably, become conflated.

On the Beauty of Tables and Visual Aids

I may have failed to mention that I’m enrolled in this fantastic course on Literacy and Technology through the University Writing Program taught by Professor Rebekka Andersen. This course has been a largely motivating factor for starting this blog and, indeed, it has  certainly reignited my enthusiasm for promoting digital literacy and considering the implications of digital literacy on writing and reading practices across the curriculum.

I mention this course now because as I was completing a reading assignment (the first chapter of Stuart Selber‘s Multiliteracies for a Digital Age)  for next week’s class, I felt really stoked upon seeing this chart on page twenty-five.

(And yes, that’s your cue to actually click that link since, unfortunately, I cannot embed the image of the chart here.)

(Oh, and if I could, the image of the chart would absolutely go here.)

That simple chart is perhaps the best representation I can imagine for why I think developing digital literacy at the university level is so important.

Humor me for a moment? I’ll try not to make this too long.

Basically, this chart expresses for me how digital learning is NOT just about plopping a computer into a classroom and expecting students to learn the technical skills. Digital learning is also about helping students to understand what makes writing on a computer different than writing on a sheet of paper and HOW communicating on the web is different than communicating in a classroom, at a cafe, in a meeting, and in any number of other professional and social situations.

As a humanities student, I find myself primarily drawn to developing a greater understanding of the critical and rhetorical literacies that have evolved from the Web. After all, isn’t it fascinating how people’s behaviors change online? Aren’t the tools that we use to communicate on the Web so interestingly defined and distinguished from communication offline?

There’s a part of me that’s inclined to restrict my own education to those two literacies. After all, I’m no computer scientist. Why do I have to develop the functional literacy (i.e. the ability to learn technical skills, like programming and web designing)?

Well, after reading Selber, I feel even more strongly that it would be irresponsible for me to aspire to become an educator and NOT learn this functional literacy (while expecting “my future students” to do so). The times they are a-changing!

Anyway, perhaps the title of this post is misleading, considering I’m not spending too much actually discussing the joy of visual aids, BUT it’s amazing to me that this small change in the prose of Selber’s text managed to convince me of his point so effectively.

My post on Code Year, Lesson 2 should appear this weekend! Keep checking back for updates on that front.