Thursday, June 30, 2011

Appropriating Language

In his 1985 essay Inventing the University, Donald Bartholomae explores the struggles of students to join a scholarly community, in large part through appropriating the language of that community. Facility with a certain language is, of course, the ticket into most social communities, not just the English Department in your local college. If you want to run with your peeps, then you'd better learn to talk like your peeps and to talk about what they talk about. Language is a key social marker.

As Bartholomae notes, the problem for most first-year college students is that they have to use academic language long before they have mastered it. Indeed, the academy expects entering students to read, talk, and write like academicians before actually joining the academy. This is not an issue of mere correctness in grammar, punctuation, and spelling—though, correctness also counts—rather, it is an issue of relationships among members of an established community and those outside that community. Language is one of the boundaries—though not the only boundary—that separates those inside the community from those outside the community. Most entering college students are definitely outside, and those of us on the inside spend a lot of time talking about how poorly those on the outside talk. The political and power implications should be obvious.

I have no issues with the rhetorical assumptions underlying Bartholomae's essay: that we use language to create social groups such as English Departments, that we use language to determine who is included in or excluded from the group, and that language in large part determines the knowledge of the group. What bothers me just now about Bartholomae's essay is that he never questions the practice of testing students to determine who is worthy of admittance to the club and who is not.

This question, of course, has ethical implications, but it also has practical implications. We assume that students want to be in our group, so we test them and admit only those who measure up. It seems to me, however, that fewer and fewer students want to be in our group, and that is partly why they don't write and speak they way that we do and why they don't take our admissions tests seriously: they don't want to identify with us teachers. At best, they may want to jump through our hoops because they are still convinced that a college degree has some value (though I think this conviction is on the decline), but they don't care a fig for talking like us so that they can join our cocktail parties. Thus, they will pass our tests anyway they can, including cheating. After all, it's just a hoop.

Can they learn to talk and write as we do? Yes, most of them. Millions of college students have learned tweeting and txting, with their intricate and strange grammars, punctuations, and spellings, in a very short time and without formal training. Why? Because they wanted entry into the groups enabled by those languages. Also, they did it because they were free to create a new language to define their new groups with, and they didn't have to answer to us English teachers for it. Damn.

So on the one hand, millions of college students can learn to write in a peculiar way to join their beloved peeps in marvelous conversations about Lady Gaga or about inventing new online currencies; or on the other hand, they can take a demeaning test writing about some inane topic they would never talk about with anyone they respect all in the hopes of gaining entry to a group of people with whom they wouldn't want to be seen in public.

It's a tough call, but I think the votes are in.

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Complexity and Connectivist Rhetoric

So I read Berlin's 1985 book and found the absence of any mention of the Net a glaring hole in the discussion. What if I read something current? As you might expect, I am rewarded … richly rewarded.

I read the first article in the current issue (June, 2011) of College Composition and Communication, an article by Lauren Marshall Bowen entitled Resisting Age Bias in Digital Literacy Research (586-607), in which Bowen explores the age-based bias against older people being regarded as digitally literate. According to Bowen, most scholars and the popular media have decided that when it comes to blogs, wikis, and Twitter, most older people just don't—perhaps can't—get it, certainly not the way young people do. As you might suspect, Bowen says that this bias is a mistake that blinds us to the literacies of older people, and she cites as evidence her case study of the digital literacies of Beverly, born 1927.

Of course, digital literacy is at the heart of Bowen's discussion, so I am in familiar territory; however, her rhetorical framework also appears to me to be informed by complexity and networking, core concepts in a Connectivist rhetoric. She says up front that she values "the Internet as a productive, participatory space, qualities sometimes credited to technologies and practices labeled 'Web 2.0'" (588). Literacy in this participatory space is "embedded within everyday contexts, … distributed across social domains, and … developed and evolved over time" (588). This situated approach to literacy means "examining not only the physiological and cognitive barriers to literacy but also the impact of affective experiences (such as feelings of desire or anxiety) in which literacy practices can thrive or become mired" (589). Finally, this literacy "can only be understood in relation to broader sociohistorical context, including nondigital literacies and technologies," and "we must look to the stories individuals tell about literacy and how those stories are embedded within evolving social, technologica, and cultural histories over time" (590).

Bowen's literacy, then, is not a cognitive skill belonging merely to an individual and measurable merely within that individual—a definition that might be common to traditional education and to both objective and subjective rhetorics—rather, literacy is the dynamic interaction of a unique individual (in this case, Beverly) with a unique ecosystem over the course of a unique lifetime. Literacy is not a thing but a web of connections that Beverly weaves out of her own body, heart, and mind and across her social, economic, intellectual, emotional, physical, and other domains. This is a very complex, rhizomatic view of literacy—a view made obvious by digital technology, though not dependent on digital technology. In this context, rhetoric is the skillful use of language to cultivate those connections among ourselves, our communities, and our ecosystems. That web of connections forms our respective realities, and that web is in part formed by and informed by rhetoric, or our use of language.

I don't see anything here that the 1985 version of James Berlin would disagree with. This rhizomatic, connectivist view of rhetoric would fit quite easily into his general view of transactional rhetoric. The only difference is that Bowen and I have the advantage of two decades use of Web 1.0 and almost a decade of Web 2.0. Berlin v.1985 just didn't have that advantage.

Friday, June 24, 2011

Changes in the Ecosystem

I've finished reading James Berlin's book Rhetoric and Reality: Writing Instruction in American Colleges, 1900-1985, and perhaps the thing that most impresses me about the book is how totally unaware it is of the Internet. Of course, Berlin was writing a decade before the advent of the World Wide Web, the sum total of the Internet for most people, so he could hardly have included the Internet without more prescience than most people possess. I am not making a critique of Berlin; rather, I am noting how informed my own thinking is with all things Internet – so much so that when I read an entire book on rhetoric and find no mention of blogs, wikis, Twitter, or even email, then I am somewhat taken aback. I feel that something is missing.

I was most acutely aware of this lack when Berlin was discussing his preferred flavor of rhetoric: the social-epistemic. Berlin situates social-epistemic rhetoric within the broader framework of transactional rhetoric, which is one of his three broad categories of Twentieth Century rhetoric, the other two being objective and subjective. Briefly, the three are distinguished by how they treat epistemology, or where they place meaning. Objective theories place meaning in the external world of things and objects or things written about, subjective theories place meaning in the inner world of subjects or the writer's own mind, and transactional theories place meaning in the interactions among the subject (writer), the object (the world), and the writer's discourse community. For the objective and subjective rhetorics, then, meaning has a particular place in either the external world or in the internal mind and it has a fixed and unique shape and identity. For the transactional rhetorics, meaning has no particular place or  fixed shape but exists in the dynamic interactions of writer, readers, and world. Berlin says it this way:
Transactional rhetoric is based on an epistemology that sees truth as arising out of the interaction of the elements of the rhetorical situation: an interaction of subject and object or of subject and audience or even of all the elements—subject, object, audience, and language—operating simultaneously. The three major forms of transactional rhetoric in the twentieth-century writing class have been the classical, the cognitive, and the epistemic. (15)
Berlin favors the social-epistemic rhetoric, which he distinguishes from classical and cognitive varieties in two ways:

  1. "Epistemic rhetoric posits a transaction that involves all elements of the rhetorical situation: interlocutor, audience, material reality, and language" (16), and
  2. this transaction always includes language, for "there is never a division between experience and language. … All experiences … are grounded in language, and language determines their content and structure. … Rhetoric thus becomes implicated in all human behavior" (16).
I find an easy fit in Berlin's notions that knowledge is a pattern that emerges from the interactions among an interlocutor, a discourse community, and reality (I do not believe that reality is limited to the material or that language is necessary for knowledge, but more of that later and elsewhere), but I'm bothered by the absence of any firm notion of networks and networking, chaos, uncertainty, ecosystems, complexity, and rhizomatic thinking in general. Of course, Berlin's ideas do not preclude those concepts, but they don't include them either. This suggests to me that much has changed in the twenty-five years since Berlin's book.  Well, then—we have some room to work in.