From Script to Print and Online Technologies:
A Rhetorical Perspective on Communication
What does it mean to be a writer–and to teach writing–in the twenty-first century? Given what many of us have experienced as monumental changes not only in the technologies of literacy but in our cultural, social, economic, and political lives as well, this is indeed a significant question. But perhaps it can be rendered less overwhelming if I break it down into a series of constituent questions.
How can teachers of English fulfill our traditional responsibilities to students and to society while also enabling students to develop new literacies for a technological age?
How can we best understand and engage the new technologies that are changing what it means to be literate in contemporary America? And what should we make of genres that are developing as a result of these technologies, such as blogs and wikis. (Stop to be sure they know what these are.) As anyone with even a passing familiarity with the popular press knows, the Internet and World Wide Web have been hailed by some as a utopian brave new world offering multiple opportunities for communication and learning, while others have characterized cyberspace as a mind-numbing, repressive dystopia that will lead to a loss of individual freedom and to the expansion of capitalist and consumerist ideologies. Do we need to take sides in these debates? Is there any alternative to the utopia/dystopia binary that frames so many discussions of online technologies?
How much hands-on knowledge is needed for teachers and students to make the most productive use of the technologies to which we have access? And what if our university doesn’t have up-to-date hardware and software?
Finally, how can teachers integrate our efforts to help students learn new literacies within the context of other important pedagogical goals, such as increasing students’ sensitivity to multicultural differences and to the power of language, whether communicated via a handwritten, hand-decorated zine, a print essay, or a web log (or blog)?
Technologies of Literacy and Their Implications for Teachers of Writing
Clearly, it would be foolhardy to attempt to provide definitive answers to such questions in the time I have today. But I do hope to present a perspective on the new technologies of literacy that will enable you to not only address questions such as these, but also questions that we’ve hardly begun to imagine (such as the consequences for the teaching of writing of voice-activated word-processing programs). Interestingly, the perspective that I will present today–a rhetorical perspective–originated at a time when the members of a quite different and earlier culture were (as we are today) experiencing a major revolution in the technology of literacy. In this instance, however, the revolution involved the transition from oral to written communication.
I am referring of course to 5th century BC Greece at the time of Plato, Aristotle, Isocrates, and other philosopher-rhetoricians, a time when written communication was still very much a recent development–one that Plato, for instance, viewed with a good deal of suspicion. In the Phaedrus Plato charges that people who learn to write will, in Plato’s terms, “cease to exercise their memory and become forgetful; they will rely on writing to bring things to their remembrance by external signs instead of on their own internal resources. . . .And as for wisdom, [they]. . .will have the reputation for it without the reality: they will receive a quantity of information without proper instruction, and in consequence be thought very knowledgeable when they are for the most part ignorant” (96).[i]
Plato almost sounds like an English teacher bewailing students’ increasing reliance on the Web instead of the traditional print sources of information typically housed in libraries, doesn’t he? Interestingly, at every critical juncture in the development of literate technologies in the west similar concerns have been raised. In the eighteenth century, for instance, the French scholar Diderot, alarmed by the rapid increase in the number of printed books, feared that “the world of learning will drown in books.” At roughly the same time period, “a German treatise on public health warned that excessive reading induced `a susceptibility to colds, headaches, weakening of the eyes, heat rashes, gout, arthritis, asthma, apoplexy,’ and a host of other disorders, including `hypochondria and melancholy.’ Fresh air, frequent walks, and washing one’s face periodically in cold water were prescribed for solitary readers.”[ii]
More recently, in 1956 educator Gerald Thorsen, in a statement strikingly reminiscent of Diderot’s, complained that students at that time were lost “to a world of mass media: tv, radio, motion pictures, newspapers, and comic books.” As a result, he said, “the cultural uses of language have been excluded. We have forgotten about books” (105).[iii]
These comments written at times when the technologies of literacy were in significant ways provide a helpful perspective on contemporary debates about the consequences of online communications. My own view is that extreme positions on either side probably oversimplify what is a complex and deeply situated phenomenon, one that can be used by humans in extraordinarily diverse ways. I don’t mean this stance to imply an anything goes, happy-go-lucky approach to online communication. Rather, I hope to call attention to the diverse uses to which all forms of communication–from speech to print texts to online writing–can be put. After all, the culture of the book has brought us both the great works of literature and Mein Kampf. So I personally do not agree with critics of the Internet such as Gertrude Himmelfarb, who in an article in the Chronicle of Higher Education entitled “A Neo-Luddite Reflects on the Internet” worries that “young people constantly exposed to `multimedia’ and `hypermedia’ replete with sound and images often become unable to concentrate on mere `texts’. . .which have only words and ideas to commend them.”[iv]
This is not to say that shifts from one technology of literacy to another are without impact or consequence. Over the past few years I have given a good deal of thought (and much reading time) to this question, which I might phrase as follows: From script to print and online technologies, what difference does it make to writers how and under what conditions they compose and reproduce their texts? To begin to address this question, consider two messages to parents written by students living away from home. The first was written with a quill pen on parchment in twelfth century France; the second was composed online several years ago in the United States.
Here is the letter written in twelfth century France as translated and reprinted in a scholarly study of medieval rhetoric:
To their very dear and respected parents M. Martre, knight, and Mme. his wife, M. and N., their sons, send greetings and filial obedience. This is to inform you that, by divine mercy, we are living in good health in the city of Orle'ans and are devoting ourselves wholly to study, mindful of the words of Cato, "To know anything is praiseworthy," etc. We occupy a good and comely dwelling, next door but one to the schools and market-place, so that we can go to school every day without wetting our feet. We have also good companions in the house with us, well advanced in their studies and of excellent habits--an advantage which we as well appreciate, for as the Psalmist says, "with an upright man thou wilt show thyself upright," etc. Wherefore lest production cease from lack of material, we beg your paternity to send us by the bearer, B., money for buying parchment, ink, a desk, and the other things we need, in sufficient amount that we may suffer no want on your account (God forbid!) but finish our studies and return home with honor. The bearer will also take charge of the shoes and stockings which you have to send us, and any news as well.
And here’s the email message which the son of a colleague sent to his mother a few years ago:
>Yo mom! Rushed frm class to say thanks so much for the check, which arrived in today's snail mail. Just in time, sure would have been bleak-city :-( without it. I'm still wrestling with that psyc paper–WILL IT NEVER END?!--trying to make myself believe it's important when all I really want to do is get to my engineering project. Oh, yes, and have a minute to relax :-) . IMHO students shouldn't be hit with all these *#@%#*! requirements. Like, heh, aren't we supposed to be adults? Oh well, just 3 weeks to go. Can't wait to be home.
Although these messages share some features--both include greetings to parents, for instance, and both attempt to give them some sense of the students' daily life away from home--they differ in striking ways. The letter written in twelfth century France uses formal diction and sentence structure. The brothers' frequent citation of ancient authorities, like their deferential salutation, reflects the textual conventions of their time, conventions that reflect that culture's veneration of authority. In contrast, the contemporary student's email message is quite informal. It uses shortened spellings (frm instead of from), email jargon (snail mail for print mail), abbreviations (IMHO, for in my humble opinion), and emoticons (symbols such as :-) used to express emotion) to convey the writer's meaning. Its tone is chatty and relaxed--almost as if the writer were speaking to his mother over the phone.
Obviously, some of the differences between these two messages reflect broad cultural shifts that have occurred over the centuries. Today's familial and social structures are much less hierarchical than those of medieval times, and this change has certainly influenced the ways in which modern writers address readers: thus the contemporary student's "yo mom!" But what role might differences in the written medium have played in the evolution of these textual conventions? What significance might such factors as the ease or difficulty, and financial cost, of composing and reproducing texts hold for writers?
Consider the situation of the brothers in Orle'ans. In order to write their parents, they had to purchase parchment and ink--expensive luxuries that the small percentage of the population who could read and write used only for important messages. When they did put pen to paper, medieval writers worked slowly and carefully, fearful of making an error and ruining their materials. Making even a single copy of an important document was time-consuming and costly. Since there was no regular postal service in medieval Europe, letter writers either had to convey letters themselves or pay a courier to do so; conveying a letter from sender to receiver could take as long as several months. The decision to compose and send a letter was thus not made lightly; once received, letters were considered important documents, and were often retained indefinitely.
The student sending the email message is writing, as we know, at a time when reading and writing are common practices. Like many who have access to computers, this student has found email to be a particularly user-friendly means of written communication. Thanks to his school Internet account and the availability of computer labs on his campus, the student pays no fee to use email, as he would with a long-distance phone call. He can email friends or family whenever a lab is open, and he knows that barring a system failure the message will be delivered almost immediately. Best of all, his email correspondents don't seem to expect him to write the kind of formal prose he associates with school assignments and conventional personal letters. After all, once read most messages are deleted immediately. Had I not been in a friend's office when she received this message from her son, his greeting would have vanished with the touch of a finger.
As this example indicates, the medium writers use to communicate their ideas can make a difference in how they approach and experience the act of writing. Because of the high cost of materials, the labor involved with handwriting, and the difficulty of transporting their letter once written, the brothers writing in twelfth century France took the act of writing a letter to their parents very seriously indeed. The nature of the written medium thus reinforced their culture's preference for elaborate and formal written communications. Because so many of our social and textual conventions have changed over the centuries, even if the contemporary student were handwriting a letter to his mother it would surely have been much less formal than that of the brothers. But email's immediacy and ease--as well as the repertoire of abbreviations and symbols that those emailing and instant messaging have developed--encouraged a particularly chatty and informal message.
A Rhetorical Perspective on Online Writing
As I hope this example indicates, the medium writers use to communicate their ideas does, I believe, matter. Over time the development of new communication technologies can and undoubtedly will influence not only the conventions of written English–the development and proliferations of emoticons and the astonishing increase in the number of persons who are hosting blogs are a good example of this–but other aspects of our culture as well. In this sense, new technologies of literacy are indeed agents of change (to evoke Elizabeth Eisenstein’s influential study of the impact of the printing press) in our culture. As a consequence, the more experience teachers have with these technologies, the more we can offer students ways not only of understanding but also of resisting and reshaping them.
This most definitely does not mean, however, that teachers must become techno nerds and Internet and Web wizards to prepare our students for the demands of literacy in the twenty-first century. Nor should we imagine that there is an utterly unbridgeable gap between the demands of print and online literacies, Rather, as teachers and as writers we can and should draw upon the knowledge of communication that we already have as we reflect upon and teach in a world of new technologies. As I have already suggested, insights gained from the rhetorical tradition can play a critical role in that process.
This is the moment to recognize, of course, that the rhetorical tradition is constructed: I would hardly argue that all rhetorical texts and practices–or all moments and movements in the rhetorical tradition–are equally relevant to contemporary concerns. As I noted earlier, however, the theory and practice of rhetoric originated in a time of great change in the technologies of literacy. It adapted to the revolution catalyzed by Gutenberg’s invention of movable type, and to such later mini-revolutions as the development of the telegraph, typewriter, dictation equipment and telephone.
It’s interesting to look at these technologies in their historical context; doing so can certainly provide a few surprises. In “From Pencils to Pixels: The Stages of Literacy Technologies,” Dennis Baron reminds readers that when telephones were first made available people literally could not imagine a use for them (78)! (This seems particularly ironic in our current culture of near-constant cell-phone communication.) If it is easy to underestimate how useless and strange a technology such as the telephone might seem when it first appeared, it’s equally easy to underestimate how revolutionary now-taken-for-granted technologies were. In The Victorian Internet, Tom Standage narrates the fascinating story of the telegraph, which in the nineteenth century,
revolutionized business practice, gave rise to new forms of crime, and inundated its users with a deluge of information. Romances blossomed over the wires. Secret codes were devised by some users and cracked by others. The benefits of the network were relentlessly hyped by its advocates and dismissed by the skeptics. Governments and regulators tried and failed to control the new medium. Attitudes toward everything from news gathering to diplomacy had to be completely rethought. Meanwhile, out on the wires, a technological subculture with its own customs and vocabulary was establishing itself (vii)
As Standage asks, “Does all this sound familiar?”
I hope that this brief historical excursion has provided a helpful context for my discussion today of technology and its implications for writers and teachers of writing. As I mentioned earlier, I believe that both teachers and writers can draw upon the rhetorical tradition as we respond both to new technological innovations and to the genres that emerge from them. In this regard, perhaps the most useful understanding about rhetoric is the concept of rhetorical sensitivity. What do I mean by rhetorical sensitivity? A very down-to-earth example will, I hope, clarify this term’s significance. Imagine that you are preparing to interview for a job. In deciding what to wear, how to act, and what to say during the interview, you will make a number of decisions that reflect your rhetorical sensitivity. Much of your attention will focus on how you can present yourself best, but you will also recognize the importance of being well prepared and of interacting effectively with your interviewers. If you’re smart, you will consider the specific situation for which you are applying. Someone applying for a position in a bank might well dress and act differently than someone applying for a job as a swim coach. Successful applicants know that all that they do—the way they dress, present themselves, respond to questions, and interact with interviewers—is an attempt to communicate their strengths and persuade their audience to employ them.
When you think rhetorically, you consider the ways in which words and images are used to engage—and sometimes to persuade—others. When writers demonstrate rhetorical sensitivity they apply their understanding of human communication in general, and of written texts in particular, to the decisions that will enable effective communication within specific writer-reader situations. Rhetorically sensitive writers, then, are flexible, adaptive writers. Rather than having a one-size-fits-all or formulaic approach to writing—this is an English class, so I guess what I need to do is to write a five paragraph theme—rhetorically sensitive writers think in sophisticated (yet in an important sense also commonsensical) ways about their writing. When they enter new discourse communities or when they want, or are required, to master new stylistic challenges (as our students are regularly asked to do), they draw on previous experiences and ask strategic questions that enable them to adapt to new discursive demands.
Rhetoric involves four key elements: a writer, one or more readers, a test that makes communication between writer and reader possible, and a specific and highly situated context. When individuals are adjusting to new rhetorical situations, they often analyze and adapt to it—at least if they’re productive, successful writers. A number of years ago, for instance, Andrea Lunsford and I interviewed several new engineers in an engineering consulting firm. These engineers were not familiar with the rhetorical tradition, but as they talked about how they were learning to meet their on-the-job writing demands they touched on all the elements of rhetoric. They told us, for instance that they spent a good deal of time reading examples of previous writing done by engineers in their company and talking with colleagues about why various documents were written as they were. These discussions were particularly important, the engineers told us, for they couldn’t just mimic the texts that they read; they had to understand why these texts were written as they were, and for that they needed an insider’s perspective. In meeting their new responsibilities, these engineers drew upon as many sources of information as possible. They drew upon the knowledge of engineering and of engineering writing that they brought with them to the company, read internal and public texts written by those working at this company, asked questions, learned about their company and the general world of consulting engineering, experimented with their own writing, got response to their writing, and talked with and learned from experienced mentors in the company.
That’s a lot of effort, isn’t it? Yet as often happens when people think commonsensically about communication tasks of importance to them, the engineers we interviewed characterized the process of learning and of being mentored as natural and only partly conscious. This is a helpful reminder that a good deal of what scholars and teachers would characterize as rhetorical analysis occurs quite naturally and unselfconsciously when we communicate. This doesn’t mean, of course, that direct instruction doesn’t play an important role in increasing writers’ rhetorical sensitivity. But it does mean that direct instruction should both build upon and enhance students’ common sense understanding of effective communication.
As I make a turn toward the conclusion of my talk today, I’d like to share an example of rhetorical sensitivity in action. This example occurred in a discussion on WCENTER, an email discussion group for those who work at or are interested in writing centers. Several years ago, a writer to WCENTER raised the question of why subscribers sometimes become irritated by “off-task” messages such as jokes, yet respond patiently when a new subscriber–generally a new writing center director–asks for the hundredth time how others keep writing-center records. Such a question might well prompt impatient or even angry responses, given the high volume of email messages that many subscribers to this list receive and the existence of a number of readily available print and online sources that address this and related questions. One subscriber, Carol Haviland, speculated that subscribers’ differing responses had to do in part with the nature of WCENTER’s email forum: “Email is virtually a different kind of text than either speech or book/journal print, but we tend to write it like the former and treat [or read] it like the latter.” Here is the response of another email discussion group subscriber, Sara Kimball, who further developed Carol Haviland’s ideas. (What follows is an extended excerpt from her posting to WCENTER.)
I agree, it’s a medium in between speech and writing, and we sometimes write online like speech but react to it like writing–and this can cause problems. Take, for example, the disputes we’ve occasionally had on this list when some people get a little playful and others get annoyed at “off-topic” threads. Quite a bit of f2f [face-to-face] conversation is . . .[talk] that establishes or maintains human relationships rather than conveying information. . . .Think of how much workplace talk is. . .chit-chat, joking, ritual greetings. For example, I’m currently in the midst of serving a two-year sentence on the English Department’s Executive Committee. Most of the meetings begin with a few minutes of joking around and teasing each other. I’ve known playful speech to work wonders in bringing together people who are otherwise at odds with each other, at least to the point where we can work together. Mostly we’re not aware of . . .[this kind of talk] until it’s gone on for awhile, because it’s ephemeral. I think one of the reasons this list works so well, normally, is that we do establish relationships with each other and with the list. Jokes about Harleys or crawfish and rounds of congratulations on births, promotions, new jobs, etc. are some of the ties that bind. *But*. . . .What might be play if it were speech becomes work if it’s writing, something that might get tiresome to deal with if you’re tired, distracted, or have a low message quota.
Neither Carol Haviland nor Sara Kimball referred to their analysis of online writing in general and exchanges on WCENTER in particular as rhetorical–and yet I would argue that these are fine examples of rhetorical sensitivity in action, sensitivity that enables writers to make appropriate decisions about how best to communicate with others in a specific situation.
How can such a perspective help us to work with student writers who are experiencing, as we are, the dizzying developments of online writing—including, most recently, the astonishing proliferation of blogs? It can remind us, first of all, that we already have a repertoire of rhetorically based questions that we can encourage students to ask themselves when they write, whether on- or off-line. In my textbook Work in Progress: A Guide to Academic Writing and Revising, for instance, I encourage writers to ask themselves a series of questions about their purpose in writing, about their reader or readers, about their texts, and about the contexts that influence these texts. Here are just a few of these questions:
What role does your rhetorical situation invite you to play? Is your role relatively fixed (as it is when you write an essay exam)? Or is it flexible to some or a considerable extent?
What role do you intend for readers to adopt as they read your writing? What kinds of cues will you use to signal this role to readers?
How much freedom and authority do you as a writer have? If you are writing in response to an assignment, for instance, to what degree does the assignment specify or restrict the form and content of your text?
I developed these questions in the early 1980s, when I wrote the first edition of my textbook and was just beginning to learn how to word process texts. (I knew nothing, of course, about the Internet and Web.) Yet I believe that these questions are as relevant for on-line writers as they are for those writing off-line.
Again, this is not to say that the material conditions of online writing don’t matter. For the 4th edition of Work in Progress (which is now, incredibly ehough, in its 6th edition), I wrote an entirely new chapter on online writing, including guidelines for those writing and reading online. These guidelines acknowledge the differences between reading text onscreen or in print. Because of the constraints of reading online, those composing online texts do well to consider such matters as the length and structure of their message, the placement of important points, and the use of headings. But even though online writers need to attend to the constraints of online reading, they should also bring their understanding of rhetoric to that task. If I’m writing an administrative email–to my dean, let’s say, or to a colleague–on a professional or administrative subject, I do try to be as concise as possible, to number items and use headings when I can, to write brief paragraphs and to limit my overall message to a single screen in length. And I do not use shortened spellings, emoticons, or email jargon. This makes sense given my rhetorical situation, which is a professional one where my dean is (needless to say) more empowered than I am. When I’m posting a message to WCENTER, I write quite differently. Those on WCENTER like to think of themselves as forming an online community where status matters little. Readers are as likely to take seriously a posting from an undergraduate tutor as from an authority in the field. Perhaps because those posting to the list are English teachers still very much allied intellectually and emotionally to print communications, emails are often quite lengthy, both in terms of paragraph length and overall length. I can recall very few instances where those posting to the list take the kind of care with subject headings, numbered items, etc. that are often presented as a requirement in online communication. The strongest priority on WCENTER is to developing one’s ideas as fully as possible–and perhaps the next priorities are for demonstrating collegiality and good humor. So my email to WCENTER might be quite lengthy, yet also chatty, and might use abbreviations like IMHO or emoticons. For it’s this kind of email message that is most likely to elicit responses from others on the list–and the desire for response is the reason why I’m taking the trouble to write in the first place.
There’s certainly more that I could say about a rhetorically informed approach to online communication. (If you’re interested, for instance, we could take a look at the excerpt from a student’s Instant Message conversation that appears on the back of your handout. This is an excerpt from 76 pages of IM writing that the student gave me when he collected all of his academic and non-academic writing for a week. I could also share some of what I’ve experienced in my very recent venture into the blogosphere.) But I hope I’ve made it clear that although changes in the technologies of literacy certainly are significant, writers (and teachers of writing) don’t need to (and indeed shouldn’t) turn off the rhetorical understandings that we have achieved through extensive oral and print communications when we turn on our computers.[i]
Plato. Phaedrus and The Seventh and Eighth letters. Walter Hamilton, Trans. New York: Penguin Books, 1973.[ii]
Neil R. Rudenstine. “The Internet and Education: A Close Fit.” The Chronicle of Higher Education, 2/21/97, p. A 48.[iii]
Sharon Crowley. Composition in the University: Historical and Polemical Essays. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1998.[iv]
Gertrude Himmelfarb. “A Neo-Luddite Reflects on the Internet.” The Chronicle of Higher Education, 11/1/96, p. A56.