Higher Education


I’m back at the college’s camp at Raquette Lake on a two-day retreat with faculty and information resources folks. I’ve encountered a somewhat curious re-emergence of the form-content dialectic.

As we all know, rhetoric/composition is oft-characterized as a "contentless" discipline, as a discipline "simply" about teaching students formal practices. I encountered this oddly reframed in the following way, at least as I understand it. On the one hand one might imagine undergraduate education as the preparation of students for the many civic and professional spaces they might occupy, regardless of whether they major in English (or professional writing) or Economics or Biology or Business or even Education where they are preparing to enter a specific field. On the other hand, one can imagine undergraduate education as the start point on a path that leads to a PhD in one’s discipline. One can do this in any discipline. Actually I should say I know one can do the latter in any discipline, as to how many disciplines actually consider the former, the vast majority of undergrads who (thankfully) will not become academics or  researchers who make specific use of disciplinary methods or "content."

This debate then shifts to the spaces of emerging technologies in education. LIke writing, one may seek to view education in emerging technology as a formal enterprise where one acquires technical skills to communicate preformed information.

Yes, the debate is as old as Plato.

Obviously in teaching new media one teaches technical skills. Just as once upon a time everyone learned how to hold a pencil and form letters. However to imagine that teaching writing or new media is about learning these technical skills is to be seriously mistaken. It would be analgous with imagining that teaching chemistry was simply a matter of teaching people who to measure and use a bunsen burner.

To imagine the conversation over teaching students how to communicate with emerging technologies as a conversation about learning formal practices is mistaken. Equally, it would be, in my view, unethical for me to say my undergrads students don’t need to learn how to communicate in a networked media environment b/c it’s more important that they take courses in rhetorical philosophy and composition research methods. In my view it would be unethical for any discipline at a college like our own to make a claim like that since the vast majority of our students will go out there as citizens and professionals to seek to live and thrive in those networks.

Fortunately this isn’t an either/or situation. It’s not either you learn about networked media composition or you learn disciplinary "content." The challenge is how one does both and understanding how one shapes the other. If your a scientist and you imagine that your discipline’s knowledge is not shaped by the material processes of journal publication–from the fact that you write a linear document for print to the fact that the journal has only so many pages in each issue–I’d say you’re not thinking scientifically. By this I don’t mean to claim that scientific knowledge isn’t scientific. This isn’t that kind of argument. My point is simply that as we move into networked media, the way scientists and everyone else will compose and disseminate scientific media will change. Not today certainly, but in the professional careers of your students? No doubt.

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