digital rhetoric

NEMLA presentation on networked composition

On Friday I’ll be presenting at the NorthEast MLA conference in Buffalo, so I guess I ought to plan out what I’m going to say. Our panel on "multimodal composition" is one of two in rhet/comp I think, so I’m not sure what kind of audience we’re going to get. Given the conference is primarily literary studies, I imagine there will not be many with much experience or knowledge of this subject. As such the presentation will need to be introductory.

So here’s the basic point, probably familiar to anyone reading this blog: the emergence of networks (mobile, cross-media, wireless, social, etc.) reshapes the compositional and informational relationships among faculty and students. It’s essentially pointless to attempt to reassert the previous relationships, which themselves were equally contingent upon technological contexts. Our concern then is to understand better emerging contexts and articulate practices that help to shape those contexts for our educational purposes.

Yes that’s pretty general, and, no I don’t plan to accomplish all that in a 20 minute presentation. So what will I do?

First I’ll probably start with a few familiar statistics about media networks: usage of popular sites, growth of mobile phones, growing importance in the workplace. I tend to think that everyone has heard these stats before. I’m not going to dwell on them.

Second is to talk about how these media networks alter educational contexts. Typically we imagine teaching, learning, and composing as relatively private matters. There is the privacy between teacher and student, emblematized by FERPA. There’s the relative privacy of the classroom, especially the writing classroom where we value the construction of community. There’s the relative privacy of composition, where we imagine composition as a primarily internal cognitive process supported only by a few, documented supports from "outside." Most importantly, there’s the ultimately solitary work of the student who is evaluated as an individual.

All of this is reinforced by the institutional and material culture of the traditional university.

  • faculty in their private offices
  • separate classrooms with closed doors
  • academic freedom
  • the sequestered experience of "four years" in a college away from business, family, and so on
  • the segmented nature of semesters and curriculum
  • the segmentation of disciplines and specialization

I’m not saying these are necessarily bad things. I’m just saying they no longer exist as they once did b/c they relied on an inaccessibility/scarcity of information and the difficulty of forming and maintaining groups: two things media networks obviously do very well.

Third, so what do classrooms look like now? Well they may look much the same, with a few more "smart" classrooms, but they are now interpenetrated by networks. There is no more "inside" to the classroom. Your classroom activities could be recorded and published to the web before you make it back to your office. Once you were the primary expert on nearly any subject in your classroom, especially in your discipline. Now you are potentially one of many. In this way all pedagogy becomes networked and public.

Fourth, what does this imply for composition? We ought to know that composition is always already networked. Perhaps I’ll make some gesture to "theory" here. We ought to know that the "author" has always been a matter of convenience, a necessity for marketplace purposes… which is not to say that the author does put labor into hir work; instead it’s just that our description of the authorial process is misleading.

That said, media networks clearly intensify the distributed nature of composition by creating more connections to other media and easing the challenges of collective work (e.g. wikipedia). We need to recognize that the material-technological-networked contexts under which our notions of authorship and composition formed were no less historically-contingent and no more "natural" than the emerging contexts in which we are now working.

So what does all that mean for the average NEMLA member on the street? Well I guess that’s a question better asked of the audience than of me. However, there is an obvious point. We continue to look at mobile phones and the web as threats. Students text in the classroom and use phones to cheat. The web is a site of plagiarism and unreliable information. Social networks are places where students expose themselves in dangerous ways and where faculty get misrepresented on ratemyprofessor and so on. We fail to see the underlying current here: students use these technologies to produce, share, and find information in concert with other students in a variety of groups.

We need to incorporate this behavior into our understanding of how knowledge is composed and disseminated within our curriculum.

So anyway, like I said, fairly introductory but hopefully of interest to those brave few in the audience on Friday.

3 replies on “NEMLA presentation on networked composition”

Oh, Alex, I was just pondering this last night, and thinking of sending my late night meanderings to TechRhet, this morning. It’s odd, really. I think of CW/TechRhet as no longer a part of Writing Studies, but as at the very heart and soul of the thing, and clearly this is the same attitude I bring to all disciplines, now: of course technology is a key concern, of course we should be both examining and using it, of course it’s hear to stay, of course, of course.
But, lo these many years later, the resistance I kept thinking was always on point of dissipating is still there. There are still teachers who suspect that the tech is not only dangerous (don’t go online, or you’ll be stalked, that sort of thing) but counterproductive. And I’m sure these fears do largely go to loss of control and loss of authority, but I get impatient! How can folks *still* be there?
In my better moments, I do understand that many folks are still beginning–only just now waking up to the fact of technology, and their need to contend with it in serious and significant fashion, but I do get tired of *always* having to go there.
A business colleague recently emailed me with this stunning realization: this tech seems to be here to stay, and it seems to be changing things.
I didn’t know whether to cheer (finally, he’s getting it) or to cry (he really just doesn’t get it at all, and is only just this very moment experiencing the merest glimmerings of what has seemed obvious to me *forever.*)
Ah. That’s tech. I’m always too far ahead of a big group of folks, and too far behind another.


Have you caught this month’s Wired article on Apple? One thing the writer says is that Apple’s way of doing business (closed doors, micromanagement, high level of secrecy), because they have been able to produce such high quality products, has marked the future business model for the internet. (Yeah, I know, Wired’s always talking about “what’s next”); but it gets me rethinking emergence theory a little.
And Alex, a hearty congrats on your award. I haven’t read the book yet, but it’s coming. I’m looking forward to a great read.


Saw your TechRhet post Kafkaz. I totally sympathize. The NEMLA thing went pretty well. A decent and mostly sympathetic audience. A lot of questions about how this works in the classroom etc. It’s funny how rhet/comp panels tend to get the pedagogical application and the assessment questions (e.g. can you measure how this improves student writing?)–all of this from humanists who otherwise hate the notion of assessment, especially quantitative assessment.
Robert, thanks for the tip on Wired. I’m going to check that out. Let me know what you think of the book.


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