rhet/comp ink

Smart Mobs reports on a new chip development that will boost Internet access speeds to 640 gb/s. That’s more than 30 times my current download speed through fiber and something like 100 times the typical high speed connection. The article suggests this will be available in about five years and that this speed is roughly equivalent to 17 DVDs per second.

I realize that’s an odd way to start a post that would seem to be about rhetoric and composition, but I’m thinking that maybe it should seem so odd. Five years is a long time for technology and markets but for PhD programs, that’s tomorrow. Students starting in doctoral programs in the fall will be looking for jobs in five years. If we’re going to train new faculty for that reality, we have to start next month.

Of course, this story is just one example of many such stories. We have know for a while (I would hope) of these impending changes. On the other hand, it’s a little bit like the frog in the slowly-heated pot of water who never realizes he’s about to be cooked. We may think we are in "it" right now, that we are already being overwhelmed by technological churn. And perhaps we are. But we are not in "it." That is to say that we are approaching a kind of symmetry-breaking, intensive mutation.

When we talk about branding rhetoric and composition, it’s interesting. It is maybe like rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic. If we are to talk seriously about the future of the discipline it will lie in a near future for which few of us have even the most modest preparation. We comfort ourselves with the thought that colleges and universities are far too incompetent and conservative to change that quickly. It’s like the joke where you don’t need to outrun the bear, just your friends. Well, we can likely outrun our disciplinary "friends." But maybe that won’t be sufficient.

Imagine the interactive, rich media experience I can send to you at 17 DVDs per second. Well not me, but someone. Or more likely a whole production company of someones. These technologies point to a world where course materials will have serious production values as well as extensive real time interactive possibilities. And of course it will be many-to-many where students could upload hours of high-definition raw video footage (as well as other storage-intensive data). Students will be able to collaborate in real time over the web to edit information on a global scale for any number of rhetorical purposes.

And yet, in a few weeks, tens of thousands of FYC instructors will be assigning 500-word, individually-authored, text-only compositions. Those students, btw, will be graduating into this world I’m describing. We have already failed them.

If you really want to brand rhet/comp, it can’t be "ink" any more. We know that. We’ve said it a thousand times. The rhet/comp brand needs to be something completely different from the gulag of FYC resentiment. It can be "we’ll improve your students’ assessment scores by 20%" or whatever. It needs to be a completely different vision. It needs to be a future that people might desire so that we can offer something that people actually want.

And it needs to emerge from our sense of discipline by building on a valuation of ethos, of community, of political/social engagement, as well as our emphasis on rhetoric and the cultivation of a practice of composition. Not just writing now though, of course. No doubt there will be some disciplinary scuffles there over media and information. I say, join the party. You want to teach every incoming student to make a video, take a photograph, design a graphic. construct effective metadata, build a usable interface? Welcome to our world.

The task of preparing students to participate in this emerging information-dense world will not be a one or two course proposition. It will re-write the organizational patterns of the university. It will be somewhat like Howard Rheingold suggested in Smart Mobs: a divide between those who can participate in this new realm and those who do not. Some faculty will participate; others will choose to stay behind. But those who do participate will forge new institutional relations.

I already see this happening on my own campus where faculty committed to these issues come together across disciplinary boundaries, reconstructing CP Snow’s two cultures.

This is where R/C Inc ought to situate itself, as an Ulmer-esque emer-agency, poised to address problems that you can barely recognize and yet are looming.