digital rhetoric Higher Education Rhetoric/Composition Teaching

humanistic undergraduate research and/in digital spaces

I am reading two books for my two classes right now. In composition, we are reading Booth, Williams, and Colomb's Craft of Research as we are really getting rolling on our research projects for this semester. In my grad class we are reading Lev Manovich's Language of New Media. It's an unlikely pairing perhaps, which is partly why some fruitful connections might emerge between them.

In his introduction to Manovich's book, Mark Tribe says that "Manovich approaches new media in a way that is both theoretical and practical. This multilevel hybridity–simultaneously post-communist and late-capitalist, at once academic and applied–lends his ideas a richness and complexity that is more than a little unusual in a field dominated on the one hand by techno-utopians and on the other by ivory-tower theory wonks." Booth et al. offer a different view of the researcher, though not as different as one might think: "Most of the important things we do, we do with others. Some students think research is different. They imagine the solitary scholar reading in a hushed library. But no place is more filled with imagined voices than a library or lab." They also note that in this third edition (2008) that they have "revised [their] comments about online research. Rather than warning that all online research should be viewed with caution, we now emphasize the need to distinguish between many reliable sources based in libraries and those other less reliable sources that indiscriminate Web searches turn up." (Hey I resemble that remark.)

Listening to the imagined voices I hear in the conversation between these texts, I am reminded that "humanities scholar" is not a natural condition. Like the management and production techniques of early 20th century industrial America, humanities scholarship represents a serious effort to make effective use of available information and technology: the library, the note card, the pen and notebook, the typewriter, the postal system, the journal, the book, the office, the desk, the chalkboard, the bookshelf, the photocopier, the conference hotel, etc., etc. As Booth et al suggest (if I may take some license), every "solitary scholar" is linked to these objects and their mediations. I am not sure I would use the phrase "imagined voices;" I would instead suggest that this information network is quite real and material.

Tribe suggests that Manovich's network consists of different material from Booth's "solitary scholar," but it is just as real. In the acknowledgements to the book, among other people, places, and things, Manovich lists his particular word processor, web browser, laptop, mobile phone and so on. Tribe's description of Manovich's approach as "hybrid" seems apt not because he is networked where the "ivory tower theory wonks" are not, but rather because his network links beyond the familiar territory or family of objects that define the solitary scholar.

Of course New Media was written more than a decade ago, and nowadays it seems normal (at least to me), that a humanities scholar's network would include web browsers, laptops, and mobile phones, and may even include RSS feeds, twitter streams, google alerts, email lists, and so on. That said, for Williams and Colomb (who create the 3rd edition of Craft of Research after Booth's passing), the Internet clearly remains non-scholarly territory (with the exception of library websites it seems).

Not surprisingly, I take issue with The Craft of Research on this matter (though overall I think it is an excellent text for teaching the rhetorical tasks of research). My composition students' next assignment will ask them to research online conversations regarding the topic they have selected to research (the general area is digital media–surprise, surprise–but their topics include copyright, privacy, multitasking/attention, social media advertising (for cigarettes and military recruitment in particular), and related things). I know there is good research and stimulating conversation about these issues "out there." There's also a lot of lower quality and questionable material. As beginning researchers, perhaps the lesson should be to learn how to identify and ignore the bad stuff. But for more sophisticated researchers, particularly those in the humanities who would proclaim to study cultural practices, all this material is part of the dataset. It's just a question of how one approaches the material.

And isn't it always? Aren't we supposed to read everything critically? But I digress.

The Craft of Research does a good job of reminding students to think about audience, purpose, and genre as they plan and carry out their research. But it is not as successful at describing the material networks (the imagined voices and conversations) in which our students participate. The book creates a fun, fanciful yet instructive set of examples about a "lighter-than-air" scholar who studies 1930s zeppelins and imagines three different audiences: a presentation to a group of zeppelin enthusiasts, advising a movie producer on the accurate portrayal of a zeppelin, and giving a talk to fellow scholars. The examples get across the point of different rhetorical demands. However it might have been more useful to think of examples like maintaining a blog about one's zeppelin research or participating in an online discussion for the zeppelin studies professional organization or making a YouTube video for use in a class. I'm not saying all the examples should have been digital ones. My point is that just that it is precisely in such online spaces that our students are most likely to find audiences for their research (or at least avenues for making their work accessible to audiences). Those spaces are not "hybrid" to them but rather as mundane as the scholar's note cards.

There is a great deal of talk these days about "undergraduate research," about including undergrads in the research that faculty do and supporting undergrads in carrying out their own research. Digital spaces seem a logical avenue for the publication of such work, as logical as journals seemed when PMLA started in the 1880s. If we can connect such digital scholarly composition with students' existing digital composition practices, then we will succeed in making links that are analogous to the ones that might have existed between print research and typewriters and entertainment reading and letter correspondence 80 or 100 years ago.