digital rhetoric Higher Education

the usual waffle on the plight of English Studies (holiday edition)

Many of the challenges we face in English at UB are not unique. In particular we share them with other public research university English departments who need to think about phd programs. The academic job market is awful, which raises all manner of questions about doctoral education. The STEM and business orientation of our undergrads has meant weak/declining enrollments on that end, both in terms of majors and simple numbers of students in seats. In-between, we have an MA program that serves the traditional function of preparing students to enter phd programs: a mission that makes even less sense in this climate than enrolling phd students.

Each of these has been a known problem for more than a decade. We had a national overproduction of phds before the recession dropped the floor out of the job market, cutting the number of tenure-track positions by two-thirds. Concerns about undergrad education go back farther than that. While much of the focus is on doctoral education, for me you have to start at the undergrad level.

This is my sense of undergraduate attitudes toward English. Yes, they are concerned an English degree won’t lead anywhere career-wise. However, statistically that’s not true, and many such potential English students are in majors like psychology or communications that don’t lead anywhere in particular either. More importantly, many students don’t know what they want to do anyway (not that there’s anything wrong with that). A more likely reason for not choosing English is not seeing the relevance of the coursework. Fair enough, I guess. Maybe communications or psychology are more scientific and/or focused on contemporary concerns. However, I’m willing to bet that there’s plenty of grumbling among students in those majors about why they’re being asked to learn X or Y.  I think the primary problem English has is that students have an antipathy for the general activity of English classes: reading books, talking about them, and then writing essays. Yes, there is a small group of students who highly value these activities. The emphasis there is on small. As such, fewer students are interested in taking even a single English class as an elective or to meet a Gen Ed req.

To rebuild these enrollments we need to communicate the relevance of our curriculum to students, and we need to shift the activity, the experience, of the classroom.

If we can rebuild enrollments, then the job market should stabilize. While we are doing this, we also need to revise the size and curriculum of doctoral programs so that we’re graduating an appropriate number of phds and preparing them to work in these shifting conditions. We also need to rethink MA programs so that they are valuable on their own. They will need to be more professionally oriented and not only on the profession of English professor.

These are things I’ve said before. And out of professional respect, I’ve basically always left it by saying that literary scholars need to figure out how to put their expertise to work in this context. But I’ll take it a little farther today. Here is the basic relevance of literary studies as I see it.

  1. It provides an understanding of cultural differences in communication.
  2. It develops skills of rhetorical and poetic analysis (i.e., reading skills).
  3. It offers historical contexts for communication practices.

The first part of this is moving beyond the strictly “literary.” Fortunately that is something we already see, though less at the undergrad level than elsewhere. The first thoughts students have about English cannot be that it’s about literature or literary history. Until we change that, we’re screwed. Courses with a primarily historical orientation, including histories of rhetoric, should probably comprise no more than 20% of the curriculum. Notice I said primarily. Generally speaking any course whose primary focus was some explicit contemporary concern or practice might benefit from some historical context.

That proposal might be felt as a horrible wound by many literary scholars. However, I don’t think I would be asking anything more of them than I do of myself or my own field. In such a curriculum, what I would do, what I really already do, is primarily teach students how to communicate in a digital media ecology. That’s related to my research, but it’s an adaption of my research to serve student interests and needs. If I were teaching courses analogous to what literary scholars typically do, I would be teaching digital-rhetorical theory and examining the shift in rhetorical practices over the last 50 years or so. That would be like the survey course. I would teach a 400-level course that focused on Web 1.0 in 1990s: the rhetorical practices of frames, image maps, and early hyper-linking or the emergence of desktop publishing. I could teach similar courses focused on the rhetorical history of social media in the 2000s or mobile media since the iPhone or video games in any of the last 5 decades, etc. etc. Those courses might even enroll better than some conventional advanced literature courses focused on a single author, a literary movement, or an area of critical theory. But really what would be the point? The real question for me is how to use my disciplinary expertise to benefit students. So maybe some history of how PowerPoint developed would be helpful for students trying to understand why it operates as it does, has particular limits, and tends to push users toward questionable rhetorical practices at times, but the relevant point is that they are learning how to communicate using slides. So it makes much more sense to create a course on visual communication practices than one on the theory of visual rhetoric, the history of PowerPoint, or, god forbid, a new materialist rhetorical analysis of how digital machines participate in the construction of thought and agency.

To be clear, that last one is where my research lies, and I don’t imagine I’ll ever teach such a course, even at the doctoral level. I can’t imagine UB ever having enough scaffolding in rhetoric and media theory for students to have the preparation where a course like that really makes sense. Oh, I point to such things all the time, offer thumbnail explanations of it, and so on in a grad class—because I have to give students some context for where I’m coming from and they certainly know enough to know such things are out there. And I am totally fine with that reality. I don’t need to teach that course. One benefit is that I never have to think about the student who has trained in my field and whose dissertation I’ve chaired trying to get a job somewhere as a digital rhetorician. Instead, I teach more introductory courses in media theory and courses in pedagogy. Soon I’ll be teaching some grad level professional-technical communication courses, but those won’t be aimed at phd students trying to get academic gigs in those fields. They’ll be focused on using disciplinary knowledge to help students develop communication skills for other career aspirations.

Again, I’m really only suggesting that literary scholars will need to think about the relationship between their scholarship and the curriculum in a way that is analogous to what I’ve always done, what I think many rhetoricians have long done.

Maybe if we had an undergrad program where students could clearly see how they would become better communicators and better prepared in a broad sense for a swath of careers that would help. More importantly, if the activities of those courses were clearly focused on doing and making and interacting with the world, with creating things that had the potential to be valuable, then maybe students would want to do them.

Then again, maybe not. But it’s the best shot we’ve got as far as I can see. Oh, and happy holidays.

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