What is digital rhetoric, and what does it mean to teach digital rhetoric? In this webtext, we synthesize and share converging and contrasting perspectives on ways of knowing and doing in digital rhetoric pedagogy among 25 teacher–scholars, each of whom sat down with us for video-recorded interviews in spring 2015. Through this synthesis, we have two related purposes. First, we provide a rough sketch of the state of digital rhetoric pedagogy as it is understood and practiced in the middle of the second decade of the 21st century and as it is told by a range of voices, including leading voices, in the subfield of digital rhetoric. Second, we identify and highlight areas of productive tension among interviewees’ responses, particularly in terms of how those tensions instructively map multiple approaches to teaching digital rhetoric rather than cancel one another out. With these two purposes, we hope both to inform an audience of newcomers to digital rhetoric—including graduate students as well as experienced writing studies professionals for whom digital rhetoric pedagogy is unfamiliar terrain—and to prompt discussion among more seasoned scholars about how we understand, describe, and practice digital rhetoric as a pedagogical venture.
Toward that end, we propose a three-axis frame for understanding the tensions within digital rhetoric pedagogy, with each axis providing a continuum that represents the following areas of tension that we observe as emerging from among the interviewees’ responses (see Figure 1):
- Continuation ←→ Rupture
- Theory ←→ Practice
- Text ←→ Network
Through the four videos and accompanying write-ups located within the subsequent pages of this webtext, we show how the course outcomes, readings, assignments, and assessment practices that the interviewees identify and articulate can be charted along and among the dimensions of the above axes. In other words, these three axes form a framework for theorizing and practicing digital rhetoric pedagogy—and thus a framework for situating our own praxis. We hope that this framework will provide other teachers in and of digital rhetoric with heuristics for developing, assessing, and revising pedagogical approaches and materials:
- Continuation ←→ Rupture To what degree does this pedagogy position digital rhetoric as a continuation of traditional ways of knowing and doing, and to what degree does it acknowledge digital rhetoric as a rupture brought about by new and unprecedented technologies and forms of communication?
- Theory ←→ Practice To what degree does this pedagogy emphasize the theoretical and analytical side of digital rhetoric, and to what degree does it emphasize the practical side that is focused on and keyed to production and play?
- Text ←→ Network To what degree does this pedagogy privilege analysis and/or production of the text or the individual, and to what degree does it attend to the ways in which those texts and/or individuals operate within networks and communities?
These dimensional and intersectional areas of tension are more thoroughly defined and fleshed out in the succeeding pages of this webtext. For the remainder of this page, however, we offer more background for the project in terms of both its exigence and the scholarly conversation to which it aims to contribute.
Ways of Knowing and Doing in Digital Rhetoric—Project Overview
Put simply, this particular project stems from a general difficulty in defining—for ourselves, for colleagues, and for students—what digital rhetoric is and does. In fall 2014, with prompting from the CFP for the Indiana Digital Rhetoric Symposium (IDRS), we wondered together: How do we define digital rhetoric? How is it different, if indeed it is, from digital humanities and other kinds of rhetoric? And what makes one a digital rhetorician? These questions are, of course, entirely too broad to be useful as research questions, so we began to brainstorm the kinds of things we would need to know in order to answer them. In doing so, we generated 10 questions about scholarship, methods, and teaching, the answers for which we thought would be robust enough to hold some potential for describing the emerging subfield of digital rhetoric. We then posed those questions to scholars and teachers working in digital rhetoric who were among the presenters at IDRS, held in spring 2015 in Bloomington, IN. For this webtext, we narrow our focus to the four questions on pedagogy and develop the framework described above. Those four questions, as seen in the sections of this webtext, are as follows:
- What are the outcomes for teaching with/in digital rhetoric, and how do you achieve those outcomes?
- If you had to pick one reading or scholar to assign your students in digital rhetoric, what would it be and why?
- What is your favorite assignment in digital rhetoric and why?
- How (if at all) do you assess digital rhetoric in the classroom?
Our initial observations from this project were published in the special issue of enculturation devoted to the IDRS proceedings (Davis, McElroy, & Lee, 2016). We framed these initial findings as both a primer and a teaser for our larger project, and here, we invite readers, viewers, and listeners to experience the audio-visual interviews, the written transcripts, and our scholarly commentary simultaneously. To that end, we have designed what we hope will be an intuitive, accessible interface, one that will help those interested to create new connections across the four pedagogical foci and to engage with our three-axis framework.
But first, some background.
The occasion for our project—for actually having viable answers to our questions, as described above—was the IDRS, which was held in spring 2015 at Indiana University. As we detailed previously in enculturation:
the purpose of the symposium, according to its website, was “to foster conversations at the intersections of rhetoric, media, and technology” by “(1) explor[ing] Perspectives and Definitions of Digital Rhetoric and (2) articulat[ing] the ways in which digital rhetoric connects to, yet is distinct from, digital humanities” (link). As a practical matter, the Symposium offered an opportunity for key figures in the field to interact and dialogue with one another in a moment where the subfield of Digital Rhetoric appeared to be crystallizing: through research and scholarship, through our field’s hiring practices, and through curriculum and pedagogy. (Davis, McElroy, & Lee, 2016)
Given the occasion and the nexus of perspectives potentially available from the 32 scheduled presenters, the IDRS provided an ideal moment to inquire into the ways in which digital rhetoric is conceived, discussed, and practiced across the subfield. Over the course of the three-day symposium, we sought to explore ways of knowing and doing in digital rhetoric by documenting our colleagues’ perspectives in response to our 10 questions. Ultimately, we conducted interviews with 25 different scholars and video-recorded their responses. In the rest of this introduction, we connect our overall project to some of the scholarship in the subfield.
As Douglas Eyman (2015) noted in the “Introduction” to Digital Rhetoric: Theory, Method, Practice, “more than one academic discipline and intellectual tradition can make claims to being the ‘home’ of digital rhetoric” (p. 1). For us, that home is rhetoric and composition. Our mutual interests in rhetoric, digital culture, and pedagogy stem both from broad, recent movements within the humanities to articulate itself in a digitizing world (e.g., Gold, 2012; Gold & Klein, 2016) and from the older and narrower disciplinary history within communities like computers & writing (a history that Eyman deftly overviewed in his “Introduction”). More specifically, this project’s inception takes place against the backdrop of two coinciding moments: one in which the subfield of digital rhetoric is beginning to take shape with and against composition, literature, and the humanities, and a second in which an interest in how digital technology inflects pedagogy continues to be an increasingly dominant theme across the humanities generally.
As evidence of the first moment, we point to Eyman’s proposal for and review of definitions of digital rhetoric in his “Introduction,” in which he stated that digital rhetoric is “the application of rhetorical theory (as analytic method or heuristic for production) to digital texts and performances” (p. 13). Working from this definition, he builds on James Zappan’s (2005) list of “primary activities” in which the field engages. For Zappan, those include:
- use of rhetorical strategies in production and analysis of digital text;
- identification of characteristics, affordances, and constraints of new media;
- formation of digital identities; and
- potential for building social communities (p. 319).
To these, Eyman thus adds:
- “inquiry and development of rhetorics of technology;
- the use of rhetorical methods for uncovering and interrogating ideologies and cultural formation in digital work;
- an examination of the rhetorical function of networks; and
- theorization of agency when interlocutors are as likely to be software agents (or ‘spimes’) as they are human actors” (p. 44).
In reviewing Elizabeth Losh’s (2009) four-part definition of digital rhetoric from Virtualpolitik, Eyman also argued that digital rhetoric is “closely connected” with other fields, including digital literacy, visual rhetoric, new media, human–computer interaction, and critical code studies. He then describes his sense of the relationship between digital rhetoric and the digital humanities (DH), the latter of which he said is
currently used as a kind of catch-all description for a very broad range of approaches and methods that involve use of digital technologies (from geographical information systems, to 3-D modeling and simulation, to large-scale text mining and data visualization) to study humanities subjects (including history, art history, literature, and archaeology). (pp. 58–59)
Digital rhetoric, on the other hand, has a more well-defined set of definitions, methods, and practices and a coherent disciplinary history, which he noted in our primer video in enculturation linked above. He also cited a lack of NEH funding for digital rhetoric projects, suggesting that the trends of interest in DH have been primarily concerned with traditional forms of cultural heritage materials such as books, newspapers, film, and so on, to the exclusion of born-digital artifacts. It is here, Eyman argued, that digital rhetoric is well positioned to participate in and contribute to the digital humanities, and he suggests that such a turn is imminent.
What is important for our inquiry is that, among the available definitions for digital rhetoric and among the listed disciplinary connections, there are few mentions of pedagogy. From this perspective, one might assume that the teaching of digital rhetoric is not, itself, integral to (defining) the subfield of digital rhetoric. Or, one might assume that using the term “digital rhetoric” itself somehow obfuscates attention to teaching in ways that, say, “digital literacy” does not. (After all, each of the authors listed above is also a teacher.) From another perspective, however, attention to digital rhetorical pedagogy predates all of these definitions: the first issue of Kairos, for instance, was published in 1996, three years before Kathleen Welch’s (1999) groundbreaking Electric Rhetoric.
Within the wider orbit of the humanities, attention to pedagogy in digital environments has lagged behind the subfield of digital rhetoric. Though perhaps still the “catch all” that Eyman described, digital humanities has nonetheless given increasing attention to the pedagogical implications of engaging humanistic inquiry online. In particular, the Debates in the Digital Humanities (Gold, 2012; Gold & Klein, 2016) books series and MLA’s Digital Pedagogy in the Humanities (Davis, Gold, Harris, & Sayers, 2016) project have begun to lay the foundations for fruitful and rigorous connections between teaching and new directions in humanities research.
Debates in the Digital Humanities included a full section—including four chapters and four blog posts—on “Teaching the Digital Humanities.” Most of these contributions contextualized the rise of DH during the perceived decline of humanities teaching in higher education more generally (Waltzer, 2012), explored the effects of DH on graduate education (Reid, 2012), or offered perspective on the differential manifestations of DH in different institutional contexts (Alexander & Davis, 2012). But, as Stephen Brier (2012) noted, though “pedagogy is not totally ignored by DH’s growing cadre of practitioners […] teaching and learning are something of an afterthought for many DHers” (pp. 390–391). This observation seems to be borne out in the same volume, where nearly 400 pages are devoted to disciplinarity and research methods and only one chapter and a few short blog posts are devoted to teaching.
Similarly, the follow-up collection Debates in the Digital Humanities (Gold & Klein, 2016) devoted only two chapters to pedagogy: one on teaching “small digital humanities” to connect classroom contexts to digital political advocacy (Earhart & Taylor, 2016), and a second, wryly titled “How Not to Teach the Digital Humanities” (Cordell, 2016). In some ways, Ryan Cordell’s short piece outlined as thorough a sense of DH pedagogy as we have found: by identifying a disjunct between the concerns of DH practitioners, who prefer “meta-discussions about the field,” and the dispositions of students “who do not care about DH qua DH,” Cordell was able to create a space for the beginnings of a digital humanistic pedagogy. This pedagogy urges students to take up “substantive investigations of specific projects, thinkers, methods, books, or articles” and outlines four strategies for such investigations: one, start small; two, attend to both the present state and the history of technology; three, scaffold everything; and four, consider local context. Moreover, books that identify explicit, mutually informative links between rhetoric and DH, such as Jim Ridolfo and Bill Hart-Davidson’s (2015) award-winning Rhetoric and the Digital Humanities, focus largely on outlining theory, methodologies, and methods that forge interdisciplinary research connections and forecast future trends in scholarship and publication. Except for one chapter geared towards curriculum, there is little discussion of pedagogy.
This partial review is, perhaps, an unfair shake for digital humanities—which has needed to spend much of its early energy in self-definition, interdisciplinary exploration, and methodological and epistemological justification—and for those two volumes in particular, as DH has attended somewhat more to pedagogy in other venues. For instance, the Journal of Interactive Technology & Pedagogy, launched in 2012, has eleven issues that address teaching humanities with technology from disciplinary, institutional, and classroom perspectives (in addition to subsections that include teaching materials and useful anecdotes). Similarly, the Humanities, Arts, Science and Technology Alliance and Collaboratory (HASTAC) meetings and initiatives have formed broad social networks for practitioners at the intersection of teaching and technology. Finally, and perhaps most closely related with the disciplinary concerns of the volumes mentioned above, is the MLA Commons’ Digital Pedagogy in the Humanities: Concepts, Models, and Experiments (Davis et al., 2016) project, which described itself as “a curated collection of downloadable, reusable, and remixable pedagogical artifacts” (Description). Taking as its rationale the fact that “scholarly examples of digital pedagogy remain limited,” the project presented a keyword glossary of 60 terms, wherein each term was explored through a “curatorial statement” and a set of curated pedagogical artifacts (Description). The overall effect of the project, for us, is the feeling of encountering a massive, rich digital archive, wonderfully exhibited and pedagogically exhilarating, the components of which are difficult to synthesize into pedagogy.
This may be a lack of imagination on our parts, but the inability to identify digital rhetorical pedagogy harkens back to 2005, when Zappan noted that “Digital rhetoric is thus an amalgam of more-or-less discrete components rather than a complete and integrated theory in its own right” (p. 323). We find that, at the current moment, the same could be said about digital pedagogies in the humanities and about digital rhetorical pedagogy in particular. And so here we hope to take forward the best impulses of the works above—that there is much disciplinary work to do and, within it, also a need for “scholarly examples of digital pedagogy.” We also hope to build on the insightful work we have reviewed both in the subfield of digital rhetoric and in fields adjacent to it and to follow in the footsteps of Kairos, Digital Pedagogy in the Humanities, and the Journal of Interactive Technology & Pedagogy. And lastly, we hope to carry Zappan’s (2005) question another step forward: In the second decade of the 21st Century, is digital rhetoric pedagogy an amalgam of discrete components or is it a complete and integrated praxis in its own right? If it is integrated, as we are here theorizing, can we develop a consistent and satisfactory framework that would account for its dimensions?
This is what our framework attempts to do: It opens up a space for thinking about teaching digital rhetoric in ways that
- acknowledge that our rhetorical traditions must be carried forward but expressed anew;
- accommodate theoretical and analytical perspectives that inform and are informed by processes of production; and
- recognize that rhetorical impact of texts are a function of the networks with/in which they operate.
Finally, we would be remiss if we did not mention other multimodal projects in rhetoric and composition that use audio and video to incorporate multiple voices and perspectives on the same topic, question, or set of questions. Among them, Todd Taylor’s (2007) Take 20 and Claire Lauer’s (2012) “What’s in a Name?” served as both inspiration and method. Take 20 is a film project that seeks to capture thinking about the teaching of writing in U.S. higher education by interviewing writing teachers and researchers about their formative experiences and classroom practices; the documentary was influential in our formation as academics and informed the creation of our questions here. Similarly, Lauer’s “What’s In a Name” reflects the field’s multiperspectival and at times conflicting thinking around the terms multimodality, multimedia, and new media through audio interviews, commentary, and accessible design. We hope that this text attends to digital rhetoric with as much complexity and nuance as “What’s In a Name?” did with multimodality and other related terms.