Silence and Power

To anyone who studies rhetoric, the power of silence and silencing is not a new subject.  Cheryl Glen has published extensively on the subject, and her book Unspoken: A Rhetoric of Silence provides a comprehensive approach.

Nevertheless, I’ve been thinking about silence as power a lot lately.  This comes from a few events, most notably the recent debate between HRC and Trump. It also comes from a discussion I had with my professional writing class about gendered communication in the workplace.  And, an email I received from one of my collaborators on a book project.

Let’s start with the easiest target – the debate. In all fairness, I should admit that I will not vote for Trump. However, I don’t think many experts in politics, public speaking, or rhetoric would dispute that Hilary did a better job. She was more professional and more on target. On the other hand, Trump interrupted Hilary 51 times. Instead, Hilary just looked at the camera and waited her turn.


In response, one woman (E.Van Every) on Twitter posted: “To the men amazed Clinton hasn’t snapped: Every woman you know has learned to do this. This is our life in society. #debatenight” And she’s right.  Women are used to being interrupted, talked over, and silenced by their male counterparts. And at the same time, can any of us deny that by being silent, Hilary won the debate?  By smiling and listening, Hilary looked more presidential.

Maybe we need to address the difference between being silenced and using silence. In the workplace, women are routinely silenced in meetings by their male counterparts.  Even in academic settings, I’ve seen male professors take over panels, dominate Q&A, and monopolize friendly discussions at bars. Even in a the progressive space of Obama’s administration, women were silenced. Obama’s women staffers created a strategy they called “amplification” in which women would repeat the points of women speakers. Being silenced isn’t powerful.

Photo: Washington Post

And yet, a recent email exchange with one of my collaborators for a book project demonstrates how powerful silence can be. She emailed us about an upcoming deadline, but none of us responded immediately. A day later, she emailed and asked, “Ok y’all, I’m starting to feel weird about this. Did you make a decision that I don’t know about?” It turns out we were all just really busy and hoped someone else would answer.  As a result, our silence made her fear the worst.  Our silence had power.

Reflections on Computers and Writing 2015

I just spent four days in Menomonie, WI at the 2015 Computers & Writing Conference. As I do with every academic conference, I dread going but I always have a better time than I expect. In fact, I think the longer I’m in this discipline, the better they get. Now, I have friends who go, acquaintances who I’ve met over beers, and scholars who have work that I admire. I still find it surreal to sit across from someone who I cited in my dissertation or someone who has essays and books that I share with my students.

I walked away energized to revise an article with my co-author, ready to revise an article of my own for a new venue, and tons of ideas for my classroom. I think I will start using Twitter and create hash tags for my classes. I think I want to find more ways for my students to compose in different arenas. Moreover, I talked about my new online courses and got amazing feedback on how to make that work better. It was invigorating and informative … it’s why I go to conferences.

At the same time, I found myself looking for more. Sometimes, things seemed cool for Fonzthe sake of being cool. Other times, the focus on making/coding rather than analyzing or teaching alienated me. Or, when analysis occurred, it seemed largely divorced from the kind of work I do. Except for Danielle Nicole DeVoss’s panel on the canon, I had a hard time connecting to the material.

So, where do I belong? The collaborative nature of C&W appeals to me, but I’m not sure it’s my home. The more I teach, the more I realize my interests are on how classrooms work and how we run writing programs … I think I’m becoming a WPA.

At the same time, I want to learn more about the avant-garde ways we can teach writing. I want to be the kind of administrator who supports faculty when they use Twitter in class or have their students make things. Maybe these are my people?

Breaking Students

Final projects are due today. I sit in my office as students drop by their final drafts. Many sit for a few minutes and reflect on their semester, worry about the next exam, or just complain. However, I am not getting this final closure from my favorite group of students this semester – those taking my Digital Rhetoric class. Why? Because they are submitting everything through their blog spaces. Instead of awkward hugs and friendly discussions of summer plans, I will steal into their blogs and grade.

This semester taught me a lot about how students write and how I teach. Here are some observations:

Students Procrastinate
When I designed this class, I thought the students would appreciate having flexible deadlines and writing at their own pace. I was wrong. I gave them a word count target for each week and routinely encouraged them to write. In fact, I gave them an hour a week in a computer lab just to work on their blogs and get support. I provided periodical ungraded feedback about their blogs. Nevertheless, most of them are frantically writing and posting on the day on which everything is due.

Students Have Been Disciplined
Through years of taking traditional classes either in high school or university, students bird songare uncomfortable when asked to write in non-traditional modes. As Foucault might suggest, the institutions conditioned/disciplined students to write academic research papers… and like it.  The students who excel in English struggle because they’ve learned how to game the system. The blog asks them to write in a unfamiliar form with their own voice to a public audience. I asked them to incorporate multimedia, use hyperlinks, and “be bloggy.”  They seemed to struggle because I did not provide enough rules or boundaries. They wanted more due dates, confines on their content, and traditional writing rules.

I see the same issue in my Business Writing students. Their end of the semester project is a business report. Many of them struggle all semester because they keep trying to produce traditional academic writing. A number of students kept asking about citation styles, the number of pages, and incorporating graphics. They couldn’t wrap their minds around using a chart of graphic as evidence – just like a quotation.  Many said, “I’ve never written this way before,” and they were scared.

Oral Presentations Have Pedagogical Value
While learning how to speak in public is an essential skill for most professions, the oral presentation has other pedagogical value. I mean, I knew this going into the semester, but it’s great to see it borne out by student feedback. Students said they learned what was important by trying to distill their project down to a short presentation. A number of students reported that the oral presentation helped them figure out the point of their projects. Other students said the presentation made them rethink their organization and use of graphics as evidence.  In other words, the presentation made them think critically about how they construct an argument in a way that the written draft could not.

Process over Product
I have always asserted that the final product is important in writing. And while this may be true, that doesn’t mean that writing should be taught that way. Instead, I tend to break projects down into pieces, have staggered due dates, and require drafts. A number of my students said they hated me two or three weeks ago when I asked for full drafts of their projects. However, these same students said they were grateful when they saw their peers trying to write and revise an entire paper and study for finals. One of my students said, “I know my paper is better than theirs because I had time to work on it.”

In the end, I think my courses prepare students for writing and thinking beyond the confines of the academic hot-house. By removing boundaries, I’ve asked them to think critically about their world and their voices. By showcasing the process of writing, I’ve demonstrated that writing is hard work that doesn’t leap fully formed from their heads. Or, maybe I’ve just taught them to avoid writing classes …

Educating Digital Natives about Being Digital

As we near the end of my Digital Rhetoric course, I’ve started reflecting on what I hoped students learned this semester. I realized about halfway through the semester that we haven’t spent a lot of time learning how to write for the per se. In other words, while we talked about the power of social media and rhetorical velocity, we did not discuss how to craft the perfect Tweet or leverage Facebook for a marketing strategy.

Rather, we’ve spent most of our time talking about what the interwebs are. We discussed remediation, the consequences of collaborative writing, how genres have social action, how social inequalities persist online, and how truth is created and maintained. In other words, we talked about how the interwebs shapes our world and our perceptions.

I had a moment in which I felt guilty about not spending more time discussing the hows of digital rhetoric until I read this article in The Atlantic. Marcio Jose Sanchez suggests that students use the web all of the time, but that they don’t fully appreciate what being digital means. When we call current students digital natives we may be doing them a disservice because this moniker “falsely assumes that today’s students intrinsically understand the nuanced ways in which technologies shape the human experience—how they influence an individual’s identity, for example, or how they advance and stymie social progress—as well as the means by which information spreads thanks to phenomena such as algorithms and advertising.”

Digital natives need to learn how online environments shape the way we understand the world. Teaching them how the interwebs work will make them better writers, thinkers, creators, and appreciators of digital media.

Bullying Has No Boundaries

The news is full of stories about young people being bullied to the point of self-harm and suicide. Unfortunately, bullying isn’t a new phenomenon. For example, John Hughes‘s movies (Pretty in Pink and The Breakfast Club) rely on the tension of the bullied vs. the popular.

The big difference today is the constant presences of the interwebs. While Molly Ringwald can curl up in her bedroom and decide not to answer the phone, many students today cannot escape the hate. As their peers post hateful comments on Facebook and Twitter, their phones buzz every time. The tiny chime indicating that you have a new message may begin to feel like Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Bells.”

The Canadian Safe School Network recently produced a video of young people reading mean tweets. 

They are playing with Jimmy Kimmel’s Celebrities Read Mean Tweets segment. When famous actors and athletes read petty comments, we laugh because their success demonstrates how ridiculous the comments are.  However, the humor found in Kimmel’s show falls apart when vulnerable teenagers read tweets about themselves.

Dealing with mean tweets is more difficult for teens. Teenagers do not have the resilience developed through decades of life. Worse than that, Gwyneth Paltrow doesn’t have to face her haters every day in class. She does not have to experience teachers turning a blind eye, or worse participating in bullying. Teens are vulnerable and still shaping their identities. In the digital age, part of that identity is online. Unfortunately, bullying has expanded to make no space safe.

What is Digital Rhetoric?

Today, we worked toward a definition of “digital rhetoric.”  I think we discovered that it’s actually pretty complex.

Just trying to define authorship became messy.  Is someone an author onlyAristotle_by_eviolinist if they are famous?  How much can an author borrow and still be an author?  What makes something original?

A few times, we tossed the work media around.  However, like authorship, media has complex meanings. Many commentators consider new media a catchall for all web-based texts.

In the end, Elizabeth Losh’s definitions from Virtualpolitik (2009) may be a good place to start.  She focuses on four definitions:

  1. The conventions of new digital genres that are used for everyday discourse, as well as for special occasions, in average people’s lives.
  2. Public rhetoric, often in the form of political messages from government institutions, which is represented or recorded through digital technology and disseminated via electronic distributed networks.
  3. The emerging scholarly discipline concerned with the rhetorical interpretation of computer-generated media as objects of study.
  4. Mathematical theories of communication from the field of information science, many of which attempt to quantify the amount of uncertainty in a given linguistic exchange or the likely paths through which messages travel. (47-8)

I think definitions 1 and 3 will be of particular use to us this semester.