April 4th 2008 02:34 pm

4Cs NOLA Thursday — D Session

This session was tough to decide between options. My three friends from Fresno State were presenting along with Rick Hansen and Ginny Crisco about their program of Directed Self-Placement (so students can insert themselves in a 2-semester Comp class if they feel the need or an accelerated 1-semester course for more advanced students). At the same time, Steve Parks, with whom I’ve been corresponding since I adopted his press’s book Espejos y Ventanas was presenting about service-worker writing projects (writings by the “invisible” people who clean hotel rooms, serve us food, etc).

I chose neither of these and went to see my old friend and mentor Tony Michel, who was part of a panel on “Picturing Democracy: Multi-Modal Rhetoric in the Public Sphere.” Tony taught me most of what I know about Composition Theory and rhetorical analysis and without his mentoring, I don’t know where I’d be. He is at Avila University, now, in Kansas. He specializes in alternative rhetorics, including cyber-rhetoric and especially multi-modal (combinations of media, such as text and visuals/music/etc.) rhetoric.

The panel itself focused on different approaches to and questions that arise from multi-modal rhetoric. Primarily, the researchers have been examining the institutional and cultural practices of such rhetoric as well as the cultural context by which we navigate the rhetoric.

The first speaker addressed the question of what we, as teachers, should teach in terms of this rhetoric. If, for example, you want to teach a course on Game-Based Rhetoric, what institutional, pedagogical and cultural landscapes have to be navigated? In making that assessment, he says we should “open up for critical reflection at least four distinct areas: 1) the division of labor of rhetorical production, 2) the division of rhetorical work into disciplines and institutional-organizational schemes, 3) the function assigned to modes, media, and technologies by various and overlapping cultural logics, 4) the efficacies of modes and media, and 5) the infrastructural investment required to engage in a particular rhetorical practice.”

The second speaker noted that teaching multi-modal literacy is a key critical thinking element of his pedagogy. He expanded on the notion of “rhetorical velocity,” which is the concept that a particular rhetorical moment may create unforeseen futures. He illustrated his speech with an example of a young woman involved in a protest on the MSU campus who had her picture taken during the protest. A year later her picture reappeared on the MSU banner photoshopped into a montage of students–so the rhetorical moment was appropriated, reframed and decontextualized into another rhetorical incident beyond the expectations of (or the consent of) the woman involved. The image was further utilized by the institution in pamphlets and other promotional material, again, all without her consent. We can see other instances of this unforeseen rhetorical velocity in such odd convergences as the Hillary Clinton ad that featured a 3-year-old sleeping when one of Clinton’s 3am calls comes through. That image was stock footage that the campaign purchased, but the real person is now 18 and an outspoken Obama supporter–a consequence the campaign surely never envisioned. As our students move further into a future increasingly populated by rhetorics of new media and technology (such as Photoshop) it is important that they be able to assess what they are experiencing critically.

Tony spoke about a group of women in Kansas who, quite by accident, discovered each other after the 2004 election. Upset by the co-opting of such terms as “family values” by GW and others–and watching debates over the teaching of evolution in Kansas that they felt made Kansans seem like bumpkins, they formed a small group called True Blue Women to advocate for change. As the grass-roots organization has grown, Tony has been able to watch how they negotiate the rhetoric of news, the internet, and radio interviews which inevitably reframe some portion of the message these women want to get out.

The final speaker essentially spoke to the skeptic:

  1. How does a shift to teaching multi-modal rhetorics value certain media over others and/or certain populations over others? This is still expensive technology–who has access?
  2. Will it help students identify embedded power structures?
  3. What will be the new hierarchies of distinction (will “academic” text still be the assessment standard)?
  4. Is the internet and new media truly more open?

There were no clear answers–these were exploratory talks and there was considerable discussion, which I declined to note. It was a great panel that helped me think about ways of exploring critical thinking of pop culture, which I haven’t actually tried in a class, yet, but am thinking about.

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