Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Path-ing Reflection #1

Sources Read: 

  • Faigley, Lester. "Material Literacy and Visual Design." Rhetorical Bodies. 1999. 171-201.
  • Olson, David R. "From Utterance to Text: The Bias of Language in Speech and Writing." Harvard Educational Review 47.3 (1977): 257-81.
  • Trimbur, John. "Delivering the Message: Typography and the Materiality of Writing." Visual Rhetoric in a Digital World: A Critical Sourcebook. Ed. Handa, Carolyn. Boston, MA: Bedford/St. Martin's, 2004. 260-71.

My focus for this week’s reading has been to explore further into Trimbur’s chapter on the materiality of writing. This chapter from my Visual Rhet class this spring really fascinated me, particularly Trimbur’s views of the influence of the essayist movement on expectations for rhetoric today: “One of the main obstacles to seeing the materiality of writing has been the essayist tradition and its notion of a transparent text” (261).

Trimbur’s use of the term transparent (defined as disappearing from view so as to fully expose what is underneath, that is the text itself disappearing to reveal the ideas) is one that captures what I have been poking at in academic writing.  I have struggled with other dichotomies to capture academic versus non-academic writing (formal/informal, logical/emotional) because they revealed the judgments in my mind.  I know I have a strongly negative reaction to the structure of academic writing, and I believe digital composition is changing academic writing for the better.  However, I do not want to go into my study of this with preconceived opinions of what is better or not.  So, transparent versus material offers me a rich place to begin with trying to dig more into what I see happening between academic writing and digital composing. To briefly sum up here: academic writing seeks to have the act of writing become transparent so the ideas are the focus in determining the meaning, while digital composing seeks to have the materials used for the composition as part of the focus to discerning meaning.

So, I went to the two core texts of Trimbur’s argument about essayist tradition, Faigley and Olson, and I have so many ideas swimming in my head now.  Let me try to present the early stages of a framework that is starting to form in my mind.  I think digital composing could be seen as bringing the full field of rhetoric back together, that is rejoining alphabetic texts with visuals and, even more intriguingly, bringing oral and visual traditions together.  With the advent of printing and the subsequent growth in publishing one’s ideas in writing, the visual and the oral were both pushed aside. The transparent text has been held above all materiality of composing.

However, digital composing is now the dominant mode of presenting ideas outside academia (and increasingly so within academia), and the role of the audience in digital composing (something I know is powerful from my prior research) is possibly THE defining aspect of the affordances of digital composing. The audience accomplishes two things that the transparent essayist tradition left behind. First, is the sense of ideas being a conversation.  Olson writes of the “the Locke essayist technique [that] differed notably from the predominant writing style of the time. Ellul (1964) says, 'An uninitiated reader who opens a scientific treatise on law, economy, medicine, or history published between the sixteenth and eighteenth centuries is struck most forcibly by the complete absence of logical order' (p. 39); and he notes, 'It was more a question of personal exchange than of taking an objective position' (p. 41)" (269). The hallmark of digital composing is that people can comment back on your ideas.  For those who are willing to go even further, Web 2.0 technologies allow for collaborative creation of digital compositions. The readily accessible audience of the digital world has possibly brought idea-spreading back to conversations versus sermons.

Second is the constant revision that can happen in digital compositions. Olson quotes Plato as saying, “’No intelligent man will ever be so bold as to put into language those things which his reason has contemplated, especially not into a form that is unalterable - which must be the case with what is expressed in written symbols’” (268).  This links to the rhetorical value of conversation in that ideas are developed and tested, knowing they will (and should if someone is truly learning) change.

To have discovered roots of what I see happening in digital writing is really exciting for me.  The idea that digital composition might be the next great innovation for rhetoric after the development of an alphabetic system for writing is certainly thrilling for someone like me who has seen so many positive aspects of digital composing.  But more importantly, to start to gain a vocabulary for a clearer framework around my interest in the changing face of academic writing gives me hope that I might be on to something after all.

I have some areas for further reading to consider including on my reading list.  I might want to go way back into time to the development of alphabetic texts and the effects on visual and verbal rhetoric; this would include Plato’s views of the shift from speaking into writing. I also want to read about the essayist mode more to be sure I have seen all opinions of this shift. Finally, I am wondering about reading some linguistics – Chomsky and Chafe in particular – to understand more about Olson’s utterance versus text division.  I am so intrigued by this that I want to be sure he is not off-base according to other linquists.

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