Friday, April 21, 2006

Rethinking Audience

I’m in the process of re-working my Internet ENG W233 classes, which essentially teach the process of researching and writing an argument. In the past we’ve spent the whole semester on one paper, with many small benchmarks in between, and the course has been heavily WebCT based.

The upside of my approach has been that students stick with one project with many well-integrated components. And for me, pushing everything through WebCT, keeps the organization of the class tight and administration to a minimum. The later point makes for fairly easy and equitable assessment on my part.

The drawbacks, besides being obviously a little anal retentive in nature, include a certain element of boredom that can set in, a sense of isolation that can develop, and an awful lot of weekly assignments for me to grade. And with WebCT being a closed system, there are audience issues as well – are my students getting a good sense of who their readers should be for these kinds of papers?

After attending an IHETS workshop on blogs and wikis at the University of Indianapolis, the merits of a more flexible system easily include the self publishing features of these open-source technologies as well as the possibilities of more peer dialog. These technologies are very image oriented, to the possibilities of talking about visual rhetorics and visual arguments are also appealing.

Also appealing, to use passive voice here, is the opportunity to help students more clearly visualize the concept of audience. I’m thinking of accomplishing this by letting them “argue” on a class blog. Perhaps I could give weekly prompts, and then let them go at it. They could respond to the prompt and then respond to several of their peers. This, I know, is not much different that the discussion feature in WebCT, but a blog provides a more visual environment and hence might go a little further towards creating a classroom community.

The most compelling merit of this approach, however, is that students will be writing for each other, instead of just for me, as the more structured and formal environment of WebCT tends to cause students to visualize the omniscient professor represented by the WebCT interface. I could still have the formal benchmark assignments go to WebCt, for administrative purposes, but the weekly thought provoking and research practice assignments could become more of a peer to peer dialog with a blog.

That, at least is my hope. Check back here in September to see how I did!

Thursday, April 06, 2006

When Rhetoric Is Not Reality

I am struck in recent weeks more than ever by rhetoric and news coming out of Washington that is eerily similar in tone and even in content to that of the turbulent Vietnam and Watergate era. I had hoped, for one, never to revisit those days, which were marked by polarizing name-calling, strident misogyny, and political skullduggery.

This week, just for example, we have political pundit Ann Coulter dissing pro-immigration demonstrations across the country by jokingly (in her mind) complaining she didn’t get clean towels in her hotel room that morning. We have Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld saying that Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice “doesn’t’ understand the nature of war.” We have former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay dissing Hilary Clinton by saying “Who likes a know-it-all woman.” And we even have accusations that the President of the United States has authorized the leaks of classified information to reporters to further his own political agenda, an accusation which if it gains feet in the press and in the blogosphere will make Monicagate and Watergate pale in comparison. As if that weren’t enough, we even have the politicians blaming the press for the bad news coming out of Iraq, with some questioning the integrity and patriotism of the media.

All of the above is Vietnam and Watergate redux. Or, as Yogi Berra so famously said, “This is like deja vu all over again."

One nice thing, though, something that makes a huge and positive difference between then and now, is you don’t have to take my word for any of this. Thanks to the Internet, and particularly to the blogosphere, you can find out for yourself if the media is truly liberal. Or if you don’t quite trust the blogosphere, you can use LexisNexis to track stories for yourself and see if there is consistent information to support a particular view or statement. In short, sitting at home or in a library with Internet access, you can separate rhetoric from reality.

For example, several weeks ago the President was asked why the Pentagon had delayed sending new robotic technology to Iraq to help American troops find and disarm IEDs. Instead of answering the question, the President replied that the press was acting irresponsibly, even helping our enemies, by asking such questions because the question gave away classified information (for a view of the present climate of hypocritical rhetoric such as this, see today’s breaking news). Naturally his handpicked, friendly audience loved his response. Problem was, there was nothing classified about the information, not to mention that the issue had been widely reported a month earlier.

But that is rhetoric for you – it doesn’t have to match reality to pose a good argument. Unless of course you view, as I do, an argument as an exercise in the presentation of an honestly researched point of view. In other words, in an ethical argument, as all should be, rhetoric must match reality.