Composition Connection: Frames from the Field

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Sheridan, David M., Jim Ridolfo, and Anthony J. Michel.  The Available Means of Persuasion: Mapping a Theory and Pedagogy of Multimodal Public Rhetoric.  Anderson, South Carolina: Parlor Press, 2012. Print.

In The Available Means of Persuasion, Sheridan, Ridolfo, and Michel set out to argue that “the work of cultural production” does not belong only in the hands of media specialists and designers – who are all too often “embedded” in systems of capitalist power in problematic ways – but instead “should be considered the proper domain of ordinary people (xii).  They make this larger claim in order to begin exploring the question our field is ultimately asked to tackle – and that is how can “rhetorical education” or the FYC courses in traditional academic institutions help writers appropriate multimodal composing strategies with the explicit goal of inviting cultural production by “ordinary people”? (xiii).  Sheridan et. al. attempt to answer (or continue asking in different ways) this question through re-imagining key theoretical concepts of the field of Rhetoric and Composition.  Always conscious of issues of material and literacy access and the histories of “old new” technologies that can lend scholars of new media helpful insights,  Sheridan et. al. devote considerable discussion to defining rhetorical velocity and grounding the discussion in several sites online.  The emerging ideas the authors posit and play with are shaped by Latour, Habermas, Fraser, and Warner and even take a turn to explaining online multimodal cultural production in terms of semiosis.  But all this theoretical framework brings readers surprisingly back to the FYC classroom, where the authors use student work to demonstrate how enacting the paradigm that online, “public” and “counterpublic” multimodal composing practices need to be taught and encouraged – recognized as undeniably rhetorical and happening in a large network of human and non-human actors – in order to help “ordinary” citizens produce culture.

The book has proven to be, far and away, the most fun read and most helpful source.  Though Sheridan et. al. ignore gender and lump together “issues of access” – they use the public spheres theory with which I am familiar and help lay the groundwork for making claims that teaching and researching multimodal rhetorical practices is important work in terms of granting agency and “practice-activist-oriented” perspectives to university students.  I am interested in thinking about a few things in response to this book: what can this kind of perspective mean for non-traditional university comp students?  Would the kind of student project Sheridan et. al. outline be possible in a single semester if students come to FYC with almost no digital literacy skills?  How can we begin to design new FYC curriculum that teaches programming skills?  Should we make this move?  And then, what about access issues of race, gender, and disability?  How might encouraging students to work within existing platforms and environments help them (and us) recognize unequal power dynamics at play in the networks of cultural production?  I am a big fan of how this book – like Rhodes’s work – considers the histories of theories, technologies, and practices of rhetoric as it moves readers to think through emerging theories, technologies, and practices.  Research on how to use existing social media in which marginalized (here, women) users feel agency in education and scholarship is important.  I think it would be a wonderful project to keep at as a feminist voice in the conversation that Sheridan et. al. are laying down here.  Ultimately, this book has made me think, and think, and think – and if the authors can sweep through history, rhetorical concepts, online sites, and come back to the comp classroom – I think I can too!  I’ll just likely come back to a more specific and better-defined comp classroom – a regional one, with any luck.  Because I think that we need to clearly address difference here – and how different geographies, socio-economic strata, and gender/sexuality identities matter.  (And race, but the authors kinda touch on that a bit). Projects like mine can inform conversations in our field about the role of “popular” digital environments in resistant self-representation and public agency.

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