Two weeks ago, I had the incredible opportunity to hear Andrea Lunsford, Professor of English at Stanford University, speak on “The role of rhetoric and multimedia in 21st century writing.” She began by reminding us that Aristotle defined rhetoric as “ethical communication and persuasion.” Part of that means getting your message across in a way that ethically persuades your audience (meaning you use a strong, persuasive argument rather than a trick). It also means protecting yourself from harmful messages, and this requires critically evaluating the rhetoric we encounter through the myriad mediums of communication that surround us in the 21st century. That evaluation involves understanding the relationship between language and reality—does the language we encounter conceal truth or enact it?
Lunsford argues that we have seen a severe degradation of language, partly due to higher education’s shifting focus from the rhetorical (production of discourse) to the literary (consumption of discourse). It used to be that oral, visual, and written discourses were central to the university, but we became preoccupied with form rather than substance, with drills and corrections rather than meaning making.
And while our schools are doing less to teach the rhetorical tradition, our society is exploding with new modes of communication. Young people are doing more writing than they ever have before, and they are increasingly versatile writers who involve far more than words in their compositions. Lunsford thus calls for a “rehabilitated rhetoric” that allows students to practice rhetoric in a variety of settings and mediums.
In the first-year writing program at Stanford, students write, speak, design, and present. The program is a two-course sequence, the first of which focuses on invention and the second of which focuses on delivery. In that second course, students write a research essay and then transform it into another media or genre; next, they give an oral presentation that involves media support. Lunsford explained that asking students to not only conduct research but also to think about how they are going to present it requires them to learn rhetorical strategies that are appropriate to oral and multimedia deliveries of research; it makes them think about the power of language and the way in which others use language to manipulate us; it makes them consider how to establish their own ethos.
Ethos is a compelling topic in our digital age that values collaboration and distribution. As a culture, we are becoming less impressed with expert “knowledge keepers,” and this clashes with the academy’s understanding of credibility. As Lunsford explained, the university is based on the notion of the individual person as a unit of production and expertise, whereas our digital culture is based on the notion of collectives as the unit of production, competence, and intelligence. People who grew up in that digital culture know that anyone can be an author (or part of a team of authors), and this makes them active producers who are not particularly concerned about things like copyright and plagiarism. I would argue that the participatory culture replaces those notions—if you put something online that lacks credibility, your community with lash out against you. Gaining your community’s trust and respect is part of digital communication, but that trust is socially generated rather than legally bound.
In the classroom, this means we need to let our students do something with the materials we give them—you can’t just ask them to sit there and read a text. They want to produce something, to tear it up, remix it, reinvent it. And they want to work in teams across genres and mediums. They are doing this outside of the classroom; it’s time to bring multimedia writing inside, as well.
And if you find yourself thinking that this is all well and good but students still need to learn to write in the traditional way, Lunsford has an answer: “The rhetorical tradition is plastic enough to adapt itself to any medium.”