Visual Rhetoric: Before you can deconstruct

Several years back, when I was just beginning to start my graduate career, I had one of my favorite conversations ever with Scott Russell, the coordinator of the Marian E. Wright Writing Center. I had started tutoring there not too long before, and while I can’t remember for the life of me how we got there (one can rarely remember the beginning of conversations with Scott – usually you’re left staggering with yet another sobering readjustment of your understanding of The Way Things Are), I can recall this was when I realized the perfect storm that is academic momentum: in order to change academia, you have to prove yourself to academia, and in order to prove yourself to academia, you must play long enough by academia’s rules that when you have finally achieved enough power and privilege to critique the structure, you are less likely to do so because you’ll be tearing at the very foundation of your own authority. Thus begets and sustains the revolving door of firebrands being tempered into the same tools that maintain the system they set out to tackle. A few strays make it through with their convictions intact, but they are now too few to institute the radical sweeping change they once thought themselves on the cusp of. The cycle repeats.

I started my reading of Delagrange linearly with chapter 1, and was quickly reminded of this conversation above. While there is a handful of “non-traditional” publications that offer limited resistance, Delagrange’s point stands: “Unadorned text, written in plain style and organized in a way that can readily be outlined, has long been the paradigm for scholarly performances and it has been presumed to fit all ‘legitimate’ academic scholarship. Legitimacy, however, is a conservative, hereditary principle that protects the interests of those who claim it” (10). Sound familiar?

The reason we continue to see the visual mode of Text On A Page perpetuate – even to the point where most online only publications still release their editions formatted to look like a physically printed volume in order to appease the academy’s expectations as defined by The Way Things Are (something else Delagrange notes). The catch here is that I’m willing to bet there’s a lot more appetite for this change to take hold buried beneath the surface in everyone who’s playing by the rules, but we’re all waiting on each other to flinch first.

Anyone who makes it far into the academy realizes quickly that significant scholarly inquiry is defined not by the window dressing, but by the substance of the ideas and discussion created. It’s just a matter of time before the academy changes to stop the privileging of black ink on off-white paper, right? We’re all waiting for that change to take hold. While we wait for the winds to change, however, we’ll just submit our next publication to a traditional outlet. Just this time, so we can add it to our C.V. without having to be defensive. Next time we’ll try another more “unconventional” outlet.

I’m still at a point where I haven’t been published (except for a book review), but I can see that pressure at work on my future, and I can see how easily this publication cold war with the academy will stretch out. Thank you Scott – and damn you, Scott – for helping me achieve so pragmatic a POV so early. I’ll do what I can to help tear down the wall.

Just lemme get something published in a traditional journal first.

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2 Comments

  1. Roger, you are right. I don’t know how many scholars are really pushing for change. Most of the people I know working on PhDs or who are tenure-track are so worried about simply getting published, they aren’t considering the shift toward digital publications. If that shift happens, then they will gravitate toward the digital, but until that happens people don’t want to pile on another responsibility. Junior faculty must begin their careers in a new department in a new city, learn the politics of the department and the campus, learn about the students, learn about the bureaucratic forms ad nauseum, serve on department committees and campus committees, create syllabi (or syllabuses) for courses they never wanted to teach, quite possibly create a new program/track/minor/certificate/etc., and of course, still do research. Unless that newly minted PhD came out of a program that ingrained the digital publication process into the research skills, that PhD junior faculty member is not going to add to his burden by deciding to learn computer programs in his spare time.

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  2. As one who always used to be “yes, lets do that” or “I want to be different,” I have actually grown to be much more conservative, or at least have become one who questions the voices being silenced by my loud desire to change. This is motivated by my time working as a writing tutor at FAU, where the first-year writing program works out of the Emerging reader. This reader includes essays about genetic engineering, race relations, animal rights, gay rights, global supply chains, and immigration. Freshmen who work out of this book are not just asked to practice writing and synthesis, but with every paper, question their values. I am still skeptical of this approach to teaching writing, and my experiences have inspired my perspective on digital rhetoric as well.

    Our field gets excited about things; this excitement is displayed through conference themes and selected presentations, special journal issues, and themed lectures. My mentor calls them “sexy topics.” It is clear digital rhetoric is sexy, but does that mean it should be welcomed into our curriculum, tenure requirements, and job qualifications, and so quickly? I believe our field has much reason to approach it with caution. Bureaucratic processes exist for a reason; if we do not take the right amount of time to assess whether this is what we should be doing, especially when the definition of rhetoric allows for so much to be included, we risk complicating our identity, as well as others, within the university and might also, as Delagrange highlights in her section about anxiety, either reinforce or create new uneven distributions of power within the rhetoric community.

    Its exciting, but let us remember the usefulness in bureaucracy.

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