Poetics vs. Politics in a Discussion of Rhetorical Pedagogy

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Yikes. Blogging took a backseat this week to reading and reviewing student rough drafts. And also to this little gem of a response to two previous readings that I did for my Rhetoric and Digital Media class, which has been slightly adapted here for the blogosphere. I’ll be back soon with something else!

In the twenty-first century, digital technologies have complicated the study and teaching of rhetoric. Multiple media forms on the internet, newly emerging genres, and a complex web of technologies and systems give rhetorical studies an ever-expanding array of subjects for study, while at the same time rendering the teaching of rhetoric in universities problematic. Scholars have begun to consider the consequences of apparently ubiquitous rhetoric and the impact on various areas of scholarship. Richard Lanham, in his latest work The Economics of Attention, argues that, in the age of information, our new scarce resource is attention, and rhetoric provides an economic model for dealing with new challenges in communication. He offers specific details about the impact of the attention economy on the university and how institutions of higher education can address these issues. Read against Lanham, Bryan Garsten does not seem to attend to academic considerations of rhetoric in Saving Persuasion, as he focuses primarily on close readings of traditional rhetorical texts as related to judgment of political issues. My response will show how each scholar addresses, whether directly or indirectly, the important questions of rhetorical pedagogy in the twenty-first century, and argues for a new online pedagogical practices based on a reading of both Lanham’s and Garsten’s advocacy of rhetoric.

The most direct discussion of rhetorical pedagogy comes from Lanham, who devotes an entire chapter, “The Audit of Virtuality,” to analyzing what he calls myths of higher education that need to be reconsidered in this attention economy. He asserts that the very technologies that have created an attention economy are those that can be used to improve educational experiences for both pupils and professors. One of the earlier myths that he addresses is the fact that universities must be brick and mortar and individuals physically (in addition to mentally) present for students to learn and for instructors to teach effectively. On the contrary, he claims, and uses the Open University in the United Kingdom to demonstrate how “the digital medium allows new mixtures of text, voice, and image that create educational programs of unprecedented power” (240). He continues to comment on the ideas that scholarly work is not so incredibly serious that we should eschew play, which encourages creativity; that administration should no longer cocoon faculty from the outside world, but instead that virtual programs would expose faculty to real world issues; and that universities are not so separate from industry and as such, comparisons can only improve their collective function. Most notably for rhetoric, though, Lanham concludes the chapter by arguing that “the new electronic field of expression” radically alters what scholars are doing and how we are doing it, primarily for the way that “it creates a different rhetoric that puts words, written and spoken, in new juxtapositions with picture and sound” (248). He notes that academic teaching methods of changed, generally for the better, though he fails to explicitly describe these new practices at this point and only moves to discuss it in his final chapter, “Revisionist Thinking.”

Garsten, however, does not address modern pedagogy as directly as Lanham, though some insightful ideas can be inferred from his discussion of judgment that occurs in his final chapter, “Persuasion and Deliberation.” He concludes his book, throughout which he does a political reading of classic rhetorical texts, by calling for a deliberative democracy; deliberative based both on argumentation and also in the sense that citizens can “purposefully consider as completely as possible within the time that we have the factors relevant to our decision, bringing to bear upon our choice whatever different sorts of knowledge and information seem relevant, including perceptual, emotional, intuitive, experiential, theoretical, and scientific knowledge” (192). Garsten explains that in doing so, citizens draw upon their faculty of judgment, and rhetors should facilitate deliberation by posing questions that allow interlocutors to “draw upon the knowledge they take from their situations and from their particular commitments” (192-3). He also considers how persuasion “will require careful study of the particular characteristics of one’s audience” (193). Garsten clearly emphasizes the role of knowledge in persuasion in these to passages, but seemingly fails to discuss how this knowledge is acquired – at least formally. He does, however, reflect on the importance of individuals informing themselves of the arguments and opinions around them, of paying attention to fellow citizens, and to gain understanding of opposing views in order to strengthen our own arguments in the public arena.

The link then that connects Lanham’s attention economy-affected university and Garsten’s self-centered instruction is the setting in which learning can occur for their intended audience: online. Lanham advocates a return to teaching rhetoric in the university, displacing science and business programs in favor of arts programs for their focus on the attention structures he argues are imperative to know for succeeding in an attention economy. The virtual classroom is an ideal setting for Lanham’s charge to take place; while science-based courses require lecture and lab space, many rhetoric-based courses can easily be conducted online. The internet would show students first-hand how websites compete for their attention and give them much fodder for discussion. Furthermore, he discusses in the final chapter how not only university students need to learn about the attention economy, but consumers as well. He uses William Lewis’ argument that “‘[c]onsumers are the only political force that can stand up to producer interests’” (qtd. in Lanham 261),  and make conscious choices every day that have political and aesthetic impacts. Too many choices, though, pose a problem for consumers, and thus Lanham claims that “training the chooser can protect and refine the freedom the market creates. . . [and] can build bridges between individual choices and understanding group behavior” (262). Essentially, he advocates not only formal training in university, but also for consumers to protect themselves from being misguided amidst the excess of information available online and for individuals to better understand the opinions and actions of others, just as Garsten does in his concluding chapter.

Each scholar’s approach to learning rhetoric online, however, would most likely look different. Garsten’s focus on political rhetoric and close reading of texts contrasts with Lanham’s advocacy of rhetoric in the university, particularly in humanities courses, and his economic approach to the issue in general. On one hand, Garsten encourages controversy to engage in judgment, and as such, a fitting exercise for deliberation may be found on public political forums, including news outlet-sponsored sites and partisan pages, that encourage participation from all citizens. Here, internet users could exercise Aristotle’s situated judgment by choosing a forum that interests them, while at the same time practicing deliberative partiality by reading and weighing arguments from the opposition when writing a response. Garsten’s approach is clearly group-oriented and relies on back and forth communication between individuals for learning and persuasion to take place. Without receiving a response to a post, or finding an opponent with which to debate, the setting is not interactive and thus would not facilitate learning by either party. He would also advocate repeated practice of debate, for “the best ideas will not always carry the day in democratic debate, and even the most attentive and skillful efforts at persuasion often fail for reasons unconnected with the merits of the cause” (211). So, the internet provides the perfect combination of opportunity and audience to exercise persuasion and hone rhetorical skills. There is an audience for everyone and essentially unlimited forums to house deliberations.

On the other hand, Lanham’s education model for rhetoric online is a more individual approach than Garsten’s, with people enrolling in virtual classes as they fit into their lives and not on a regulated semester system, “supplying knowledge when and where it is needed” (237-8). Students thus rely on their on self-motivation to learn or learn as they encounter situations that drive them to do so, and online courses result in both physical and temporal isolation of students from one another. If a student can enroll at any point during the year, regardless of the semester, basic principles such as group work or responding to peer writing would not be logistically easy to plan into the schedule, making it unlikely that students learning stems from anything but their own reading and interpretation of texts. Lanham’s model is flexible in terms of the models for study, for “the World Wide Web has. . . developed into an ever-richer community resource. The more people graze on it for their own purposes, the bigger it becomes and the greener its grass grows” (13). They could study the implications of multimedia web pages and the new ways in which web designers demand internet user attention. Also, one person’s blog posts can become the subject of another person’s study, which can be assigned reading by an instructor in his perpetual-registration virtual class, and so on. The cycle of production, and thus learning, is never-ending.

Overall, Richard Lanham and Bryan Garsten present theoretically and pragmatically different arguments in their respective works; however, each scholar’s argument has implications for learning and teaching of rhetoric in modern society. With the recent rise in networked classroom experiences and significant increase in online course materials, it will be important to read other works such as these for the pedagogical insights that they have to offer so that we may more aptly address issues of digital rhetoric for students and for our own learning.

Works Cited
Garsten, Bryan. Saving Persuasion: A Defense of Rhetoric and Judgment. Cambridge, MA: Harvard U P, 2006.
Lanham, Richard A. The Economics of Attention: Style and Substance in the Age of Information. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 2006.

One thought on “Poetics vs. Politics in a Discussion of Rhetorical Pedagogy

  1. Very interesting–I think your question of Garsten (where are people supposed to get their information?) is a very good one. I think you tie Garsten and Lanham together well with that problem.

    I also like your connection between Garsten’s very individualized rhetoric and Lanham’s individualized education.

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