The difficulty in being a digital media scholar

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Like many people, I love the Internet and all things related to digital media, spend a lot of time on the internet and with technology, and as my husband would argue, am (borderline) addicted to it all. Unlike many people, however, it is my job to study/research/analyze digital media and the Internet, as a part of my research for my PhD program in Communication, Rhetoric, and Digital Media at NC State. This means, at the very least, I have a good excuse for being addicted to it (unless you are my husband, in which case, it only means that I way too frequently bring my work home with me and work wayyy too much. Which is basically the life of an academic. I guess I have some explaining to do…). But my relationship with the Internet and other technology is not so simple.

It is fun and fascinating to study this broad field, but it can also be very frustrating, difficult to make productive, and hard to keep up with. Don’t get me wrong – I’m very happy with my graduate program, and I do love what I study – but it comes with some built-in difficulties that you have to learn to manage if you’re going to make a go at it with any real consequence. Here are some of my thoughts on the field (which is probably not even the best way to put it) after my first year of PhD work:

Studying the “field” of digital media/technology/the Internet (and yes, I know these terms are not interchangeable) is frustrating because the field is so large and unwieldy, grows bigger all the time, and transcends pretty much every other field in academia. At NCSU, we study rhetoric and digital media, but that is just one angle of digital media research. It’s being done by nursing programs, who analyze use of tablet computers for improving patient care, and political science, to examine the influence of social media campaigns on elections. And those are exactly the studies that we could undertake in our program as well. So how do we distinguish ourselves in the humanities? Or should we at all? Should we market our research outside of these select fields of Communication and English?

It can also be frustrating to study rhetoric and digital media from a humanities perspective because we have no clear methodological sense for how to effectively analyze these artifacts and all of the data they can produce. To borrow a term from Steven Krause, researching the internet in particular is akin to searching in “a haystack full of needles” – there is too much information out there, and it can be challenging to sort through all of it to find some kind of meaning/finding/publishable anything. Those in the humanities have yet to articulate any meaningful considerations for methodological study of digital media thus far, though my colleague Ashley R. Kelly and I will have a paper published in this year’s ACM SIGDOC Proceedings that begins to tackle this issue.

It can also be difficult to make research into digital media/technology/the Internet productive, and by productive, I’m referring to producing work that adds to the general body of knowledge in the way that academics aim to do (generally through publishing). A key challenge here is deciding what is meaningful and what is not, and this is directly related to the dearth of methodological literature. If we cannot conceive of the important considerations for digital media study, how can we know what artifacts and data are meaningful? Or when we do know what’s meaningful, has it taken so long that the information is no longer timely and relevant to academics and the general public?

This leads me to my third frustration with studying rhetoric and digital media: it is so difficult to produce work that is relevant and timely with the way that academic publishing works. Sure, in my seminar one semester, I was right on point with my analysis of a new technology or use of social media. But by the time I can revise a draft for a journal, send it out, revise a manuscript, and have it published – it’s no longer so timely and relevant. Obviously, this issue is not unique to digital media scholars, nor is it a new one, but it’s exaggerated by the fast pace of technology and digital media advancements. But as an ongoing issue, I strongly feel that we need to address it and find ways to make our research more available in a more timely way to the public – after all, we aren’t trying to only speak to each other with our work. Or at least, we shouldn’t be. The University of South Alabama has recently established a new journal that sets out to work on this issue, The Journal of Contemporary Rhetoric. Let’s support these new ventures so that we can find ways to keep our work timely and relevant as well as rigorous.

So, to recap: studying rhetoric (or insert any academic field, really) and digital media is challenging to say the least. But it is also exciting for all of the potential that is there. We just need to find ways to study it meaningfully – not just any old website or new gadget – and rigorously, as well as to make the information available when it is most relevant and not a year and a half or two years after it made news.

What do you find to be the most challenging part of studying digital media/technology/the Internet/whatever you like to call it? How do you deal with the issues I’ve mentioned here?

Genres & digital media

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Genres are an ever-moving target; “dynamic [and] evolutionary in nature” (Miller & Shepherd, 2004), they are subject of an immense body of research into which I barely dipped a toe this week when reading for my course “Rhetoric & Digital Media.” The readings demonstrate the close relationship of form, genre, and narrative. I’ll attempt here to explore briefly some of the major issues discussed in our readings and take a stance on what genres are, what emerging issues for genre accompany the developments in digital media, and how we, as budding digital media scholars, can examine them.

To begin, Burke’s Counter-Statement (1968) takes form as a central tenet, and the selections we read reflect his initial exploration of form (“Psychology and Form”) and the subsequent addenda to and corrections of his ideas (“Lexicon Rhetoricae”) In the former, Burke demonstrates Perelman’s (1982) “dissociation of ideas” to distinguish between form and psychology. To Burke, rhetorical form is the creation and fulfilling of desires of the audience, their psychology. It is dynamic: the reader anticipates, the writer delivers, and the text satisfies, creating a profoundly social and rhetorical view of form, as opposed to the traditional aesthetic view used within literature at that time.

Burke’s early ideas of form and human action lead us directly to Miller’s (1984) discussion of genre as social action. She explains that form, combined with the substance of discourse, permits “that symbolic structures take on pragmatic force and become interpretable actions” (p. 160). She makes clear, however, that form does not mean genre, instead suggesting a definition of genre that has become the discipline-standard for scholars: “typified rhetorical actions based in recurrent situations” (p. 159). Thus, genre is not a property of a text, but a function. Genre organizes constraints on textual production and meaning-making. In outlining this new way of understanding genre, Miller responds to the exigence that hardly any scholars discussed genre similarly at that time, seeing a need for a more stable way to define and analyze genre within the field. In developing what she calls a “rhetorically sound definition of genre” (p. 151), Miller places emphasis on the pragmatic component of texts (as opposed to syntactic or semantic) and gives rhetorical critics a new standard for evaluating genre.

Miller & Shepherd (2004), in “Blogging as Social Action,” use methods that we can consider for genre analysis. Using the semiotic terms from Miller’s (1984) “Genre as Social Action,” they examine at the generic semantic content, the formal features of the genre, and the pragmatic value of blogs as social action, deducing that the blog as genre “addresses a timeless rhetorical exigence in ways that are specific to its time.” This study demonstrates the work that we may do for this course or for our dissertations. We see through the blog example that digital media engender new genres. The Internet was able to accommodate the cultural exigence, and thus the genre emerged.  So, as digital media scholars, how can we explore emerging or evolving genres? It seems that many of the rhetorical concepts we are covering this semester are useful for this type of study: determining the kairotic moment for genre emergence, looking at the form (formal features) of text, and the exigence out of which the genre develops, just to name a few. Miller & Shepherd identify a key problem that we may encounter in our studies: they identify blogs as “a rapidly moving target,” reflecting on the constant evolution and adaptation of digital media and genres. How can we identify generic features if they are constantly changing?

Upon re-evaluation a few years after their original study, however, Miller & Shepherd (2009), conclude that blogs are not genres, but a medium, hypothesizing, “when they were new, the medium was the genre; but adoption and experimentation led to differentiation and the multiplication of genres anchored in the same medium” (283-4). Now, the blog medium, with all of the tools that a person needs to create and maintain their own blog, carries blog genres: political blogs, photography blogs, academic blogs, family blogs, and many more, each of which can serve as a subject for genre analysis in their own right.  Miller & Shepherd show that while media can carry genres, they are not genres in and of themselves. Genre and medium seem to have a symbiotic relationship, but it is important to distinguish between the two concepts to determine where a medium simply provides affordances for a genre, and where the true social action through discourse takes place. Placing a genre in a new medium – for example, taking a novel and making it available online – would not necessarily create a new genre, as the exigence and social action of the genre has not changed. Are there instances where this does happen? How does the Internet create new kairotic moments or alter social action? Can a person create or “design” a genre? This last question would assume, perhaps, that a person can also create a rhetorical exigence for a new genre.

It may seem that genre criticism is a difficult or futile exercise if genres consistently change and adapt, but as Frow (2006) argues, genre is important to the reading of every text. Genres are real classifications that we use to organize our culture. We rely on genres to establish constraints on how we produce and interpret meaning in texts. Shifting and emerging genres raise important questions of social, technological, and economic change that we as rhetorical critics have the privilege to address. So, if we are going to analyze digital genres, we must think critically about how we can effectively do so. Can we ask the same questions for digital genres as we have about print genres? I don’t think we can. Certainly, print genres may be the antecedents for some digital genres and some similarities may exist between them, but we also have new issues to consider with digital texts. As we’ve established in previous class discussions, we have new exigences to respond to, new ways of constituting audiences, and an overall highly complex rhetorical situation.

References

Burke, K. (1968). Lexicon rhetoricae. Counter-statement. Berkley, CA: U of CA. Original edition, 1931. 123-183.
Burke, K. (1968). On psychology and form. Counter-statement. Berkley, CA: U of CA. Original edition, 1931. 29-44.
Frow, J. (2006). Genre. The new critical idiom series. Ed. J. Drakakis. London: Routledge.
Jasinski, J. (2001). Narrative. Sourcebook on rhetoric. Rhetoric and society, ed. H. Simons. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage. 389-404.
Miller, C.R. (1984). “Genre as social action” Quarterly journal of speech 70, 151-76. Accessed Jan. 24, 2010, via Communication & mass media complete.
Miller, C.R. & Shepherd, D. (2004). Blogging as social action: A genre analysis of weblogs. Rhetoric, community, and culture of weblogs. In L.J. Gurak, S. Antonijevic, L. Johnson, C. Ratliff, & J. Reyman (Eds.), Into the blogosphere: Rhetoric, community, and culture of weblogs. Retrieved Jan. 21, 2010, via http://blog.lib.umn.edu/blogosphere/blogging_as_social_action_pf.html.
Miller, C.R. & Shepherd, D. (2009). Questions for genre theory from the blogosphere. Theories for genre and their application to Internet communication. Eds. J. Giltrow and D. Stein. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.
Perelman, C. (1982). The realm of rhetoric. Trans. W. Kluback. Notre Dame, IN: U of ND. Original edition, 1977.