Chewing on Digital Rhetoric
“What does a digital rhetorician do?”
“What is digital rhetoric?”
“What is rhetoric?”
To most people outside my field, it’s not immediately obvious what my field of study means or what I do. As a degree candidate in Digital Rhetoric and Professional Writing, I hear these questions often from my friends, family, even some of my own colleagues! As rhetoricians, my colleagues and I are often concerned with these types of epistemological questions and end up deeply entrenched in these what does it all mean rabbit holes.
Certainly, we can be sure of some things: many of us are humanists and writers; we live in writing programs such as English or literary-type disciplines or communication programs; more often than not, we’re trained in those types of programs. Because we’re located in different places from university to university, there is some ambiguity over the location of rhetoric. Rhetoric is defined by one of those long-dead Greek guys who says it’s “all the available means of persuasion.” I’m not disagreeing with this definition, but I find it insufficient for defining rhetoric as a discipline. Were I to really fly my rhetoric flag, I would begin by asking “What is a discipline?” but I’ll save you the trip down that rabbit hole. Instead, I’ll share my experience of the academic discipline of rhetoric and how we make sense of the technological affordances of our information society.
In the case of my Master’s program at Michigan State University, we are separate from the Department of English and are instead housed in the Department of Writing, Rhetoric, and American Cultures (WRAC). WRAC is a large department that includes undergraduates, graduate students, and professors engaged in cultural studies, composition studies, rhetoric studies, and professional writing studies. WRAC is also home to the university’s first-year writing program which helps thousands of MSU freshmen meet their Tier-I writing requirements every year.
As a Digital Rhetoric and Professional Writing student, I have had the opportunity to do theoretical inquiry into technical communication, content management, creative non-fiction writing as well as practical skill-building in web development, filmmaking, and teaching. Combined study in rhetorical theory and technical literacies is a unique feature of my program that has afforded myself and my fellow digital rhetoricians opportunities to think heuristically about the application of technology to rhetorical situations such as web and software design, information architecture, multimodal composing, research, and teaching. Graduates from my MA program go on to jobs in web development, user experience design, communications, and technical writing as well as teaching and further graduate study in doctoral programs in information studies, rhetoric, and composition.
Through studying digital rhetoric at MSU, I have developed a philosophy of rhetorical practice that privileges situational, cultural, and audience-specific contexts and utilizes a heuristic, rather than deterministic, view toward the application of technology. In other words, this means that we digital rhetoricians use our training in rhetoric to employ the appropriate digital tools for a particular situation based on the needs and constraints of our audience or users, the time and place, and other conditional factors.
Because of this particular attitude toward technology and rhetoric, digital rhetoricians are well-suited to work in informatics and digital humanities. It bears saying, however, that not all people who identify as rhetoricians have the same attitude about the application of technology to rhetorical situations; and it’s most certainly important to say that not all humanists share this sentiment.
Having situated my local experience with digital rhetoric, I hope to follow-up by tracking the study of digital rhetoric on a broader scale, looking at national conferences and organizations.