I'm presenting today at 2:00pm (I.36--note, if you're at the conference, it's back up at the Marriott, not the convention center). If you don't want to make the hike back up the hill or find yourself bonking out late into conference day 2, I'm linking to my presentation text and PowerPoint here:
Conferencing continues. I'll hopefully have reflections up re: ATTW 2018 soon. But there is no rest for the wicked and the righteous don't need it as my grandmother would say, so I'm in the middle of CCCC 2018. Day one had a great set of sessions, lots of thought provoking moments both from session leaders and session attendees. But also, reflecting on the material conditions of the conference itself has challenged me in a variety of ways. I hope to have those reflections up soon as well.
I'm presenting today at 2:00pm (I.36--note, if you're at the conference, it's back up at the Marriott, not the convention center). If you don't want to make the hike back up the hill or find yourself bonking out late into conference day 2, I'm linking to my presentation text and PowerPoint here:
As with my ATTW presentation, I've attempted to render the .docx file accessible, but I'm still learning how to render PowerPoints accessible. Both PowerPoints will need extensive alt text for figures and animations. I hope to have that improved and up soon.
After an epic (EPIC!) sprint through DFW (Gate B9 to C19 for those of you who know the airport), I made my connecting flight and successfully arrived in Kansas City, KS for ATTW 2018!
I am excited to be presenting during Session B (B6, Tuesday at 2pm in the Quindaro room for those attending). Below are links to my presentation text and slideshow. If you have any issues or want to contact me about the presentation, feel free to email me at email@example.com.
I look forward to seeing you at the conference!
Beau Pihlaja ATTW 2018 Presentation Text (Word.docx)
Beau Pihlaja ATTW 2018 Presentation* Slide show
(*Apologies, but the PowerPoint here is not yet optimized for accessibility. I hope to have a link to the the document with alt text, etc. soon.)
Fighting on Facebook ruined my life.
There's been a lot of buzz on the internets--in the email digests I find in my inbox, in offline conversations, and of course most ironically on my social media feeds--about how bad social media is for discourse, for us socially or psychologically.
These stories express a variety of concerns but most have to do with the way the apps we use most frequently in some way "change our brains." These concerns are expressed with a varied degree of sophistication. The Economist recently made the connection between neuroscience and the "addictiveness" of social media. Some of the anxiety has centered on the specific impact of smartphones' and social media's impact on teenage neurological and social development. Dr. Jean Twenge's article in the Atlantic last fall about this very issue is emblematic of the worry about a developing "mental health crisis" among "today's" teens.
But there are also shorter pieces that have circulated as well, more "clickbaity" type articles like the one I received in an email newsletter this week and that finally prompted me to write this particular post. In "You Should Never, Ever Argue With Anyone on Facebook, According to Science," Minda Zetlin draws attention to the fact that "New research shows how we interact makes a huge difference." Zetlin summarizes the results of a "new experiment by UC Berkeley and University of Chicago researchers." 300 participants who listened or watched arguments they disagreed with had "a distinct difference" in reaction from those who read the same as text. The willingness to "dismiss the speaker as uniformed or heartless" diminished if you listened or watched versus read what they said.
Zetlin quotes one researcher who said the experiment was inspired by one of the team having the experience of reading a speech excerpt that was printed in a newspaper from a politician with whom he strongly disagreed." By contrast: "The next week, he heard the exact same speech clip playing on a radio station. He was shocked by how different his reaction was toward the politician when he read the excerpt compared to when he heard it."
Zetlin's conclusion is that we are "using the wrong medium" to argue and should instead visit with one another to air our disagreements, talk over the phone, or watch videos about issues instead of just reading the text.
Zetlin has zeroed in on the fact that social media's mode of interaction is hamstrung by the fact it happens via text. In one respect there is a distance between a person's written and spoken words. As a rhetorician I am aware that pathos, emotive appeal of an argument, is a crucial part of connecting with our audience. As a specialist I am interested in how digitally mediated communication impacts intercultural interactions specifically. I am aware of how easy it is to reduce someone and their arguments to a stereotype when "distanced" from them through technology.
At the same time, this argument does not take in to account the potentially negative use of one's embodied presence to persuade. All respect to brother Godwin, but if you replaced "a politician with whom he strongly disagreed" with "Hitler" in the example above, the problem becomes immediately obvious. If one IS persuaded by someone in person, perhaps seeing their words separate from their embodied connection building is a positive, providing insight easily deflected in person. The one is not necessarily "better" or "more real" than the other.
To the narrow question of whether one should argue online or not, a not insubstantial percentage (by no means all) of people I've noted expressing frustration, are people with authority of some kind who sense that they've lost control of ideas, thoughts, and words, when they go online. Which, to be clear, they have. But it is precisely this distance that has the potential to productively challenge our thoughts, ideas, and arguments. It also allows people without power the space to say what cannot be said in the immediate presence of the powerful.
That arguments have to be typed on social media and in some cases limit the amount you can reasonably say, requires you to externalize and edit your thoughts BEFORE you actually "send" them--something that cannot be done in person. Social media is often castigated for requiring very little of people to respond. But even if you're firing something off--you still have to "say it outloud" before you send it.
People's physical presence is a game changer. And in one respect the advice that one think something like "is this something you would say to the person if they were in front of you" before you hit "send" or "reply" is good advice. But there's a subtle sanctimoniousness here that erases the role of power in relationships. In person strong authoritarian or even just charismatic personalities rely precisely on the dynamic created by physical presence to keep people from responding or to go along with them in ways they otherwise wouldn't. And in my own experience, this has been a very bad thing.
Social media, especially Twitter, has proven very detrimental for people of color, women, people who are neuro-atypical, introverted personality types, etc. But it has also been a place for engagement where people who have been shut down in person, in the public, embodied spaces idealized by Zetlin, Twenge, and (whoever it is that writes for) The Economist. In fact, to the extent those social media spaces have been bad for oppressed and marginalized groups, it is precisely because they reinscribe the same dynamics those people experience "in person" in the intimate space of their phone or mobile device.
Regardless, putting arguments in written actually affords a certain distance on those arguments that has the potential to be beneficial. Set within the background network of information access that allows us to double check claims, weigh counter arguments, this can be very good. That we tend not to do this is not social media's fault.
We may not be very good at arguing online. I wasn't necessarily. But it allowed me to express a side of me that remained repressed in a negative way that physical presence had actually nurtured. It also allowed me to get distance on arguments from people who, in person, seemed like such genuine, nice people and indeed were. But in the stark light of textualization, a cold truth about elements of their argument cast their in-person arguments not as something worthy to share, but as condescending, irrational, fearful, and cruel. Their embodied presence made this difficult to see.
These arguments destroyed relationships--deep, long-term relationships. As I said, it "ruined" my life. My life as I knew it before 2012 or so simply does not exist anymore and could not exist again. But in the distance created by the medium I was able to see many were not relationships that should be maintained, built on arguments I should not embrace. I do not want that life back.
We are very much in the infancy of digitally mediated argumentation. I think we need to be very careful with and critical of the technologies we use. Kids and teens especially will need to develop not necessarily "outside" of technology, but as critical participants--able to get distance on the tools themselves. [And, while I appreciate Dr. Twenge's concern for teens and their phones, Baby Boomers recently elected an impulsive, lonely, phone user from their own cohort, whose embodied relational presence has not made things better for a lot of people...]
The point is: critical engagement is something entirely different than "never, ever" doing a thing. Don't argue online if you don't like it or aren't any good at it. I don't really anymore. But don't discourage people for engaging in ways they may not be able to in the way you think they ought. And certainly don't deploy a single study as "Science" in defense of that argument.
Small Postscript: Seriously. Y'all. One study (even of 300 people from UC Berkeley/U. of Chicago!) does not constitute "Science." It is a data point. One that absolutely needs to be taken into consideration. But please, I understand we are all desperately casting about for credible foundations for our arguments and trying to get them past the noise, but you help neither yourself or "Science" by wielding it like a club (a club you can't even be bothered to provide a link to...)
"You can't really do that, but ok."
No one likes to be told they can't do a thing. In this case, I had just said "I'm going to distill [this major research project] into [one] summary article." My colleague looked at me and, knowing full well what I was thinking, said: "you can't really do that."
The most intriguing thing about the exchange for me was that I knew she was right. I just couldn't act on her "rightness." In fact, despite knowing this, I also knew I still had to try and fail before I could figure out what I had to do.
This is an old lesson, one students may never really recognize as an explicit part of their learning process but teachers know it must be true for their students and struggle with it (trying to prevent the failure or prepare a sufficiently clear "I told you so" when the student realizes they haven't "done it right." As a teacher, I have to let a person try a thing and fail in order to learn.
It's weirder when you're a teacher who is also a student. You begin to see yourself as "another" person. As a full time university lecturer and a PhD student I began to have moments where Teacher Beau would turn and say to Student Beau, "You need to do the thing you tell your students to do and [fill in the blank]" Student Beau would usually respond, with an "aha, of course I'll do that." (Though, of course he often would respond with some frustration, "I thought I WAS doing that!" A tense silence would then ensue in this case because every Teacher knows you can't make Students learn anything.)
As an early career researcher and scholar, this same dynamic persists. I can feel Teacher Beau pushing me to draft and send out articles I know that will either be rejected or will require substantial revision to be published. Because precisely in the trying and failing--or, perhaps better, not succeeding fully--and getting productive feedback will you improve/learn/impact. Teacher Beau knew my colleague was right. But Student Beau didn't have another course of action in the moment.
The amount of courage and/or chutzpah needed to persist in such a system is only beginning to occur to me.
And that said, seeing one's self as another is helpful but not inevitably so. I'm realizing how crucial the outside voice is in those moments. I'm grateful for my colleagues' willingness to serve as the outside other so patiently and creatively.
One of the stated objectives for the course I'm teaching this fall, "Professional Report Writing," requires that students be able to "present information orally." Given the course's focus on written reporting and our rhetorical approach to thinking about professional writing, I wasn't entirely sure how to make this component of the class stand out from my students' prior experience in speech and debate classes.
Most of my students are in the field of business, trekking dutifully, twice a week, to the English/Philosophy building. They have taken a number of courses on presentations and public speaking, especially in business contexts. They are juniors and seniors and so, at this point, have given a number of presentations of their individual and group projects throughout their coursework here at Tech.
I had thought of several activities we could do where students engage in micro-presentations and then use the follow up critique and discussion as a way to explore how professional reporting orally relates to the concepts we had explored in class. But my concern was that the amount of time this could take, given our obligations to meet other course objectives, wouldn't leave us enough time for--or worse, wouldn't naturally lead us to--a discussion about how the professional oral report is both rhetorical and related to the previous written work they had done. My fear was also that we'd get hung up on the micro-physics of presenting: how should I stand, should I use note cards, how do I cope with pre-presentation jitters, do I have to dress up, and so on.
Whenever I am struck by some conundrum regarding what I want students to learn and the limitations I face in helping them learn it, I often try to make that visible and invite students to think through the challenge with me. It isn't always helpful for students to see the pedagogical mechanics at work "in" or "underneath" assignments. But I think that--especially with students late in their undergraduate career--it is important to get them thinking in a meta-existential way about what they are doing and why and how the artifice of a class does or does not prepare them to do the thing we're learning about.
So this semester I invited my students to co-create the rubric for the oral presentation with me. I told them that of course it would be easier for them (and me, frankly), if I just sat down and wrote out what I expected of them for the assignment. I told them that some instructors have an enormous amount of courage and co-create entire course syllabi with their students. While I don't have that kind of courage, I thought this would be an opportunity to practice a kind of shared power in evaluating that I hope to move towards more and more as I grow as an instructor.
And on some level it is very much about power and control. I'm as anxious about maintaining control of my classroom as the next instructor. Of course, I understand intuitively that a maximally controlled environment doesn't create ideal learning conditions. It also contradicts my own experience as a learner which is characterized more by a semi-anarchic exploration of whatever interests me in the moment folded back on, or oscillating around previous areas of interest and study I have established for myself.
Make no mistake, it was a bit of an anarchic day in the classroom. Students, recognizing that they have been given a chance to shape how they are evaluated, in a perfectly reasonable attempt to conserve their own energy, tried at first to insist on criteria that they think will be "easier" to complete than others. I have no stones to throw, what instructor hasn't themselves taken the easier path when it comes to assignments?
But I began by asking students to confront head on what they'd been told about presenting previously. What had been emphasized? What do they remember?
Then I invited them to think about this assignment, the oral presentation of their recommendation proposals to be submitted at the end of the term. I asked them: Based on what we've talked about in this class, what should be your focus in this assignment and my focus for evaluating you? I then asked them to come up with criteria for evaluating those points of focus. They then had to prioritize the areas of focus and ultimately divvy up the 100pts allotted to the assignment.
While it took a little doing, in both sections we very quickly got to a discussion about the relationship of form and content, the rhetorical nature of both, and what might be important about presenting orally vs. a written context.
My heart was warmed when, somewhat independently, they recognized that just getting the content straight wasn't really the point of the exercise. But what was important was precisely their ability to clearly, concisely, and professionally present that content in a way that their audience for their proposals recognized as such. They made the connection between the rhetorical approach to writing and the oral presentation.
It was also very much baby steps towards something for me as an instructor that I want for my students, my classrooms, and myself--the classroom as a place of shared inquiry, where our work as co-learners is governed less by formal, reductive evaluation tools (points, letters, etc.) and more by skills of thought and practice that are deeper and more complex than we are used to.
Me: Oh, sweet! You only need three seconds to warm up a pop tart in the microwave!
Narrator: He would need more than three seconds to warm up a pop tart in the microwave.
Classrooms, challenging, fraught spaces though they may be on any given day, can be thrilling, invigorating places to be. Places where something new (even if just new for you) begins and points you toward a better way.
Yesterday was one of those days.
New assignments are always a source of anxiety for me. The thrill of trying something untested is always undercut for me by the concern that the tasks or activity itself doesn't really meet the learning objectives for the course. Or that some unforeseen dynamic will derail the idea. And that anxiety is always compounded when you're trying to work outside your specific area of specialization.
I am not a design person. I love design, but it's not my wheelhouse professionally or personally. But Tuesday was Document Design day in Professional Report Writing.
So I had students break out into 4-5 groups of 3-4 people and assigned them a space on the whiteboards that line the walls on the west and north of the classroom. I drew three blank spaces, an enlarged rectangle to simulate an 8 1/2 x 11" sheet of paper, a 15.6 inch laptop screen, and a 6" smartphone screen. All enlarged to a scale roughly 4:1.
Students then took markers and re-designed the presentation of a document* provided in Tebeaux & Dragga's textbook The Essentials of Technical Communication (3rd ed.). I asked them to redesign it for deployment in both a paper document, but also a web-page, and a smartphone interface.
The exercise, I hoped, would get students thinking about what changes they can make to document's design. But I also wanted thinking about design in the context of two other interfaces that use the paper-document as a governing metaphor. This could challenge students to think more about the complexities of document design, the affordances available to them even on paper, that would aid them as they compose and write in professional settings.
Most of my students this semester are not going in to fields that will require much of them in terms of design. So it seemed to me that the fairly basic nature of the assignment was permissible. Though I am already thinking about how I might re-integrate this kind of work into next semester, earlier and in relation to larger assignments.
They did a good job, really embracing the task and thinking carefully about the design choices they had available to them. The "buzz" these kinds of assignments can create always warms my heart a bit. Overheard snippets of debate about design and composition choices provide ambient feedback about the pedagogical value of the assignment.
If we struggled with the assignment at any point, it was managing the time students had to produce the three documents, some choosing to bail after producing relatively simple design changes with others risking running out of time altogether, delving more deeply into the possibilities than the constraints allowed.
I also wrestled with what it was I wanted the practice of drawing the web-browser and smartphone designs to illuminate about drawing in a more traditional document format (even when electronically represented in PDF or Word document, the conventions created by "paper" still hold in most professional writing contexts).
While it can be unnerving, I sometimes try to make these uncertainties visible to my students, trusting that they can see things I can't. The discussion with my second section was more energetic and fruitful due entirely to improved management of the class time on my part (section one perennially struggles with having to be the guinea pig as I craft this particular course configuration for the first time).
Students seemed to think that designing briefly in the other two interfaces helped them think about content placement, balance, and headings more carefully. The hierarchy of information presentation is incredibly important on a smartphone, but recognizing this allowed us to think about how this is also true on a traditional document--in fact is just as important.
The exercise, again, while simple and certainly needs improvement, was interesting and exciting for both me and my students (for them, because perhaps it made the time go more quickly more than anything else :-). But more importantly it is something I can build on in how I think about instruction, in design and also tech comm/professional writing more generally. I'm also scheming how the assignment could be configured for online deployment.
If you have particular assignments you use in writing or design courses, new ones or ones you have been using for years, I'd love to hear about them!
*Figure 5-15 on p. 109 of the 3rd edition for those who use the text as well.
In my new position with Texas Tech's stellar Technical Communication and Rhetoric program, I have the good fortune to be surrounded by stellar colleagues. Passionate, intelligent people they care very much about the field, what we are doing, where we are headed.
I've appreciated the moments of serendipity that comes from working in the same building as the bulk of my co-workers. From the just-in-time suggestion about a classroom activity or an insightful comment about how to refine a web search, it has been, by far, the best part of my short time here.
My colleagues Drs. Greg Wilson and Rachel Wolford recently published an article, "The Technical Communicator as (Post-Postmodern) Discourse Worker, with the Journal of Business and Technical Communication. In this article they continue to wrestle with the question of what it is technical communicators do and the extent to which the heretofore ubiquitous "postmodern" approach to positioning the technical communicator as subject in the workforce is still a valuable way to consider their position, the nature of their work in the economy. It showed up for me just as I was wrestling with Jeyraj's article about which I posted last time. They challenge my thinking in very productive ways.
Wilson and Wolford give a very useful overview of how and the extent to which "postmodernism" gave technical communicators the ability to "map the terrain," if you will, of the social, cultural, and economic dynamics with which this kind of "knowledge worker" had to contend.
Yet they note there is a substantial limit to the value of a "hermeneutics of suspicion" that po-mo theory advanced (Henry, 2006, is the exemplar here). Rather, the shift needs to be to one of "action" a "hermeneutics of situation," a post-postmodern perspective which Nealon (2012) proposes be an: "active engaged praxis within existing conditions" (p. 111, quoted in Wilson and Wolford, 2017, p. 18). This dovetails, according to Wilson and Wolford, with Gramsci's "war of position" whereby "all societal groups can engage in counter-hegemonic action to redefine the commonsense assumptions that constrain what is possible and sanctioned by the most dominant societal groups" (p. 18).
If postmodernism enabled us to position technical communicators "critically," (and here I think Jeyraj's positioning of tech comm knowledge workers as "liminal" still holds), the pivot to a "post-postmodern" provides a "theoretical base whose critique is generative and not suspicious" as well as built on a "set of skills that provide access to workplace discourse, and "a workplace whose interest in distributed efficiency coincides with a worker's interest in discourse authorship" (Wilson & Wolford, 2017, p. 21).
If the post-postmodern terrain is a space of discursive guerrilla warfare (to paraphrase and apply Gramsci here), then Wilson and Wolford propose mêtis as a tactic we teach students to use. A Greek term defined as "cunning intelligence" (2017, p. 22). Here Wilson and Wolford call upon Dolmage (2009), DeCerteau (2011), and Brady (2003) to flesh out what using this "flair, forethough, subtlety of mind, deception, cleverness, opportunism, and experience might mean for technical communicators (Dolmage, 2009, p. 5, quoted in Wilson and Wolford, 2017, p. 22) .
They see in Slack (2003) a gesture of what this might look like:
The lesson that is revealed for technical communicators by these lines of flight is, to my thinking, that technical communicators need, apart from the more obvious technical skills (basic writing and speaking skills for example) a finely tuned sense of what it means to negotiate the affective terrain within which their discipline is composed. (p. 205, quoted in Wilson and Wolford, 2017, p. 23)
Greg and Rachel's article came at a kairotic moment for me as I am trying to take advantage of this brief lull between the completion of my PhD and the full onslaught of obligations that beset tenure-track professors. Given my interests in Activity Theory and Actor-Network Theory I am all here for a focus on praxis and activity. I fully support the notion that "operationalizing" postmodern categories of critique is of limited value. But I think the suspicious "mapping" practices of critical theorists still need to be in the curriculum, tech comm or otherwise.
The implication of Nealon's claims that it might be possible to take "rampant commodification of fast, late, or just-in-time capitalism as a neutral beginning premise" (Wilson and Wolford, 2017, p. 15) doesn't sit well with me (Wilson and Wolford, to be fair, note it is "provocative"). And I may just be beholden to notions of value inherent to systems that may not be justified or warranted. There is something exciting, joyful, and potentially productively transgressive about the idea of mêtis.
But I am still gripped by the idea that we as writers, technical communicators, citizens, persons generally should be able to control our processes with precision. I'd be curious to see if or how you can "systematize" a pedagogy of mêtis. Because I am still obligated to meet learning objectives, to homogenize to one extent or another my teaching practices so that the commodity of a "technical communication education" can be assessed across students' experiences (ultimately by those who own the means of knowledge work production, if we are honest).
I will certainly need to keep wrestling with this. You should too. Read Greg and Rachel's article. Cite it in your published work, early and often. If you have thoughts, leave me a comment!
I studied rhetoric and composition/writing studies at the University of Texas at El Paso. Early in my coursework, as does every student, I came face to face with the question "what is 'rhetoric'?" I joke that the way most people use the word "rhetoric" they mean something like "lying." So when I tell people I have a PhD in "Rhetoric," I wonder what they think. The exceptions to this assumption, I have found, are theologians and lawyers who understand the nature of rhetoric historically and as part of their fields. I'll leave you to your own counsel about whether rhetoric-as-lying still applies in their cases as well...
Midway through my PhD coursework, I slowly began to wonder if rhetoric as a field of academic study had any substantive content of its own or if it was simply "parasitic" on other fields. I was relieved to know this was a common concern and that the field did indeed have answers to the question what does rhetoric provide as a matter of substance.
As my research and study took me into the sub-field of "technical communication" the sense of what it is I independently as a researcher and scholar provide returned, though somewhat muted. This question is fraught with implications from the personal to the social and cultural as well as the political (the value of the humanities is perennially the subject of derision among politicians). So it's one that recurs occasionally.
Recently, while revisiting Angela Haas's 2012 article "Race, Rhetoric and Technology" I found myself chasing down citations in her bibliography in more depth than I had before. There Joseph Jeyaraj's 2004 JBTC article "Liminality and Othering" caught my attention. Here he makes the case that "technical writers" are "liminal subjects" (p. 15). He summarizes Turner's (1974) definition of "liminality" as that "state of flux that emerges at a particular stage in the temporal process of a community" (p. 15). He also builds on Gaonkar's argument "that all rhetorical knowledge is characteristically liminal" (p. 16). For Jeyraj, rhetoric "as a liminal discipline, is able to freely interact with the discursive practices of different disciplines so that new ideas and fresh knowledge of these discursive practices may emerge" (p. 17).
This article resonated so fully and suddenly anew because I've been recently wrestling personally and professionally with being a "liminal" person, someone who has always found himself inhabiting "in between" spaces, physically, socially, culturally, intellectually. I suffer with bouts of insecurity (as I imagine everyone does at one time or another) about what it is I do. Academic research is very much about pushing out past the boundaries of what is known and accepted so you often find yourself trying to think and write things with very few people around you, conceptually--perhaps only a few luminaries pointing the way, equally lonely themselves. As a profession it simply exacerbates our natural anxieties circulating around meaning in our lives.
I suspect also that this question lingers because we value the concrete, the material, that which can be built and "cited" more quickly. But as Jeyraj and others have noted, the liminal work of rhetoric--or really any kind of "translation" work, be it conceptual or linguistic, is extraordinarily valuable. At least, that is what keeps me working day to day...
Beau Pihlaja, PhD
Exploring our global connections.