Category Archives: e-rhetoric

the high summer turn, books, and a consideration of method

I don’t look forward to it, but the week of the 4th of July strikes high summer – the turning point of summer towards autumn. The green starts to fade, the wildflowers start to seed, and I have to get my fall book orders in and start some serious work on syllabi.

The bookstore asks faculty to get book orders for fall in to them by April – five months early. Lately, the request has become a demand as they try to set deadlines for book orders. If I know the course is ready, I try to get an order in during spring. But for upper-division clases, and classes that need revision, I use the first month of summer to re-think the books. If a book didn’t work in the last offering, I want to change it – and that means reviewing student feedback on the course that comes in after the course is over.

I changed books in three of four classes this semester. Tech Writing remains the same: Graves and Graves, A Strategic Guide to Technical Communication. For A&E, I’m staying with OUP’s So What? but have changed the target text – the text we’re all reading to see how scholarly argument proceeds. This year it’s Jenkin’s, Ford, and Green, Spreadable Media. It’s written in the scholary register that students in Argumentation are expected to use.

For the Comp Theory grad seminar, I updated to Villanueva and Arola, Cross-Talk, 3rd edition – not because it’s a better edition but because the 2nd is no longer in print. And I dropped Wysocki, et al, Writing New Media for a broader source book, Lutkewitte, Multimodal Composition. That was a sacrifice, but new media has moved on and a sourcebook provides a better starting point for grad students in theory.

I made the biggest change in E-Rhetoric. For the second time, I’ve dropped Stoner and Perkins, Making Sense of Messages for Longaker and Walker, Rhetororical Analysis. Stoner and Perkins is far stronger on method, but Longaker brings in more focus on rhetorical concepts. Cheaper, too.

I keep finding that undergrad students are not enamored by a focus on method. They want to get to the rhetorical concepts and use the ad hoc methods they have developed informally in high school and their first couple of years at college. It’s frustrating. I say, “Look, there’s a method to this madness, a set of practices your professors use to figure out what a text means and how it works. We don’t work by intuition. You can learn the method. It takes some practice, but it will hold you in good stead.”

“Nah. Let’s just start and you can tell us when we’re right. We learn video games by trial and error. Let’s try that here, ok?”

A focus on method lets us develop far more insightful and significant analyses, but the process is intially tedious, requring repeated close observations and close description before bringing in rhetorical concepts. So I’ve toned down the emphasis on method for the looser hit-or-miss approaches students are in the habit of using. I’ll sneak in method by way of exercises and illustrations of how to proceed. It’s back to correcting student making instant conclusions and moving away from the analytical terms of rhetoric to informal terms, but those corrections are how we tend to learn: by closer and close approximation. Anyway, I’ll remix a lite version of method from Stoner and Perkins and bring that in as How to Proceed. Scaffolding.

weeks 2 and 3 in e-rhetoric

Weeks 2 and 3 in E-Rhetoric

We got stuck into method, with S&P’s chapters 2 and 3, with exercises in SeeingAsACritic. The in-class discussion focused on distinguishing between evaluative observatipns – like this

  • Swallowing observation in interpretation or evaluation. “The page is marred by an ugly logo.” Description is neutral. Describe the page, the logo, the placement.

and further refining observing by stepping outside of the rhetorical interaction. The mis-step occurs when you

  • Describe the viewer’s action rather than the object. “The viewer’s eye is drawn to the red logo.” This is not a description of the page from outside the rhetorical exchange but a description of a possible reaction by a viewer. “There is a bright red logo in the corner. This is the only spot of red on a page with a black background and white text.” That is a description. On analysis, you would consider how that design works to control attention.

My notes SeeingAsACriticDebriefing highlights a couple well-worked sets of notes.

Week three brought in theory in the form of Classical Rhetoric, S&P chap 9. FirstPassAtCriticalMethodExerciseis a trial run in describing, characterizing, and cataloguing the elements in a rhetorical message, in a set of notes.

This exercise doesn’t call for an essay. You’re not making an argument. You’re not being asked to come up with ideas or evaluate anything. You’re getting some practice in a method – describing the text and context – and in seeing rhetorical elements in that text

The text is a common one, and one that is often thought as having nothing rhetorical about it: The Tech Writing landing page at MSU Mankato:

Of course, everything about this page is rhetorically active – which is why it makes for good practice in observing, note-taking, and cataloging. It makes you look twice, or three times, or more.

With this exercise, I also introducted notetaking-as-method full force by asking students to struture their notes under headings:

Description of page
Description of context

Then, from S&P Chap 9, the method asks students to cataloge the rhetorical devices they see operating in the page. A good description would provide some of these devices, but, even more a good description attunes the critic towards seeing elements of


What gets seen? The images. What gets missed? The relationship between the text and the images. What gets seen? The use of purple and yellow. What gets missed, at first: the use of those colors (with black) as an appeal to character: ethos, “regalia” as one student noted. What gets seen? The text in the central pane. What gets missed: The register of the text (part of style), the presence of headings (style, but how they are named is ethos again). Arrangement tends to be a problem because there are at least three:

-the page as a whole is arranged. We need to consider page flow. It’s not as simple as “this attracts the eye first.” There’s far more going on.

– each of the navigation bars (4, by my count) is arranged in its own taxonomy

– the text in the light central pane is arranged in three columns (it doesn’t flow from column to column) (look closely at how that text is laid out: each column is framed to create a block.)

Also up for discussion (which is why this is a good exercise): What elements do we place in delivery and memory? That the links on the page do not change color when followed tosses memory to the user. Delivery is going to include the colors, the need to use a light pane to hold text for legibility, the browser window and design of the page as non-flexible, how the side bar menus operate (the item selected unfolds to reveal the taxonomy, good for focus but also demands audience memory), presence and use of a sesrch field. perhaps placement of the large footer and placement of the social icons there …

And we haven’t even started talking about visual repetition, visual metaphor (although the observation that the colors invoke regalia is part of how the page creates a visual style), or metonymy (how the page stands in for the organization not of the physical campus but a conceptual campus).

What’s next? Week Four

For week four, we’re on to S&P chap 4, and the first project, a small one to start: TextAndContextInFourWebsitesProject. This moves into some serious description of both text and context. It asks students to find 4 web sites that illustrate the 4 ways that text responds to the context, as worked with in S&P, chap 4: conformity, non-participation, desecration, contextual reconstruction. Easy enough, except, I found as I worked through the problem, deciding whether a site engages in non-participation of the context or is engaging contextual reconstruction of the context is a matter of making a case, and making a case means describoing both closely enough that oyu can make the case. That is, I had to persuade myself that an artifact was not really reconstructing the context but simply engaging in non-participation.

I was trying to decide how the OK Go video of A Million Ways responds to context. I wanted to see it as reconstructing the context, but given my description of the video and context, I figureed it could be opertating as non-participatipn. To decide, I had to look more closely at the context of the period and the placement of the artifact as an independent video by an independent, not mainstream, band, and to consider who choreographed it. Tricky, and I’m still working on it.