Saturday, May 20, 2006

Some Post-Summit reflections on John Gage's and Jim Crosswhite's presentations

It's been a bit more than a week since the New Research Summit. I want especially to thank Suzanne Clark for organizing the Summit--with great help from Carter Soles, Raphael Raphael, and Kom Kunyosying. (Please forgive me if I've omitted anyone else who worked on the Summit.)

I found all the presentations at the conference stimulating. I'm very impressed with the UofO Library's Scholars Bank project, for instance. And I loved learning about the various curricular and pedagogical projects that grad students and faculty discussed.

In this post, however, I want to reflect on Jim Crosswhite's and John Gage's comments at the conference. I'd also like to encourage Jim and John to post their comments here, so that those who didn't attend the conference can read them.

Jim researched, organized, and established the first computer classroom for the English department at OSU. His opening comments for the Summit were, in part, a reflection on all that's happened in online and computer literacies since then. Referring to Richard Lanham's new The Economics of Attention (thanks for the tip, Jim!), Jim characterized contemporary life as "a comedy of abundance" of information, especially online information. Jim went on to emphasize the importance of rhetoric as "the building of attention structures" and argued that attention is best understood as an intellectual virtue: "the power to give the proper attention to the proper things."

My notes on John Gage's talk aren't as complete as my notes on Jim's. (Chalk that up to afternoon conference fatigue.) As I remember it, John's talk was a strongly worded critique of contemporary online discourse. John argued that things get posted to blogs, for instance, but that these posts never develop as arguments. The information is out there, and no one responds. I'm not quite as clear on the next point. In my memory it connected with Jim emphasis on the "comedy of abundance" that writers and readers now face." John also, wondered, I believe, whether we need a new rhetoric to address these new discursive positions. He seemed less certain than Jim that the rhetorical tradition as we understand it could "build attention structures" because he was unsure that, with online discourse, it's possible to organize one's attention.

(Jim and John, please jump in and correct, add, etc.)

I want to thank Jim and John for characterizing so carefully our contemporary online discursive moment. As someone who never expected to have a blog, and who now hosts a personal blog and several academic blogs, I know the sense of vertigo that these new online forms of communication and technologies can bring. Jim and John do an excellent job of characterizing this feeling.

I guess I am more optimistic than Jim and John, however, and for two reasons.

First, the kind of intellectual and rhetorical vertigo that they describe is characteristic of the experiences of readers and writers who are caught up in major shifts in technologies of communication. One of the most well-known examples of this is Plato's fears in The Phaedrus that those who learn to write will have the reputation for wisdom without the reality. But there are other examples. In the eighteenth century, for iexample, the French scholar Diderot, alarmed by the rapid increase in the number of printed books, feared that "the world of learning will drown in books." At roughly the same period, a "German treatise on public health warned that excessive reading induced a susceptibility to colds, headaches, weakening of the eyes, heat rashes, gout, arthritis, asthma, apoplexy, and a host of other disorders. Fresh air, frequent walks, and washing one's face periodically in cold water were prescribed for solitary readers" (source: Gertrude Himmelfarb. "A Neo-Luddite Reflects on the Internet." The Chronicle of Higher Education, 11/1-96, p. A56.

When I was growing up, there were many dystopian warnings that television would ruin my generation. In 1956, for instance, educator Gerald Thorsen, in a statement strikingly reminiscent of Diderot's, complained that students at that time were "lost to a world of mass media: tv, radio, motion pictures, newspapers, and comic books." As a result, he said, "the cultural uses of language have been excluded. We have forgotten about books" (Source: Himmelfarb).

That's my generation that Thorsen is fretting about--and we seem to have remain attached to books, at least those of us in the academy.

I think what we're experiencing is real: for someone of my generation there can seem to be an overabundance of information, as well as new technological developments that arrive at a staggeringly fast rate. Ask younger folks, like my copresenter Michael Faris, and he'll tell you that his experience feels quite different from mine.

I'll be briefer about the second reason why I'm a bit more optimistic than Jim and John. This is because I believe that the rhetorical tradition is exactly what we and our students need as we negotiate the dizzying world of online discourse and technologies.

Whew, this is a long blog entry, so I'll close for now! Would anyone like to develop my second point about why rhetoric and the rhetorical tradition are just what online writers and readers can depend upon.

And, again, John and Jim, I hope you'll post your comments for all to read.

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