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Beyond the pen

Beyond the pen

UCI English professor co-edits book on digital writing and rhetoric

A new book co-edited by Jonathan Alexander, Chancellor’s Professor of English and informatics at the University of California, Irvine, and Jacqueline Rhodes, professor of writing, rhetoric, and American cultures at Michigan State University, explores how advances in technology and digital tools change the way we write and think. The Routledge Handbook of Digital Writing and Rhetoric (Routledge, 2018) features essays from 51 scholars from around the globe on a wide range of topics, including the histories of writing across diverse media, issues of regulation and control of digital spaces, the increasing use of multiple media platforms to facilitate participation in storytelling and popular culture, and political activities enabled and supported by digital forms of writing and rhetorical activity. 

The book builds off of Alexander and Rhodes’ previous award-winning works On Multimodality: New Media in Composition Studies (2014), Techne: Queer Meditations on Writing the Self (2015), and Sexual Rhetorics: Methods, Identities, Publics (2015).

Here, Alexander, an expert on new media studies, digital literacies, young adult literature and writing/rhetoric studies, discusses the book and writing today.

Q. What was the genesis for this book?

A. Jackie and I have long been interested in how writing with different tools shapes what is possible for us to do with writing — and how we imagine writing allowing us to “do stuff” in the world. We both understand writing as a technology (whether analog or digital!) that allows us not only to understand, but also to shape, the world around us. We’ve been asking ourselves (and others) for years the question, “how might digital tools, especially given their communicative reach across much of the globe, enhance the capacity of writing to create rhetorical, material, and even political change today?”

Q. As a professor, how do you incorporate new technologies into your classroom? How have students incorporated new technologies?

A. I regularly ask my students to “make” things, such as videos or podcasts. In my recent class on young adult (“YA”) fiction, I asked students to compose podcasts about their favorite YA books or about important themes in YA that we could then share with Irvine Unified School District faculty for dissemination to their high school students. IUSD faculty visited my class and talked about the kinds of books they wanted to teach and that they thought would be useful. My students responded by identifying texts and themes in YA that would appeal to high school students, and they created podcasts, roughly fifteen minutes each, in which they discussed young adult fiction. I was impressed by how eager students were to use this medium, introducing snippets of conversations with authors and other “sound effects” to help them talk about YA. My students also loved the collaborative nature of the exercise, a key part of much work with digital media, and they took very seriously the promotion of reading YA through the podcast medium!

Q.  As is typical whenever there are technological advances, there are people who bemoan the loss of “real” communication. You have been quick to refute claims that technology is hindering literacy and communication among younger generations. Would you speak to this?

A. Yes, I don’t think that digital tools necessarily damage us as communicators; in fact, they have the capacity to enhance greatly our rhetorical awareness. With that said, we should be careful not to lose other forms of communication as we embrace new forms. I still find it useful to hand-write letters or cards to folks, and find it very moving to receive such missives. I also think that we should reserve time to slow down and read carefully. Experiencing so much text in online forms might speed up our sense of the world, but we can still make the choice to slow down, savor words, consider what we ourselves want to say, and pause before we click “send”!

Q.  You worked with Carol Burke, UCI professor of English, to author an essay for this collection titled, “The Invisible Life of Elliot Rodger: Social Media and the Documentation of a Tragedy.” Would you tell us about this piece and how it came about?

A. In 2014, Carol Burke and I watched with horror the unfolding tragedy in Isla Vista, CA where Elliot Rodger killed six UC Santa Barbara students. I’m grateful that Burke, as a professional journalist, wanted to talk with me about Rodger’s extensive use of social media, including the creation of a whole series of odd videos (like video selfies) before he committed the massacre. We spent a summer a few years ago thinking, researching, and writing about Rodger’s use of social media, and I’m proud that our chapter paints a complex portrait of a troubled man’s use of digital tools. We need more documentation of such use to better understand how digital tools can be used, both for good and for ill.

Q. In the book, you and Rhodes refrain from defining the technological mediums that make digital writing possible and refrain from defining digital writing and rhetoric themselves. Why?

A. New tools are always coming into play, and the platforms that we have cherished all too quickly disappear. Writing about digital tools and “new media” is always tricky because what you are touting today might be gone tomorrow! Our hope is to catch a sense right now of what’s going on in the development, dissemination, and use of a variety of digital tools to enhance and perhaps even alter our sense of what it means to write and act rhetorically — that is, to understand how the communication platforms that surround us and have become part of our daily lives actually shape how we understand the world, as well as how we might participate in that world actively and critically. Inevitably, what we offer will be obsolete in ten years — or perhaps less! But creating that archive for now is useful, and hopefully our efforts will encourage others to pick up where we leave off and continue telling the story of the relationships amongst digitality, writing, and being rhetorical.

Q. What do you hope readers take away from this book?

A. I hope readers will recognize the complexity of what it means to be a “writer” right now — but will also understand that complexity as a challenge and opportunity. We have so many ways available to us to tell our stories. Learning how to use the available digital means of persuasion and communication — and learning to keep learning them! — is key for contemporary communication.

Photo credit: Steve Zylius / UCI

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Annabel Adams