Descriptions of courses I teach at the University of Colorado Denver
What distinguishes rhetorical theory from literary theory, social theory, and philosophy? Conversely, how have intellectual movements in these related fields influenced research agendas and pedagogical practices across rhetoric and composition studies?
The rhetorical tradition harbors an array of concepts that are older and more persistent than those of most other disciplines. Ethos, audience, metaphor, delivery—all of these terms were developed by ancient rhetoricians who, at the dawn of alphabetic writing, performed close analyses of speeches in order to identify techniques of effective persuasion and teach them to people. For over two and a half millennia, the art of rhetoric has continued in the face of ever-changing social norms, radically different political circumstances, and many new communication technologies.
To this day, much of rhetorical theory remains anchored in its ancient terminology; and yet, the field’s leading thinkers have always inspired and been informed by new directions in many different areas of research and cultural production. What accounts for this almost paradoxical combination of disciplinary consistency and interdisciplinary vitality is, indeed, the robust, yet malleable nature of rhetoric’s key concepts. Terms such as invention and style have proved stimulating for ancient and modern theorists alike, leaving contemporary rhetoricians with a rich heritage variously constituted through adoption, adaptation, and appropriation.
Furthermore, in addition to these historical reverberations, rhetorical concepts provide unique points of entry into problems at the bleeding edge of fields like economics, law, politics, interface design, and the sciences. During the semester, we will examine contemporary perspectives on six classical terms: context, kairos, invention, gramme, figures, and techne. We will also discuss three recent intellectual movements—cultural studies, disability studies, and media theory—in effort to grasp their implications for rhetoric.
RHETORICS OF TECHNOLOGY: ENVISIONING DIGITAL FUTURES
Inventors and entrepreneurs tend to characterize innovation as a process of trial and error. To innovate is to iterate: make a prototype, learn something from it, and make another prototype. At a certain point, once a decade perhaps, all the tinkering and the hacking yields sudden insight into a bigger picture. The prototype, valuable in itself, comes to inspire a larger conceptual paradigm, a different set of questions and possibilities, a new way of envisioning the digital future. This course is about those pivotal moments, the birth of breakthrough ideas in digital innovation. The final project prompts students to communicate the vital legacy of these ideas to millennials—the generation of aspiring innovators who, despite having grown up with computers, have inherited no innate knowledge of their intellectual history.
For the first eleven weeks of the semester, we will examine influential visions for the future of digital media on two fronts, moving from conceptual invention toward social impacts. We will discuss seminal essays written by the twentieth century’s most visionary, creative technologists such as Vannevar Bush, Alan Kay, and Mark Weiser. In addition to tracing the intellectual history of digital innovation, students will also consider the diverse, unintended effects these technologies have in contemporary culture. Each of the seminal essays will be paired with a film (mostly sci-fi) that draws on the essay to portray life in a fictional digital future. (For example, J.C.R. Licklider’s essay “Man-Computer Symbiosis” will be paired with Stanley Kubrick’s film 2001: A Space Odyssey.) We will engage in debates about how the filmmaker’s imaginative depiction of a technology complicates, adds to, or otherwise reframes the technologist’s initial vision. Always contentious and often generative, the dynamic between lab research and pop culture will be a recurring point of emphasis.
During the last five weeks, students will create short expository videos that introduce so-called “digital natives” to key concepts in the history of computing. As a class, we will also build a website that will host these videos and serve as an online archive for curating further materials relevant for introducing millennials to the intellectual history of digital innovation.
How have computers, the Internet, and smartphones affected the role of writers in contemporary culture? While the ability to compose verbal language remains essential, writers working in online environments must also learn to integrate audiovisual components into the texts they produce. In turn, a writer’s rhetorical training in argumentation, exposition, and narrative may be aptly applied to the design of multimedia artifacts. The underlying goal of this course is to prepare you to work critically and creatively in digital genres that demand a cross-disciplinary facility with words, images, sounds, and software.
We will explore the cultural significance of new media technologies by engaging with their rhetorical affordances. As students in this course, you will not only analyze and interpret multimedia but also use creative forms and practices to make audiovisual content for the Web. Moreover, in order to emphasize a solid humanities perspective on your multimedia authorship, we will discuss relevant techniques and principles exemplified in the works of several contemporary writers, theorists, filmmakers, and sound artists.
This semester, we will focus on creating critical work through video, podcasts, and augmented reality (AR). Each of these mediums provide vehicles for crafting arguments, assembling histories, asking questions, presenting evidence, staging dialogue, and for provoking audiences to take an informed stance on important issues. Today, the same computers we use to write papers also contain all the software needed to produce, edit, and distribute videos, podcasts, and AR projects. Some professional documentarians now make movies with nothing but an iPhone. Bestselling authors are making podcasts series in between books—reaching millions of listeners in addition to thousands of readers. Big tech companies are investing billions of dollars to develop AR technologies for an array of everyday uses.
All of this amounts to a fairly safe bet: each of these digital genres seem poised to become interesting and important avenues for critical thinking, intellectual communication, and rhetorical exchange. Increasingly (and already), these platforms will host work created by a variety of people for a variety of purposes about a variety of topics.
Places matter to people. So-called natural environments, in particular, perpetually inspire bitter disputes, great art, and profound sentiment. Nature influences culture to such a fundamental extent, in fact, that many contemporary thinkers no longer see them as separate spheres of existence. In turn, we may also ask: how have political debates, philosophical/literary texts, and visual media variously shaped and reshaped cultural attitudes toward the environment?
During the semester, we will grapple with this question in two distinct ways.
First, a historical look at the fights for (and against) National Parks in America offers an incredibly interesting case study of the ways in which forests, canyons, wolves, buffalo, and mountain peaks have become subjects of elation, wonder, advocacy, and controversy. Alongside this historical inquiry, we will read literary and scholarly texts written by notable 20th century environmentalists, as well as some artistic works that deal with the relationship between humans and environments. Writing assignments will prompt you to draw on these ideas and traditions for insight into contemporary and local environmental issues.
Next, the course will delve more deeply into the topic of human-animal relations. How do we make sense of our interactions with animals and how do we define ourselves in relation to them? Finally, after reading and watching work related to this theme, we will be working in direct partnership with the Denver Museum of Nature and Science to research and produce curated materials for their extensive wildlife exhibit. Using readily available mobile technologies, the project aims to augment the museum’s current curatorial displays—which conveys scientific information about the animals on display—with additional layers of texts and multimedia that speak to the cultural, aesthetic, and even spiritual significance that these animals have fostered throughout history.
DIGITAL PUBLISHING AND EDITING
This class is a project-driven exploration of the challenges and opportunities that digital publishing introduces for editors, writers, and other professionals who create and curate online content. By nearly all accounts, the Internet’s exponential growth over the past two decades has widely impacted how, why, when, where, and what we read. Those in the business of publishing and editing—who serve as liaisons between writers and readers—must be attentive to current trends in new media. As the technologies of reading continue to bifurcate across multiple platforms, publications of all sorts are diversifying the ways in which they craft material and reach audiences.
One of our main readings will be Dennis Baron’s book A Better Pencil: Readers, Writers, and the Digital Revolution; it will be supplemented with a stream of essays about the future of publishing and more pragmatic articles about the various roles editors play in the twenty-first century. Each week, we will also examine innovative, successful digital publications on the Web. Some of these example will be the digital extensions of longstanding print magazines such as the London Review of Books and Scientific American, though the majority will be “born digital” outlets including Aeon, The Conversation, Nautil.us, a few podcasts series, and much more. By comparing new publishing ventures with previous epochs of reading and writing (a task Baron’s book will help us with), we will seek to understand emerging genres and practices within a broader historical context.
The course’s major project guides students through the process of proposing, launching, and building a small-scale digital publication of their own. (In the forth week, we will assemble into small editorial teams to accomplish this; however, most of the writing assignments will still be solo-authored.) In addition to developing the basic concept for their publication, students will contribute solicited content to it as writers, serve as editors for their teammates’ contributions, model how prospective readers will interact with published content, and assess classmates’ publications from an editorial standpoint.
WRITING SERIOUS NONFICTION
Serious nonfiction books blend scholarly insights with engaging narratives. Unlike academic monographs, they are written primarily for general-interest readers rather than experts in a single field. They address complex topics in an accessible, yet engrossing prose style—the kind of writing that abounds in publications like the Atlantic and the New Yorker. Furthermore, unlike creative nonfiction, serious nonfiction typically avoids memoir or personal anecdotes in favor of story-driven inquiries into cultural history and cross-disciplinary ideas. Serious nonfiction writers conscientiously employ narrative techniques to animate their arguments and theories. They find a way to emphasize character, conflict, and dramatic structure even as they’re writing about the intricacies of neuroscience or prehistoric geology.
The genre-defining objective is to create challenging intellectual experiences for a broad readership, without grossly dumbing things down and without alienating non-specialists. It’s hard but rewarding. At their best, serious nonfiction books become national bestsellers and win prestigious awards; accordingly, publishers are very serious about publishing them.
This course immerses students in serious nonfiction, positioning them as critical readers and aspiring authors. Throughout the semester, we will analyze and discuss several representative, acclaimed books in order to identify key genre conventions, as well as to gain appreciation for a diversity of stylistic approaches and viable topics. In addition, through a series of guided exercises, students will develop their own book idea. We will learn the components of a book proposal and how editors assess them. Each student will draft and revise a complete proposal that establishes the book’s scope, chapter structure, audience, and distinguishing attributes. Students will then write a sample chapter. In all, these two assignments should amount to 25-30 pages of revised prose: roughly 10 pages for the proposal and 15-20 pages for the sample chapter. Landing a book deal in 16 weeks is, of course, not the expected outcome. But students will learn what the process entails and take the first steps with which every author begins.
Print media and digital media are usually thought to be in conflict. Every day, Google inches closer toward its goal to digitize all of the world’s books, the average person devotes more time to the screen than to the page, and publishers are eagerly experimenting with emerging technologies and multimodal formats. But print is not dead—not even close. In fact, some of the most radical initiatives in electronic publishing today aim to make print and digital media work together in new ways.
These trends in publishing relate closely to shifts in digital culture. The global spread of smartphones and tablets is changing the nature of the Internet. In addition to using computers to access cyberspace, people are increasingly using mobile devices to interact with digital content that inhabits the physical world around them. In the future, we will attach, link, and sync multimedia to just about anything; today, the most compelling site where this can occur is print media. According to Bill Buxton, the Principal Researcher at Microsoft Research, “Everywhere you see a poster or sign, paper or otherwise, is going to be an interactive display in the next few years.” Our goal this semester is to envision and evaluate how this new technology might serve to augment the core values and unique experiences of cultural institutions.
In addition to analyzing recent innovations in electronic publishing, students will produce digitally-enhanced print media intended for use by cultural institutions such as museums, historical sites, libraries, public art, etc. Students will work in teams—and in loose collaboration with a relevant organization in Denver—to critically engage with the creative opportunities that digitally-enhanced print offers for civic involvement and cultural expression. More precisely, each team will create three working prototypes and write, design, and publish an interactive iBook that showcases these prototypes and proposes ways in which certain cultural institutions might incorporate digitally-enhanced print to benefit their audiences. Throughout the semester, the course readings will prompt discussions about critical issues pertinent to the major assignments.
LITERACY AND TECHNOLOGY
This seminar foregrounds the material forms and techno-cultural practices through which writing, reading, and other acts of literacy have developed throughout history. Major topics include the manuscript era, the history of the book, and the nascent impact of digital media on rhetorical, linguistic, and literary traditions.
This online course surveys the sublime, a concept for thinking about nature, art, and literary language—and the profound effects those things can have on us. Readings will range widely across different epochs. We will start with the ancient rhetorician Longinus and continue through eighteenth century British aesthetics and twentieth century continental philosophy. (Some contemporary stuff is sprinkled in throughout, too.) Our online discussion will focus on pivotal moments in this historical discourse on the sublime as an uncanny mode of human experience. Weekly writing assignments will also ask you to ponder the place of sublimity today.
Arguments that proceed by propositional logic—clear premises linked together in a sequential chain of reasoning—can be effective. But they can also be boring. Unless you are addressing a captive audience (e.g., jurors in a courtroom, students in a classroom), your argument must captivate people. Why should they read or listen to your words? Validity, accuracy, and precision are not enough. Finding information on the Web, during the actual moment when we need it, may be much more efficient and convenient than sifting through your ten-page essay. You have to give your audience more than a series of claims to sift through.
The ancient Greeks faced a similar challenge. The scene: hoards of land-owning men gathered in the town square (formerly called an “agora”), several at once vying to win the crowd’s attention. With no microphones, only the loudest could be heard. Among them, only the most provocative, compelling, timely orators were listened to. You wanted to be one of those skilled few. Major decisions were made at these gatherings: war or peace? freedom or bondage? feast or famine? life or death? The agora was the cradle of democracy, the only place where persuasive language carried more weight than brute force. The strongest voice won.
So, what makes an argument powerful? This question fascinated the ancient Greeks. They argued constantly, even about the very nature of argumentation itself. From their arguments—the ones they wrote down—emerged the body of knowledge we call rhetoric. Throughout much of the past 2,500 years, rhetoric has been at the heart of Western education. Why? Because skill in rhetoric, both in speaking and writing, enables citizens to become critical and influential participants in the communities they comprise. At work, at home, around town—anywhere. Rhetoric prepares people to argue a case, inspire a group, acquire funds, win votes, publish a book, etc. To achieve any of this, one needs to observe a basic lesson of rhetoric: it’s just not about what you know; it’s about how you convey that knowledge to audiences.
People are not like computers, most of the time. Sure, we appreciate sound reasoning, but true and false are not the only drums we beat to. For us, unlike a computer, language is never isolated from the rest of the world and the sum total of our experiences in it. Language that engages us engages the world as we each live it. Of course, the alphabet is an abstract system. Communicating via an abstract system in order to intervene in the manifold circumstances of living beings is a tricky business.
To this end, the history of rhetoric has amassed a vital resource: rhetorical figures (aka “figures of speech,” “schemes,” “tropes,” “stylistic devices”). Rhetorical figures infuse arguments with kinds of logic that differ from the formal denotations that govern language in ordinary usage. Metaphor, metonymy, and hundreds of other rhetorical figures variously remix ordinary language and provide for alternative, captivating methods to formulate intellectual positions.
Furthermore, people constantly turn to figurative language in order to make sense of the unknown. Analogies are a classic strategy. Throughout history, new situations emerge that demand new ways of seeing and understanding our evolving world. Today, of course, many of the new situations we inhabit are tied to rapid technological innovation. Thus, in addition to studying various examples from popular culture, we will devote attention to the ways in which contemporary writers and thinkers incorporate rhetorical figures into the arguments they make about new media, the Internet, and the cultural impacts of all things digital.
During the semester, we will (1) perform close readings of advanced texts about rhetoric, (2) analyze the role of rhetorical figures in popular culture and in critical discourse on digital media, and (3) experiment with rhetorical figures to enhance our own prose and structure our own arguments.