This afternoon at the 2013 SUNY Cow luncheon keynote, Richard Miller delivered a talk titled, “Who’s This For? Audience in the Classroom without Walls.” Among other things, Miller addressed the challenges of motivating students to be interested in the topics we assign (and even that they choose) within our composition classrooms—to be interested in anything. Part of this challenge, he argued, is a result of the Internet and the distractions of 21st-century digital environments (paging Cathy Davidson).
This keynote was part illusion to newness (we’re in a new era where everything we know about learning and composing is brand-spanking new), part appeal to tech innovation (we have all of these new composing software and publishing tools), part fear-based rhetoric (if we don’t adapt quickly, we will become irrelevant to our tech-savvy, uninterested students). Although I think many scholars have spoken to all three of these points—both in agreement and through critique—it is this last point that I want to focus on, the fear that often accompanies the introduction of new technologies within our disciplinary spaces.
I chuckled when, during one of many jokes, Miller told us that he teaches apocalyptic-themed courses, “if you can believe it.” Indeed I could—particularly after the apocalyptic tones undergirding his presentation that seemed to foreshadow the ills of the Internet on our students, our teaching, and our cultural knowledge.
I’ve been troubled by this all day, so I thought of this keynote while reading Barry Brummet’s article “Burke’s Representative Anecdote as a Method in Media Criticism.” Brummet argues that a particular focus of Burke’s work is to show how the different parts of literature occur and recur as responses to particular situations, which then give us examples for how to live those situations (479). Through dramatism, when something is represented to us, that representation is a summation of the thing’s existence, and the dramatic—perhaps translated here as simply performed—responses of individuals make up the essence of human action (480).
What is represented to us through media influences how we perform our daily lives.
Another component of this situation is the representative anecdote. Brummet defines an anecdote as the “dramatic form which underlies the content, or the specific vocabulary, of discourse” (480). Another way to think about it is as “a lens, filter, or template through which the critic studies and reconstructs this discourse” (481). The representative anecdote, then, is a reflection of particular cultural values, concerns, interests (482). It underpins media discourses and offers us a lens through which to analyze the discursive effects on audiences.
The final component that needs to be mentioned here is xeroxing:
Xeroxing is the duplication and replacement of humans with evil, inhuman copies that are difficult to detect. The act of duplication occurs in a scene of rapid change and decay. This act of duplication is carried out through technological conspiracies. The replacements themselves are marked by a poverty and uniformity of purpose, the sign of a loss of humanity. (486)
Xeroxing returns to the idea of fear. Brummet writes, “With a fear of change comes a sense that change means decay” (486), a tidy connection back to Miller’s keynote. So let me break that down a little.
Xeroxing as a representative anecdote is the narrative of technology as this new thing that is changing everything. As Palmeri notes in Remixing Composition, new technologies tend to be regarded in two extremes: overexuberance and fear (6). In this afternoon’s keynote, fear reigned supreme, taking particular form within the meme (Miller’s example was lolcats).
Through the meme, we can trace Brummet’s argument. For example, xeroxing through the process of duplication exists within a culture of 1) rapid change and 2) decay. Aside from viral videos, no other media are as rapidly changing as memes. It seems like there are 100 new viral memes each week, and the meme by its very nature is ever-evolving as new users adapt them to craft new arguments. However, as heard in today’s keynote, this influx of memes also marks decay of intellectual interest—purposeful misspellings, silly jokes, an obsession with finding and watching the newest and funniest thing. That is, the meme signals a loss of humanity, a loss of the composition student as we (think we) used to know her.
Xeroxing also “expresses that fear of The Enemy” (488), which presents another interesting tension. Brummett notes that antagonists are portrayed in the media as flat caricatures, and the articulation of the Internet-as-enemy follows this representation. When we position the Internet at large as the enemy of intellectual inquiry, we flatten its multidimensionality and, thus, the opportunity that it provides students. If students are interested in memes, why not create a culture jamming assignment where students actually have to create memes surrounding a particular theme or criticism?
Through xeroxing as a representative anecdote, Brummet argues that “audiences are armed to accet, reject, or attempt to change the real course of events depicted in the media” (491). If the audience are our students, presumably pre-occupied with memes, then they are agents attempting to change the course of events through the production and dissemination of memes. If the audience are fearful instructors, however, we are doomed to failure if we are determined to reject these interests as anti-intellectual or unproductive to the classroom.
We set ourselves up for failure if we think that the Internet and students’ use of the Internet is inherently anti-intellectual. Part of this fear-based rhetoric of changing technologies is that it doesn’t give enough credit to either the technologies discussed or the students who act agentively within these spaces. Yes, I’m sure many students spend countless hours on YouTube simply consuming media and many of them tweet during class. But so do I.
Does that mean I’m anti-intellectual?
It may simply mean that we need to reconsider the way we attract student attention, motivate students within and outside the classroom, and appeal to interests and learning styles that may be better met within this “digital age.” It may also mean that, as Brummet notes in his conclusion, that we should be more mindful of future discourses that propagate this xeroxing.
Brummet, Barry. “Burke’s Representative Anecdote as a Method in Media Criticism.” 479-93.