Scholarship

SUNY COW 2013

Yesterday, some of the This Rhetorical Life podcast crew presented at the 2013 SUNY Council on Writing (COW) Annual Conference about the podcast’s founding while raising critical questions about what the medium can mean for the future of the discipline.

I started with a discussion of how podcasts take up and complicate calls for multimodal composition. Ben talked about how the immediacy of a podcast mixed with its dialogic nature invites Comp Rhet into current political discussions. And Karrieann talked about the various issues that arise in relation to “voice” (dialect, multiple Englishes, inclusion and questioning of diverse voices).

Below is the presentation I gave.

***

“Podcasting as Alternative Publication Medium: An Enactment of Multimodal Scholarship”

I have to make a confession that might be a strange way to jumpstart this panel, but here it is: I don’t listen to podcasts. I have a really difficult time focusing on audio, which is why I never know the words to my favorite songs and cannot, for more than a few minutes, focus at conferences without a handout or a specific task—like note taking or tweeting. This is why you all have handouts today.

I’m co-executive producer of This Rhetorical Life, though, and I came to this project interested in participating in a project that would help create and distribute disciplinary information through a digital medium. I’ve worked on other podcast projects before, particularly within the context of writing centers, and believe strongly in their value as disciplinary resources.

My contribution to this panel, then, is an offering—the possibility of podcasts as an academic genre, a space to share research, an opportunity to produce multimodal scholarship.

To start, a clip from a podcast with Jason Palmeri about his recent book, Remixing Composition: A History of Multimodal Writing Pedagogy. In this particular snippet, Palmeri discusses multimodality’s status in the field and how it might be viewed by teachers at a variety of levels:

To a certain extent, multimodality has definitely become, I think, much more accepted across a wider group of the field at this point then it was when I first began this project. And yet, I still think it remains a perennial challenge to support teachers in making that turn in their pedagogy across the field. And also I think there’s still the tendency to equate the multimodal with the digital, and as long as we do that we’re definitely leaving out wide flaws of the field that are teaching in locations in which intensively working with digital technologies may not be, and/or may not feel, possible for a variety of reasons. So I think that’s a challenge, although I think there are a lot of scholars in the field right now who are definitely pushing the boundaries of what the multimodal could be. So I think about Jody Shipka’s book, and I think about Adam Banks’s work and a whole host of other scholars. I think that’s opening up the conversation. I still think a lot of work remains to be done.

Especially in the process of writing the book that I wrote, I was pretty conscious of the fact that actually people in the field have been saying we’ve been focusing too narrowly on alphabetic literacy and we ought to open and consider alternative forms of communication for about 40 years. And yet we’re still having to call for it. In some places, alphabetic literacy is still sedimented at the core of the field. So I think, it’s not like we’re ever going to suddenly wake up one day and be in a kind of totally transformed environment where multimodal composing is absolutely central to how composition is taught in every location, though I’m optimistic, I guess I would say. It’s continuing to grow, and more importantly what I’m seeing is—I’m seeing a wider group of people who are interested in multimodal composing who wouldn’t necessarily—and teaching multimodally—who wouldn’t necessarily identify with computers and writing, for example, as their research area. But I think it’s starting to become a practice that more people are accepting as just part of what it means to teach composition.

I chose this episode and this specific passage for a few reasons. It begins to push past the focus of multimodal composition as predominantly a pedagogical concern. It is an example of discussing multimodality through multimodal scholarship. And it reimagines the medium for scholarly publications.

So let me break those down a little into three “refrains,” as Palmeri might put it.

ONE: Our disciplinary interests in multimodality must extend to our scholarship.

That is, our disciplinary focus on multimodality is predominantly pedagogical, interested in new media composing within classroom contexts. Similarly, the scholarship on podcasts, at least within the broad field of writing studies, is predominantly focused on classroom and learning spaces. That is, podcasts are used as tools by instructors to record classroom lectures, by students for producing new media assignments, and by writing center consultants for creating mini-lessons about writing and research.

As Palmeri notes in that clip, the interest in multimodal composing is growing, and I would like to push for growing interest in how we can use technologies like podcasting not just within our classrooms but also within our scholarship—which leads to the second refrain.

TWO: If we want to increase the importance and value of the multimodal, we must do so multimodally. To borrow an old cliché, we have to practice what we preach. Out of the 42 Rhetoric and Composition journals catalogued on the Council of Writing Program Administrators website, only 6 accept “new media” texts (Kairos, Computers and Composition Online, Enculturation, Harlot, Technoculture, and—arguably—Present Tense. And even though we’re seeing more examples of new media texts, there are still just as many texts being published about multimodality and new media in traditional print journals and books.

Many, particularly self-identified digital humanists, have been quick to criticize this trend.

In 2004, Cheryl Ball—editor of Kairos—published “Show, Not Tell: The Value of New Media Scholarship,” arguing that online publications tend “not to break print-bound conventions” (404). Ball also distinguishes between scholarship about new media and new media scholarship. Scholarship about new media “uses print conventions such as written text as the main mode of argument” (404), whereas new media scholarship “uses modes other than only written text to form an argument” (404). More specifically, new media are texts that juxtapose semiotic modes—eg. sound with written word—in forms that are not linear nor alphabetic (405).

This Rhetorical Life both supports and complicates this idea. It is new media scholarship in the sense that it offers rhetorical arguments predominantly through an aural mode—sound. At the same time, This Rhetorical Life is both a new media project and a multimodal project, and I do distinguish between these two terms. Often, new media or digital is conflated with multimodality (as noted by both Jason Palmeri and Jody Shipka), but it is important to recognize the differences, that multimodal texts do not necessarily have to be digital. In many ways, through the transcripts posted with every episode, This Rhetorical Life is also a multimodal project because it offers both sound and written text and need not simply be a digital initiative (although it is distributed online).

Ball emphasizes that new media scholarship isn’t linear. Many of our podcasts are interview-based, which, though they are listened to linearly, could be read from question to question—or, like I did, different points could be pulled without disrupting the larger “argument” of the texts. In fact, I would argue that our podcasts, though scholarly endeavors that offer rhetorical analyses and information relevant to our field, don’t have central arguments in the same way as traditional scholarship, which leads me to the third—and perhaps most complicated—refrain.

THREE: Technologies like podcasting can allow us to reimagine the medium for scholarly publications, moving toward a more accessible model of scholarship.

When I re-read my proposed title in order to brainstorm for this presentation, I felt like hitting my head against a wall. I kept reading the words “podcasting as alternative publication” and asking myself, What was I thinking? Podcasts as publications? And certainly I don’t mean to suggest that we should think of podcast projects in the same way that we think of scholarly monographs, but I do think we could imagine them as publications that are useful resources for the larger discipline. In fact, many have argued for the value of digital projects (Collin Brooke and Alex Reid have discussed academic blogging, for example).

In print scholarship—and here I mean specifically traditional argument-based written texts—we engage with the ideas of others, but we don’t really dialogue with those ideas or those authors. Podcasts enact a literal dialogue among scholars about ideas. For example, in the Palmeri podcast, a fellow PhD student in the Composition and Cultural Rhetoric program had a conversation with Palmeri about his text. That podcast in particular, even though it was only published in February, has already been used in graduate classrooms as a supplement to Palmeri’s book. This podcast has gained currency as a valuable publication. And because it is in direct dialogue with the book and the author, it reimagines the book review as a genre—offering a new space and new mode for dialoguing with scholars about their work.

In this same vein of reimaging publication media, I think podcast projects lend themselves productively to discussions of open access publishing. In a Rhetoric, Composition, and Digital Humanities course that I took in the Fall of 2012, we read Hacking the Academy, the online book crowdsourced in one week in May 2010. I thought of the arguments those interdisciplinary scholars were making when thinking through this idea of podcasting as publication.

One contribution I think is particularly useful to consider here is Kathleen Fitzpatrick’s blog post titled “On Open Access Publishing,” wherein she argues that open access publishing has an ethical imperative “to ensure that less affluent institutions and individual scholars without institutional support are able to gain access to current research.” And though this point about current research is something that Ben is definitely going to take up, I just want to note here the idea of ethical scholarship. Coming from a background in professional writing and interests in disability studies, my interests in this project—initially just to provide disciplinary information digitally—has also been interconnected with making this information as accessible as possible, from the adaptive WordPress theme we chose for our website to the full-text transcripts of every podcast. Personally, I try to make all the scholarly work I do public—posting full text copies of conference presentations to my blog and making my reading notes public. I think this is a particularly important concern for This Rhetorical Life as a potential resource for the field (and even for audiences beyond the field).

Another useful way to consider This Rhetorical Life as an open access publication is Dan Cohen’s post called “Open Access Publishing and Scholarly Values.” In his post, Cohen appeals to disciplinary values in an attempt to persuade scholars to be more accepting to non-traditional scholarship. There are three points here that I think are definitely transferable:

  1. “Writing is writing and good is good,” regardless of the publication medium. That is, we tend to regard the work of particular journals, such as CCC based on their reputability, and because there is so much content available to us, we tend to prioritize based on reputation (reading particular journals) rather than content. When we do this, we further marginalize the quality content that doesn’t make it into these journals.
  2. Another point Cohen makes relates to my point about practicing what we preach. He argues that as humanities scholars, our work focuses on “uncovering and championing the voices of those who are less privileged and powerful, but here we are in the ivory tower, still preferring to publish in ways that separate our words from those of the unwashed online masses.” Hyperbolic? Yes, but perhaps rightfully so because the hyperbole just adds to the disconnect of intention and practice.
  3. The last thing I want to draw attention to here is the idea of circulation. Cohen argues that the largest hidden cost of academic publishing is the invisibility of that work. That is, when we publish in scholarly journals, we publish for a very particular, very small audience. The day we announced This Rhetorical Life on Facebook, February 28th, the website had 300 views and 118 unique visitors referred from Facebook. We posted an episode late yesterday afternoon and the Facebook post about that episode had 222 views by midnight last night. When we hosted our transnational feminism panel last week and I live-tweeted the event (@TRLpodcast), we got an influx of new followers within that hour. Perhaps none of this is surprising, but it is a powerful testament to the power of online publishing (and of social media, but that’s its own beast).

And so I’ll end where I began. If we are serious about creating accessible scholarship that puts scholars in dialogue and offers audiences multiple modes of information—if we care about creating scholarship that is relevant and useful to the field—we need to take on, and support, projects that may not be recognizable as traditional scholarly endeavors, projects that—as Fitzpatrick says—“do the risky thing.”

Thank you.

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