I’m reading The Available Means of Persuasion as I sift through readings for my forthcoming graduate courses. Helping students grapple with dense ideas of rhetoric, digital media, digital media literacy, digital rhetoric, and media literacy (literacies, etc.) requires students read a breadth of approaches.
I’m fascinated with their discussion of rhetorical agency. They explore the “the way agency is distributed across human and nonhuman actors” to understand how “multimodal public rhetoric is linked to the material concerns of technology and space” (p. 11). Their theory explores kairos, kairotic invention, and rhetorical agency as these assist a public rhetor’s preparedness for seeing the available means of persuasion.
While their attention to kairos and rhetorical agency is incredibly helpful, i’m left wondering in what ways the tools they discuss continue to use us (the users). Their aim is to inspire composition instructors to help students develop practices as multimodal public rhetors. This is amazing, I love it! But…….using the available technologies kairotically focuses time and attention on the situation, but never reflects on the affordances of the technologies being used.
Keep in mind, I do understand that a 15 week (or less!) composition cannot cover EVERYTHING. My aim here is not to critique their approach, but to wonder where and when reflection and critique of the affordances and algorithms of these technologies can feasibly be integrated into praxis.
For instance, a few weeks ago I was speaking with a colleague in the Library when he was approached by a student. Said student had questions about an undergrad honors thesis on Netflix and their LGBTQ category. After some back and forth questioning, the student was fairly happy to hear a body of research exists on YouTube videos and ‘coming out’ as genre. During the back and forth, the student commented on the prevalence of the LGBTQ queue in their stream (where I didn’t know it existed, but I have tons of kid categories). Additionally, the student commented on the types of films/shows featured (hence the ‘coming out’ genre analysis idea). When I began to mention the role the Netflix algorithm played in determining some of that information there was a significant amount of blank stares leveled at me. It’s not that considerations of algorithms influencing what viewers/users have access to is a difficult to understand concept – it just significantly complicates our traditional humanities approach (in this case – genre analysis).
As I read Sheridan, Ridolofo and Michel’s discussion of kairos as an important aspect of multimodal public rhetoric I immediately remembered the Netflix conversation. As we (composition instructors) include multimodal projects into our curriculums, is there a good space for discussing how the algorithm influences user experiences? When approaching a thesis as a genre analysis, it seems genre analysis as a method should include analysis (to the extent possible since most algorithms are kept fairly private) or at least discussion of the fact that an algorithm based on user preferences influences what a given user sees – highlighting the genre being analyzed. But, where does that conversation belong within the curriculum of an undergraduate degree? There is so much to discuss and practice at the Freshmen Composition level, adding yet another task that detracts from writing practices as transferrable simply dilutes writing learning. So where?
On a side note, I’ll begin teaching a Content Management course Spring 2018, this concept clearly needs to be a concern within that class!