Tag Archives: rhetoric

Rules, Games and Rhetorical Theory

Douglas Eyman Digital Rhetoric: Theory, Method, Practice

In Chapter 2 of his book, Eyman reviews the applications of rhetorical theory to digital contexts as scholars work through the difficult question: ‘what is digital rhetoric?’. Eyman spends time discussing the way theorists have reimagined the rhetorical canon – notably Brooke’s Lingua Fracta: Toward a rhetoric of new media. While Eyman’s discussion is lengthy and detailed I want to focus on just one tiny detail here.

Eyman sites Porter and Sullivan (1994) saying “[b]ecause rhetoric is a situated and applied art, it generates principles, not rules. The difference is significant: principles are always interpreted and adjusted for situations (and rarely survive in pure form); rules circumscribe absolute boundaries (115)” (64 in Eyman’s text). Stated another way, context matters to rhetoric, and rhetoric must be understood in context. This is an important distinction for me, and seems to be my breaking point with Eyman – the digital in digital rhetoric cannot be the only context considered!

As a side note, I forgot my computer charger this morning, not noticing until I arrived at work. I began asking around to borrow a power cord – the IT department, Library, and Instructional Design team don’t lend chargers. While waiting for my cord to be delivered (thank you to my wonderful husband), I needed to find ways of completing digital work from my phone (an Android) – a much smaller screen, very different interface from my MacBook. I produced tweets – similar tweets to what I would’ve produced had I used my computer, but how I interfaced to create the tweets, my thought process for approaching my digital work was completely different. While this happened today as I was considering the content of this post was both frustrating and fortuitous, I am really noticing the lack of humans in digital rhetorical theory today.

As someone who studies new media, rhetoric and games, this play on principles and rules is really meaningful to me. In this chapter, Eyman’s goal is to work through existing discussions of digital rhetoric, the glows and the grows (a Lesson Study approach to showcasing praxis recently adopted by the Center for Academic Excellence at my institution – I love the terminology), specifically the ways the canon has been adapted to study production of digital texts more frequently than analysis.

This emphasis on how – production – makes sense. Interacting with interfaces is new, as interfaces continue to change, as new tools are developed, as new ways of communicating becomes possible through these interfaces and tools, users must determine how to deploy, users make choices in how they construct their digital communication acts. What is seen, what is viewable by the rhetorician, are the ‘final’ product choices (‘final’ because interfaces can and do and should change!). As Brooke points out, reimagining the canons can add to the fields understanding of rhetoric. But, the canons were designed by Aristotle in a time when oral rhetoric had a time and place for delivery. With digital tools, no digital communication is ever complete/done/delivered. Stale content on a website is an evil in the digital age – updating information to entice users to continue to visit the site is the expectation.

This is where I think a return to principles and rules – especially influenced by games and play – can add a lot to discussions of digital rhetoric. Eyman points out that Aristotle’s canon of rhetorical practice is heavy handed in rules. For example, Aristotle offers a discrete list of fallacies – of all possible arguments to be adapted to all situations. While useful during Aristotle’s time for the fixed audience and purpose of rhetorical education (democracy and public forum government), this approach is heavily rules based so constantly adapted to meet contemporary needs and contemporary understanding of the situatedness of rhetoric. For this reason, Eyman, very wisely, frames his approach in practices.

However, because I’ve played games (and become a competitive nightmare) like Fluxx where the rules and goals change with every turn, I think Eyman’s framing on principles needs to also account for the human element behind the decisions. In Fluxx games, the strategy is often to hold on to new goal cards until you can play the rule, action and keeper cards to win. This requires a combination of cards in your hand/deck, and a lack of cards in another players. Often this also requires in-play rules allowing/requiring players to play 3 or more cards per hand (long set-ups to playing new goals can be easily overridden by other players). The cards are shuffled, they will appear in the deck in any random order – it is up to the players (and their understanding of the game) to play the cards (to run the code in computer terms).

When discussing rules and principles of digital rhetorical theory, the principles and canonical adaptations need to account for human choice. While this leads to super messy theory – because we really can’t guess what a human will do – this accounting goes beyond invention (overall aligning my discussion with Eyman who similarly finds the canons binding).

This is where game theory, play theory, can offer a lot to discussions of ‘what is digital rhetoric?’. In games, rules are meant to be played with, often players determine which rules to enact, which rules to enforce, which rules even become active in a given game. I played Life with my husband and son and they bought stock. I can’t remember ever buying stock in the game previously. In my family growing up, those rules never became active and we chose to ignore the game pieces provided. In Fluxx games the players actively choose to make rules and goals. In both situations, play depends more on principles than rules. Play theories account for and recognize the situatedness of rule enacting.

As I work through theories of play for a November presentation I’ll continue to refine this idea. Initially I see the moment in Eyman’s digital rhetorical theory discussion where play theory would further complicate the ideas, and also bring the users back into the discussion in important ways. What is digital rhetoric without the users? How can we reimagine the question ‘what is digital rhetoric?’ to also account for and acknowledge the users?

The consideration of what play theory can offer is still just a kernel of an idea……


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Core Concepts, FYC, and Intertextuality

Influenced by a visiting speaker, Kara Taczak, I’m making some changes to how I teach First Year Composition to promote transfer. Drawing from both Writing About Writing and Teaching for Transfer, the new model will focus on threshold concepts or core concepts of writing to strengthen what students know about their own writing process to help students successfully transfer ‘good’ writing to new writing situations.


When I taught a 200 level Rhetorical Theory course we learned a lot of concepts, key terms if you will, that related to rhetoric and why rhetoric as a theory and field of research survived. Even during the Dark Ages when learning, knowledge, and schooling were very limited, rhetoric continued to be taught to Catholic Priests to help convert and deliver sermons to constituents. One of the key concepts that remained, and became a stronger aspect of theory, is the idea of intertextuality.

Teaching the idea of intertextuality from Smith’s Rhetoric and Human Consciousness is difficult. Smith focuses on Biblical intertextuality and the ways the Church interpreted the theory to benefit their Priests and constituents (it’s much more involved than this, but this summary serves my purposes here). Literature students recognized the concept and drew connections to how intertextuality operates in literature. Non-literature students never seemed to understand Smith’s discussion. I’m currently reading Stephen King’s The Drawing of the Three (#2 in the Dark Tower series) and the characters referenced The Shining in a discussion – basic intertextuality, but it’s engrained in the story so readers don’t recognize the moment as intertextuality (why did King reference The Shining at THAT moment? why not The Stand, etc.). But, intertextuality exists far beyond literature and novels, and some of the most popular television shows and movies use intertextuality in important ways.

After watching Game of Thrones (the episode that aired on Sunday 8/16), I read a blog by Erik Kane (he presented at the Undergraduate Videogame Symposium at my previous institution about blogging as a career post-English Bachelor’s – the students loved his candor) about intertextuality in GoT that could help a viewer make educated guesses on the direction of the show (there’s also compelling arguments for the need for viewers to recognize most of the intertextuality to follow the storyline development – cognitive requirements of modern viewing and fandom). While his post is looking at literary intertextuality in the television show, the use of text and a multimodal YouTube clip as support for his claim struck me as ridiculously helpful to teaching academic intertextuality – the dreaded citation.

Returning to the idea of selecting key concepts, for Fall 2017 I’ll focus on discourse community, audience, purpose, and ethos. I’m using They Say/I Say as the course textbook. As I’m finalizing the design for my internet-theme’d, Teaching for Transfer influenced pedagogy, i’m working in a way to use a blog post (internet-based reading and writing, with all it’s messy author-audience relationships and imaginings) to help students understand why citations matter (ethos, discourse community). In the GoT post, Kain uses a few interesting rhetorical moves that are helping me work through the connection to be made between theme (internet) and key concepts (learning about writing to write better).

First, the post begins with an image (yes there is a title, but i’m choosing to begin with the image) of The Magnificent Seven (his term). For those who watch, GoT has an endless supply of story lines and tons and tons of characters (i’m not a lit major so excuse my lack of literary terms to describe this). In using an image of the exact group he’s discussing, he focuses the reader’s attention on the small portion of the HUGE GoT world he’ll discuss in this post. This is such an important move in academic introductions. We humans have been discussing and theorizing since before the Ancient Greeks (the Greeks happen to be the most well preserved recordings). In selecting a topic for an essay, the hardest concept to teach students is how to enter that HUGE conversation and focus the point. Blogs, by including multimedia, allow for images to do much of that work for the author – IF the correct image is selected. From a Pfannenstiel’s key concept point of view, this allows Kain to focus his discussion on the purpose of his conversation within the larger discourse community.

Next, Kain establishes the background knowledge necessary to understand his claim – he contextualizes the mission and the characters involved. Again it speaks to the discourse community, establishing the necessary background information needed for the post without assuming too much or too little about the reader of the post (ethos and audience). The attention to audience here is really important, he makes educated guesses about how to introduce this information so his audience appreciates the information without feeling like he’s belittling their knowledge of GoT.

Now comes the intertextuality (with some ethos thrown in when he includes both the show and the book). We (readers) are being asked to re-examine existing information from the show as evidence for Kain’s analysis. After including the originals (again, the video clip and the passages from the book), Kain analyzes the information by explaining the clips along side his analysis – let me say that again in case any of my students read this post, by explaining the clip along side his analysis. He doesn’t assume the readers will draw the same connections, so he includes the original source, then analyzes it and adds his point.

The goal of this post isn’t to explore GoT theories, but to consider how the video clip functions as an academic citation – through intertextuality. While intertextuality isn’t a key term (it’s a difficult idea to grasp), it is influenced by and influences discourse communities and practices within discourse communities.

To develop a connection between the Magnificent Seven and GoT lore, Kain includes a video link with a clip from season 1. This is an expected rhetorical blogging move – include the thing that you reference for readers to know especially in the form of a video. This is also, essentially, a citation. Here is where my information comes from. Citations and intertextuality help an author establish ethos, they lend credibility to a discussion and claim by referencing other sources in very specific ways.

The specific clip selected is a choice to present the findings from the original in a very specific way. When I search on YouTube for “Old Nan tells a story” I have approximately 5,300 results. While yes, many are commentary and fandoms (so easily excluded) – this is the same situation student writers often find themselves in, wading through massive amounts of text to find the one that properly supports their point. What’s so important for comp instructors (and librarians) is the information literacy skills required/developed to wade through these videos. It’s the same required of wading through sources to find ones that actually support and develop the student-author’s text. If we consider any of the other videos in the YouTube list of 5,300 we can discuss all the reasons those videos would support Kain’s argument less well than the video he included. This is a real, lived citation making intertextual claims, embedded within a blog argument, to support Kain’s analysis of the episode.

Importantly, students read posts all the time that require them to understand these videos as citations, as intertextuality. They experience, analyze, and judge posts daily that rely on their ability to understand intertextuality and citations in writing. Will finding and analyzing such everyday lived posts help them transfer what they know from everyday sense-making to the academic essay, or will they still see citations as a ‘chore’ and ‘requirement’ of writing that simply make their lives hell?

Now, we’ll see if this focus on rhetorical moves of an existing blog post helps students understand the key concepts as they move through their academic papers this Fall……… show of hands for who watches Game of Thrones! 

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Arguments Illustrated: A book review

An Illustrated Book of Bad Arguments by Ali Almossawi

At my previous institution I taught rhetorical theory courses at the undergraduate and graduate level. I’ve been missing out on teaching rhetorical theory – history of rhetoric – so when Amazon recommended An Illustrated Book of Bad Arguments I bought it.

I read the book in two ways:

  • the first was as a teacher of rhetoric – especially missing my rhetorical theory texts and assignments
  • the second was as a teacher of composition – especially freshmen composition that focuses on the need to teach critical thinking

As  a teacher of rhetoric, I prefer to read theory texts. The more detailed discussion, the inclusion of history that influenced the development of argument theory (thanks Smith even though I always struggle with parts of your book) helps me as a learner understand the historical context that influenced argument understanding and contemporary usage. From this perspective, I didn’t love the book. I wanted more academic description.

As a teacher of composition, I love the straight forward descriptions, the naming of argument, and the comic/illustration. I think this can help students break down the subconscious choices humans make as they communicate – and the fallacies we subconsciously use – to help them gain entry to critical thinking for application to academic arguments. This is usually the most complex discussion in composition – we are really ‘good’ communicators, and normally employ cultural conventions we don’t recognize we know (or recognize we use). This book makes a list of the more popular argument fallacies in contemporary society to help readers gain entry to the convention – to recognize the convention (with some nod to the historical foundations – enough for a freshmen comp course!)

I also think the illustration can help students understand the issues with their argument presentation. The struggle here will be providing this as feedback to students: “Here is this totally awesome book (https://bookofbadarguments.com/), look at page 12 and 13 (Appeal to irrelevant authority) to better contextualize the secondary sources”. Will that help students actually navigate and understand how to better develop their appeal? This is a complex struggle with student understanding of logic and bias. Dr P may say something earth shattering about the color pink, but physicists have more expertise in color than compositionists, is her authority on the color pink credible?

I liked this book. I want to use this as part of my feedback to students in composition courses, but I also miss my rhetorical theory courses. As I begin my work developing Fall curriculum I’m exploring ways of using the comic approach provided in this book to help students access writing feedback in meaningful ways!

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