Writing in the Wild

Posted in Announcements

In recent years, I’ve found myself increasingly saying two things to my students:

  • I won’t assign you anything that I haven’t tried myself, and
  • we have to work in public — outside of the classroom — to really get a sense of audience, genre, and circulation.

The first claim is the simpler one, and it has to do with teacherly ethos. If I’m going to ask students to take risks with their work, to engage with public audiences, and to be creative, then I need them to know that I’m willing to do the same. It works in the opposite direction, too: if I find myself assigning work that begins to feel boring or inert, then I know I need to shake things up.

The second claim —  that to get a feel for how rhetoric works one needs to operate publicly — connects in a number of ways to contemporary scholarship in rhetoric, writing pedagogy, and the public humanities (about which more below).

My most recent example of both of these claims is my film short, Downloading Statehood. Building on my DC/Adapters project, Downloading Statehood attempts the following:

  • It extends the effort, already begun by DC/Adapters, to translate and circulate ideas about communication and persuasion for public audiences;
  • It enacts the original purpose of rhetoric: to intervene in civic issues on behalf of the common good;
  • It illustrates the lesson that we learn from public engagement that is so hard to replicate in a classroom: that the central paradox of writing and rhetoric consists of the simultaneous need to design your work carefully with your audience and purpose in mind and that there will never be any way to guarantee the success of this effort.

Downloading Statehood also takes lessons from contemporary rhetorical and public humanities theory and bakes them into a persuasive approach in a particular issue and context. As Sharon Crowley suggests in Toward a Civil Discourse (2006), Downloading Statehood enacts the growing sense in rhetoric and writing studies, building on work in neuroscience, that it’s not argument, evidence, and cool rationality that allows us to change our minds on the issues of the day, but that our minds are changed by story, affect, authority, and proximity to difference. From Richard Lanham (The Economics of Attention, 2006), Downloading Statehood builds on the idea that attention is one more scarce resource of the 21st Century, and that artists like Duchamp, Warhol, and Christo work in ways from which rhetoricians can learn. From James Brown, Jr.’s “From Activism to Occupation”, Downloading Statehood borrows occupation as a persuasive tactic (in this case, via visual rhetoric). And from Doris Sommer (The Work of Art in the World, 2013), Downloading Statehood (explicitly) leans on the idea of cultural acupuncture, or using the arts to intervene in public belief, discourse, and action.

And so, when students seem unsure, skeptical, or anxious about writing for public audiences, I share with them DC/Adapters and Downloading Statehood and remind that 1) we have to work publicly to learn the most important lessons about writing, and 2) that I wouldn’t assign them anything I wouldn’t do myself . . . and 3) we’re in it together.

Matthew Pavesich, Associate Director