Tuesday, December 01, 2009

Why Everyone Can Use a Digital Rhetoric Class

This week I have been looking at the results of an IRB-approved study of how students use social media after graduation from college and if explicit instruction in composing for the web or with a sensitivity to the expectations of online audiences encourages them to maintain academic literacy practices developed by blogging or creating video essays in a digital rhetoric class.

As I peruse responses, I am struck by how emphatic students are about having the university provide this kind of training and socialization as a key career skill that could translate into better e-mail and PowerPoint presentations for corporate settings that are valued in a variety of their chosen fields, which include teaching, nursing, legal services, scientific research, and even game design.

So it is unfortunate to see the Open letter from the Academic Council to the University of California community, which addresses recent protests on campus about budget cuts, fee hikes, and benefits to administrators. I know that a number of smart people worked on this document, some of whom are experts on social media, but I still feel that it makes a number of rhetorical errors.

Obviously it incensed those who felt that they were treated unfairly in the incidents, in which police were extremely aggressive with students. Since the letter was distributed, blogs and chain e-mail messages have been encouraging sympathizers to sign the following statement of support for campus that has already been signed by prominent faculty at a number of campuses.

We the undersigned declare our solidarity with University of California students, workers and staff as they defend, in the face of powerful and aggressive intimidation, the fundamental principles upon which a truly inclusive and egalitarian public-sector education system depends. We affirm their determination to confront university administrators who seem willing to exploit the current financial crisis to introduce disastrous and reactionary 'reforms' (fee-increases, lay-offs, salary cuts) to the UC system. We support their readiness to take direct action in order to block these changes. We recognise that in times of crisis, only assertive collective action – walkouts, boycotts, strikes, occupations... – offers any meaningful prospect of democratic participation. We deplore the recent militarization of the UC campuses, and call on the UC administration to acknowledge rather than discourage the resolution of their students to struggle, against the imperatives of privatization, to protect the future of their university.

State-wide calls to "Occupy California" have been featured on one blog, and my local UC Irvine campus is using the blog Defend UCI to rally the faithful. As I've said before, I'm dubious about the efficacy of on-campus protests, and I know from my own depressing experiences as an activist that what makes the televised news is often small protests with lots of footage of conflict between opposing sides rather than large peaceful protests that don't engage the viewer with what's onscreen. But this plea to recognize the "limits of protest" doesn't deal with allegations being spread on e-mail and other electronic channels that feature stirring testimony from witnesses about how quite traditional student organizations assembled to see their members tased and beaten.

In other words, the audience that needs to be convinced isn't the protestors; it the readers and spectators on the Internet who have seen the famous UCLA tasered student video of two years ago and now worry that on-campus police brutality may be being replayed on a much larger scale.

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