Metawriting posts from the new blog location

Monday, October 31, 2011

Abandoning audience awareness

I spent the weekend crafting proposals for the ATTW Conference and TCQ’s special issue on Social Media – and this after spending the previous weekend crafting a proposal for Computers and Writing. While this might sound like an overly ambitious program for the spring (two conferences in addition to my already accepted panel for Cs plus a journal article) let me hasten to assure you that everything but the Cs presentation is connected to the same topic and the Cs presentation is based on my dissertation work. So yes, this is ambitious, but not entirely crazy. Of course you can talk to me after C and W to see if I still think so. That is assuming I can still speak coherently.

What also makes this less crazy is that I have spent a lot of time in recent months reading and thinking about these ideas and then discussing them with my friends Lora Arduser and Kim Elmore (who also happen to be collaborators on ATTW and (just Kim) TCQ). Kim and I have talked about this issue with Lora’s students and I have also discussed this topic with my own students. In fact, this work has inspired changes in the way I teach audience.

What I have been focused upon is the issue of community and I have approached it from a number of different angles. Back in July I wrote about “What Is Community” and then in August I wrote about “Community and Social Capital” as I tried to understand what constitutes a community and why some communities thrive and succeed and others fizzle and fail. However, that led to still more questions, such as how one joins a community which led to my September post “Community: Jumping to become a full-patch member.”

It is easy to see from these posts (and the litter of references in them) that I have been thinking about these issues a great deal in recent months. I have been thinking about them as a technical communicator and researcher, but also as a teacher and I have reached some conclusions that have dramatically changed the way that I teach and think about written communication and how it should be taught.

Scholars in composition and technical communication have long agreed that audience is a central rhetorical concern. Ede and Lunsford argued that audience plays an important role in the writing process and the creation of meaning and contended that understanding audience can “help us better understand the complex act we call composing.” Of course the problem is that understanding audience is extremely challenging for both novice and experienced writers. Ong asked: “How does the writer give body to the audience for whom he writes?” This continues to be an important question today. While Ong’s “fictional” audience and Ede and Lunsford’s “invoked” audience have informed my work, I was not satisfied. Johnson’s “involved” audience provided further inspiration and some intense conversations with my collaborators have resulted in a new assignment for my students.

I have decided not to focus on audience per se because I worry that is too limiting and one-dimensional to be useful and is, in fact, a one-way channel of communication that is, I believe, part of the problem. Porter argues against determining a “fixed meaning” of audience and I want to give my students (and myself) a much more flexible and responsive notion of audience with which to work. I don’t believe that imagining, invoking, or (even) involving the audience is enough. The writer must do more than address their audience – the writer must engage with their audience. The only way for this to truly happen is by joining the community. This does not require “full patch membership” but it does require shedding their status as an outsider.

We have laid the foundation for such work in my class this semester by studying their chosen communities as outsiders and developing the “social literacy” that Cargile Cook argues is important, but we are now embarking on a project that I hope will begin bringing them across the boundaries and into the community. This involves learning more about the “civic mechanisms” Spinuzzi claims are essential for communities. My hope is that combining this knowledge of social literacy and civic mechanisms will help my students transcend the need for audience. Stay tuned as this could all crash and burn.

In the meantime, I will continue to read and reflect. Spinuzzi’s recent blog post about “network rhetoric” and Ronfeldt’s “In Search of How Societies Work” will certainly provide fodder for my next round of reflection.

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