On the Need for a New Rhetoric: Part III — The Agricultural Model of Writing

In my last entry on this topic, I took us back to yesteryear and described to those younger than the 5 and a half inch floppy disk how research was once taught. Whether students did all of these things or not, the overarching system for organizing research was propagated and taken up into the imagination of students as they left high school and went off to college and university and then on grad school before returning to the classroom to teach.

Slowly, however, the tools changed. First, photocopying became available to anyone with enough quarters and different color highlighters were grafted on to the architectural method. Computers became available and the internet provided more sources — sources that could be printed out — requiring more highlighters. Like the printing press, accurate reproduction of information became trivially easy and index cards were replaced by three-ring binders with, for the more obsessively organized, dividers. Others gathered them into loose piles of paper that joined the books stacked near the writer’s computer station as they worked.

Then computers became portable.

This slow change may seem like a small thing in this progression but it is, I would argue, a critical one. When a computer can be carried to the place of research, there is no need for a photocopy or printout. All that is required is to take the information and type[1] it into a file that is saved to memory — whether that memory is a 8”, 5 1/4”, or 3 1/2” disk; a spinning platter hard drive; a USB thumb drive; a solid-state hard drive; or cloud storage service, like Dropbox or iCloud.

As anyone who has taken notes in a word processor can tell you, there is a huge temptation to begin evolving the notes into a draft rather than creating a new draft document. Indeed, it is logical to do so. All of the research is there, ready to be re-ordered through the magic of cut-and-paste then written about when the referenced material — whether they be quotations or notes — is onscreen awaiting response. This approach keeps the material fresh in the mind of the writer while enabling them to take advantage of the benefits of digital composition.

I suspect that will sound familiar to many reading this. I also suspect it is the method most of us now use when composing — whether we were trained in an architectural model of research or not. 

This approach to composition can be seen as an agricultural model of production — one where ideas and information are seeded into a document and then organically grown as the work-in-progress develops throughout research and writing process.

For all of its advantages, and those advantages[2] are significant, there are major limitations to this approach. Skipping the step of transmitting information from one document (say, a notecard) to another promotes accidental plagiarism by increasing the chance that a note will inadvertently become separated from its source. It also makes less clear to the writer who crafted a particular turn of phrase as notes are transformed into the draft. In addition to the problem of plagiarism, growing a paper (rather than building it) trades the organizational system that is created when a writer has to formulate multiple outlines to order their research and writing for the less rigorous world of headings scattered through a draft. It also skips the step where the organization of a writer’s ideas is initially tested before the first word of the first draft is written.

These limitations are less a function of the tools at our disposal than they are the absence of a method that embraces these tools. To push the metaphor, we are at the hunter-gatherer stage of the agricultural model, where means of storage have been developed but we have not fully developed a system for cultivation.

Our means of production has changed. Our pedagogy has not.

This is the core reason that we need to create a new rhetoric — one that accounts for the new method of textual creation that digital composition allows and that embraces the ability to incorporate media into what was once a static document.

1. Typing, of course, is no longer the only way notes are taken. As anyone who has seen lines forming at the whiteboard at the end of a lecture or meeting or watched people hold their cell phones and tablets up to get a quick shot of a presentation slide can tell you, photography has become equally as important for information capture as note taking.

2. To name a few of the advantages: Portability of the research once it has been done, the ubiquity of high quality electronic resources, and a superior means of production. No matter what the hipsters and typewriter aficionados tell you, word processing is superior to typing for the vast majority of users most of the time. This does not mean they are wrong about what work for them — there are times when I feel compelled to write out ideas or to do lists using a fountain pen. But I am under no illusion that there is great benefit in putting that to-do list into Reminders, Todoist, or OmniFocus. I just wish I could decide which of these digital tools work best for me.

Dr. Matthew M. DeForrest is a Professor of English and the Mott University Professor at Johnson C. Smith University. The observations and opinions he expresses here are his own. You are very welcome to follow him on Twitter and can find his academic profile at Academia.edu.