On the Need for a New Rhetoric: Part IV — The Changing Text

In my last post, I considered the change from an architectural model of composition to an agricultural model of composition. If we were facing just this change, it would be sufficient reason to change our approach to writing. This shift, however, is not the only transformation occurring. The capabilities of the texts we are creating are changing as well. 

Back when research was done on 3” x 5” notecards, the medium of final production was paper — whether the final product was hand-written using a pencil or pen, typed, or printed using a black ink dot-matrix printer. Now, digital-first documents are printed — if they are printed — on color laser or ink-jet printers.

The key word in that sentence is if.

Whether it is the “papers” uploaded to class portals or the emails that have replaced inter office memos, much of what now comes across our desktops are digital-only documents. A growing number of these include more than just text. They include images, video and audio, and hyperlinks that extend the text beyond the borders of the file. These next-generation texts offer those composing the ability to embed source material rather than summarize it. A discussion of how multiple meanings in Hamlet lead to multiple interpretations on the stage, for example, could include clips from different performances in order to demonstrate a point.

This is not the time to go over all of the implications of multimodal, next-generation texts.[1] It is enough for us to recognize that digital-only documents exist and require us to take them on board as we develop a new rhetoric — one that requires us to consider  visual and auditory rhetoric and layout in addition to the written word. 

1. The ability to hyperlink to sources and, at times, specific places within a source should force a reconsideration of citational methodology, for example. Current style guides assume a paper world rather than a digital one. 

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.