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Writing About Cool: Hypertext and Cultural Studies in the Computer Classroom

Author: Jeff Rice
Publisher: Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Education Inc, 2004
Review Published: July 2005

 REVIEW 1: J. M. King
 AUTHOR RESPONSE: Jeff Rice

I thank J. M. King for his review of my textbook, Writing About Cool. The challenge today in writing textbooks for electronic writing is not to replicate an existing apparatus (print) but instead to allow for invention practices to emerge within a pedagogical framework. Situating new media and writing in terms of invention (and the implicit "we are still inventing how to write for new media") has yet to become the norm in contemporary writing instruction or textbook publishing. Thus, textbooks whose focus have been purely on website analysis or instrumental website design (i.e. usability, color schemes, etc.) are not yet considering the overall logics of new media and how such logics alter writing in general. It's not enough to ask: how can you design a website for a non-profit agency? Instead, we must ask, what is the rhetoric of web writing in general, and how do we learn to perform that writing?

We learn from media. In the emerging media apparatus of the '50s (television, the invention of the transistor, the launch of satellites) William Burroughs framed his novel Naked Lunch as a "how-to" book, and I've come to see media as well as a "how-to," a set of instructions regarding how to write for the electronic age. The notion of a mix, for example, is not just a musical practice. Nor is linking (and interlinking) only found online. They are rhetorical modes which shape thought, culture, and identity. We need to learn how these forms of expression are to new media what linearity, categorization, and referentiality were to print (and consequently, industrialization and education). And not only do we, the instructors, need to learn this, but the students we work with in writing courses do as well. While by no means a perfect textbook, Writing About Cool is meant as a place to begin thinking about these kinds of logic shifts and how they currently are shaping and reshaping how we write.

The textbook attempts to demonstrate that discourse which may not appear to be relevant to digital rhetoric (or hypertextual writing) because it does not use the digital in an apparent way is, in fact, extremely relevant because it emerges out of the same logic that gave birth to digital culture. Thus, advertising is one type of writing we can learn a great deal from: how to appropriate, how to link concepts that seem too disparate, how to work with mixes, how to use iconicity persuasively. I consider other examples as well, some which demonstrate explicit connections to the concept we recognize as cool (the Beats, poets who write about cool, Brando, Netscape's "What's Cool" lists), some less explicitly connected (skratching). The point, following McLuhan's pedagogical influence, is to work to understand a given medium and its "effects" in place of doing only a pure content analytical approach.

Thus, my hope is the textbook will contribute to a growing field of rhetorical instruction interested in new media and pedagogy. Another book in the series Writing about Cool is in at Longman, Greg Ulmer's Internet Invention, also works from this premise.

The key to using the book successfully, I believe (based on my teaching of the material in the book over the last 9-10 years), is to find the middle ground between innovation (hypertextual writing that is not instrumental in purpose) and writing pedagogy; or, in other words, to find a balance between the familiar (current teaching practices) and the unfamiliar (teaching for new media). When King notes:

    Though Rice is doing something unique, his ideas are not so far removed from traditional practice. That is, he has a foundation from which he builds, only the structure is unfamiliar.
I am glad to hear his response phrased as such. Too often, we, as teachers, are quick to dismiss the unfamiliar as irrelevant: "What does cool have to do with writing? Nothing!" That quick move to dismiss anything new or different, I would say, is a pedagogical mistake. It keeps our teaching stagnant and out of touch with technological movements in expression. It also denies us and the students we work with the ability to invent and innovate. We have to allow for new practices to be invented in cultural-media shifts (even if it means leaving aside practices we find too dear to depart with, like the topic sentence or the trope of "purpose"). Whether that practice is cool or something else is less the point. The point is to allow students (and ourselves) the opportunities to experiment. Early print culture afforded itself such opportunities when it invented the title page, the index, the table of contents, the essay, and other early creations of print culture. We, too, need the opportunity to allow innovation to occur. Otherwise, we are not learning, nor writing, but merely sustaining for no rhetorical or pedagogical reason.

Jeff Rice

<jrice@wayne.edu>

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