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
Finding a methodology to teach writing is a difficulty that educators often face. In many institutions of higher education, two classes are required: one emphasizes composition, the other focuses upon argumentative (or persuasive) writing. The concern of Jeff Rice's textbook, entitled Writing About Cool: Hypertext and Cultural Studies in the Computer Classroom, is for the second classroom, i.e., one that teaches rhetorical strategies. This concern is addressed through the use of the popular conceptions of cool to investigate the relationship between culture and technology. Though these two concepts are difficult to define, Rice believes we may better understand their relationship by concentrating upon the activity that binds them, writing. He thinks, more specifically, that by examining how people have used popular conceptions of cool in their writing, we may draw out the rhetorical strategies they employed as guides to teach students how to write persuasively. The students' medium for learning these techniques is not print, however. Rice insists that hypertext's properties of nonlinearity and association (of ideas) allow a writer numerous possibilities that print formats cannot offer. This textbook, then, attempts more than an analysis of one concept upon another, culture upon technology or technology upon culture; it attempts to teach students how to write persuasively in electronic environments, specifically hypertext.
According to Rice, cool has been defined in various ways by culture. He uses each one of these definitions as a lead into the rhetorical strategies employed with each definition. For example, in the first chapter, cool is regarded as that which is popular or worthwhile. With this seen as the standard, Rice provides one cultural perspective of cool: that which indicates independence and rebellion. The figures he gives as examples are Marlon Brando and James Dean. (Though these figures may be less familiar with students, they are likely to understand their image or iconic meaning -- an issue Rice deals with in a later chapter.) Rice then proceeds to explain the relationship between this perception of cool as a personality trait (that is captured and preserved as an image) and how it has been employed as an electronic writing strategy.
The second chapter deals with how cool is presented on the Internet. Though he provides some historical background, as he does in almost all of his chapters, his point is to explain the commercialization of the conception of cool. Using Yahoo as an example, Rice explains how words can be manipulated so they become persuasive. But, far from condemning the commercialization of the word, Rice shows how the device that Yahoo uses is employed. The specific example he uses is the heading of a Yahoo Cool Category. The title of the category is "Music That Sucks." Instead of the title "Music," or replacing "sucks" with "bad," "not good," or "awful," the author of the website, Rice argues, intentionally chose this word because it appeals to the target audience of young teenagers. In short, Rice argues that the technique the website's author employed was informed by a rhetorical notion familiar to many teachers: know your audience. This brings up one other point. 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.
The third, fourth, and fifth chapters investigate further the relationship between cool, advertising, and the audience, i.e., teenagers. It is in these chapters where Rice introduces and explains the notion of appropriation. He explains this concept as taking from one source, manipulating the information, and then employing that information in a new form for purposes other than those originally intended. One example Rice points out is the use of icons to create consumer identification with products. This strategy provides a connection between the (either appropriated or created) image and the consumer. This connection, in turn, builds familiarity between the audience and the product and, no doubt, increases sales.
Rice continues his discussion concerning advertising and cool by introducing Louis Althusser's notion of interpellation. According to Rice, this concept is meant to explain how groups attempt to persuade individuals to identify with certain ideas. This persuasion of identification is subtle, though. It assures the individual that the identification is natural so the individual will not dispute it. Rice argues that this is, in fact, a strategy used by several companies. The main example that he provides is the Sprite slogan, "obey your thirst." Rice argues that Sprite is appealing to the cultural value of being yourself and making your own choices. This, however, is really an attempt for them to gain the consumer's business. By identifying itself with a cultural value, the company expects that the familiarity with this value will cause the consumer to buy its product. Or, simply put, Sprite has appropriated a familiar cultural value that is considered cool so it may benefit from its association, and it is this technique Rice wishes to teach.
The next five chapters, six through ten, deal with the conception of cool specifically in regards to African-American culture. The main objective is to examine the cultural effect on rhetoric -- specifically the cultural influences that constructed the word "cool" -- so the rhetorical strategies that are found may be used in writing hypertext. For Rice, cool is as culturally influenced as any other factor. By examining its cultural construction, he hopes that we can use that information to write more persuasively in hypertext. One could say that cool is a notion that is attractive to people and, by associating one's writing with cool, others are sure to read it. Rice's purpose, though, is to understand the construction of this notion so we may write not in a cool way, but coolly; that is, he is not only talking about writing that is cool, but a persuasive kind of writing called "cool writing." We may examine writing that is cool, but it is only a model for the writing that is persuasive ipso facto, the writing Rice wants to teach.
Other topics that Rice addresses in these chapters include music sampling as appropriation, identity formation through myth and ritual, field research, and rhetorical strategies in literature. Though these topics are rather diverse, Rice uses each one to show how meaning is created through language. When a writer creates something, it is called a discourse or an expression. Certain forms of discourse have control over what people think and how they act, according to Rice. His attempt, then, is to investigate, analyze, explain, and teach the rhetorical strategies that enable one to do this.
While the eleventh chapter explains rhetorical strategies employed by the Beat writers, the twelfth, thirteenth, and fourteenth chapters return to a focus upon technology. Since Rice has already explored the rhetorical strategies used in various cultural aspects (music, literature, and advertising), he returns to technology to do the same in electronic writing. This leads to a discussion of skratching and its relevance to writing, the use of tie-ins or association, and distinction between cool media and hot media based upon levels of participation.
Rice's final chapter is meant to complete the book by commenting upon the relationship two people can have through technology. He states that webpages allow one person to know another without any personal interaction. He then extends this to the particular example of a celebrity, Elvis, and shows how the singer went from fashioning his own image to becoming a form of writing.
There is no doubt that Rice is trying to do something different, and this may not to appeal to some people. He is trying to reevaluate the traditional way writing is taught. If this is kept in mind, his project may work. (This is not to mention that students may take more interest in Rice's approach and, therefore, learn with more tenacity.) As stated before, his project is not groundless. That is, Rice's project did not emerge on a whim. He often mentions traditional teaching techniques such as knowing one's audience. In short, he simply wishes to explore the connection between a cultural value, i.e., cool, and electronic writing and the uses this connection may yield. It is true that his approach is different, but that does not mean, necessarily, that it is incorrect. After all, innovation leads to discovery.
J. M. King:
J. M. King is a doctoral student at the University of Texas at Dallas in Humanities and teaches Rhetoric. His research interests include political philosophy, German history, Enlightenment thought, and education theory. <firstname.lastname@example.org>
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