© Ben McCorkle and Figure/Ground Communication
Dr. McCorkle was interviewed by Laureano Ralon on August 24th, 2012
Ben McCorkle is an associate professor of English at Ohio State University at Marion, where he teaches courses on composition, the history and theory of rhetoric, and digital media production. He is the author of the book Rhetorical Delivery as Technological Discourse: A Cross-Historical Study, published by Southern Illinois University Press. He has also published essays in various journals and edited collections, including Computers and Composition Online, Rhetoric Society Quarterly, and Composition Studies.
How did you decide to become a university professor? Was it a conscious choice?
I ‘m actually a first-generation college student. I come from a small rural community in east Georgia where not many of us went on to attend college–farming, retail, and factory work were the most obvious career paths after graduating high school. I did well in high school (salutatorian), and because of that I was awarded a state scholarship that paid for my in-state tuition, should I decide to go to college. That was a good enough incentive, and so I went to Augusta College (now Augusta State University) to study English. My plan at that point was to get a BA and go into some professional field where writing was involved (newspaper, textbook, marketing, perhaps teaching).
I did just that–after graduating, I got a job at an area weekly tabloid paper, primarily writing arts and entertainment articles. That lasted a couple of years, but in the meantime, another interest of mine continued to percolate. While in undergrad, I encountered a number of really inspiring professors that exposed me to subjects beyond literature: critical theory, aesthetic theory, continental philosophy, and rhetoric. I wanted to wrestle with those subjects even more, and so eventually, I decided to apply to graduate school, thinking I would get the degree for its own sake (in other words, I wasn’t thinking about becoming a professional teacher and scholar at that point; I was just being self-indulgent, which is your prerogative when you’re young and relatively debt-free). I applied to OSU because of their Rhetoric and Composition program’s reputation, and I was accepted.
From there, I set out on this path of higher learning, and in the process, I was also professionalizing, going to conferences, attending teacher-training workshops, actually thinking about pedagogy. They got me, and before I knew it, I was finishing my dissertation and actually going out on the job market. By the time it was all settled, I had secured a tenure-track job at OSU-Marion, so I had the good fortune to remain part of the community that helped shape my identity as something more than a dilettante, an actual professional academic.
Who were some of your mentors in university and what were some of the most important lessons you learned from them?
I can think of two people right off the bat. One is Nan Johnson, who was my dissertation adviser. Nan is the embodiment of a well-rounded, all-around academic: her scholarship is impeccable, she’s a fierce presence in the classroom, and she possesses an uncanny political savvy when it comes to departmental issues. She’s been a constant source of good advice over the years: who to see about what, how to write my way out of a sticky problem, when to wield the carrot or the stick. Probably the biggest lesson I’ve learned from her is recognizing the degree of performance tied to teaching, something she talked about in a rhetoric seminar many years ago, and something that I’ve since come to recognize in her teaching (how she carries herself, how she modulates her voice, when she chooses to stay silent, when she whips out her paper fan to dramatically emphasize a point), and something I’ve tried cultivating as I hone my own pedagogical craft.
The other, Cynthia Selfe, came to OSU the same year I began as an Assistant Professor. She’s been a true godsend in terms of helping me regain my footing as I transitioned from grad student to early-career scholar. Anyone who knows Cindy is well aware of her indefatigable drive and relentless positive energy–these traits are not just reserved for her students, and she has been very generous with her advice and support. I try to model her behavior whenever I interact with my own students and colleagues on the Marion campus (while acknowledging to myself that I will never be able to duplicate her efforts fully–I simply don’t have the stamina she does).
In your experience, how did the role of university professor evolve since you were an undergraduate student?
I think we’ve long been fighting to move beyond the “sage on the stage” caricature, and the new media landscape helps greatly in that regard. In some respects, university professors find ourselves in a post-expertise moment; we’re more like docents who point out texts for our students to contemplate, rework, explore, or otherwise engage with, and less like Fordist floor managers grinding our students through an assembly-line regimen of essay writing. What constitutes “academic discourse” for scholars today looks very different from when I was an undergrad (which wasn’t that long ago), so we owe it to our students to expose them to these new possibilities for composing arguments. Sites like Kairos, Harlot, and Figure/Ground get this, and aren’t afraid of stretching the formal and generic limits of scholarly compositions.
What makes a good teacher today? How do you manage to command attention in an “age of interruption” characterized by attention deficit and information overload?
To an extent, I think you have to engage it… you have to be willing to occasionally swim in the same waters as your students, but also know when to get out of there. For instance, there seems to be a generational gap widening with respect to email usage habits–while I am literally tethered to it, my students ignore it (this, despite the fact that all important messages related to financial aid, course registration, and so on comes to them via email). Instead, they’re much more plugged into various social networks: Facebook, Twitter, and related services. In more than a few cases, this situation is partly a matter of access, since many of the students I teach have easier access to mobile devices than computers with internet access, and setting up their phone’s email client is typically more difficult compared to downloading a Twitter app. So I’ve come around to occasionally including students’ Facebook and Twitter accounts into my official communication channel; it adds a little more to my workload, but it’s marginal, and it increases the likelihood of reaching all my students.
More generally, I think today’s technological landscape lends itself well to the learning environment I try to cultivate in my classes. Much like Albert Rouzie, I believe that learning best happens when we allow an element of play to infuse our classroom dynamic and assignments, and I often design assignments patterned after the very “interruptions” that characterize digital culture: web memes, five-second films, having students generate backchannel conversations via Twitter, and so forth. Ideally, the work we ask of our students should complement their “real life” concerns and present them with the opportunity to think of how their ideas fit into the public discourse. Fostering good critical thinking habits might even allow them to filter out the noise from the signal a little better, potentially easing the pressure of information overload (one can hope).
What advice would you give to young graduate students and aspiring university professors and what are some of the texts that young scholars should be reading in this day and age?
To the grad students: being a sharp thinker, a good writer, a stellar student… these are obviously important skills and I don’t want to belittle them, but don’t overlook opportunities for professionalization. When the time comes for you to go on the market, it’s not going to matter to prospective colleagues that your intellect has become the finely honed instrument it is, especially if they get the sense that you won’t be able to produce for their department (and chances are, you’ll be competing in a job pool with plenty other stand-out intellects anyway). Before you even graduate, get some conference experience under your belt, a couple of modest publications, perhaps something even more ambitious… Get some administrative experience if possible (writing program administrator, for instance), to demonstrate your added value. To junior faculty: know what your priorities are, and act accordingly. While it can be hard to say “no” whenever a senior colleague asks you to help out with some sort of service project or committee assignment, too many “yesses” will keep you from doing what you need to do in order to secure tenure (in many places, that means getting a book published, which is a daunting and protracted task, so managing your time to complete it successfully can be a little tricky). Senior faculty should ideally provide you with the necessary support–and protection–to get this done, but they won’t know how much to provide if you don’t communicate to them how you’re progressing with your scholarship.
As far as reading goes, I won’t saddle you with a burdensome list (read your classics, kids!), but in my own mind, at least, I think it’s a productive thought exercise to place the works of Kenneth Burke beside Marshall McLuhan, two “big” twentieth-century thinkers who changed how we think about medium, message, and motive, sometimes in concert with one another, sometimes slightly dissonant. Plus, I would suggest that young academics, especially those interested in technology studies, digital humanities, media studies, or however you prefer to slice it, not be fearful of exploring texts outside of academia proper. Two of the most fascinating books I’ve recently read on technology and media have been James Gleick’s The Information: A History. A Theory. A Flood and Kevin Kelly’s What Technology Wants.
In 1964, Marshall McLuhan declared, in reference to the university environment that, “departmental sovereignties have melted away as rapidly as national sovereignties under conditions of electric speed.” This claim could be viewed as an endorsement of interdisciplinary studies, but it could also be regarded as a statement about the changing nature of academia. Do you think the university as an institution is in crisis or at least under threat in this age of information?
Whenever anyone asks me a question about McLuhan, I can’t help but think of his cameo in Annie Hall when I offer up an answer (“You know nothing of my work!”)–maybe it’s a bit of my own insecurity bubbling up when it comes to dealing with the complexities of McLuhanesque thinking. I definitely think there’s change in the wind, and time will tell whether or not that change is a welcome or foreboding one. If my colleague Frank Donoghue is to be believed (in his book The Last Professors: The Corporate University and the Fate of the Humanities), corporate and cultural forces much larger and robust than academe are transforming and ultimately threatening the traditional humanistic vision of higher education. I’m torn by this vision of the future, because while on one hand I enjoy being part of the professoriate, and all the freedoms and perks afforded by that position, I also realize that as part of an institution, I’m in some ways complicit in replicating the kinds of abuses typical of any institution: marginalizing certain ways of thinking or being, and privileging others. Some of the early signs of this transformation are exciting and potentially point to a future less dystopian, one that we have a hand in shaping. The emerging trend of MOOCs at various institutions across the world (led by MIT and Stanford, but even here at OSU, we’ve started to dip our toe into the pool) strikes me as a trace or hint of what higher education will look like in the near future: decentralized, networked, fragmented, accessible, low-cost. If we handle it right, it could be a brave new world of learning; if we don’t, well, I guess we’ll all be looking for jobs in fifteen years.
What attracted to you Rhetoric and what is the relevance of this field in this age of information characterized by digital interactive media?
My interest in the field dates back to my undergrad days, when I first decided to become an English major because I liked literature and dabbled in creative writing. I soon thereafter discovered this entirely new field devoted to studying how we communicate–it combined all of these big ideas from philosophy, psychology, logic, ethics, and more, and at the time, I remember being caught up in the idea that this is arguably the oldest established academic discipline in all of Western culture (I mean, just think of that–our first real scholarly pursuit involved figuring out how our own communication practices worked). I was lucky enough to have been invited as a panelist to a couple of conferences as an undergrad, including the CCCC in Nashville (94?), got some good advice about grad school, and I was hooked.
As technology develops over time, so too will the associated interfaces, genres, and modes of interaction. Rhetoric invites us to question how new textualities play out across the sensorium, how sight, sound, touch, and (perhaps) even taste and smell can be marshalled in order to produce new persuasive effects. Rhetoric’s tradition as both an after-the-fact analytic and a before-the-fact prescription for production will continue to make it an invaluable way of making sense of texts, whatever the form.
Which rhetorical approach do you suppose would better serve the needs of media ecology? Why?
That’s a great question, and one that I’m not sure I can fully answer, except to say “It depends.” There’s a lot of interesting theoretical points of view that a scholar might use in order to delve more deeply into the question of how we affect, and are affected by, newly emerging communication technologies and their attendant media forms: actor/network theory, standpoint theory, software studies, procedural rhetorical theory, etc. Of course, each approach yields a slightly different output, given the scale, scope, and focus of the analytic, so I’m reluctant to dismiss a particular approach out of hand (or, conversely, to endorse one at the expense of the others).
But the great thing about rhetorical theory, even classical rhetorical theory, is its durability. Rhetorical inquiry is centered around some very basic, and hence, very flexible questions: Who is saying what to whom? In what manner? To what ends? This is the kind of inquiry that applies equally well to an oration, a printed text, or a multimodal composition.
A couple of generations ago we discovered a new kind of audience had formed in our midst: The Mass Audience. Everybody agrees that it is vastly different from, say, a reading public. What has rhetoric to say about the difference between a mass and a public?
Ever since rhetoric became originally codified, and folks like Aristotle abstracted the notion of audience, as opposed to the more embodied, performative, real-time approach of the Sophists, it’s given us a mechanism by which we can imagine how the rhetorical act scales upward. In other words, early on, we were thinking about the difference between persuading the few or the many versus the one, to some extent. Thanks to a sharp dissertation on the rhetoric of hacker cultures by Tim Lockridge that I’m currently in the middle of reading, I’ve become interested in Michael Warner’s thinking about how the public is constituted: spatio-temporally contingent, malleable, bound together by a web of texts, and so on. But to get to questions of mass audience, I’m reminded of that line from the film Inception: “We need to go deeper,” by which I mean to say that just as discrete publics are constituted by this network of artifacts and relations, a mass audience is similarly made up of a network of intersecting, overlapping publics. I’m not entirely sure where to go with that observation, except to say that I think the central difficulty of thinking along these lines is determining whether we’re talking about a difference in degree or kind; if it is indeed a difference in kind, then we’re faced with a law of diminishing returns–trying to move or persuade a radically factionalized, fragmented, tenuously held-together mass audience, at least in the traditional sense of rhetorical ends, may be an exercise in futility. Instead, it might be more fruitful to acknowledge that rhetorical praxis isn’t typically directed at mass audience, but rather at the micro-tribes that comprise it, and here, rhetoric still matters.
What is your opinion of Economics of Attention?
I’m less familiar with it than some of his other ground-breaking works–in fact, The Electronic Word was part of a central cluster of works on rhetoric and new media that I referenced in my book, along with works by Kathleen Welch, Robert Connors, Jay David Bolter and Richard Grusin, among others. His thoughts on the de-naturalizing effects of electronic textuality were highly influential on my thinking about the project. Come to think of it, Lanham informs my teaching philosophy as well. I’m an adherent of the strong position to the “Q question,” that effective rhetorical education produces better citizens. I’m kinda sappy that way.
But Economics of Attention, as far as I’ve dug into it (and there’s never enough world or time, it seems), offers an intriguing thesis: that in the age of info-glut, the pathway to persuasion lies in style, aesthetics, design. I know that I often catch myself being drawn to stylized content, assuming it’s more credible. At the end of the day, code is code is code, and so we tend to seek out ways of differentiating and distinguishing content rather quickly, for good or ill. Lanham illuminates this for us, opening up a space for critique.
What are you currently working on?
I’m currently working on a project with my OSU colleague Susan Delagrange to develop a collaborative online “abecedary,” a collection of short scholarly/artistic multimodal texts highlighting the field of digital media studies. The idea behind this project is to present a variety of theoretical and aesthetic takes on digital media studies, packaged in a somewhat playful manner.
I’m also interested in utilizing visualization software in order to develop a methodology for analyzing the history of rhetoric and composition studies. Working with Jason Palmeri (Miami University), the two of us are developing a distant reading analysis of a specific corpus of rhetoric/composition journals over a several-decades timespan, complete with interactive timeline, that illustrates how the field has dealt historically with the introduction of new communication technologies.
My largest long-term project involves what I’m terming “rhetorics of digital resistance.” I’m fascinated by how recent organizations, movements, and sites such as Wikileaks, Anonymous, and the Occupy movement function rhetorically. These closely related entities often employ innovative, sometimes chaotic, strategies to communicate their message and challenge their opponents. I’m currently developing a rhetorical analysis of such practice, and am debating whether or not to develop the project as a monograph or in some other medium.
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