Electric Rhetoric and the Return of the Political: Restoring the Role of Civics in the Humanities through an Internet-intensive Writing Course
In Connecting Civic Education and Language Education, Sandra Stotsky argues that the humanities have suffered the loss of the study of 'civics' to the social sciences and must win it back by elucidating the necessary relationship between language education and any properly civic enterprise. At the University of California, Irvine, 'we' would seem to agree. Our syllabus for the required, lower-division research and argument course explains that the class is "designed to help you … to engage responsibly and effectively in democratic debate and policy-making." This year I was involved in the development and instruction of special sections of this course, entitled Electric Rhetoric and designed to explore the impact of the electronic exchange of texts on all aspects of writing practices and critical thought. The work of developing a rhetoric of the Web falls, in part, to the composition programs. So, the obvious trajectory of Electric Rhetoric at Irvine is to identify the ways in which the practice of writing a researched argument can be aided, in fact re-thought, through Web-based research and writing strategies. In this paper, I am more concerned with the democratic underpinnings of our course announced with little fanfare in the syllabus. How is Electric Rhetoric instrumental in recouping the teaching of civics for the humanities? To explore this question, I will extract from the course a model for democratic practice and articulate it in relation to other contemporary theories of the democratic polis. I will then analyze the actual course practices, insofar as they are both real civic actions and prospective contributions to a new model of civic action within a democratic socius.
While some may immediately identify strictures in the logic of the syllabus similar to the rationalist demands of Habermas's vision of democracy, my conference presentation will argue that Electric Rhetoric presents a model for democratic praxis better articulated in a close comparison to Chantal Mouffe's description of an 'agonistic pluralism' in The Return of the Political. Of importance to a Mouffe-informed vision of democracy-in-action will be the distinction between the civic practices prescribed by the course and those into which the students initiate themselves.
Ensuring that our students are equipped to utilize the Internet with exacting reading strategies, we enable them to negotiate current-day impediments to democracy: the scale of modern life, the bureaucratization of the state apparatus, the civil society becoming a mass society, etc. Their presence at university and the accessibility of computers already suggests that they reside in the 'civil' society, but their ability to contribute to genuinely democratic practices will be aided less by an expanded notion of rhetoric and more by recognizing the "ensemble of social positions" that constitute the self as it participates in a radical pluralism of collective identification that renders impossible the age-old "democratic logic of identity of government and governed" (Mouffe). Making this complicated construction clear is the challenge of both this presentation and the Electric Rhetoric course. Accomplished, it should make apparent not only the persuasive character of Stotsky's book but that the teaching of writing in an Internet-intensive composition course can be powerfully enhanced when instilled with a civic project.
Author: James Zeigler
Target Audience: Not Applicable
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