WSU English Department Newsletter

Kristin Arola: What Happens to the Minority?

Kristin Arola

Can you talk about your current research project? In particular, can you tell us about your examination of online social networking and how such spaces as Facebook and Twitter encourage certain types of ethnic and personal identity construction?

In part, because of my training (a Ph.D. in rhetoric and technical communication with a strong emphasis on composition and pedagogy), and in part because of my passion for working with students, my current research projects all revolve around the question: “how do we best critically engage students with the online spaces they encounter every day?” The more time our students exist within the space of the computer screen—whether it be a cell phone, a laptop, or a desktop—the more I believe those of us teaching with and about digital technology need to consider how these online spaces afford different types of communication and relations to one another.

My interest in social networking sites such as Facebook has to do in part with the amount of time students spend there, but also with the ways in which the designed spaces we use everyday are out of the control of the user. In a recent article in the journal Computers and Composition I argued that user-controlled design is effectively dead. Ten years ago if you wanted a web presence you had to design a web site, and doing so necessarily involved making choices about things like background color, font color, and the arrangement of elements. Yet, today, one can have a web presence simply by having a Facebook account (or Twitter, or Blogger, or….so on). To create this account, you fill out various online forms that fill the predesigned template with your words and photographs. You do not get to choose what color you want the background, or what size font you want the headers, or where you want your profile picture to appear—the design choices are controlled by the template. Even in some sites like Blogger where you get to choose a template, you are still choosing within a predefined set of choices, you are not designing yourself.
Of course there are still many choices a user can make in these templates in terms of her words and images, but what I’m interested in is how these templates limit and/or encourage particular rhetorical choices. If students aren’t designing homepages anymore, then what types of representational choices are they making online? And how do design templates impact these choices? To get back to your question then, I am currently working on a few projects.

First, I am looking at the ways American Indians use online spaces in light of these template constraints. Can a user compose a self representation in a way that she wants to? Can a user form and maintain relations with other people in the ways that she wants to? Essentially, do these templates allow for self-determination or do they constrain users within a Western model of subjectivity and relations? I’m traveling back to my tribe’s powwow this fall to talk with students about how they’re currently using social networking and what, in a “perfect world,” they wish these sites would look like and allow for. I’ve done some of this work from a distance with a few students, but I’m excited to meet with a larger group to see what types of ideas emerge.

Second, stemming from these types of questions (and answers), I am working on a handbook for multimodal composition (that is, compositions beyond the word). This handbook, co-authored with my colleagues Cheryl Ball (from Illinois State) and Jennifer Sheppard (from New Mexico State), provides composition students with strategies for composing their own multimodal text—whether it be a website, a poster, or a video. The heuristics we offer in this text are meant to get students to think of the ways in which design, online or off, have effects in the world. That is, a website isn’t merely effective if it “gets the message across” or if “users can find what they need.” Instead, it’s effective if it takes the audience into full consideration and acknowledges, as much as is possible, that different people will come to it in different ways and need different things from it. Essentially, there is an affective dimension to texts that all composers need to take into account. While this handbook might not have our students creating texts that every culture and ethnicity can relate to, I hope at least that it allows students the space to think about how various designs can impact various audiences in various ways. And, if nothing else, I hope they’re at least a little more critical of the designed spaces they encounter online.

Congratulations on recently winning the Buchanan Award. Can you talk a bit about the steps you go through to publish, from how you settle on a topic, to how you go about revision and select yourpublication venues? You might also talk about how you balance a professional and personal life and manage your time.

Thanks! I was (and still am!) truly honored and humbled.

Publishing. Well, this is my first job out of graduate school and I have to say the learning curve for publishing is, well, steep! It took me awhile to shake off the dissertation (which I defended 4 weeks before moving to Pullman), but once I was able to get out of the dissertation mindset (by which I mean writing everything as though it were a chapter in a dissertation) I learned fairly quickly that, for me, I need to write about things I have some sort of passion about, otherwise it just won’t get done. For me, this is, first and foremost, teaching students to critically engage with online spaces. Talking about pedagogy comes fairly easy to me and is why you see me publishing textbook materials (take, for example, my IX: Visual Exercises CD-ROMs which we recently revised for a second online edition of the aforementioned handbook).

Kristin online

Working with textbook publishers truthfully had a bit to do with being in the right place at the right time—that is, I was a graduate student at Michigan Tech at a time when we abolished first-year composition and replaced it with a multimodal second-year composition class. I quickly and easily adapted to this model, so when textbook publishers came wandering the hallways to ask folks what they thought about the future of composition, my colleague Cheryl Ball and I were full of opinions. These opinions led to the first version of the CD-ROM and helped to build a relationship with a publisher.

What I learned from this experience that might be useful to folks interested in textbook publishing is that textbook representatives often DO want to know what you’re doing and what you think needs to be changed. If you have an opinion, tell them. If you have an idea, try to sell them on it. I find graduate students are some of the most cutting-edge teachers, so my advice to them is when those textbook reps ask you what you think, tell them!

As for more traditional publication venues and ideas, for me it’s a matter of doing what I care about. Again, this is pedagogy, but this is also where it gets personal for me. My interest in American Indian online rhetorics is a matter of me pulling together my pedagogical interests and my personal life. This is a long story (ask me over a beer someday if you care)…but suffice it to say I have a lot of personal connection with the ways folks represent themselves in online spaces. Does the raced body disappear? Can it ever? This stuff fascinates me, thus when I come to issues I want to work out in my own head, why not work them out on paper?

My biggest lessons with publishing are to write what you love (or at least like!), to realize that reviewers comments may be harsh but learn what you can from them (and remember how your students feel when you return a paper covered in ink), and to find venues where you imagine you’d like to be in conversation with the folks who tend to publish there.

Finally, balancing the personal and the professional? Tenure-track, I’m pretty sure, exists to make graduate school seem like a cakewalk in retrospect. If you let it, it will control your entire life. I just have to remind myself that, were I to get hit by a truck tomorrow, would I be grateful I wrote one more page or had one more publication? Or would I be grateful I had a nice dinner with my husband and played with my dog? The latter always wins for me, always—perhaps to my own professional detriment. We shall see :)

What advice would you give to graduate students who are in the process of developing their research topics and their scholarly voices/personas?

This probably came across above, but in short: be true to yourself. People can get so wrapped up in the game that they lose their voices. Don’t pick a topic simply because it’s cutting edge or sexy, pick it because you care about it, because it resonates with you, because it lights your fire. And, while it can be fun to try to mimic the writing styles of some of your favorite theorists, none of us are Derrida. You’ll be far better served writing from your own voice. Trust yourself!

Since your research and scholarship draws from such a wide array of publications and places, could you talk about how you approach such fluid and dynamic topics as popular social networking or online spaces such as web pages, blogs or online media and present them in a rigorous academic model?

This, for me, is the challenge of doing any sort of media-related work. (Forgive me if this is an overgeneralization but…) if you study Shakespeare, people expect you to be in an English Department. But, if you study a TV show, or film, or some aspect of the web, you could be in Sociology, Communications, Cultural Studies, English, Fine Arts, Psychology, etc. And, people in all of those disciplines have various canons and various perspectives, all of which are valuable but all of which can also seriously bog one down if you begin feeling you have to know everything that was ever said about Facebook before writing about it.

Kristin with some of her Digitial Technology and Culture graduates

For me, I always return to my training and my grounding. I was trained in the fields of rhetoric and composition, and to those ends am always interested in the available means of persuasion in any medium, as well as the composing practices of our students. Given the current reality of the University (where interdisciplinarity is given lip service, but where the structure is not built to actually put it into practice), as well as the reality of publication venues and the tenure system, I have to put some amount of disciplinary walls around me. I have to say “I am a computers and writing specialist in the field of rhetoric and composition” and thusly have to work to publish in those journals, present at those conferences, and cite the people in my discipline who do work I can draw from.

And, perhaps most importantly, the big picture questions I ask aren’t about Facebook, or Twitter, or (fill in blank with the next new big thing). Instead, the questions I ask must first and foremost have weight with those in my field. This isn’t to say I should turn a blind eye to all the great work being done in other fields. Often that work does have relevance for my work and can put a new light on things I’m doing, so I dabble, I dig, I look outside my discipline’s walls, but I always return home.

As writing becomes increasingly digital and geared toward a fast-paced, technologically literate audience, how do you see the constructions of social and ethnic identities changing? How do you expect your current research to influence the future of rhetoric and composition pedagogy in response to this shift?

In spite of what it may sound like, I’m cautious of technological determinism. I’m skeptical that ethnic identities are changing because of online spaces, but I do think we can gain a lot by considering how online spaces position users. I made the case in a recent conference presentation that Facebook supports Native American rhetorics. In spite of popular perception that Facebook is all about the “I,” the template actually encourages understanding the self in relation to those around you. Granted, it’s still somewhat ego driven, but given the way the template is arranged, what others are saying and doing in relation to you and each other is so much more important than what you have say about yourself. Twitter, on the other hand, at least in its design, is far more about the self (i.e., the actual workings of it vary wildly from user to user).

I’ll leave the question, “Is technology changing us?” to the psychologists (was that a cop-out? Ha!). What I am willing to say, though and I think most of us agree, ,is that changing technologies encourage new literacy practices, practices that those of us in English studies should be attuned to. And, as with all literacy practices, they vary for different people in different contexts. While one form of communication may be useful for a particular audience, it may fail miserably with another. Again, pretty commonsensical stuff, but when it comes to designing and interrogating interfaces (which I consider a form of communication), the idea of audiences goes by the wayside. Instead, interfaces are designed to be invisible and to work for the majority of users. But, what happens to the minority?

This is the question I hope to transfer over to pedagogical practices. I want my students in WSU’s Digital Technology and Culture program to be designing online spaces not for some monolithic audience, but instead for a particular audience in a particular situation. I want them to think about how particular design standards may be the norm for one group of people, but not necessarily for another. I want them to imagine what’s possible through composing. I want them to think about the ways in which their own technological literacies can serve to promote social justice (which is why I so often partner students and classes with our Center for Civic Engagement).

Maybe I have my head in the clouds, and maybe I ask too much, but I really hope, at the end of the day, that my research informs my teaching which in turn helps students who will go out into the world mindfully composing and critically engaging with the online world around them.

Washington State University
English Department Newsletter
Volume 3, Number 1,
Fall 2010