There’s a popular term out there right for people with lots of followers and content on social media: “Influencer.” On it’s face it sounds powerful, something we might all aspire to as writers and creative minds, but in practice its far more about internet hits, monetizing popularity, recycling worn tropes, trading shock for likes, a reiteration of Andy Warhol’s “Fifteen Minutes of Fame,” or fame for the sake of fame. But for those few who truly make connections, who get their audience to reconsider assumptions about the world and their role in it, who affect change…real influence…I like a more practical term: “bridge-builder.”
I’ve recently started writing a new historical novel, which means wallowing in research of Anglo-Saxon Britain circa the 7th century CE, and my experience so far has brought to the surface some realizations that I’m sharing with both my rhetoric and creative-writing students.
“Donald, I know you live in your own reality…” It was a line that debate geeks loved, but it may not have been that far from the truth.
The opening unit of my Language and Ideology course examines how language—and we can extend the meaning of “language” to include hyper linguistic semiological systems, such as myth—constructs our perception of the world, or better, “reality.” These linguistic systems become structures that shape human consciousness, structures that we remain largely ignorant of. Below is a basic introduction to the concepts covered. The nuances of the various theories and methods of analysis have been necessarily simplified; to get a deeper understanding, you’ll need to visit the texts themselves.
In my Composing the Self class, we are exploring the genre of memoir and the rhetorical frames that we create when writing about memory. The power of the memoir lies in its ability to create vivid moments of identification, those experiences, scenes, and choices that readers can connect to their own lives, or imagine themselves in. In fact, Richard Burke in A Rhetoric of Motives asserts that there is an inherent human need to identify and connect, building a social cohesion through shared symbolic action—language, narratives, stories, images. The memoir works to rhetorically “induce actions” (Burke 41) through the identification of life experience, rather than more standard forms of argument.
But how do we avoid the danger of self-indulgence? As Henry Louis Gates, Jr. puts it in “Lifting the Veil,” writing the memoir is automatically an act of “indulging yourself in your own sentimentality” (108). Memory is subjective, influenced by our state of mind, our knowledge, our age and wisdom and later experiences, and it changes the further we move away from the initial experience. Yet memory is central to the memoir, and the “truth” of memory is central to a reader’s ability to identify it. We need to simultaneously access that truth and guard against sentimentality and navel-gazing. “A memoir is all about the unfolding of your ego, and you need to deflect your presence. You’re center stage but you need to move yourself to the periphery” (Gates, Jr. 109).
Memory is also associational, stored in fragments throughout the cortex, and so as an exercise in inducing those associations to better access the “truth” of our memories, I had my students create Memory Boxes.
The memory box consists of a number of tangible items—in the case of our exercise, a minimum of five—that somehow connect to the subject of our short memoirs (about a single event in our lives). Each item provides an opportunity to access memories through the sensory associations that object brings: smell, touch, sight, sound, taste. I’ve decided to do this exercise along with my students, and to write a short memoir of the last visit I had with my father before he passed away.
Lloyd Bitzer defines rhetoric as “a mode of altering reality…by the creation of discourse which changes reality through the mediation of thought and action” (4). To achieve this, the rhetor—or the person composing rhetoric—must be able to connect to her or his intended audience through a shared understanding of symbols: utterances, words, graphics. This connection is essentially a shared acceptance of the meaning of the symbols being used, where those symbols create an appeal to bridge the gap between perceived individual realities.
Rhetorician Kenneth Burke essentially said that wherever there is meaning there is persuasion, and wherever there is persuasion there is rhetoric (172). As humans, we use language—symbols and utterance—to define our perceived realities, and we use rhetoric to reach agreement on what these realities might be. It’s a constant negotiation that happens every day at every moment.
I love bridges. I grew up in rural Washington State, with a creek running behind my backyard, and a river running between my house and everything I needed to get to. When I waited for the bus each morning on the country bridge spanning the small Newaukum River, I always tried to find the exactly center between my side—the private, twenty acre farm with thousands of acres of commercial wilderness surrounding it—and the public side that represented the rest of the world.
To get to my grandparents’ house on Mercer Island, we had to cross the famed floating bridge over Lake Washington, and if my mom did not wake me in time for this momentous event, there would be hell to pay.
My other grandparents lived in Port Orchard, accessible across the Tacoma Narrows straight by a magnificent suspension bridge. Each time we crossed to the “Davidson side,” as I liked to call it, I made my dad tell me the story of the original bridge, “Galloping Gertie,” named because of its tendency to bounce and pitch during wind storms, a tendency that eventually led to its collapse in 1940.
I think what fascinates me most about bridges is their simultaneously functional and symbolic nature.
The bridge’s most basic function is to connect two sides, to facilitate the crossing of a gap or barrier. This can be as simple as a log across a stream, or as complex as the Si-o-se Pol, the Bridge of thirty-three arches in Isfahan, Iran.
They can ease the burden of travel; where once one had to travel miles for a crossing, now, as in the thirty-eight moveable bridges spanning the Chicago River, natural obstacles are no longer a problem.
Bridges bring what was once far, near.They can connect rural to urban, creating access to the goods and services that were previously inaccessible.
This access is both a functional and symbolic action.
Take the suspension bridges being constructed in sub-Saharan Africa. Before, flash flooding and dangerous predators made the crossing of rivers, gullies, and ravines nearly impossible for marginalized communities.
The new bridges functionally enable access to schools, healthcare, and market centers, eliminating the real consequences—and the fear that came with those consequences—of drowning or attack by hippo and crocodile at river fords. Symbolically, the bridges create access to hope, peace, and a better quality of life.
So bridges, while constructed for functional purposes, subsequently occupy symbolic realities in our minds.
The Golden Gate Bridge, one of our most iconic bridges, was built to link San Francisco to Marin County.
Before the bridge, San Francisco was served primarily by ferries, and as a result saw a stagnation in growth far below the national average. Experts said that the 6,700 foot gap across the straight could not be spanned, that the depth of the channel, the strong currents and tides, and the gusting winds would make construction of a bridge impossible.
Of course, the moment you say something is impossible, someone—in this case Joseph Strauss—immediately sets out to prove you wrong. Declared one of the “Wonders of the Modern World” by the American Society of Civil Engineers, the Golden Gate Bridge symbolizes innovation, determination, and creativity, all values we like to attribute to the symbolic reality of the American dream.
This concept of symbolic reality is important. If we accept that reality, no matter how objective it might be out there, must be interpreted and described through a set of symbols—language, art, architecture—then we must concede that this symbolically constructed reality is inherently subjective. The set of symbols we use to describe any object and any concept have a direct effect on how we then view and understand that object or concept.
Others might take these symbolically constructed realities for granted, but as scholars and producers of writing—a set of symbols—we as English majors are very much aware of the subjective realities that influence the way people act in the world.
We understand that words matter, that language matters. We understand that, like bridges, words are functional. They describe, they explain, they clarify, they muddle, they invoke and evoke, they persuade
But they are also symbolic, as they help us determine the reality that we live in: who we are, why we are here, what we do, why we do it. Telling someone that I “teach writing” is different than saying that I am a “professor of rhetoric and composition.”
It’s not hard to find proclamations that the Humanities in general, and the English major specifically, are in decline. On the golf course a while back, I had the “pleasure” of defending my job to a group of smirking businessmen. “You’re a professor of English?” they asked. “So you, what, teach people how to write good English?”
“I teach people how to write English well,” I replied with my own smirk.
“What good is a degree in English?” another guy asked, chomping and slobbering all over his massive cigar. “Business majors study business and then do business. Physics majors do physics. What exactly do English majors do?”
“Just about anything,” I responded immediately.
Last year, there were a slew of articles about how much businesses desire students who can think and write about complex issues and problems—the humanities student, the English major.
In an interview last October, Silicon Valley high-tech entrepreneur Santosh Jayaram said, “English majors are exactly the people I’m looking for.” Why? Because in today’s era of digital products and digital marketing, companies need people who can tell the story of their products. They need writers who can make those necessary connections—bridges—between what the product offers and the potential consumer’s values, needs, and experiences.
I experienced this first-hand the summer before my junior year in college. I’d taken a temp job from Apple One in the IT department at Experian, the large corporation responsible for whether you get a 3.5% or 10% interest rate on your new car. I was in charge of manually inputting security data for an online system while the programmers made the transition to automation. However, within three months, by the time I was ready to begin the Fall semester, I’d been hired on full-time to the Internet Security department. Why? Not because I had mastered the 10-key pad. It was because I was the only one who could communicate in writing the processes, procedures, and policies of our department and our new program.
My rapid climb up the corporate compensation chart happened because I knew how to efficiently and effectively make our bizarre, complex system understandable for a variety of different audiences. I wrote emails, memos, technical documents, and project plans that appealed to the specific needs and experiences of internal and external clients alike. I connected our values and goals to their values and goals.
Just like when I was a kid waiting on the bridge for that school bus, I found myself positioned between two sides, only now the bridge connecting those two sides was the document I had created.
This is why I said that the English major can do just about anything. Your expertise is not in specific formulas or processes, but in writing and reading, in making sense of the various symbolic realities that have been created in the past and are being created now, and building bridges between those realities to foster understanding.
When you write about the works of Shakespeare or Conrad or Austen or Tolstoy, you are building bridges.
When you write a blog about your travels to the Balkans, you are building bridges.
When you write a criticism of the metaphors of war in sports writing, you are building bridges.
As writers and scholars of writing, you build bridges between minds and between realities, connecting your readers to new ideas, new perspectives, new worlds, bringing the far, near.
That is a powerful thing to “do.”
You, today’s English major, are also going to be bridge builders in your own field. In a relatively short time we have seen a broad move from the dominance of writing to the dominance of the image, and at the same time, a move from the dominance of the book to the dominance of the screen (Kress).
Newspapers, magazines, academic journals, books—the old modes of print have now become digital, and in that process of remediation, many people are being left behind. How do we negotiate this sudden change in publication and distribution, where by using a personal three and half inch display, I can access nearly any discourse, broadening my world view? Or, I can access only those discourses which validate my world view.
The world told by symbols—writing—is still governed by time and a mostly linear progression. I still read my digital copy of Tess of the D’Urbervilles from left to right, bottom to top, page 1 to page 419. But what if I could annotate it, or others could annotate it, placing hyperlinks that take me to blogs, to literary criticism scanned from 1950’s journals, to YouTube clips of the Roman Polanski film, to fan fiction sites?
When I read Tess on my digital device, the “world told” through Hardy’s use of symbols also becomes the “world seen,” governed by space, the arrangement of image, and the hypertextual links made to the discourse spawned by the novel.
We can bemoan the shift from page to screen, we can loudly proclaim that the discourse found in blogs, tweets, wikis, TED talks, video reviews or any other new media platform is unworthy of the discourse found in books and academic journals, but we cannot deny that the discourse of the former is reaching far more people than the discourse of the latter.
Your job, English majors, is to build bridges between the two.
Many of you are doing this now, when you post book reviews on Goodreads, or comment about current social, cultural and political issues on a blog, on Facebook, on Twitter. I have seen student tweets about an exciting new text or concept discussed in class, expanding that discourse beyond the classroom walls into the digital spaces of our virtual communities.
You are building bridges between the current digital experiences of writing and reading, and the past print experiences. Those bridges are creating that functional and symbolic access to discourse, access to hope, to education, to understanding.
You will become professionals in an incredibly exciting era. Teachers, critics, reviewers, technical writers, novelists, poets, screenwriters, editors, journalists, managers, copy writers, bloggers, activists, humanitarians—whatever you become, however you apply your expertise in composing and analyzing texts—however you define “texts”—you will be working in new rhetorical spaces using new rhetorical tools…and you will be connecting minds and realities, people, through your writing.
So the next time someone asks you what you do with an English major, you tell them, “I build bridges.”
The 20th century rhetorician Kenneth Burke saw drama everywhere, saw it as a way that people constructed their realities. While the material world is perceived by our five senses, we must interpret those perceptions through a set of symbols—language, writing, images. Thus we do not directly engage our material environment, but act upon it symbolically (Burke’s symbolic action), defining reality based on a set of symbolic systems: language, mathematics, science, art…drama.
When we hear the word craft or craftsmanship, we tend to think of the material arts, ie. building something with one’s hands: cooking, carpentry, sculpting, painting, etc. We understand craft to be the method of making or doing, of using specific materials and tools to accomplish specific tasks, and to do so in an aesthetically pleasing fashion—artistically. Thus the artisan is one accomplished at the craft of making.
The ancient Greeks had another word for this concept of a craft, of making or doing: techne. Here is Aristotle’s definition:
“[S]ince (e.g.) building is an art [techne] and is essentially a reasoned productive state, and since there is no art that is not a state of this kind, and no state of this kind that is not an art, it follows that art is the same as a productive state that is truly reasoned. Every art is concerned with bringing something into being, and the practice of an art is the study of how to bring into being something that is capable either of being or of not being . . . For it is not with things that are or come to be of necessity that art is concerned [this is the domain of episteme] nor with natural objects (because these have their origin in themselves) . . . Art . . . operate[s] in the sphere of the variable.” (From Book VI of the Nicomachean Ethics)
The term “inquiry” is an intimate part of academic discourse. A quick Google search of Chapman University’s website returns 924 instances of the word, and it is the central aspect of the GE “Shared Inquiry” clusters: Artistic Inquiry, Natural Science Inquiry, Quantitative Inquiry, Social Inquiry, Values and Ethical Inquiry, Written Inquiry (most likely the reason you are taking one of my classes). Our library carries 40 journals with “inquiry” in their title.
But what exactly is inquiry? And why is it so important?