Inventing the Available Means
Aristotle concisely declares the art of rhetoric to be
an ability, in each [particular] case, to see the available means of persuasion (I.ii.1). He elaborates upon this somewhat by noting that
rhetoric seems to be able to observe the persuasive about (I.ii.1). Though he focuses upon spoken argument as the form a particular suasive effort will take, Aristotle delivers an extensive examination of the means available through speech for a rhetor to accomplish his or her task. It is not enough to recognize that speech alone provides a way for a rhetor to communicate with an audience; Aristotle is interested in understanding how a specific argument is constructed and delivered to a given audience - thus the rhetor's character, arrangement of ideas, choice of language, and manner of delivery all serve as means contributing to the overall persuasive effect. This perspective has remained at the foundation of rhetoric for the last two thousand years, though it's now widely acknowledged that the technologies and contexts of composing have an integral—but not determinative—influence on the available means of persuasion. For example, Joy Ritchie and Kate Ronald, in the introduction to their collection Available Means: An Anthology of Women's Rhetoric, have called for a recognition of the
diverse collection of sites in which composers
have discovered different means of persuasion, often based in contexts other than those Aristotle might have imagined (xvii). In short: what is available for persuasion is constrained by what is available for composing. In the current moment, this relationship is ever more at the fore: the last several decades have complicated significantly the relationship between the means of persuasion and the means of composing, primarily due to the rapid development and relative ubiquity of digital technologies used for communicative purposes.
This relationship is taken up in a 2005 article (later expanded into a book) by David M. Sheridan, Jim Ridolfo, and Anthony J. Michel, who raise a number of questions central to the notion of persuasion on the internet. There, they begin by interrogating what types of means we should recognize, what they call
semiotic resources - that we are likely not already recognizing, due to differences in technological or media-specific affordances and constraints - as available for suasive purposes (803). After exploring kairos through the lens of multimodal and multimedia possibility for suasion within and upon the public sphere, the authors conclude that they have attempted
to imagine a culture that values a particular kind of rhetorical education aimed at preparing public rhetors to appropriate multimodal rhetoric for their own ends (833). What is significant, then, is not that the internet provides new ways of considering means of persuasion, but that emerging contexts and technologies lead us to suasive opportunities and tools that, while we may not immediately or easily recognize them, we nonetheless need to interrogate so as to determine how and why such means might be used for particular purposes.
Kathleen Blake Yancey provides a similar argument in her 2004 CCCC chair's address, Made Not Only in Words: Composition in a New Key, observing that students are already aware of means of persuasion available to them for all manner of composition; what limits them, she suggests, is the framework provided by most composition instructors. These instructors, according to Yancey, ask students to compose types of artifacts that simply don't align with most of the forms of communication students engage in regularly outside the classroom. As a result, there is a significant missed opportunity to work with students in order to more explicitly acknowledge and make use of the affordances of the forms of communication in which they work. Such an approach would provide students with a greater understanding of how to invent and operationalize the means related to the situations for which they compose, rather than glossing over those means for their lack of close analogue to conventions of written and spoken suasion.
Sheridan, Ridolfo, and Michel's focus on the importance of digital means of composing for public texts and Yancey's call to re-examine curricular and pedagogical contexts in order to incorporate means available more widely frame one particular dilemma: how, in academic settings, can teachers of composition create the conditions within which students are encouraged to invent and deploy a variety of means? And how do those teachers determine how and when particular means are utilized effectively? One possible answer, provided by Jody Shipka, is a multimodal task-based framework for composing, which establishes the importance of viewing students' multimodal works through the practices and tools they use (and learn about using) as much as by the end results of their work. As Shipka notes elsewhere, what students learn about their own rhetorically-motivated invention and deployment of the available means of composing is as important as the means through which they apply their knowledge (Toward 5-11). This sort of inquiry, she notes, need not (nor should it) focus on digitally-mediated practices and products, since such a focus is also a restriction on recognizing the available means of composition for and within a given situation.
Further, Shipka points out that attempting to view one mode (or ensemble of modes) of rhetorical expression using the lens of another mode (or ensemble) hinders the process of invention, especially since multimodal composition complicates the traditional text-only approach to communication (A Multimodal 301-302). Instead, Shipka argues, open assignment tasks and reflective practices allow students to articulate more clearly and effectively why and how they identified particular rhetorical choices and to what ends they attempted to make use of the persuasive means available to them, given the constraints of the situations in which they composed.
A similar argument is made by Anne Frances Wysocki; she argues for a recognition of what she calls
unavailable designs: the possibilities for composition often overlooked due to conventional constraints we assume as givens (55-56). By highlighting the ambiguity that exists (but is often ignored) in many rhetorical situations, Wysocki brings attention to just how broad the notion of
availability is given a particular persuasive goal: it is occasioned by a composer's imagination of
what [the audience] might not be prepared to see when experiencing an act of suasion (59). When students perceive particular choices as constrained, their ability to invent and make use of available means within certain contexts and for certain purposes becomes compromised.
To relate the available means of persuasion and composing, then, the field seems to return to two fundamental rhetorical concepts—invention and kairos—to examine available means in digital contexts both public and academic. With this context and these concepts in mind, then, we return to the set of questions outlined at the beginning of this text: how do students come to discover and deploy available means in undergraduate contexts that emphasize digital text technologies? What are the available means of composing in these courses and in composing spaces that accompany them? And, what types of texts do students construct from those means? By examining the three sites of composition practice—two undergraduate courses and one digital studio—we can begin to more effectively recognize and reconsider the ways that composers identify, evaluate, articulate, and deploy the means of composing available to them.