Thursday, November 02, 2006


I've been thinking about the canon of delivery this week.

First, it was Steven Johnson's piece at the back of last Sunday's New York Times Book Review. It is, as he says on his own blog, "a rumination on the role of the public intellectual in the age of Google." In it, he argues that public intellectuals (ie, people who wish to influence the way people think) should be strategic in "persuading Google" to make their work more visible:

A few months ago, I posted a short assessment of Raymond Williams’s career on my blog. I deliberately titled the page “Raymond Williams” to persuade Google to rank the page highly for people searching using the key words “Raymond Williams.” After it went online, a few other bloggers linked to the page. Within two weeks, if you searched Google using the key word “Raymond Williams,” my little riff showed up as the No. 6 result, behind a Wikipedia entry, a museum bio and a few scholarly papers.

I'm familiar with this strategy of influencing Google, but for the first time it struck me as one of the missing pieces in the teaching of argumentative writing. It's all fine and good to teach people to write persuasive messages (although I'm being somewhat generous here: fine and good for what? is there only one kind of argument, etc. etc.), but what if no one ever reads the message? Isn't the teaching of discrete text production somewhat limited and out of date? (And haven't we known that for some time?) Don't we need to be teaching something about the circulation of texts, something about what Jenny calls rhetorical ecologies? And might the art of influencing Google be one way of teaching it? (Please, no knee-jerk reactivity here: of course I'm not suggesting that we turn first-year comp over to the art of influencing Google. It's just one example of one thing we don't teach that we might, if we want to offer a fuller picture of how texts influence people, or what texts do in the world.)

So as I'm thinking about this early in the week, I take a drive to the grocery store. And on the sidewalk along one of Columbia's major thoroughfares, I see a fellow, gray-haired, with a cane, walking slowly and wearing a sandwich placard. Instantly, I see that the placard says "VOTE NO," but I have to look carefully to see for sure what it's asking me to vote no on. (It's Amendment 2, which would affirm the use of stem-cell research in Missouri. Speaking of manipulating Google: two sponsored links are at the top of the page when I did a search, both offering to let me in on the "deceptions" of this Amendment. One was sponsored by a church.).

A placard. One body. Along the road. Were there other placard carriers on other streets? Was he a lone text, seeking nonetheless to participate in the circulation of the same discourse that purchased the sponsored spaces on Google?

Because, for all the limits of his retro technology (hard to see, doesn't travel far) it still depends on linking up with the circulation of that discourse apart from his body.

Still, that placard carrier intrigued me. Walking slowly. As if out for a stroll. Not looking at the street, not gesturing to attract attention. Just walking. Bearing his text. Almost a litote in motion.


jeff said...

Don't we need to be teaching something about the circulation of texts

We do. And hopefully, we are.

I was skimming WPA-L archives the other day, and I'm always amazed by the non-circulating sense of what we do and why we do it and how we do it and where we do it. I like how you direct attention to the Google ranking system. Without naming it "good" or "bad" (as some do in Internet studies work), it does have to do with how a piece of writing is circulated (linked to, mentioned on another site, tagged, etc). But on many WPA-L discussions, I see a lot of cliche responses regarding some point (using "I", listing your textbook on a CV - "we have to show its rhetorical situation; how we write for a variety of contexts and audiences"), but very little recognition of circulations. Jenny does a good job showing its complexity. Google sounds like a nice example - as does your person with the sign - places to chip at this complexity.

Anonymous said...

Yeah. The idea of maximizing the circularity or circulability or circu-something (i'm going for circulation here, sort of) of the ideas in my lil Pedagogy review was what motivated my post on titles several weeks ago (

As well, your idea of teaching circulation makes audience, i think, more real - i.e. not artificial. In terms of teaching delivery in the way your talking about here, i think there are practical apps for a FYW class.

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