Tagged Rhetoric

360° photograph of Junipero Serra statue and campus lawn, displayed in Google Tour Creator interface with digital annotation icons.

Representing Indigenous Histories Using XR Technologies in the Classroom


In this article, we describe the major assignments from our team-taught course, Virtual Santa Clara, which drew on the affordances of extended reality (XR) technologies and public memory scholarship from the fields of rhetoric and anthropology to represent Native Ohlone history and culture on our campus. Based on our experience, we argue for the affordances of producing small-scale XR projects—using technologies such as 360° images and 3D models—to complement and contribute to larger-scale XR digital projects that are founded on deep community collaboration. In a landscape where exciting technological work so often tends to entail thoroughly developed, large-scale projects, we argue for the value of more modest contributions, both as scaffolded pathways into technology work for teachers and students and as a means of slowing down the process of technology adoption in order to better respond to ethical, humanistic, and decolonial considerations. Our own incremental process enabled us to proceed with more care, more caution, and, ultimately, a more collaborative framework going forward.

New technologies offer exciting possibilities for the intersections of public memory and pedagogy in post-secondary education. Heritage professionals in many parts of the world have used new media, including extended reality (XR), to create alternative ways of viewing, interacting with, and ultimately experiencing the heritage of particular places (e.g., Green and Jones 2019; Malpas 2008; Michon and Antably 2013). The appeal of these approaches, which in many instances can challenge what Smith (2006) refers to as the “authorized heritage discourse,” translates easily to the classroom, where students and professionals alike are eager to move beyond traditional coursework and make meaningful contributions through their research and composition (Watrall 2019). Yet the realm of digital cultural heritage opens new ethical considerations and in many cases requires deep collaboration with affected communities (Csoba DeHass and Taiit 2018; Haas 2005; Haukaas and Hodgetts 2016; Townsend et al. 2020). Accordingly, a slower pace of development may better serve our students and our community collaborators. In this article, we examine these issues as they relate to our attempts to engage students in collaborative digital projects at Santa Clara University in California.[1]

Hailed as the state’s oldest institution of higher education and the only university established at one of California’s 21 colonial-era missions, Santa Clara University (SCU) celebrates its history as central to its identity. Images of Mission Santa Clara are featured on the school’s official logo and the reconstructed mission church serves as the visual centerpoint of the institution’s built environment. The palm-lined entrance to campus and the ubiquity of mission revival architecture serves to extend the central imagery of the mission seamlessly into the surrounding neighborhoods. The effect is a beautiful and unified campus space, suggesting a unitary and uncomplicated sense of history. That is, the structures of “authorized heritage discourse” (Smith 2006) or “official memory” (Bodnar 1993) are firmly, if not exclusively, dedicated to celebrating the Mission, and the Western perspectives and values it represents.

The historicity of the contemporary campus, however, masks a more complicated colonial history (Trouillot 1995). Particularly absent is any meaningful public acknowledgment of the thousands of Native Americans who lived at Mission Santa Clara during the colonial period (ca. 1777–1840s) or the Indigenous groups, today known collectively as the Ohlone, who lived in the region for millennia prior to the arrival of Europeans. Indeed, this Native history has been erased by the construction of the SCU campus, and what Native recognition exists is confined to the margins: modest plaques at the edges of campus and small exhibits tucked away into basements. In these ways, Native experiences and histories are contained, rhetorically and materially isolated from the broader history and living memory at SCU. The unified aesthetic of the campus memoryscape is accomplished at the expense of both historical and ethical opportunities for learning and reflection among students, faculty, staff, and visitors alike.

Our recent team-taught course, Virtual Santa Clara, sought to use immersive technologies to address this omission of Native history and memory at SCU. Applying rhetorical and anthropological research methods and digital technologies, we sought ways of using undergraduate coursework to contribute to the work of reframing campus as a polysemous site of Indigenous history and culture. In this article, we describe our course design and implementation process to these ends, exploring the affordances and limitations of using immersive technologies in a public history course such as our own. Specifically, we recognize the ways the small-scale immersive projects we implemented complement and contribute to larger-scale XR digital projects founded on community collaboration.

We use terms like immersive projects or XR projects to designate those projects that utilize VR or AR functionality (like 3D imaging and manipulability), while not being fully fleshed out VR or AR experiences. In a landscape where exciting technological work so often tends to entail thoroughly developed, large-scale projects, we argue for the value of more modest contributions, both as scaffolded pathways into technology work for teachers and students and as a means of slowing down the process of technology adoption in order to better respond to ethical, humanistic, and decolonial considerations. Our own incremental process enabled us to proceed with more care, more caution, and, ultimately, a more collaborative framework going forward.

We begin by theorizing digital and immersive technologies as a means of engaging Native history and public memory in our course. We then discuss the three major projects students produced to experiment with this work: 360° immersive tours analyzing the campus as commemorative space, annotated 3D models of Ohlone artifacts, and proposals for large-scale projects using immersive technologies to represent Native history and culture on our campus. We close by sharing our reflections on how to use digital technologies to engage campus public memory work collaboratively and responsibly. While arguing for the affordances of immersive technologies for supplementing and speaking back to more formal, top-down commemorative features of the campus space as a “place of public memory” (Blair, Dickinson, and Ott 2010, 2), we explore the challenges of implementing technology projects in courses and share our initial insights and strategies for others interested in engaging this kind of work.

Course Background and the Role of Immersive Technologies

Virtual Santa Clara was collaboratively designed and taught by faculty in English and Anthropology in Spring 2019. The faculty members came together to teach this course after each having taught similar courses in their own departments. Amy had taught archival research and writing courses exploring the gendered and racialized histories of Santa Clara University, but was increasingly dissatisfied by the limited conception of campus stakeholders and histories communicated by that course design, and vexed by her inability to effectively account for Native histories and experiences in teaching it. Meanwhile, Lee had taught a course called Virtual Santa Clara from solely within Anthropology, but was interested in putting rhetorical perspectives and a more explicit attention to student writing development in service of historical content knowledge. Drawing on work by public memory scholars in both writing studies and heritage studies, the instructors hoped this new course would push students to consider the ways their own writing could contribute to the public memory work of the campus and enhance recognition of Native history and culture of that space.

As described in the syllabus, this new course explored what we called the “difficult history” of Mission Santa Clara, with a particular emphasis on archival and archaeological materials associated with the Indigenous people, particularly the Ohlone, whose lands and livelihoods were upended by Euro-American colonialism. Despite an ongoing lack of federal tribal recognition, the Ohlone trace their connection to this land, which they call Thamien, across millennia. During the colonial period, Franciscan missionaries working for the Spanish Crown sought to convert local Ohlone people not just to Catholicism but also to European lifeways. Labor was a cornerstone of the missionary project, and it was Ohlone people who built the original structures that comprised Mission Santa Clara on what is today our campus. The mission’s baptismal records hold the names of more than 11,000 individuals, the vast majority of whom were from Ohlone communities or other neighboring tribes. Despite the severe constraints of colonialism, these people outlasted the mission system and today comprise several interrelated tribal communities in the San Francisco Bay area (Leventhal et al. 1994; Panich 2020).

Students learned about this history through consideration of the primary documentary and archaeological record, its associated secondary literature, and through conversations with Andrew Galvan, a representative of one Ohlone group that traces its ancestry through Mission Santa Clara (and a person with decades of professional experience in the public interpretation of the California Missions [Galvan and Medina 2018]). By researching existing histories and representations of our university, students critically reflected on how we tell “our history”—who is included or excluded? What kinds of evidence is marshaled (or disregarded), and what social and material forces are accounted for in the production and preservation of that evidence? What social/political/material conditions in the present shape our conceptions of our past? As a result of these considerations, the question that this course ultimately raised was, what technologies and genres are available to us for re-writing these histories toward more just and equitable ends? Our assumption here was that, with the increased potential for access and circulation of student-authored work afforded by the internet and mobile technologies, we could leverage the labor and resources of the classroom to contribute to public education, helping to reshape the landscape of public commemoration (and thus public memory) on our campus. Aligned with similar efforts like the Georgetown Memory Project, we see this course as examining and redressing silences and violence in our historical narratives through engaged student research and writing.

The new version of the Virtual Santa Clara course was designed specifically with the “virtual” possibilities of public memory and historical representation at its core. While the class had always involved online composing for the public (specifically, the composition of websites), the new course emphasized specific rhetorical considerations of writing in online spaces and for public audiences (including considerations of style and arrangement), and sought to expand the effectiveness and interactive potential of student projects and, hence, their potential to shape public knowledge through immersive experiences.

Recognizing the inflexible and conservative nature of the campus built environment, we also chose to use immersive digital technologies for this course as a direct challenge to the limits of official, material installations, extending the “commemorative landscape” of the campus (Aden 2018) and empowering students to compose public remembrance, to “author the built environment” (Tinnell 2017, xii). As John Tinnell observes, “The discourse conventions that have regulated print texts and sculptural interventions in public space…hold little sway in contemporary digital cultures” (xviii).

Originally, this plan entailed the creation of a full AR walking tour using a platform such as BlippAR or LayAR. We were interested in AR technology in particular because, as Jacob Greene and Madison Jones argue, “By integrating digital counter-discourses within spaces where information is often tightly controlled and highly regulated (such [as] iconic city streets or busy urban intersections), location-based AR projects work to re-articulate dominant narratives about a given space” (Greene and Jones 2019, np). Working in collaboration with Andrew Galvan to guide our interpretations, we sought to enlist students in the production of such counter-discourses that would disrupt the unified Eurocentric memoryscape of our campus. However, we faced two limitations in this assignment design.

The primary limitation was simply time. Confined to a ten-week academic term, we were unable to design a course outline that did justice to both our historical and rhetorical learning outcomes in addition to the technical skills for creation and curation of digital assets for such a project (cf. Allred 2017).  The second concern we had was what technologists refer to as extensibility, or what public memory scholars might call durability (Blair 1999). Having taught courses in the past in which students produced digital projects that were either technologically unsupported over time or simply languished in isolation on the web, we were committed to creating projects that would have both real audiences and a future. We understood that existing proprietary platforms available for AR did not yet have a very long shelf life (see, for example, Greene and Jones’s use of Aurasma, which was purchased by HP, rebranded as HP Reveal, and then discontinued—an incident that they argue is “emblematic of the ongoing corporatization of augmented space” [np]). This is significant because, as Blair rightly observes, the durability and longevity of commemorative installations contributes to an audience’s sense of its importance (1999, 37)—a point that Hess expands to include digital commemorations as well (2007, 821). Unable to identify a reliable open-source platform for our AR project creation at the time, we altered the assignment scope to engage students in smaller-scale digital projects that would both function independently and also constitute a body of digital assets on which we could draw for large-scale immersive projects in the future. As we will argue, this incremental process served a valuable role in enabling a less colonizing approach to the production of digital public memory work in our class.[2]

Further, the assignments that students ultimately produced represented valuable Extended Reality (XR) projects in their own right, as they allowed students to immerse themselves and their users in digital locations and interact with digital objects as a means of engaging Native history. The three separate but interrelated immersive projects we developed—360° video tours analyzing the campus as commemorative space, annotated 3D models of Native artifacts from Mission Santa Clara, and large-scale project proposals for using immersive technologies to represent Native history and culture at SCU—allowed us to experiment with and analyze the potential of immersive technology for Native public memory work, engaging students in critical/analytical, productive, and imaginative postures, respectively, all while building a repository of digital assets to be leveraged in a more ambitious and comprehensive Ohlone-designed digital project in the future (to be discussed in more detail below). Of course, these projects were not without their own limitations as well. In what follows, we discuss these three projects and share samples of the resulting student work in order to consider the affordances and limitations of these nascent XR assignments for digital public memory work. By outlining these assignments, we hope to provide insights into the potentials of more modest XR projects for those in the early stages of adopting these technologies in the classroom.

360° tours

The first major project students undertook were 360° tours. Based on their knowledge of Native history and archaeology at SCU, students selected a site (that was either publicly marked or not), captured 360° images of it, and conducted a critical analysis of the history it represented, including attention to spatial arrangement and what evidence, figures, and experiences were emphasized and which were excluded. The learning outcomes of this assignment included evaluating the rhetorical effect of specific features of a commemorative site, applying course terms and concepts to the analysis of a local site of public memory, and using 360° technology to thoughtfully represent a physical site. Students were also tasked with composing with a consideration of the audience and the student’s own role in contributing to public memory (see Figure 1).

Figure 1. 360° Virtual Tour composed by Raymond Hartjen and Aiden Rupert, 2019; It can be visited at https://poly.google.com/view/bJVoiV0LPL-. Used with permission.[3]

To do so, students first captured images of their selected site using Insta360 cameras.[4] These cameras captured 360° images that are then viewable in Google Cardboard viewers or head mounted displays (HMDs), as well as interactively viewable on a PC or mobile device. Students uploaded the image files to Google Tour Creator, where they annotated them to point out specific features of the site they were analyzing that contributed to or complicated their interpretation of the site. Using these digital annotations, students composed an evidence-based argument interpreting the location as a site of public memory. Some guiding questions they considered in their analyses included:

  • What is the explicit and implicit argument this site makes, and what specific features lend themselves to (or complicate) that argument?
  • Who is the audience or “public” imagined by the site?
  • How does this site represent or engage a sense of history, the present, and/or the future?
  • What are the roles of the body, movement, and space in the experience of this site?

While students were tasked with presenting their critical interpretations for a public reader, the main thrust of this assignment was critical/analytical—focused on understanding the rhetorical work of the campus rather than producing their own historical representations. Conversations with Andrew Galvan, the Ohlone representative, pushed the students to consider the relevance of historical monuments (or their absence) to descendant communities, for whom the colonial period remains vital to their ongoing struggle for autonomy and recognition.

Usually, this kind of spatial analysis assignment would entail students producing an extended description of the place to preface the analysis, translating material and spatial features of the environment into academic prose. While this process of translation has other features and benefits, one effect of it is that the rhetorical-spatial features and their functions are dislodged from their physical and material context. In this process, an immediacy and relevance is often lost, as the resulting academic arguments are similarly dislodged and dissociated from the real and semiotically abundant physical site itself. But using immersive technology allowed students to digitally mark-up their physical surroundings in (what they experienced as) a more immediate way. While still working with a representation, the ability to comment directly on features of their environment via digital annotation provided students (and their readers) with a less mediated experience of the environment than an alphabetic representation allowed. The texts they produced sought to capture the feeling of “being through there” (Dickinson and Aiello 2016) that they experienced, and encouraged them to attend to the rhetorical effect of embodied presence at the site. At the same time, the ability to consider the campus space while not present enabled a particular kind of critical-analytical work by defamiliarizing the place and, thus, generating critical distance and space for reflection among students.

Further, the technology provided an additional representational layer allowing students not only to analyze what is present in the commemorative landscape but also to reveal the histories that have been effectively erased from our campus, such as unmarked mission cemeteries. While this analysis and historical augmentation could be accomplished discursively, students and their readers benefited from the ability to map other commemorative possibilities directly onto the existing physical landscape. Just as mobile technologies allow users to access the “embodied knowledge of [a] city” by extending the affordances of digital mapping software into physical spaces of the everyday, so can immersive representations capture the physical spaces of daily life and subject them to the critical gaze of digital markup and manipulation (Kalin and Frith 2016). While it is true, as Jason Kalin and Jordan Frith argue, that these platforms privilege “engagement with a spatial representation over engagement with physical space,” losing out on the “optical knowledge” gathered from traversing a real, material environment (224), we also argue that capturing that unfolding experience of being in place and freezing it in time is a powerful tool for deepening students’ analysis as well as sharing their findings with those not present on site.

Annotated 3D models

Moving from a more analytical posture to a productive one, the next major assignment was the creation of interactive 3D models. For this assignment, students used a mid-tier 3D scanner (HP Pro S3) to produce 3D models of archaeological artifacts and annotate them with interpretive information for a public audience. The annotations described and contextualized the artifact, and provided an interpretive frame for what they thought the audience should notice or understand about the meaning of this object. Thus, students were asked to consider not only what the “factual history” of the object is, but also what narratives the object helps contribute to the public memory of our campus. Here, too, students were asked to compose with a consideration of audience and the student’s own role in contributing to public memory. A critical difference between this project and the 360° scans was the shift from a focus on SCU’s physical environs to the more intimate domain of objects that were made and/or used by Native people who lived at Mission Santa Clara, a difference that brings to the fore a host of practical and ethical concerns (e.g., Csoba DeHass and Taiit 2018; Haukaas and Hodgetts 2016), many of which we discussed with Andrew Galvan in a class visit prior to the beginning of the assignment (see Figure 2).

Figure 2. 3D Scan by Raymond Hartjen and Aiden Rupert 2019, housed on Sketchfab. Used with permission.

This assignment began with an exercise on writing descriptions that attend to the rhetorical work of detail selection and emphasis, helping students to disrupt the assumption of an objective scientific stance and recognize the rhetorical nature of all writing. Students then explored their ideas of the significance of the artifact, tracing their attributions of significance to their own personal experiences and biases, or what Burke calls their “terministic screens” (1966, 44). By comparing their descriptions to others and examining the effects of those decisions, students came to understand even this “simple” act of composing as highly rhetorical memory work. This issue was further illustrated by their conversations with Andrew Galvan, who pushed them to consider still other ideas about the significance of the objects they had chosen.

With this in mind, students selected features of their artifacts to highlight through digital annotation and composed a brief interpretive description of their chosen artifact. This task required the students to grapple with the materiality of the objects they had chosen, building competency in the visual analysis of objects (Macaulay-Lewis 2015). This was manifested both in terms of the technology (the software we used had trouble creating models of flat objects such as buttons or coins) and in questions about which of the object’s attributes would benefit from textual annotations. The annotated models were uploaded to the campus’s public-facing account on Sketchfab, a popular site for sharing 3D objects and models. Here, too, the students made rhetorical choices about how the objects are displayed, including lighting and initial orientation. By using Sketchfab, as opposed to non-public storage solutions, the 3D models contribute to a growing repository of digital assets that can be accessed by researchers and public users today, and also be leveraged for future digital projects, once a critical mass of cultural materials has been successfully created—a goal of our ongoing work with the Ohlone community.

Final proposals

Following these two initial assignments, students pushed the question of public memory by further researching and revising their 360° and/or 3D projects into digital exhibits. Using one of the previously used platforms or Google Sites to incorporate archival, historical, critical/theoretical, and/or archaeological research materials, they produced thoroughly researched and polished compositions that were to be suitable for a public audience (either on a traditional web browser or mobile VR).

However, recognizing the limits of the academic term, we wanted an opportunity to harness some of the students’ creative insights and technological ideas to inform future project possibilities as well. So, for their final assignment, students created project proposals (addressed either to the university or an outside granting agency) that would extend the work and thinking we had done in class beyond what we were able to accomplish in ten weeks. The resultant document proposed to change the way Native history is presented on campus through changes to the physical landscape and/or through virtual representations in order to demonstrate students’ overall understanding of Ohlone history and historical representation on our campus, articulate the significance of this kind of memory work, and apply our thinking about historical memory production beyond the limited projects and technologies with which we were able to work during the quarter.

To prepare for this project, students analyzed sample digital projects from other campuses and visited the Imaginarium VR lab on our campus to experiment with immersive games and experiences related to public history and Native culture, including Boulevard, Native American App, and Ward & Cartouches. These experiences were meant to inspire them to consider ways technology could be further utilized to engage commemorative work. We imagined that we could thus sidestep the challenges posed by technological expertise and harness the creative energies of students to seed future digital memory projects. In these projects, students showcased a wide range of creative approaches that far exceeded those we had imagined ourselves, from relatively modest suggestions relating to relocating existing statuary to ambitious interdisciplinary projects utilizing VR headsets. In all cases, the traces of previous analytical and compositional experiences were evident in these proposals, which almost uniformly attended to the significance of spatial rhetorics, presence, and interaction in thinking about the ways the public interacts with the history and memory of a place. We believe it was through both their own presence on campus and their use of immersive technologies to analyze the experience of presence as such that led to the most exciting insights in those projects, as students drew on their own deep knowledge of the campus space to inform their plans for digitally altering it (see Figure 3).

Map of Santa Clara University campus marked with red tour route.
Figure 3. Image from Raymond Hartjen’s proposal, 2019. Used with permission.

To take just one example, student Raymond Hartjen proposed an Augmented Reality tour, which he called the Augmented Native Santa Clara Experience (ANSCE). He explains the proposal:

Using AI/GPS tracking, AR digital reconstructions, and historical annotations, visitors will be able to experience aspects of the Native American past that are not easily accessible or understood today. Digital representations of historic Native settlements or Mission-era structures of Native occupation will be layered over the existing campus structures through smartphone camera functionalities, therefore immersing visitors in a world that has influenced as well as been impacted by the corresponding modern space. Ultimately, this will benefit both local and distant communities alike by creating a more inclusive representation of the Mission past that will be crucial in constructing future notions of public memory (Hartjen 2).

Hartjen’s discussion throughout the proposal merged his own deep knowledge of the campus space, his growing knowledge of Native histories and experiences, and his understanding of public commemoration as an unfolding and ever-shifting process. And, perhaps most importantly, Harjten and other students explicitly acknowledged the importance of ongoing Ohlone consultation in any project development efforts. In these ways, students developed critical technological literacies alongside attention to ongoing colonial violence and the need for decolonial methodologies in approaching this work

Cautions and Future Directions

“[B]y what measures shall we gauge the value or harm of various digital initiatives to author the built environment?” (Tinnell 2017, xviii)

The projects students produced and imagined in Virtual Santa Clara have begun to fill a gap in public commemoration on our campus, building a repository of immersive and interactive digital assets that will be drawn on in future courses and public memory efforts, as well as a pool of ideas to inspire our Native and non-Native collaborators in their designs. Students engaged XR critically, attentive to the political work they were engaging in representing stories that were not their own and the affordances and limitations of the technologies they used to do so.

Particularly given the legacy of colonialism that shaped both the history of the SCU campus and our own positions as teachers, students, and researchers, we were mindful to cultivate a “critical digital literacy”—one that went beyond the goal of inclusion to attend to colonizing, essentializing, fetishizing, or otherwise limiting potentials of the digital work we analyzed and produced.[5] Immersive technology contributes to the development of such critical literacies because it “encourages citizens to see their everyday environment as a networked phenomenon emerging from a series of rhetorically contingent relationships between material and immaterial (and human and non-human) entities” (Greene and Jones). That is, XR positions students as analysts as well as creators of commemorative landscapes, alert to the relations of power and influence that shape these constructions, both virtual and physical.

At the same time, engaging these digital projects has its own risks as well. As Tinnell cautions, “We are racing to adopt new information spaces, new archives, without giving much thought to the (unique) forms of expression they might enable and constrain. The lauded technical feats of digital-physical convergence do not come preinstalled with literary, artistic, or rhetorical innovations” (2017, 11). The risk of this headlong rush may be particularly pronounced in relation to cultural heritage projects such as ours, with the potential to re-colonize Native stories and experiences. A challenge in this regard has been facilitating student research and writing that could support what Angela Haas (building on the work of Scott Lyons) has termed “digital rhetorical sovereignty, where American Indians can share their own stories in their own words” (Haas 2005, np). We are still seeking more ethical and effective ways to work on digital public memory pedagogies that are guided by Native stakeholders and their priorities.

Using this course as a first step towards a more decolonial approach, we have continued to build relationships with Ohlone stakeholders in order to engage (and also study) this commemorative process. Based on the success of this initial effort, we have secured new grants to continue this conversation, including one grant to work with Ohlone tribal members to develop college-level curricular materials that are directly shaped by Ohlone priorities, values, and perspectives. Another grant will allow us to work in deep consultation with Ohlone members to design a large-scale digital public memory project that uses VR or AR technologies to engage the public with Ohlone history and culture related to this landbase.

A key part of this process is slowing down and making the challenges and opportunities of digital rhetorical sovereignty part of the process. As Jacob Greene and Madison Jones caution, “It is important that scholars of computers and writing continue to interrogate the rhetorical potential of this emerging computing paradigm by detailing the design choices made throughout the creation of a mobile media project” (Greene and Jones 2019, np). Our project serves as a reminder that, because a significant aspect of the design process in Native public memory projects must be consultation with the affected tribe(s), the pedagogical plans must allow sufficiently for that consultation in an iterative process of design and feedback—which may make larger and more formalized projects more challenging within the confines of an academic quarter or semester. Because navigating new technologies is a significant task, on top of the necessary work of building relationships with Native stakeholders, our experience underscores the risk of what Katrine Barber calls “soft technologies of violence,” such as the creation of deadlines that don’t permit sufficient reflection or thorough consultation within tribes (2013, 31). Thus, we argue that small-scale immersive projects can move the needle on more inclusive historical representation of our campuses while allowing the time for broader consultation and collaboration that is necessary for more fully decolonial practice. Sharing our process is our attempt to support such public memory work within XR and other digital media projects and pedagogies in the future.

As our work takes place on the campus of Santa Clara University, students are an integral component of the public memory projects we create. At the practical level, we hope to provide ethical, collaborative frameworks to our students, who may become part of the next generation of digital heritage practitioners. This means paying careful attention to community concerns and also, as we learned ourselves, choosing projects that are both scalable and, perhaps more importantly, achievable within the constraints of a particular academic term. But we also see students’ digital composition, in collaboration with local communities, as a way to realize the promise suggested by Malpas (2008) to use new media as a way to instill a deeper sense of place, and to actively use their rhetorical skills to shape public memory in response. Though left out of the official memoryscape dominated by physical monuments and markers, students at SCU are deeply concerned about the (lack of) representation of Native history related to Mission Santa Clara and the deeper Indigenous heritage of our campus. By offering digital projects that engage those histories, we hope to include our students in bringing about the changes that they and the local Native community collectively wish to see.


[1] Both authors are non-Natives who have come to the study of Indigenous history and representation through their respective disciplines, English and Anthropology, and their relation to the site of acute colonial activity that is Mission Santa Clara.

[2] At the same time, we take caution from la paperson that “only the bad guys build things that last forever” (2017, 70). In aspiring towards a more decolonial university, we want to remain alert to the ways colonial relations are continually (re)produced within institutions, and continue to critically reflect on the form and function of our pedagogical, technological, and commemorative goals.

[3] Following the model of Pamela VanHaitsma, who herself draws on Stacey Waite’s work on queer pedagogy, we approached students as fellow critics making meaning of our shared space together with us. Thus, this essay quotes and cites their work, but only with written permission, and identifies them or maintains anonymity based on their preferences (VanHaitsma 2019, 277; Waite 2017).

[4] Insta360 are affordable and compact cameras that many schools would be able to acquire for a class. However, students can also use the cameras on their cell phones to even more easily capture 360° images, which can be uploaded to a free platform like Google Tour Creator or ThingLink to annotate, augment, or link multiple sites together, or students could simply upload images to Google Earth, depending on the goals of the course and assignment.

[5] Following Karma Chavez (2006) and Barbara Biesecker (1992), we were suspicious of “inclusion” as a goal, given its ability to perpetuate rather than dismantle existing, oppressive structures of power and privilege. That is, we were cautious of absorbing Ohlone history seamlessly into a narrative of university-building—of “including” Ohlone in the existing story, which is, after all, one of ongoing colonial domination.


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About the Authors

Amy J. Lueck is Assistant Professor of English at Santa Clara University, where she researches and teaches histories of rhetorical instruction and practice, women’s rhetorics, feminist historiography, and public memory. Her book, A Shared History: Writing in the High School, College, and University, 1856–1886 (SIU Press, 2020), brings together several of these research threads, interrogating the ostensible high school-college divide and the role it has played in shaping writing instruction in the U.S. Her work has previously appeared in journals such as College English, Rhetoric Review, Composition Studies, and Kairos.

Lee M. Panich is Associate Professor of Anthropology at Santa Clara University. His research employs a combination of archaeological, ethnographic, and archival data to examine the long-term entanglements between California’s Indigenous societies and colonial institutions, particularly the Spanish mission system. His scholarship has appeared in American Antiquity, Ethnohistory, and Historical Archaeology, among other venues. He is the author of Narratives of Persistence: Indigenous Negotiations of Colonialism in Alta and Baja California (University of Arizona Press, 2020).

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Changing Culture, Changing Public: Redesigning the Rhetorical Public


The idea of the Public and its influence on communication and civic activity has concerned rhetoricians since the Sophists sought methods to persuade the city-state. In fact, many ancient concepts of the Public are strong antecedents to modern ideas on social constructionism, agency in online communities, and exigencies for user-audience motivation. The current concept of the rhetorical Public is changing, however, due to new influences from digital culture. This article posits that modern rhetors must identify not only beliefs and values: they must create spaces where the Public’s expectations are met, where they may play the roles they desire to play, and where they are afforded the means to play those roles. Many of these pressures stem from changes wrought by a growing digital sphere. Thus, this article examines how the digital sphere is reshaping today’s concept of the Public. It reports on the impacts of changing digital-cultural spaces, the advent of online microcosms where fragmented Publics develop knowledge cultures (Jenkins 2008, 27), and, it ultimately culminates in the redefinition of the rhetorical Public for teaching today’s digital rhetoricians.


The idea of a Public and its influence on communication and civic activity has concerned rhetoricians since the Sophists sought to teach methods to persuade the city-state (polis). For the sophists, the Public’s common beliefs (doxa) and customary behaviors (nomoi) were the sources for content an orator must use to move the mob (Mendelson 2002, 4). According to Susan Jarratt (1991), the sophists were the first rhetoricians to concern themselves with what the Public considered to be valuable in social and civic spheres. In fact, many of their Public considerations are strong antecedents for modern ideas on social constructionism, community agency, and exigency as being located in social and civic situations. Ancient philosophers too sought to understand the Public by seeking to discover how best to convey truth to the masses. Most notably, Aristotle in Rhetoric envisions the usefulness of conceptualizing the Public to better address the intellectual needs of society through rhetoric. Thus, the work of defining the rhetorical Public began and this work continues to be of interest in communication.

From these classical beginnings in antiquity, the rhetorician’s domain has always been the “‘probable’” in “social and civic places … where reasoned judgments and policies are desirable” (Porrovecchio and Condit 2016, 195). In these arenas, the rhetor’s command of cultural understanding and the affinities of the Public become the most potent fodder for persuasion. The rhetor must identify the beliefs and values of the Public audience and they must create a space where the Public’s expectations are met, where they may play the roles they desire, and where they are afforded means to play those roles. And yet, though these insights remain true, the concept of a Public and how it must be considered for rhetorical engagement is changing. Hence, the purpose of this article is to address how the rhetorical Public is being redefined by attributes of digital spaces and online communications which blur the boundaries between private and public domains.

To begin, though modern rhetoricians still use beliefs and behaviors to inform persuasion as the sophists who preceded them, the Public they address now is much more involved and connected. Today, the Public participates in the creation of what is persuasive directly via instant communication platforms with speakers, user-centered design research for products, and real-time data collection occurring on their devices and in their homes that informs and shapes their day-to-day experiences. This level of Public engagement and interactivity is extending the Public sphere. Thus, Public integration into mainstream digital culture is reshaping the rhetorical concept of Public and, in order for the rhetorician to address said Public, it must be usably redefined.

The traditional definition of a Public, according to John Dewey (1927), is a group comprised of individuals that form an audience facing a similar problem, who recognize its existence, and then resolve to address it. While Dewey’s Public definition attended situations of its era and the time’s political spheres, it lacks today’s extended social spheres and the Public’s development of what Jenkins (2008) identifies as fragmented “knowledge cultures.” A knowledge culture is an organic assemblage of individuals into a group around a particular topic of interest. For example, members of the CBS show Survivor’s subreddit form a knowledge culture, a knowledgeable fragment of a larger reality show invested Public. These digital assemblages form around niche topics connected to the Public en masse who may be interested in superordinate categories, while also belonging to numerous, similar smaller groups.

Further, Dewey’s Public predates the idea that its members are co-participants in devising, shaping, and defining dominant parts of cultural and civic rhetorical exchange (i.e. communications, products, interface experiences, etc.). Since this Public reorientation has occurred, the Public has become a central focus in social communication contexts and a driving force for user-experience research. For example, companies like Facebook and Google conduct large scale Public data aggregation and analysis to make small, incremental changes to their media and algorithms to give users what they want and improve their experiences. Thus, today’s Publics provide a mainstream exigency for communication design work, evidenced by increasing user research interests in all realms of communication.

So, with the development of a 21st century participatory culture enabled by networked communication technology, the Public has evolved from targets of rhetoric into co-creators of social and civic discourse whose contributions matter and who feel responsible for being part of the public sphere (Jenkins, Purushotma, Weigel, Clinton, and Robison 2009, 6–7). As a direct result of the Public joining with the rhetor in the act of creating communication, designing user-experiences for heightened participation and engagement is a key focus of rhetorical research and praxis. Thereby, to support this key focus, the concept of “Public” is being changed in our culture to the degree that their experiences with communication steer its content and they have become integral to the core activity of creating rhetorical discourse.

Hereafter in this article, I begin by briefly illuminating the significance of the Public concept to rhetoric. Then, I go into the historical treatment of the term Public by offering Dewey’s definition. After which, I advance to Grunig’s situational theory of Publics that came out of the 1980’s. These two treatments of Public seem to dominate the philosophy of Publics in current social, academic, and civic areas. Moving from these historical concepts of Public, I discuss how the changing public sphere in response to the digital, knowledge cultures, participatory ideology, and end-user design interests are pressing the dominant Public concept to change away from those of Dewey and Grunig. Following from these pressures, I offer a newly redesigned concept of Public for rhetoricians and instruction. Last, I close with the implications of the new Public concept, the limitations of this scholarly endeavor, and a gesture toward research interests on Publics for the future.

The Power of Publics in Rhetoric

Throughout the history of rhetoric in social, academic and political spheres, the concept of the Public has played a significant role in rhetorical studies and practices. From Aristotle to Dewey (1927), Ede & Lunsford (1984) to Johnson (2004), and from Grunig & Hunt (1984) to Habermas (1991), rhetoric in all areas has relied upon a distinct interest in analyzing the Public in order to communicate persuasively. This above all is the chief concern framing the rhetorical act. The rhetor, to be successful, must be able to understand the needs, desires, and motivations of the Public audience to influence their attitudes and behavior (Locker and Kienzler 2015). For the ancients like Isocrates, so potent was the attention of the rhetorician to the Public that their craft (techné) was the only sure tool for motivating the masses to action for the good of the populace. To many communication scholars, this rhetorical attention to the Public remains the utmost concern.

Today, the importance of the Public to rhetoric in cultural and civic settings renders its consideration pivotal to the practice of our art in the social sphere. Communication and Public theory scholar Rosa Eberly (1999) states that “those who hold rhetoric as a productive as well as an analytical art need to keep searching for ways to reconceive of public discourse” (175). To do so, we must consider how we address, teach, and understand Publics and their importance to communication. Thus, redressing the term Public, in general, and adjusting its definition is an important consideration for maintaining effective rhetorical communication. So, to improve understanding of our Public concept, and to discover how best we might revise it, we must first address Dewey’s foundational definition, then Grunig’s past situational theory of Publics to understand their historical roles in cultural communication.

Defining the Historical Public Concept and Theory of Publics

To begin understanding the concept of a Public—to get at how it is conceived both pragmatically and theoretically—we must begin with Dewey (1927) and his definition of the term. Dewey, in The Public and Its Problems, comprehended the notion of a Public as being more than a population of individuals associated by common interest. Rather, he defined the Public as individuals arising and organizing in response to an issue. According to an interpretation by Eberly (1999), Dewey saw what he understood to be a Public as given and taking shape through communication. That is, only by acting rhetorically regarding an issue could a Public become self-identifying and definable. This rallying around an issue frames both Dewey’s and Grunig’s (1984) concept of a Public as formative, active, and reactive in terms of shared communication and associated action in the public space. So, it is from Dewey’s conceptual schema that James Grunig develops and posits a situational theory of Publics.

In Grunig’s (1984) situational theory of past Publics, he focused on the behavior of individuals and the actions that they take in groups to form what he recognizes as Publics. These Publics partake in communication (consuming and producing rhetoric), operate in the context of a situation, and do so in response to an issue or problem. Together, these communications, contexts, and issues form a Public’s stimuli. But, not all individuals in the social sphere (or Publics for that matter) have, recognize, or react in the same manner to any given stimulus. This insight prompted Grunig, in collaboration with Todd Hunt, to define four different types of Publics—nonpublics, latent Publics, aware Publics, and active Publics (Grunig and Hunt 1984, 22). For our purposes, nonpublics, or those not confronted by an issue, lie outside of the discourse setting, what we might think of as the rhetorical situation. Thus, from here forward, the theory’s discussion addresses only latent, aware, and active Publics and how they participate in defining the concept of a Public for our redesigning of the term.

Beginning with the formulation of latent, aware, and active Publics, they all come into existence in relation to a rhetorical situation. The three types of Publics are thus engrained in a setting where rhetoric “respond[s] to particular needs, of [the] particular publics, at [a] particular time” (Eberly 1999, 167). Hence, rhetoric acts upon these Publics in particular ways. For example, rhetoric on an issue may enable latent publics to become aware of a problem, aware publics may become active respondents to the problem, all while the rhetoric may be providing active publics material in the form of possible ideas and potential solutions so they may continue addressing an issue. Thus, latent, aware, and active publics act through and react to their rhetorical situation and respond to their perceived societal needs in that situation.

So, if we apply our knowledge about the concept of Publics—derived from Dewey’s definition and Gurnig and Hunt’s theory—to a situation within the realm of civic discourse, the civic rhetoric shaped and employed by an active Public connects the idea of communication by the public with the goals of the public (what Isocrates termed the Public good). Pragmatically speaking, the concept of a Public is defined by shared communication, identification, and resulting action, while theoretically, it exists situationally in relation to an issue or problem and is shaped by its activity, presumably aimed at service to or support for said Public. With this historical concept in mind, my discussion and analysis will now examine how four modern pressures may be redefining this concept of a rhetorical “Public,” and how these pressures create new rhetorical directions (and stimuli) for our consideration.

Four New Pressures Reshaping Publics

Moving from the analog era of Dewey and Grunig, today’s technologically mediated society opens-up individuals to experiencing a multitude of new communications, environments, and issues every day. Further, multiple forms of online networking allow for the new stimuli to convey and perpetuate beliefs and behaviors in a continuous stream. These techno-cultural changes are forcing the rhetorician’s Public concept, grounded in the definition and theory of Dewey and Grunig, to grow and adapt. The first pressure is that the public sphere where individuals have long participated in the exchange of opinions is extending into realms and communications once private. This is happening through new means of communication and data collection in the home and other once private environs that are now part of the digital public sphere. The second pressure is the formation of large, online knowledgeable communities who are exercising collective intuition and insight to produce more active Publics through increased reach, command of data, and access to information verses historically analog Publics. Also, developing in-kind with the wide dispersal of network communication technologies, the third pressure extends from participatory ideology that is influencing the populace by activating Publics to a degree that the traditional passivity of non-, latent, or aware Publics is being intrinsically counteracted. And, the last pressure comes from the centralization of Publics to the act of designing rhetorical communications via user-centered design and user-experience based interests. As a result, modern Publics and their expectations for discourse are more pronounced than ever before as they have come to see themselves as central to the rhetorical act. Hereafter, looking closely at these four pressures on the concept of a Public may provide us both an understanding of where each has come from and where they may be taking us as we move toward the future.

A Changing Public Sphere Changes the Public

Starting with the outgrowth of the public sphere brought into being by digital environments, we must consider how this change put pressure on the concept of a Public. The most contemporary concept of the public sphere comes to us from social philosopher Jürgen Habermas’ (1991) Structural Transformation in the Public Sphere. Drawing on language describing a public space occupied by individuals participating in discussions of informed, societal opinion in eighteenth century Germany, Habermas begins to articulate his social theory of the public sphere. To do so, he combines the observed German concept of social, rhetorical actions with Greek antecedents—“notions concerning what is ‘public’ … what is not” and the activities of discussion (lexis) and common action (praxis) in matters of the polis (3). To Habermas, the public sphere was a space where private citizens, literate in issues of civil society, come together to form a discursive Public separate from their private lives. This Public entered willingly into culturally open forums, wielded limited information ready-to-hand, and was motivated, often personally, by an issue or problem. However, this public sphere, distinctly owing to its analog origins, does not account for the changes of the digitizing Public and the deterioration of privacy. As communication and cultural experiences went online, Publics entered a digital space where they encountered information access that was far-reaching and beyond their singular knowledge; they came face to face with issues and problems of others which were readily thrust upon them; and, they were confronted with a space where their information was easily captured and made public.

According to law and privacy scholar Daniel Solove (2016) in “The Nothing-to-Hide Argument,” as individuals move online with their information, the divide between what is public and what is private blurs. What was once private information—our habits, interests, and ideas often explored from the comfort of our couch on a networked device—is data mined and collected as publicly discoverable, commercially purchasable information (Solove 2016, 737–40). This intrusion and publication challenges the traditional definition of the public sphere because an individual’s “own realm (idia),” the privacy of one’s own home (oikos), is compromised; the private becomes manifest in a public sphere even if the Public is ignorant about said sphere (Habermas 1991, 3). Additionally, the capturing of personal communications for public dispersal via technologically mediated conversations (those held outside of “the public life, bios politikos”) has eroded the private conversation to the point that all communication thusly mediated is potentially a public artifact (Habermas 1991, 3).

Therefore, these illustrations illuminate the extension of the public sphere into homes and into private conversations mediated by technology through the intrusion of the digital public sphere. As a result, the concept of the Public is reshaped by the cultural “nothing to hide” rhetoric in the public sphere itself. This transforms the fabric of what is Public in our concept. Also, as individuals forsake privacy for networking with the Public, more personal beliefs and attitudes enter into the sphere and weakens the Public as it becomes sometimes “less-literate” and more intimate and, at times, irrational. Hence, the changing public sphere altered by attributes of the digital sphere is fundamentally changing the Public to whom rhetoricians speak and must be accounted in our redesigning of the concept.

Forming Knowledge Cultures Influences the Public

Another digital change influencing the rhetorician’s Public concept is the formation of knowledge cultures in our techno-centric society. Knowledge cultures are communities where participants “share their knowledge and opinions” (Jenkins 2008, 26). These communities arise through audiences who organize themselves organically around specific interests or issues. Thus, by this definition and our understanding of how Publics form, it seems online knowledge cultures and Publics manifest in similar fashion, if not as one and the same. According to cultural theorist and media scholar Pierre Lévy, the knowledge culture serves as an “’invisible and intangible engine’” for what Jenkins calls the “mutual production and reciprocal exchange of knowledge” (quoted in Jenkins 2008, 27). Hence, it seems logical to assert that knowledge cultures may often be the foundation for a modern digital Public that is communing on a cultural or civic interest within an online, networked space.

However, if we compare the past analog Publics of Dewey and Grunig and Hunt’s to the digital ones of Jenkins and Lévy’s knowledge cultures, the difference is that the latter communities always have at their disposal the plethora of data online and the power of “collective intelligence” afforded by cyberspace (Jenkins 2008, 27). Collective intelligence stems from the idea that no single person can possibly know everything there is to know, but, collectively, individuals know things and have skills they can contribute to a shared pool of resources. This implies that every single person has valuable expertise to contribute and that by working together, the collective within a digital Public empowers the individual and vice versa. Additionally, Lévy argues that collective intelligence enables participants to become active collaborators in a knowledge community, which “allows them to exert a greater aggregative power in their negotiations” (quoted in Jenkins 2008, 27) because the knowledge community determines what is and is not knowledge.

Empowerment over knowledge in a knowledge culture may create situations where the digital Public grants itself power over what is good or effective communication with the digital Public sphere even if its membership lacks rhetorical expertise. Therefore, it seems knowledge cultures common to digital communities provide not only access to information, but access to shared intelligence and the power that the collective affords. Additionally, this increased power, alongside the valuing of all members may result in not only collective power over persuasive appeals (both cultural and civic), but also individual power as they feel emboldened by the strength of the collective intelligence of their community. For this reason, the new knowledge culture concept must be attended to by rhetoricians who address Publics. These new collective, knowledgeable, and active communities indicate that Publics are becoming more empowered, banding together, and participating in reshaping their own spaces, while also elevating their own status to that of an invaluable knowledge culture.

Participatory Ideology Shapes the Public

The next pressure on the concept of a Public as hinted at in my knowledge culture analysis is the new social push for participation in communication. This new participatory ideology is due to the empowered status of the Public and its membership in the current digital, networked Public sphere. This ideology has activated Publics far beyond the traditional means of those found in Dewey’s non-networked, analog settings of the past by connecting today’s member of a Public with encouraging and supportive (inter)actions. Just as rhetoricians must consider the influences of active knowledge cultures for strong social and civic discourse, we must attend to the participatory ideology these cultures represent and their effects on modern Publics.

According to Jenkins et al. (2009), today’s hyper-active Public is engaged with the creation and sharing of cultural knowledge through media. This position of power in relation to communicating knowledge makes participants feel central and indispensable to public rhetorical acts. Also, Jenkins (2008) indicates that a participatory Public conflates “media producers and consumers” into a single role, participants (3). As participants, all individuals have agency and interact with one another according to the new cultural perception that everyone in an audience is always-already involved in meaning-making by degrees. This view of participants connects to the idea that a Public in civic discourse may be perceived as an “involved audience” (Johnson 2004, 93). According to Robert Johnson (2004), “the involved audience is an actual participant in the writing process who creates knowledge and determines much of the content of the discourse” (93). Thus, an inclusive, generative view of today’s Public arises from participatory ideology and modern audience theorizing. Just as in knowledge cultures where individuals are central to creating and communicating, participatory ideology posits that everyone has valuable expertise and are expected to be actively collaborating in Public discourse as participants. Therefore, as rhetoricians, our understanding of the Public concept must admit the reshaping induced by current participatory ideology and redesign the term accordingly.

User-based Design Expectations Inform the Public

Our final pressure reshaping the rhetorician’s Public concept is wrought by our own growing interest in user-based design for communication purposes from user-experience research (Hoekman Jr. 2016). By focusing our efforts on designing documents for end-users, we are priming audiences to expect communications to conform to their desires. As such, the employment of design practices in many modes of digital public discourse may have already begun to alter expectations toward more personalized experiences. For example, Steve Krug (2014), an expert web designer and advocate for user-experience design, posits that the fundamental conventions of webpages and how they communicate is rooted in not only being intuitive, but also in recreating positive experiences that are desirable for individual users. Thus, rhetoricians must be attuned to the effects of user expectations when communicating with modern Publics in the digital age. Reorienting communication in this manner requires that today’s rhetor consider how user-based document design effects the Public and its concept of effective communication in light of expectations generated within the digital public sphere.

To begin the reorientation, the rhetorician may start from the concept of document design. Document design refers to how communicators assemble documents to create an agreeable, useful experience for the audience. According to Karen Schriver (1997), communication scholars need to persuade an audience by discovering and attending to a “reader’s needs” by appealing to their “goals and values” through design elements (11). While this represents an approach to communication familiar to rhetoricians addressing rhetorical situations, the modern audience in the public sphere may come to expect civic communications to mirror their expectations, perhaps even to put their own opinions first and foremost (i.e. consider the social media echo chamber). In other words, the Public may see itself as the most important part of the rhetorical situation and devalue the message and/or purpose of the communication because of their perceived “elevated status” as a focal point of design. In this situation, if the digital Public sees a communication as ignoring its authority, power, or import, it may, according to Dentzel (2013), disregard or even attack a communication for its apparent inattention to the Public’s interests. It is the elevated status of the Public developed by user-based design practices and changing digital communication environments that rhetoricians must be most aware of as they take-part in developing social and civic discourse.

Furthermore, the modern networked audience expects their experience with a communication to be informed by a vested interest in what they want and what they believe is best for the Public to which they belong. Thus, in the user-based approach to communication design, the Public expects rhetoric to seek to not only meet their individual expectations, but also to be democratized to promote inclusion and well-being of the Public (Dentzel 2013). All the while, as alluded to previously, users of modern communications expect interaction and for it to be easy. They expect to contribute and they expect to be a valuable part of a communication once they participate (Jenkins et al. 2009, 6–7). It seems we as rhetors today have a difficult challenge before us. Thus, user-experience design expectations are redesigning our rhetorical discourse and reforming the concept of the Public itself. As contemporary rhetoricians, we must reshape our concept of a Public to include how its expectations are informed by the practice of user-based design and networking as well as the other pressures previously discussed.

Reconceptualizing the Rhetorician’s Public

Based on the initial definition and theory of a Public and the preceding examination moving from the concept’s past to present day pressures, a newly redesigned concept of the term emerges. Extending beyond the traditional definition, rhetors must attend to several new aspects of Publics as they prepare discourse for the public sphere. First, they must attend to Publics as being both personally, as well as publicly, invested in the rhetorical situation. As the public sphere has enveloped more aspects of the private sphere due to the digital, Publics have formed more intimate connections between the discourse and their identity. Second, our concept must acknowledge digital Publics as potentially less objective, but more prone to wielding personal expertise and powerful collective intelligence drawn from online communities and from vast stores of networked cultural information that are immediately available to them. Last, rhetors must employ a Public concept wherein Publics see themselves as central, generative contributors to democratized communications. That is, our concept of the Public needs to acknowledge the desire of individuals not only to be included, but also valued by a clear and vested interest in their contributions, concerns, and experiences. These aspects of the rhetor’s redesigned concept of a rhetorical Public must be considered to affect social and civic audiences successfully in the contemporary cultural environment surrounding discourse in the digital age.

Closing Remarks on Reshaping the Rhetorical Public

Though it is impossible to have the definitive and final word on a concept so rich and varied as the rhetorical Public, observations concerning its definition and theory in this scholarship are noteworthy. They begin to direct our research and suggest future redesign work for this and other terminology central to the shared disciplines in the fields of English, Communication, Technology, and Design. First, though the Public is still defined by shared communication and action as Dewey articulated, those traits have taken on new depth as members infuse their daily lives with a more personal relationship to Publics and more shared opinions are taken up to inform the digital public sphere. From this realization, I caution that our Public, in theory, may feel differences of opinion as attacks on themselves or their identity.

A second observation is that while Grunig and Hunt’s situational theory of Publics is accurate in its assessment of Publics as existing situationally, their theory could not have predicted the inward articulation of today’s Publics. That is, our more self-interested and self-centric Publics may see themselves as the most important part of a situation, and therefore they may see themselves as the locus for its creation. This may result in forsaking messages and purposes in the discourse that do not focus on “me.” Again, in light of this finding, I warn that a new Public may seek out echo chambers that reflect their ideas back to them out of overemphasized self-importance. Additionally, this new conceptual Public may be easily alienated by social or civic discourse that fails to replicate the collective knowledge of the fragmented groups to which they belong. But, in any event, how rhetoricians need to respond to this reconceptualization of the Public is beyond the scope of this scholarship which is geared toward redesigning the concept of a Public and pointing toward some of the needs we must consider prior to teaching it.

So, in closing, for the concept of a Public and how this scholarship has endeavored to encourage its exploration and consideration, there is much more work to do. This is especially true regarding how we teach rhetoric to respond to the Public as it changes. Though this article has begun to consider some of the changes of social spheres—the influences of knowledge cultures, the reshaping of participatory ideology, and the informing of user-based design—there remain clear lines to be drawn showing how exactly these considerations align and derive from how we teach the dominant definitions and theories of Publics posited by Dewey, Habermas, Grunig and Hunt, and others. To undertake that exploration, I leave it to the next rhetor who picks up where the sophists left-off, ponders Dewey, study’s Grunig, Hunt, Habermas, Jenkins, and others empirically to discover where our definition and theory of Publics is heading next and how we need to conceive it for continued successful social and civic discourse.


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———, Ravi Purushotma, Margaret Weigel, Katie Clinton, and Alice Robison. 2009. Confronting the Challenges of Participatory Culture: Media Education for the 21st Century. Cambridge: MIT Press.

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Krug, Steve. 2014. Don’t Make Me Think: A Common Sense Approach to Web and Mobil Usability,3rd ed. Pearson, newriders.com.

Locker, Kitty, and Donna Kienzler. 2015. Business and Administrative Communication, 11th ed. New York: McGraw Hill Education.

Lunsford, Andrea, Kirt Wilson, and Rosa A. Eberly. 2009. The SAGE Handbook of Rhetorical Studies. Thousand Oaks: Sage Publications.

Mendelson, Michael. 2002. Many Sides: A Protagorean Approach to the Theory, Practice, and Pedagogy of Argument. Chicago: Springer.

Porrovecchio, Mark, and Celeste Michelle Condit. 2016. “Part IV: Perspectives on Publics.” In Contemporary Rhetorical Theory: A Reader, edited by Mark Porrovecchio and Celeste Condit, 195–97. New York: Guilford Press.

Schriver, Karen. 1997. Dynamics in Document Design: Creating Texts for Readers. New York: John Wiley & Sons.

Solove, Daniel. 2016. “The Nothing-to-Hide Argument.” In Nothing to Hide: The False Tradeoff Between Privacy and Security, reprinted in Everything’s an Argument with Readings, edited by Lunsford, Andrea, John Ruszkiewicz and Keith Walters. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s.

About the Author

Philip B. Gallagher is a professional and technical communication scholar specializing in Communication Design Theory and Pedagogy, New Media Learning, and Applied Communications. He is finishing his PhD in Rhetoric and Professional Communication at Iowa State University (2020) and has an MA in English with an emphasis in Composition, Rhetoric, and Professional Writing (2012) from Eastern Illinois University. His current research includes: rhetorical design theory and process in business and technical communication; knowledge management in virtual communities; the development of New Media instruction, embodied cognition, and phenomenological writing studies; and the rhetoric of diversity and inclusion in Higher Education.


From Addiction to Connection: Questioning the Rhetoric of Drugs in Relation to Student Technology-Use


When describing students’ relation to digital technology, for the most part, educators employ the rhetorics of drugs and addiction without much hesitation. Students are considered hopelessly “hooked,” and in response to this state of affairs, many teachers adopt harsh in-class device use policies, along with attitudes of derision, anger, and fear, concomitant with the belief that technology is ruining young minds or even “deep” thinking as such. In response to such concerns, the following essay explores how one group of students—those in my upper-division Digital Writing course—described themselves and their relation to various media platforms. Students began by collecting a series of brief autoethnographic observations, which they then synthesized into blog posts which addressed the question “Am I Addicted to Technology?” Students were primed prior to writing by discussing an academic essay and watching a TED Talk that challenge employing the rhetoric of addiction/drugs, and when provided this alternative framework, many began to adopt it. In-line with Hari’s supposition that “[t]he opposite of addiction is not sobriety[;] the opposite of addiction is connection,” students continually highlighted the importance of connection in their lives, without automatically stigmatizing this need by couching it in pathological terms. Some continued to describe themselves as addicts, but those who began to explore alternative vocabularies suggest analyzing student/teacher behavior in relation to technology in a variety of new ways.

“For 100 years now, we’ve been singing war songs about addicts. I think all along we should have been singing love songs to them. Because the opposite of addiction is not sobriety. The opposite of addiction is connection.”

– Johann Hari, “Everything You Think You Know About Addiction is Wrong”

“Instead of thinking about addiction, it makes more sense to explore how we are vulnerable to certain things that technology offers. The path forward is to learn more about our vulnerabilities and design around them. To do that, we have to clarify our purpose.”

– Sherry Turkle, “How to Teach in an Age of Distraction”


The more digital studies/digital humanities has increasingly become the focus of my teaching and research over the past few years, the more I am convinced there is something deeply problematic about deploying the figures of addiction and drugs in relation to technology. In a recent article published in the journal Enculturation, “This Fragile Machine: Technology, Vulnerability, and the Rhetoric(s) of Addiction,” I outlined my concerns in some detail, but this analysis was based primarily in rhetorical theory with little discussion of the pedagogical ramifications of the argument. What follows here, then, is an attempt to articulate how my previous contentions might affect classroom attitudes and practices, so as to prevent teachers and students from unwittingly importing the draconian logic of the War on Drugs into the classroom, in particular, with regard to digital device usage.

A young woman with dark hair snorting a powdered drug that spells out ‘Facebook.’

Figure 1: Woman Snorting a “Line” of Facebook

My outline for investigating the above questions and concerns is as follows: I begin by briefly considering the prevailing attitude toward classroom technologies, wherein they are viewed as addictive substances, brain-damaging “drugs” upon which students (and certain teachers) are irrepressibly “hooked.” I then articulate my reservations with rhetorically framing technology in this way, while looking at how students in my upper-division Digital Writing course responded in academic blog-form to the question “Am I addicted to technology?” They were primed for this assignment by reading and discussing my Enculturation essay, along with watching a TED Talk by Johann Hari titled “Everything You Think You Know About Addiction is Wrong.” As I share these materials along with my own arguments, from the outset I will strive to articulate what pedagogical implications may be at stake if one were persuaded by them.

At the same time students were considering the question of technology addiction, they were tasked with collecting autoethnographic observations on their social/digital media behaviors (something Margaret “Peg” Syverson inspired me to do after introducing me to the qualitative assessment tool Learning Record Online). Throughout, I share some of the students’ most interesting field-notes in the form of textual interjections, and suggest how one might evaluate them according to different rhetorical frameworks. Sharing this quasi-anthropological data, information which attempts to be as “neutral” as possible, is especially valuable because it evinces how students can be legitimate co-producers of knowledge, and are not bound by the reductive characterizations of their media practices many foist upon them. Indeed, through this assignment many students came to see how “drugs” and “addiction,” when applied to technology, are bound to specific rhetoric and not obvious clinical or psychological facts.

Finally, I share some insightful remarks from students’ blog-posts on technology addiction, and speculate on how they might lead educators to transform their attitudes/positions and pedagogical practices. I hope that sharing these findings serves as a launching pad for further discussion and debate.

What’s Wrong with the Rhetoric of Addiction?

At the risk of over-generalizing, it strikes me that most people, professors and students included, apply the rhetoric(s) of drugs and addiction to technology with little hesitation, assuming the parallel is obvious, unaware of the problematic consequences of doing so. Oftentimes, such analogies are perhaps simply “slips,” like when Sherry Turkle describes student-users as “drinking the [presumably cyanide-laced cult] Kool-Aide” (Digital Nation). But others are far less subtle. For instance, Gary Small states:

“When we think of addiction, most of us think of alcoholism or drug abuse. But the easy access, anonymity, and constant availability of the Internet … has led to a new form of compulsive and dependent behavior – techno-addicts. The same neural pathways in the brain that reinforce dependence on substances can reinforce compulsive technology behaviors that are just as addictive and potentially destructive.”

Following Small’s line of thought, scores of materials have been produced in recent years decrying a new cultural epidemic, where digitization is framed as outright dangerous, even capable of, in Nicholas Carr’s words, “threathen[ing] the depth and distinctiveness of the self … [along with] the depth and distinctiveness of the culture we all share” (196). Works like Carr’s The Shallows, and others in its genre like Mark Bauerlein’s The Dumbest Generation, Nicholas Kardaras’ Glow Kids, and Damon Zaharides’ Digital Detox (the latter two of which have the term “addiction” in their subtitles), however alarmist they may be, have struck a chord and met with incredible commercial success. A quick Google search for “technology addiction” and “cell phone addiction” collectively result in nearly one hundred forty million hits, with hundreds of articles from sources ranging across the entire political news spectrum.

The medical community has gotten increasingly involved in the discussion as well, for instance, via debates over whether “Internet Addiction” is a medical disorder worthy of inclusion in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition (Pies). And countries like South Korea have already declared “a public health crisis,” instituting programs to develop healthier tech-use habits for students of all ages (Digital Nation). By no means am I outright naively rejecting the claims of those concerned with digitization’s problematic affects/effects, but I do want to rigorously interrogate how such worries are troped or figured.

“The hospital lost my phone when I was admitted to the ER. During my hospital stay I kept reaching for it to check things. But I couldn’t look at it because it was lost. I felt very uncomfortable and disconnected.”

– Student Autoethnographic Observation (emphasis mine)

I imagine most people, scholars included, because they have no alternative rhetoric for framing this example, would think it obvious that a student worried about checking their phone while in the Emergency Room is an “addict,” with all the troubling conceptual baggage attached to the term. As will become increasingly clear, however, what if one were to focus here instead on the irrepressible need for connection or bonding, especially in a frightening or painful situation?

Given the possibility for alternative interpretations, it’s surprising one still finds even someone like champion of technology Clay Shirky making the following observation in a recent post: “Multi-taskers often think they are like gym rats, bulking up their ability to juggle tasks, when in fact they are like alcoholics, degrading their abilities through over-consumption” (emphasis mine). So why should statements like this give one pause? In response, permit me to briefly summarize the claims contained in my essay “This Fragile Machine,” while extending them into pedagogical territory:

(1) “The Addict” has solidified into an identity that contains numerous problematic assumptions: identities are largely fixed and unchanging; the addict uses drugs to escape reality; the addict suffers from a deficiency of “will”; the addict’s life is in inescapable decline; the addict’s habits can be overcome only through resolute abstinence; hence, addiction/drugs, including digital technologies, must be harshly regulated and punishment can serve as an effective deterrent. [1]

When one refers to students or anyone else as addicts, without realizing it, one not only ascribes them an essentializing identity, but one with a serious stigma attached to it. And since identities are viewed as largely intractable, I heartily agree with Turkle that “discussing the power of technology in those terms makes people feel powerless. It is as though they are facing something that is by definition more powerful than they could ever be.” Ascribing someone an identity can make it seem as though there is no way to change or modify it, say, through an ethics of “hygienic” self-care, and so the only way to discipline/control the techno-addicted, supposedly weak-willed student is to force them to abstain from “using.”

“During my Physics [class], the teacher began talking about things that did not seem relevant. … About 2/3 of the class seemed to be using cell phones or laptops to do other things. Some were on both laptops and cell phones. I myself was scrolling through Twitter, Instagram, and imessage simultaneously.”

– Student Autoethnographic Observation (emphasis mine)

Provided observations like the above, it would be folly to ignore that sometimes classroom technology produces undesirable effects like distraction and detrimental cognitive modification, but ascribing identities can rob students of the opportunity to learn classroom-appropriate practices and to take responsibility for employing them. This is likely what Shelley Rodrigo has in mind when she contends: “[s]tarting with what the students already do works not only because we are going with the flow; … it is because it is going with their flow.” And it is not only a matter of going “with” the flow, but guiding that flow in an effective, insightful manner, versus, say, the above physics classroom, where it seems the problem is not addiction, but boredom, disengagement, disconnection, and ineffective pedagogy.

(2) Even if one views addiction as the cyclical or algorithmic repetition at the heart of all behavior, the rhetoric of drugs is saturated with innumerable “moral” norms and prohibitions; hence one will likely feel ashamed or guilty if one cannot abstain.

Scholars influenced by deconstruction such as Avital Ronell have suggested the stigma surrounding addiction might be lifted by seeing it as tied not to specific habits but rather all behavior. (More precisely, addiction is viewed here as an existential structure.) However, since the rhetoric of drugs/addiction is so tropologically loaded, I have difficulty accepting this approach will alleviate the “bad conscience” of students, absolving them of the guilt or shame they feel for “using.” After all, this approach still suggests tech-users are addicts, even if it moves away from viewing addiction as something attributable to the weak-willed. In fact, the universalization of addiction might even exacerbate the problem at issue.

(3) In contrast to specific technologically-oriented behaviors, vulnerability/“openness” to affection by technology is inescapable. A posthuman approach highlights this exposedness, and thus challenges assumptions regarding identity, will, abstinence, guilt, and more.

A liberal humanist view of subjectivity suggests rationality grants human beings untrammeled freedom to act (“will”) without regard for contextual material conditions—including everything from race, class, and gender, to technologies available within one’s environment. This approach not only doggedly continues to influence the whole of contemporary society, from politics to law to economics, but provides the assumptions necessary to brand students as addicts who can be seduced by the allure of technology and “morally” fail to resist. By contrast, in the words of Shirky, “I’ve stopped thinking of students as people who simply make choices about whether to pay attention [or compulsively use technology,] and started thinking of them as people trying to pay attention but having to compete with various influences.” In short, if students are non-declinably open to affection by technology, not only is it unfair to stigmatize their compulsive digital inclinations, but as Shirky notes, the greater responsibility lies with capitalist technologies purposely “designed to distract” as opposed to some flaw in students themselves. Such an approach urges one to not make students feel ashamed for technology-use, and that punishing them for partaking will ultimately fail as a deterrent (just as it has abjectly failed to end the War on Drugs), as well as precluding critical discussions of how certain media platforms or specific facets of them are built to be “addictive.”

Three colorful syringes labeled Facebook, Youtube, and tumblr. respectively.

Figure 2: Syringes Labeled as Social Media Platforms

Although students seemed intrigued by my own claims regarding the rhetoric of technology addiction, it was clear from their blog-posts they were persuaded most deeply by Johann Hari’s TED Talk on addiction writ large. For one, Hari challenges whether the rhetoric of addiction is viable at all, suggesting “maybe we shouldn’t even call it addiction. Maybe we should call it bonding. Human beings have a natural and innate need to bond, and when we’re happy and healthy, we’ll bond and connect with each other, but if you can’t do that … you will bond with something that will give you some sense of relief.” The language of “bonding” that evokes the psychoanalytic concept of libidinal ties, not only helps diminish the stigma attached to addiction, it suggests students are driven to use technology—social media platforms in particular—not because they’re trying to evade reality or are looking for a dopamine fix, but because they’re simply doing what human beings are built to do: Connect.

In contrast to his progressive insights, however, one move Hari makes that gives me pause is he avers digital connections are “like a kind of parody of human connection. [Since if] you have a crisis in your life, you’ll notice … it won’t be your Twitter followers who come to sit with you. It won’t be your Facebook friends who help you turn it around.” Rather than considering digital connections unfulfilling “parodies,” I think it far less problematic to highlight the various affordances in connection across different mediums. For example, face-to-face connection provides the affordances of physical touch, eye-contact, smell, “chemistry,” and so on, whereas online connection provides the affordances of multimodal interaction that surpasses speech/graphical writing along with extending connection beyond one’s geographic and temporal proximity. In other words, one can posit the importance of face-to-face connections without suggesting said connections are somehow more “authentic” than digital ones. As twenty-first century educators, helping students to navigate and balance relationship-types and their specific affordances is key, and it’s far more troublesome than helpful to suggest certain forms of desire for connection are addiction-oriented whereas others are not.

Perhaps the most pedagogically-potent observations Hari makes, though, regard Bruce Alexander’s psychological experiments with “Rat Park.” The basic outline is as follows: in earlier twentieth-century tests, researchers placed rats alone in a cage with two bottles of water, one of which laced with either heroin or cocaine. In these experiments where rats were imprisoned and in isolation, they would nearly always become “bonded” to the drugged water and eventually die. Later, researchers like Alexander questioned this initial approach, and reproduced the experiments with a critical modification: the rats still had access to heroin/cocaine but they were no longer alone. Instead, Rat Park was a community wherein they could form social bonds, mate, play, and more. In these tests, the rats almost never drank the drugged water, nor became addicted and died in miserable fashion. Hari therefore asks: “What if addiction is about your cage? What if addiction is an adaptation to your environment?”

The chilling insight, then, that I had with regard to Rat Park was: What if technology “addiction” is about adapting to the “cage” of your classroom? What if it is about feeling trapped and alone, “not being able to bear to be present in your [educational] life?” For example, if students are expected to sit silently during lecture, work on assignments in isolation, or being “talked at” by the educator, that is, when they’re dis-connected, when forming social ties is not encouraged, is it surprising they would opt for the “bonds” of the Internet? Indeed, what if certain classroom spaces are even more tortuous than those of rats in isolation because students are in proximity to one other yet often explicitly forbidden to interact? Hence, I take responsibility upon myself if I notice a student checking Facebook during lecture/discussion, etc., because it signals to me said student feels disconnected from what’s happening around them. Furthermore, such occurrences highlight the need for new types of learning spaces that facilitate both analog and digital connection, dynamic environments like those Katherine Hayles has in-mind when she contends “[t]he classroom is no longer sufficient for the needs of web pedagogy; needed are flexible laboratory spaces in which teams can work collaboratively” (5). [2]

“The teacher split my Accounting class into groups to collaborate on a case study. Instead of collaborating, everyone looked for answers on the internet.”

– Student Autoethnographic Observation (emphasis mine)

Provided this example, again the rhetoric of drugs/addiction threatens to return. But what if one asked instead: Why does the student not view doing online research as itself collaborative? Is it because they’ve internalized the view that only face-to-face interaction counts as authentic engagement with others? And if the choice is between working with “strangers” in the classroom as opposed to “strangers” online–since most college classrooms don’t emphasize forming neighborly communities among peers–isn’t it less scary to engage with an “other” whose gaze one can escape?

Put another way, it seems that because collaborative practices break with individualist, humanist models of education, one cannot assume students know how to work together collectively; hence one task of contemporary education is to help develop this indispensable skill. As I often joke with students: “It’s okay—we’re all still learning how to Internet.” And I mean that in relation to face-to-face networking as well as writing online, especially since robust team-oriented projects/evaluation are still an outlier in the humanities and learning to excel at and balance various types of connections with different affordances is something that is rarely, if ever, taught.

Provided the above observations, then, there is great pedagogical significance in Hari’s concluding observation: “[I say] to the addicts in my life that I want to deepen the connection with them, to say to them, I love you whether you’re using or not. I love you, whatever state you’re in, and if you need me, I’ll come sit with you because I love you and I don’t want you to be alone or to feel alone.” As educators concerned with effective/affective bonding, isn’t this a vastly healthier message to provide students than to chastise or punish them for their so-called “addictive,” “weak-willed” behaviors? To sympathize with them for feeling caged?

“I heard my phone vibrate in my backpack while in class and resisted the urge to check the notification to avoid losing points in the class where phones are not allowed.”

– Student Autoethnographic Observation (emphasis mine)[3]

To make the analogy more explicit, if you’re a student “using” technology problematically in the classroom, I still love you; it’s apparent you’re not feeling loved or connected, so I’ll go out of my way to form a bond with you or encourage activities that lead you to bond with others, especially in contrast to the above punishment-oriented approach. In this regard, I think it’s obvious many classrooms are not emotionally sensitive spaces. To the contrary, they’re ultra-logocentric, implicitly presupposing education has nothing to do with pathos. As burgeoning pedagogues, we are rarely taught how to form healthy, meaningful connections with students, but in a society where people are lonelier and more isolated/alienated than ever, developing such connections seems increasingly exigent. Perhaps this is to suggest that concomitant with helping students/teachers became increasingly digitally literate, is a call to help them become more emotively reflexive and considerate of which types of connections are most fulfilling in which contexts and for what reasons.

“Am I Addicted to Technology?”

After being primed to question the rhetoric of drugs in relation to technology-use, what did students themselves have to say about digital “addiction,” and what might educators gain from these observations? For one, I hope it’s apparent that by valuing what students have to say about themselves, this highlights the importance of student/teacher co-invention of knowledge (and feeling!). Or as Kimberly Mair puts it, I see encouraging students to define their own relations to technology as “acknowledg[ing] the emergent shift from the expert paradigm of one-directional knowledge transfer to a collaborative model of knowledge production known as distributed expertise.” To cite and discuss the findings of students is not some mere research curiosity, but indicates a genuine desire to cultivate new frameworks for “seeing” technology in tandem with students themselves, especially since they often aren’t bogged down by traditional assumptions or vocabularies. When one is a non-millennial educated in a print-centric, humanist environment, it’s disrespectful and intellectually myopic to simply dismiss contemporary student attitudes and media practices with disdainful finger-wagging as though one Knows Better.

In fact, I contend valuing students’ experiences is one way of beginning to form the sort of emotive bonds and connections mentioned previously—especially since students were not given incentive for reaching any particular conclusion(s) and/or parroting back to me what they thought I wanted to hear. Some even explicitly disagreed with me, and I encouraged them to do so, such as Nick Konstantinidis, who remarked:

“[‘Addict’] is a vulgar word nobody likes admitting themselves to being. However, my social media usage along with the studies we’ve done in class makes me believe I am quite addicted to social media sites. When I say I’m addicted I’m not comparing myself to some of the people we’ve seen in videos such as those in [South Korea] who accumulate days’ worth of consumption at a time, wearing diapers to prevent time away from [a video] game while using the restroom. But I do find myself reaching for my phone extremely frequently checking my social media accounts, text messages, or surfing the web.”

Although the student is mostly reinforcing the view of those like Carr and Bauerline, what interests me more is the sentiment attached to this position, namely, that “addiction is vulgar,” and/or no one wants to “admit” they’re addicted to something. Hence one is provided a taste of the guilt, shame, and embarrassment unwittingly produced when one defines students as addicts: they feel dirty, unsophisticated, and so very “common.”

A young woman with blue-tinted skin smoking a smartphone as though it were a crack-pipe.

Figure 3: Woman Smoking Smartphone Crack-Pipe

Contrasting a more traditional, “bad conscience”-wracked response were students who tried to carve out a middle path, wherein they retained the rhetoric of addiction while questioning its accuracy, effects, and so on. One student, Cole Sanderson, posited “I think we are addicted to using social media and cell phones for communication but it’s not in a bad way. It just makes things get done more efficiently when communicating. … I don’t think addiction in this sense should be looked down upon because it [is] truly helping people communicate in a faster way” (emphases mine). This observation not only evinces having rejected the guilt/shame associated with technology-use, but suggests this sentiment is justified since such an “addiction” doesn’t involve breaking social norms. The question remains, however—in-line with concerns regarding addiction as a universal existential structure—can one truly deploy the rhetoric of addiction without it remaining contaminated, saturated by normativity? For as Jacques Derrida avers, “[a]s soon as one utters the word ‘drugs,’ even before any ‘addiction’[,] a prescriptive or normative ‘diction’ is already at work, performatively, whether one likes it or not” (229).

In other words, perhaps the *only* way out here, ironically, is to abstain from the rhetoric of technology-as-drug(s) altogether, a move one student, Rachel McCown, seemed to be shifting toward. As she explains, “[s]ome people claim that you can be addicted to technology … I think I fall somewhere in the middle of these two arguments. I don’t know that I would call it an addiction because most everyday tasks require the internet or technology to some degree, but I do know that people experience an impulsive need to check their social media, blogging sites, and emails” (emphasis mine). I appreciate the distinction made here, as no one would deny people feel “vulnerable to” and compulsively drawn toward certain technologies; it’s simply a question of how one figures that impulse. Moreover, McCown’s[4] observation about “everydayness” suggests asking one to imagine a historical classroom where print books had recently become available, and the instructor has become incensed at the student who loves text and can’t keep “his” nose out from between the pages, looking for information (rather than drawing on so-called “personal” memory). A behavior once chastised and stigmatized as breaking pedagogical norms, as proto-“addictive” (especially when someone like Madame Bovary, i.e., a woman), dared do it, is now looked upon by many with nostalgic longing.

Let’s wrap up, then, by looking at some contentions by students who explicitly challenged the rhetoric of tech-addiction. To this end, Camille Mountjoy writes: “Now, is my social media an addiction? I truly believe it is not. I can stop using social media in situations where an addict may not be able to stop using” (emphasis mine); hence, she draws a critical qualitative distinction with regard to dependency I agree is legitimate. She doesn’t stop here, though, but goes on to share an anecdote I think reveals her position as more informed than many in academia and the greater population. In her own words, “I find it a little insulting that social media usage can be viewed as addicted behavior because I knew people close to me with different addiction problems and it is vastly different. The only thing I could see that has similarities is the idea [that “addicts”] do not have that many strong connections so they escape by numbing themselves” (emphasis mine). Perhaps I am assuming too much here, but anyone who has struggled with “addiction” themselves, or loved and cared for someone who has, is likely going to be (or should be) more hesitant to employ the rhetoric of addiction/drugs in relation to technology.[5] The student has experienced first-hand the significant differences at issue, yet one of the only scholarly examples I have found along these lines is when Turkle states “[t]he analogy between screens and drugs breaks down … There is only one thing you should do if you are on heroin: Get off it. Your life is at stake. But laptops and smartphones don’t need to be removed. They are part of our creative lives. The goal is to use them with greater intention, to live with them in greater harmony.”

As opposed to “harmony,” however, many academics have developed and propagated an adversarial attitude toward technology, along with putative disciplinary measures, and have thereby unwittingly imported the logic of the War on Drugs into the classroom. Another student, Brianna Coggins, seems to sense as much when she writes “labeling urges to use a phone or computer as an addiction takes the situation out of context and blows it out of proportion to push an ‘anti-digital age’ propaganda caused by personal hesitation – fear of the effects the digital world has on humanity” (emphasis mine). Here, not only does the student’s observation resonate alongside previous ones with regard to eliding key differences between types of compulsive dependency, she spotlights how many over-generalize and transmute personal fears into apocalyptic universalizations about the degeneracy of contemporary culture.[6] Yet, despite this mass panic regarding technology-use among certain populations, one bright student dared arrive at an almost diametrically-opposed position, namely, that “[p]eople think that social media is taking away human interaction and physical contact[, but] in fact, social media is just giving us a new way to define what it means to be a human. It isn’t the end of humanity, it’s a new beginning” (emphasis mine). Here Mountjoy recognizes—even if she doesn’t employ the exact vocabulary—what is at issue is the question of affordance. Digital media technologies produce opportunities for new forms of human interaction and bonding, such that what it means to be human is expanding rather than disintegrating.

Such is the vision promoted by a posthumanist pedagogy and its accompanying classroom or lab: a space wherein the desire for connection and exploring/“balancing” affordances in bonding, whether via analog and/or digital modes, is not only encouraged and guided in emotionally-attuned fashion, it is viewed as an inescapable part of existing in relation to and through others—where it is recognized no “desiring-machine” functions on its own, independently of a network. Or to pose it as a question: what transformation takes place when one affirms that being irrepressibly drawn toward technology (or any “other”) is not indicative of failure to resist through resolute will, that is, to destructive “addiction,” but to the vulnerability of bodies affected by that which non-declinably grasps them?

Although technology-use may derail one’s initial educational aims, as teachers and students, it is within our capacity to redefine and reframe the rhetoric involved, not only putting into question our aims themselves, but cleansing our teaching and learning more generally from derisive moral judgment and retributive discipline, thereby vitally, “mercifully,” modifying our pedagogical attitudes and practices. For questioning is the blasphemy which drives the motor of invention.


[1] In reference to my initial reservations regarding the rhetoric of addiction, I cannot encourage strongly enough that readers check out Eve K. Sedgwick’s challenging and incisive essay “Epidemics of the Will” in Tendencies.

[2] I really appreciate Turkle’s insight that “[c]ollaboration is a kind of intimacy. You don’t just get more information. You get different information. … The most powerful learning takes place in relationship.”

[3] Question: What if one were to “legalize” all digital devices in classrooms, then take the substantial energy and resources spent on policing device (mis-)use and channel it into helping students form substantive connections? What might this look like, to respond to students not with punishment but by further facilitating connection?

[4] Near the end of her post, McCown adds “maybe calling it an addiction is wrong because it’s really people trying to stay active when life around them has become dull. There are always new things to read and do on the internet when you’re sitting in a boring lecture that you can’t listen to even if you try. In lectures and classrooms your attention is being forced to focus on things you’re not necessarily interested in” (emphasis mine).

[5] In Occupying Memory, I make a similar claim in relation to the rhetoric of trauma and “the traumatic,” namely, that even (and especially) scholars have a bad habit of throwing around the term, especially when it’s fairly clear they have never undergone being traumatized themselves.

[6] As an exemplar of this type of argument, I point the reader toward Nicholas Carr’s best-selling work The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains.


Carr, Nicholas. 2011. The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains. New York: W.W. Norton & Company.

Derrida, Jacques. 1995. “The Rhetoric of Drugs.” Points… Interviews, 1974-1994. Translated by Peggy Kamuf and others. Stanford: Stanford University Press.

Dretzin, Rachel. 2010. “Digital Nation.” PBS Frontline. https://www.pbs.org/wgbh/frontline/film/digitalnation/

Hari, Johann. “Everything You Think You Know About Addiction is Wrong.” TED Talk, 14:43. June 2015. https://www.ted.com/talks/johann_hari_everything_you_think_you_know_about_addiction_is_wrong

Hayles, N. Katherine. 2012. How We Think: Digital Media and Contemporary Technogenesis. Chicago: Chicago University Press.

Hoag, Trevor. 2017. “This Fragile Machine: Technology, Vulnerability, and the Rhetoric(s) of Addiction.” Enculturation: A Journal of Rhetoric, Writing, and Culture (24). http://enculturation.net/this_fragile_machine

Mair, Kimberly. 2016. “Participatory Culture and Distributed Expertise: Breaking Down Pedagogical Norms or Regulating Neoliberal Subjectivities?” The Journal of Interactive Technology and Pedagogy (9). https://jitp.commons.gc.cuny.edu/participatory-culture-and-distributed-expertise-breaking-down-pedagogical-norms-or-regulating-neoliberal-subjectivities/

Pies, Ronald. 2009. “Should DSM-V Designate ‘Internet Addiction’ a Mental Disorder?” Psychiatry. Vol 6 (2): 31-37. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2719452/

Rodrigo, Shelley. 2013. “Can You Digg it? Using Web Applications in Teaching the Research Process.” The Journal of Interactive Technology and Pedagogy (4). https://jitp.commons.gc.cuny.edu/can-you-digg-it-using-web-applications-in-teaching-the-research-process/

Ronell, Avital. 2004. Crack Wars: Literature, Addiction, Mania. Chicago: University of Illinois Press.

Sedgwick, Eve K. 1993. “Epidemics of the Will.” Tendencies. Durham, Duke University Press.

Shirky, Clay. 2014. “Why I Just Asked My Students To Put Their Laptops Away.” Medium (Blog). https://medium.com/@cshirky/why-i-just-asked-my-students-to-put-their-laptops-away-7f5f7c50f368

Small, Gary. 2009. “Techno-Addicts: Dopamine is responsible for the euphoria that addicts chase.” Psychology Today. https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/brain-bootcamp/200907/techno-addicts

Turkle, Sherry. 2015. “How to Teach in an Age of Distraction.” The Chronicle of Higher Education. http://www.chronicle.com/article/How-to-Teach-in-an-Age-of/233515

Student Bloggers

Coggins, Brianna. October 2017. “This is Not a Hit for Pleasure but for Connection.” Maelstrom: Writing Digital Humanities (Blog). https://maelstromdigitalactivismblog.wordpress.com/2017/10/18/this-is-not-a-hit-for-pleasure-but-for-connection/

Konstantinidis, Nicolas. October 2017. “Am I Addicted?” Maelstrom: Writing Digital Humanities (Blog). https://maelstromdigitalactivismblog.wordpress.com/2017/10/18/am-i-addicted-2/

McCown, Rachel. October 2017. “Auto-Ethnography: Are We Addicted?” Maelstrom: Writing Digital Humanities (Blog). https://maelstromdigitalactivismblog.wordpress.com/2017/10/18/auto-ethnography-are-we-addicted/

Mountjoy, Camille. October 2017. “Should We Be Throwing the Word ‘Addiction’ Around?” Maelstrom: Writing Digital Humanities (Blog). https://maelstromdigitalactivismblog.wordpress.com/2017/10/18/should-we-be-throwing-the-word-addiction-around/

Sanderson, Cole. October 2017. “Is Being Addicted to Your Phone a Bad Thing?” Maelstrom: Writing Digital Humanities (Blog). https://maelstromdigitalactivismblog.wordpress.com/2017/10/24/is-being-addicted-to-your-phone-a-bad-thing/

About the Author

Trevor Hoag, Ph.D. (@DrHoagCNU), is Assistant Professor of English and Director of the minor in Digital Humanities at Christopher Newport University in Newport News, Virginia. His forthcoming book, Occupying Memory: Rhetoric, Trauma, Mourning, explores how memorialization, testimony, grief, and more serve as grounds for political/clinical struggle. His work appears in the journals Hybrid Pedagogy, Enculturation, and Liminalities. You can visit his website here: http://trevorhoagphd.org/

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