It almost goes without saying that a wide range of disciplines have recently embraced the new material (NM) turn. A large number of scholars in the disciplines of rhetoric and technical communication (TC) are included here. And while a great deal of excellent work has recently been, and is currently being developed that puts NM insights to good use in scholarly analyses of argument and communication, considerably less work has been devoted to the pedagogical ramifications of the NM turn. (I freely admit that my work here is no exception.)
Nevertheless, it occurred to me late last night (too late for this post to constitute a fully coherent thought) that the NM turn directly confronts and likely compels a revaluation of one the core pedagogical conceits of rhetoric and TC: education in theories of communication. It is a common undergraduate rhetoric or TC exercise to present students with a transmission theory of communication (often Shannon and Weaver’s famous mathematical variant) and then explain to students how such a theory does not adequately capture the reality of human communication.
In order to help demonstrate how this transmission theory ultimately fails to capture the reality of human communication, students are then offered successively improved models. They are challenged to compare Shannon and Weaver’s linear transmission model with one of many slightly better transmission + feedback models.
The transmission + feedback model is then compared to a somewhat better dialogic model or audience centered model. And finally, after some indeterminate number of failed models are offered, a truly good model is provided. These good models are typically derived from rhetoric, semiotics, linguistics, and cultural theory and offered as a far more satisfying description of human communication. These models highlight the complex dynamic interactions among audience, purpose, context, signs, symbols, culture, media, semiotics modes, etc. Now, here’s the problem: This is perspectival pedagogy. This pedagogy calls on students to view the same activity differently. It calls students to engage in the same practices but to understand them differently. The hope, of course, is that by viewing communication differently students will learn decide to enact communication differently. They will better account for audiences, cultures, etc.
Now readers of my work will know, I’m quite fond of Annemarie Mol’s multiple ontologies. I find her theory of how different ontologies are staged in practice to be quite compelling. If we apply this analysis to theories of communication, it raises very interesting questions. Given the ubiquity of transmission theories of communication, it seems likely that common communication practices actually stage a transmission ontology. If this is the case, telling students to engage in largely the same practices, but to view them differently is probably not a great option.
Indeed, a praxiography of the classroom would pretty clearly indicate that the practices of the classroom stage a strong transmission + feedback model. Students transmit communication to the instructor. The instructor literally provides feedback. The student, in theory, incorporates that feedback into revisions or subsequent assignments. There may be no more powerful staging of the transmission + feedback model possible.
For me, at least, this raises significant questions about rhetorical and TC pedagogy. If we are to take NM seriously (and I do), then perhaps it should force us to reconsider the fundamental structure of the communication classroom. If the dominant practices of the classroom stage a transmission + feedback model, is it any wonder so many of our students never fully internalize a rhetorical or cultural model of communication?