ENGL516 Reflections on Jackson and Wallin’s “Rediscovering the ‘Back-and-Forthness’ of Rhetoric in the Age of YouTube”

Jackson & Wallin bring up a fair point in this article: that students ought to be recognizing the digital technologies and social media that they are familiar with (and likely participate in) as dialectic opportunities for engagement and deliberation. In order to get them to see this, though, it is necessary to move beyond traditional persuasive essays and similar assignments, which are seen as more static and not interactive; a persuasive essay, for example, is rhetorical…but it does not reflect the type of rhetorical deliberation/discussion that is common on the Internet today, which moreso resembles a real, face-to-face, back-and-forth conversation.

Jackson & Wallin point out that comments on YouTube videos serve as examples of this kind of dialectic; users from around the globe frequently engage in conversations and argumentation through YouTube comments. How this might be applied in the writing classroom? I’m not a teacher, so I guess that’s really not my place, but I found myself feeling skeptical about Jackson & Wallin’s suggestions. Why not (as many classmates of mine have pointed out in our class discussions about this reading) have students do exactly what the authors of this article did? Have them analyze a digital, back-and-forth text. Have them identify arguments, stances, supporting evidence, etc. among participants of the discussion. As a student, this is an assignment I could see value in.

Another thing this article initially got me wondering was: why YouTube? Of all of the outlets for online commenting on the Web, why did Jackson & Wallin cling to the YouTube example? At first, I wasn’t so sure about it. My experiences with commenting and reading comments on YouTube videos have been iffy; usually, I find myself having to read through useless comments or spam (sort of reminds me of the discussions in the MOOC 😛 ) in order to identify any kind of argument or ongoing conversation.

Instead, I wondered why the authors didn’t analyze something like an online forum or even a Facebook discussion thread. I posed this question to the rest of the class. Surely these are better examples of meaningful debate than would be found in the average YouTube comment thread. But then some classmates of mine pointed out something that wasn’t so obvious to me at the time: the very public/random nature of YouTube seems to afford more opportunities for diverse comments from diverse people. On the contrary, a Facebook comment thread or even posts in a discussion forum typically take place among people who either know each other, share a similar interest, or both. Fair point.

This got me wondering about the nature of arguments and discussions online based on the outlet for the message and the known (or unknown) audience. In other words, I’m considering how an argument I make online might change based on whether or not I know who I’m broadcasting my thoughts to. On a Facebook comment thread, for example, I think I’d be more careful about what I say. I wouldn’t want to create any negative vibes between myself and any of my Facebook friends. I think in most instances on Facebook, I’d be more willing to drop an argument or “let it go” for the sake of maintaining harmony in my relationship with that/those person/people.

On the other hand, I think I’d be more willing to deliberate in an open forum for comments like YouTube due to the mere fact that I don’t know who’s on the other side of the screen reading and responding to my comments. I’m sure I’m not alone in this. In fact, I’m thinking this is probably part of the reason for there being so many trolls in these public yet generally anonymous forums.

Anyway…this is definitely a tangent to the overall point of the Jackson and Wallin article, but to me it’s something worth thinking about nonetheless.

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