Updating Academia: Rethinking the Methodology of Academic Discourse
Ethos and the New Age
The reason intelligent writing is such a drawn-out process is that the writer is continuously making moves to improve their ethos. A writer who is most knowledgeable, who writes the best, who makes little compositional error, who adheres to the conventions of their genre, who uses and explains impressive jargon, is given authority to make statements we trust. We are inclined to believe this writer. However, these ethos moves are not the only moves—though one might believe they were if they read most academic writing. The digital age has given us new ways of ascertaining authority in writing, and these new moves disencumber the process of creating fresh ideas.
In order to legitimize a new system for ascertaining authority we must examine what it is to be credible in academic discourse. An authority on a subject is one whom the reader believes before having even heard any argument. Wardle said, “Authority, then, is an intangible quality granted to persons through institutions, which renders their pronouncements as accepted by those in that institution’s communities of practice, but which must be maintained through individual’s speech and actions,” (Wardle, 2014, p. 220).
Of course, the merits of an argument will be determined upon its delivery, but authority lends the right to deliver it. However, it is wrong to believe that truth in writing can be ascertained by the author’s identity (Frobish, 2013). In fact, the strong ethos given to us through exceptional rhetoric, adherence to convention and fancy titles can lead the reader into believing information that they otherwise wouldn’t. A source masquerading under current academic conventions of authority actually has the ability to further encumber the idea-formation process by using his or her position of power to assert opinion as fact. Whereas now our institution grants credibility to the exceptional rhetor, it takes but a deviation from this path in the academic discourse community to right the ship. All that will remain is the quality of the work.
The community is prepared to determine which sources are credible or not. Judgement, the ability to “evaluate the reliability and credibility of different information sources,” (Jenkins, 2009, pg. 79) is a skill that is already an innate feature of the modern reader’s tool belt. Across different media, digital readers are expected to identify credible information all the time, and they must do so without the luxury of established, discoursal conventions which suggest that a writer is benevolent or correct. Scholars in a variety of media have determined systems that lend credibility to online sources. Malleus described the process in which diasporas (communities of similar people away from their homeland) analyze news using strategies such as: corroboration, comparison, accuracy analysis, and quality of message construction (2013).
Emsellem-Whichowski and Kohl have shown how bloggers can use the CRAAP test (Currency, Relevance, Authority, Accuracy, Purpose) to identify a legitimate blog contributor (2013). Sierra and Eyman showed how subscribers of the massive-multiplayer-online-game, World of Warcraft, identify which players are good sources for advice by checking that the declarant is specific, has done research, and has a sufficient amount of experience (Eyman & Sierra, 2013). The point here is not that any of these methods are a sure-fire way of determining whether a source has the authority to deliver certain arguments. Even if a piece of academic writing passed the CRAAP test, for example, that information could still be wrong or misleading.
But what these tests do is shift some of the freight inherent in academic-idea production from writer to reader. If the writer doesn’t have to eloquently introduce other writers (keeping in mind present-perfect tense, of course.) and then mind the format for a correct block quotation, he has cut down on items that confuse his issue and delay his completion. Adherence to convention and stylish rhetoric never really showed anything but that the author went to college, and the reader of compliant academic-writing usually will have to do an ethos examination on the source anyway. While I’m not calling for an academic community that allows anyone to toss their non-sophisticated hat in the ring, it does not stand that we should perpetuate practices that degrade our efficiency if they have little-to-no use.
Collaboration as Ethos
Among those who study new media technology, the idea of using collaboration as a form of authentication is not a fringe idea; it is not even a new one. Scholars in New Media and New Media Literacy have covered, extensively, how communicating using computer technology has created new means of conveying authority. According to Knobel and Lankshear, new writers are focusing on collections of people to measure competence and intelligence (2007). These authors later said, “As social practices characterized by a new ‘ethos,’ [people communicating digitally] are more participatory, collaborative, and distributed, and less ‘published,’ less ‘author-centric,’ and less ‘individual, than conventional literacies” (Kobel, Lanskshear, 2014). Young people are participating in reading and writing events online and outside the classroom. Social networks, news sites, blogs, and online games all present forums where people must identify credible information.
In fact, being able to pool information is one of the core media skills Jenkins says is vital to students in today’s participatory culture (2009). If we abandon our trust in authority-by-current-convention and begin to trust collectives instead, we negate the potential for highly influential people to ‘cog the wheel’ in our idea formulating process. “We must think of rhetoric not in terms of some one particular address, but as a general body of identification that owe their convincingness to trivial repetition and dull daily reinforcement than to exceptional rhetorical skill,” (Warnick, Heineman, 2012, p. 53). On a digital platform, there is the possibility for many contributors within a discourse community, or even across many communities, to negotiate concerns about an idea and then signify which pieces should be referenced and which should not. This space, yet undefined, would consist of both long and short writings, among peers, that do not necessarily adhere to any specific, standard convention of communication.
Collaborative academic-writing on a digital platform creates a more pleasing and credible ethos while being more beneficial to the idea-making process of the author(s). Erickson and Blair in The Ethos of Online Publishing give a narrative of Remley, a Professional Writing professor and Erickson, a graduate student, as they collaborated on an online piece. According to the authors, Erickson was given credit in Remley’s piece because he took the textual artifacts and rearranged them on a digital platform to make the rhetoric more effective. In this case Remley was given a literacy that lent the ability to create and evaluate digital scholarship more effectively, the graduate student was involved in a real-life publishing project, and a paper written about “Professional writing” was given a more professional posture.
Our authors learn from each other and we have a more effective publication. However even this process could be expedited. Warnick and Heineman noted that interactivity online has helped interested parties come to stronger conclusions than they would have alone. They cite an interaction of users on a political blog that began a conversation with a rudimentary understanding of a specific politician’s actions but then, after input from several different users in secession, came to understand, with remarkable clarity, the political landscape (60). Warnick and Heineman said this of participants:
The users worked together to come to a more complete understanding of information. At the end of the day each user had a more quality understanding of the material, and those reading were able to follow that progress. Additionally, the internet gave opportunity for a variety of perspectives to enter into the arena. Each time a new perspective corrected a mistake in the infancy of the end-product (or final idea), it negated a flaw in logic that could later be identified and used to discredit the author. This model is conducive to the atmosphere that both students and academics need to formulate their ideas and communicate them to their audience.
If we accept that collaboration lends authority, then academic conventions that lend authority (forwarding, stylish prose, certain types of punctuation and grammar) are inadequate. In new media platforms, the presence of hyperlinked citation and a constantly accessible Google search bar dispels a need for awkward interactions between the writer and reader. For example, imagine if, instead of explaining the study done by Warnick and Heineman, I simply mentioned it, explained why it was important and inserted a hyperlink right there in the text. The reader who is interested in my argument need only skip the evidence for the “meat and potatoes,” or else, quickly scroll through the evidence with just the click of a finger.
Furthermore, the pathological reader is invited to see, in real time, exactly where my interpretation stems from, and to form an opinion henceforth. The reader need not sift through citations that may obscure the meaning of the text and the author never had to waste time formatting it. This process is the same for technical jargon. While a writer might be compelled to explain intricacies of their specialized language, hyperlinks to definitions and supporting evidence stand ready on the digital platform. This practice is already widely used by bloggers, news sites, and Wikis. And, of course, this hypermediate2 way of communicating will not even be a difficult shift; Jenkins has noted that new media users already retain these skills (2009).
We can look to many already-established forums to format a new system for growing ideas. Westlaw, a legal database, for example, has the wiki-style hyperlink that refers the reader to any allusion made to other work at the click of a button. The writer can navigate through histories of established case-law and statute language, and see referenced documents first hand. Regularly, contributors add annotated documents that comment on procedural or theoretical intricacy’s a lawyer might want to know when examining their document. If this dicta (non-legally binding words) is quoted, or if any court case is quoted or referred to, that document will then list the reference and display a link to it. Any court case that quotes another to suggest correctness will appear green. Any that suggests correctness mostly, with minor changes, will appear yellow. If a court case is referred to as “bad” case-law, that link will appear red. Westlaw has done an effective job modernizing the process in which the research can find the information they need and decide what information is credible. Still, there are countless ways in which the digital platform could streamline the process of creating ideas through writing, organizing them effectively and communicating them to the reader.
To reject old conventions of academic writing is incorrect, but so is remaining stagnant when advance is possible. If we are to collaborate on ideas it is pertinent that these ideas be examined before they are good and polished. Writers now have the ability to build ideas together-- in real time, across digital platforms-- rather than to think, write, publish and then be criticized sometime after production; as is the traditional model. There is a possibility that new technology can streamline and supplement the idea-sharing process that we use writing to spearhead.
To do this we have to eat our apprehension that the other guy is smarter, hope that maybe he is, and try to communicate ideas before they are perfect in order to create a more efficient model. New thinkers are moving to a separate platform. There are now separate ways to serve functions that certain academic conventions previously held. Academic writers should acknowledge these new conventions as contributions to the academic meta-discourse, and adapt them where possible in order to optimize our growth as a collective species.
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1.) Eric Hayot refers to the fear writers experience in publishing their work as the “apprehension” that the other guy is smarter (2014).
2.) Hypermediacy in computer technology, according to Bolter and Grusin, is the “Heterogeneous ‘windowed style’ of the World Wide Web,” (2000, pg. 31). Essentially, it’s the awareness we have, when using computers,that we are not reading a printed book (or article, or journal…) because there are constantly windows, tools bars, and buttons, begging for attention. I include this definition to show how digital technologies could better academic writing. It is very likely that literacy scholars reading this work could be familiar with the term, but others, reading for from a higher-education perspective, for example, might not. Instead of wasting the time and inserting this definition in text (or here, in this footnote) and interrupting the flow of my argument, I could simply hyperlink a definition of hypermediacy (my own or community-established) and associated articles.