supporting effective communication
Philosophers and economists seem particularly challenged when attempting to explain their theories, models, and conclusions. Despite shaping societies, influencing political leaders and the general public, thinkers in these two overlapping disciplines often do speak their own languages. Reading Martin Heidegger requires a lexicon, the philosopher having crafted terms for concepts scholars still struggle to define. Only economists craft equally impenetrable works, especially the congressional statements delivered by Chairs of the Federal Reserve.
Rhetoric of Economics
As a rhetorician, I currently explore the rhetoric of economics and policy. The first challenge I explain to my students involves defining “economics” to people outside the discipline. Economics is not limited to financial questions. My colleagues research everything from climate data collection to voting methodologies. People correctly assume that economists study how people exchange ideas, services, and goods. Yet the research and analysis methods of economics apply to any questions of scarcity, allocation, efficiency, and efficacy. Today’s economists not only seek the most efficient solution to a problem, but also how people actually solve problem in practice. We all know that when efficiency meets human nature… psychology wins. Welcome to behavioral economics and questions of how to encourage informed decision making. Therein, we find rhetoric at the core of modern economics scholarship.
Philosophy and economics are inseparable. The early great economists were social philosophers. The quantitative movement gained prominence during the 1950s and 60s. Rational consumers, an artificial construct, became the basis for much research. Fields such as economic history emerged, promising to analyze history using quantitative economic models. The role of traditional moral philosophy within economics faded, with economics striving for “scientific” methods. By the 1990s, psychology had supplanted philosophy within many university programs.
I advocate for economists rediscovering classical rhetoric and philosophical traditions, alongside the quantitative models and rigourous testing of theories that have advanced economics scholarship. Expanding how we educate economists, we will improve their ability to communicate important ideas to the wider public. Good ideas have no value if we cannot “market” the ideas beyond our academic communities.
What rhetorical theories could be employed to promote the special knowledge of economists? Why are some schools of economic thought better at promoting their values and theories than others? We imagine that logical arguments, supported by data, should be the most persuasive in policy debates. Yet, data seldom prevail. Anecdotes too often trump data. How can rhetoricians help economists present the best arguments in the most effective manner?
Rhetoric of Self-Advocacy
Previously, my research projects involved collaborative composition, new media, and issues of self-advocacy. Past research questions explored the rhetorical strategies employed within self-advocacy communities in online settings. These online communities demonstrably affected my life, offering insights, advice, and guidance to me as a participant. However, while they were helpful, I developed an awareness of the excesses and insular natures of these support communities. I studied these spaces in relation to established rhetorical scholarship, while striving to extend the understanding of multi-modal composition among marginalized communities.
Even now, my research includes elements of auto-ethnography because I am often a member of the spaces I study. As an individual living with minor physical and neurological challenges, I recognize a social-epistemic approach shapes my scholarship and teaching. The ideals of James Berlin and Paulo Freire influence my research. My intention is to improve the effectiveness of self-advocacy for the benefit of others and myself. Embracing the concept of the public intellectual with a responsibility to foster change, I am an advocate.
Scholarship on the rhetorics of disabilities and marginalized communities forms a foundation for much of my research. Writing, especially with the aid of technology, has empowered me as a self-advocate. Like the individuals I have met while researching autism and self-expression, language cognition can be problematic for me, especially figurative language and idioms. Due to language processing obstacles, collaborative composition presents unique challenges for individuals with autism. Yet, the necessary negotiations required by collaboration are essential within advocacy movements. My research aims to improve the composition education of students with either special needs or language challenges, enabling them to engage and participate within the greater academic and political communities.
Embodied Rhetorics: Disability in Language and Culture (2001), edited by James Wilson and Cynthia Lewiecki-Wilson, convinced me that there might be a language and culture of autism advocacy. In 2007, the publication of Mark Osteen’s Autism and Representation became the first scholarly collection to focus on a rhetoric of autism. My research should contribute to this body of literature.
I view rhetoric and composition broadly, recognizing that all works feature persuasive elements and that composition extends beyond pages of text. It has been stated that rhetoricians study all human interactions and compositionists see everything as text. Self-advocacy communities employ myriad genres to express their concerns: textual memoir, demonstrative video, audio interviews, academic articles, and various intertextual forms common to Web logs (blogs). Exploration of online advocacy requires multimodal rhetorical analyses. For example, poetry by individuals with autism has been studied separately by classical rhetorician Kristina Chew and writing scholar Ilona Roth.
Many of the online expressions of self-advocacy eschew traditional academic argument. Instead, these compositions include memoirs, poetry, and works of fiction. The works are rhetorical, meant to inform and shape public discussions about autism and other disabilities. Not only do these works embody the “Rhetoric of Fiction” as broadly analyzed by Wayne C. Booth, but they also parallel street theatre and other creative expressions of activism. The collaborative compositions found within online communities should provide a rich source for rhetorical analysis and research.
Rhetoric of Science
Autism and disability self-advocacy communities also reflect the rhetorical nature of science. Most of these communities directly quote academic journals, mass media articles, and celebrity statements. Differences in language usage and intention contribute to vitriolic conflict. Peer-reviewed articles express findings in probability, in the cautious statistical language of quantitative sciences. Mass media articles report findings as certainties. The tension between media, science, and advocacy lexicons is on display within online communities.
To appreciate the rhetoric of science, I have taken courses from Alan Gross and Art Walzer. Scholars including Judy Segal (Health and the Rhetoric of Medicine, 2005) and Celeste Michelle Condit (The Meanings of the Gene, 1999) influence my analyses of the rhetorical situations online and why scientific discourse so often leads to confusion instead of understanding within advocacy communities. The debates surrounding autism etiology are not grounded in science, so much as they are in distrust of past scientific conduct. Advocates adopting militant language results in a widening distance between researchers and those affected by autism. The heated rhetoric, often ad hominem attacks and conspiratorial accusations, is disappointing and, simultaneously, academically intriguing.
Self-advocates and scientists employ visual elements within their rhetorical strategies. Analyzing graphs and charts often reveals a mix of intentional and unintentional manipulation, resulting in audiences misinterpreting data. Designer Tim Harrower and scholar Edward Tufte address issues of misrepresentation and intentional obfuscation of data. Also influencing my visual analyses are Gross, Charles Kostelnick, Gunther Kress, Anne Frances Wysocki, and Lester Faigley. Determining why self-advocates and scientists present data in particular formats will, ideally, lead to clearer communication between these communities.
I have performed quantitative analyses of design choices within online communities, striving to identify trends. Once identified, I offer hypothetical explanations for the dominance of particular choices. Separating design choices unique to self-advocacy communities from broader design trends demands constant attention to various media. For examples, some designs reflect the software used or the availability of templates and are not carefully considered. The designs are significant, but I want to determine what is unique within online self-advocacy communities.
While the works of various composition scholars inspired my interest in collaborative communities and digital media, my research depends on scholars, theorists, and researchers in a variety of fields. The cross-disciplinary approach to analyzing online spaces and advocacy creates opportunities for collaborative projects, as I work with individuals from various academic backgrounds. Research projects have lead to collaborating with students and faculty colleagues from various departments.
Just as I draw from multiple disciplines, my goal is to produce research that touches numerous fields. While I specialize in analyzing self-advocacy, the multiple forms of that advocacy dictate that I constantly explore new territories. I seek the unanticipated connections between disciplines, not knowing what I might discover next.