Making a Bonsai

Posted: July 15, 2010 in Uncategorized
Tags: , ,

It seems like every few months, I come back to this same issue. What do I want to study?

It’s getting to be a more and more important question. Right now, I need to make a decision of who I want to be. In a few years, I’m going to have a PhD (hopefully). When I do, I will be an expert in something. THE expert in something. So when people talk about me, what do I want them to say? They need to say I’m the guy who does … something. But what?

I was given some good advice the other day. Told that I’m at the point where I have to lop a few research limbs off my tree. I may be able to get back to them later, maybe when I have tenure. But in the meantime, I need to trim down until I can give a six word description of who I am as a scholar. Six words isn’t much; hence the term Bonsai. I need to trim down to a very small description, a tiny tree.When I say what I do, what do I say? Well, one thing is for sure: I want it to start with “The rhetoric of”; great, I’m halfway done. But what do I fill in for the last three words? Let’s try a few ideas:

The rhetoric of misdirection in discourse. This would be focusing on those little tricks people use in writing and speech, those ways we make people believe we’re saying one thing when we’re actually saying another. I use the term ‘misdirection’ because of its resonance with magic performance. There are methods of discussing a topic where something else is really at stake, something that is obvious to some but hidden to others. Stephen Colbert is a master at this. If you don’t know any better, you might think he really is a right wing republican in the vein of Bill O’Reilly. But if you pay attention to his more subtle cues, it’s all a smoke screen (misdirection), and he’s actually espousing the other side through a reductio ad absurdum. This would allow me to study the use of paradoxes, sarcasm, and all the worst parts of sophistry. It would also allow me to look at a lot of political stuff, which would be cool.

The rhetoric of non-verbal textual cues. When people talk face to face, there are a lot of non-verbal cues. Facial expression, posture, tone of voice, volume, eye contact; all of these things send subtle cues about intent and meaning. It could be argued that in a face to face exchange, the words spoken make up less than half of the actual communication. Online, we have only artificial replacements for these things (italics, bold, strikethrough, color change, emoticons, etc). But what if there are other cues that we use that we’re not aware of? This would allow me to study chat programs, blogging, comments, e-mails, etc. It would also allow me to find more of those tricks that I talked about before.

The rhetoric of personal identity online. When I was younger, personal identity was a Burning Question for me. What makes us who we are? Is there a limit to how many of one person there can be? If I were to spontaneously split into two people, would they both be me, but not one another? Bringing this question to an online space makes me kind of excited. Online identity is not based on the body; the body doesn’t even come into play. All the artificial stuff like geneology, economic status, and age are much more fluid online. We can pretend to be any age, any race, even any gender. (A friend coined the term ‘netvestite’ as someone who pretends to be a different gender online). Sometimes, this cyber-cross dressing is intended to deceive (or at least to convince), possibly for the same reasons as regular transgenderism. The mind may very well have a different gender than the body. Sometimes, it’s more a focus on asthetics: a heterosexual man who plays WoW all day wants to spend 8 hours looking at an attractive woman rather than a man. Whatever the reasoning, I think there’s a lot of identity decisions made online, and those identities are not limited in number; I can be one person here on this blog, another on a facebook account (or several facebook accounts), someone else in a chat program, and another entirely different person in an online game. The internet gives the opportunity to experiment in a safe environment, a way to discover personal identity. This would allow me to look at all kinds of online communities, to look at personhood again, and to think about how we define ourselves.

The rhetoric of future focused pedagogy. This was actually my plan when I first got here. Most technology, if it makes it into the classroom at all, doesn’t make it there until long after that technology has become pervasive in the culture. Or, if it does, it is often misused. Having a virtual lecture in a virtual lecture hall in Second Life is no different from having an actual lecture. So I could study the different ways to use technology in the classroom, including developing methods of examining new technologies (even those that don’t exist yet) to find how they can best be used to teach. This would allow me to study futurism, pedagogy, and technology.

Looking back on these, I see a pretty obvious point of passion: I’m still really ‘in’ to personal identity. But I’m also very interested in deception, misdirection, and nonverbal communication.

I’ll have to keep thinking, but I may be narrowing things down a bit. My bonsai is starting to form.


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