The Rhetoric of the Internet in Higher Education Policy: A Cross-Cultural Study

Article excerpt

THE IMPORTANCE OF PAYING ATTENTION to the technology agenda in the educational policies of the United States was demonstrated by Cynthia Selfe (1999) in her analysis of the 1996 initiative "Getting America's Students Ready." Selfe showed how the technology literacy project enjoyed considerable public support induced by popular utopian narratives about technology as the harbinger of democracy, economic growth, and progress--despite having reproduced, if not exacerbated, inequities based on race and poverty.

Research Question

In my dissertation, I build on Selfe's (1999) work of "paying attention" by conducting a critical rhetorical analysis of higher education policy discourse about the Internet. As a critical rhetorical study, the dissertation asks how rhetorical choices in higher education policy discourse privilege certain courses of action while constraining others. Through this analysis, the dissertation makes these rhetorical choices available for deliberation and thus opens alternative ways of framing the policy discourse about the Internet in higher education.

Literature Review

Bazerman (1998) aptly described the rhetoric of technology as "the rhetoric that accompanies technology and makes it possible--the rhetoric that makes technology fit into the world and makes the world fit with technology" (p. 385). Because technologies redefine the contexts of what is possible (Zuboff, 1988), different social groups take advantage of this process and advocate visions of technology use and social change that are most consistent with their interests. In doing so, they use a number of rhetorical strategies.

Perhaps the most common strategy, particularly in public policy discourse, is an appeal to technological determinism, the claim that the advocated social change or technology use presumably resides in the technology itself and thus is beyond human control and consequently beyond deliberation (Feenberg, 1996; Johnson, 1998; MacKenzie, 1999; Winner, 1986). Other specific strategies for influencing public discourse about technology include dystopian or utopian narratives (e.g., Kling, 1996; Miller, 1994; Selfe, 1999; Werry, 2001) as well as forecasts and predictions, especially those that emphasize speed and urgency (Miller, 1994; Warnick, 2002).

In response to the prevalence of technological determinism in social and public policy discourse, rhetoricians of technology have advocated critical rhetorical analysis as a way to foster critical technological literacy (Clark, 2001; Gurak, 2001; Selfe, 1999; Warnick, 2002; Werry, 2001). Most notably, Gurak (2001) conducted critical rhetorical research to advance what she termed "cyberliteracy," which "relies heavily on people's ability to understand, criticize, and make judgments about a technology's interactions with, and effects on, culture" (p. 13). The purpose of such research is to show how "technologies have consequences and that we can decide how we allow the Internet to be part of our lives" (p. 7). Warnick (2002) identified a similar critical purpose. As she explained, "Critical analysis of the discursive strategies used by protechnology advocates can make them available for public discussion and debate" (p. 6).

The critical rhetorical study of technology, then, serves as a way to facilitate public consideration of alternative ways of deliberating over the use of technologies. However, studies of the rhetoric of technology in higher education remain scarce, and perhaps most notably, much of the scholarship on the rhetoric of technology focuses on discourse within the United States.

Approach

To conduct such a critical rhetorical analysis of the Internet in higher education policy, this dissertation integrates critical rhetoric (McKerrow, 1989, 2000, 2001) with cross-cultural communication theories (Martin & Nakayama, 1999; Starosta, 2000) for two reasons. First, the Internet is a global technology and is therefore interwoven into the narratives and other rhetorical practices of local higher education contexts. …