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Teaching Composition and the Technics of Virtuality:  A Q&A with Professor Cynthia Haynes
Rita S. Nezami, PhD, Senior Lecturer, Program in Writing and Rhetoric

Cynthia Haynes is Director of Rhetorics, Communication, and Information Design Ph.D. program and Professor of English at Clemson University. Rita Nezami is Senior Lecturer in the Program in Writing and Rhetoric at SUNY-Stony Brook; Jeffrey Green is adjunct assistant professor in the English and Humanities Department at SUNY-Farmingdale.

We have known Cynthia Haynes and her deep engagement with virtual rhetorics for some 20 years. Our thoughts naturally turned to her and her work as we prepared for what promises to be a semester like none any of us has known, a time at once challenging and harrowing. Our intellectual community, much of which has theorized rhetoric and virtual spaces, is now plunged into an immersive experience of teaching-by-other-means in a way none of us could have anticipated.

Our reflex was to ask what virtuality on this scale means for teachers of composition and rhetoric, and specifically what it means to be present for so many of our students in a dis-embodied presentation of ourselves. The professor and her physical classroom presence is deeply inscribed and assumed in the culture and in our identities as teachers. In just weeks, the pandemic, in startling concert with the technologies now available, has swept away that assumption that has been such an integral part of our understanding of not just teaching and learning, but of the very conception of the university itself. With these questions in mind, it only made sense to turn in the direction of Clemson University and our good friend and esteemed colleague, Dr. Cynthia Haynes.

Rita Nezami: I taught remotely for the first time last Spring and loved it. I had to rethink my relationship with the virtual as a space for serious teaching and thinking. In particular, I was taken aback by the intimacy I felt with students. No one sat on the back row or drowsed. What do you make of this irony of pedagogical intimacy not  in spite of  physical distancing, but because of the technics of virtuality?

Cynthia Haynes: I have taught in virtual spaces for over 25 years, some text-based platforms, some web-based, and some game-based. In each case, it has been possible to be “with” students in the same way one is “with” them in physical space. That is, we are “with” each other using some tool. 

In physical space, there are the tools of language, vision, and sound. But the proximal space in virtuality also uses these tools. I would argue that we are more intimate with people in virtual space because of the change in embodiment. We are embodied via language. We must use more descriptive language in a text-based environment. We must multi-task in equally linguistic ways in a virtual environment. When we talk to people in virtual spaces, we get to know them more quickly and more deeply. It’s called “swift trust,” an idea from the mid-‘90s. 

You don’t tend to judge people the same way in virtual spaces; you tend to give them the benefit of the doubt. In text-based environments, like the MOOs of the ‘90s or the chat space in Zoom, there are no racial cues, gender cues . . . just a name (which is sometimes an avatar name, chosen as an alternate identity). You hear no accents, and this change in trust affords a learning space where there is neither a back row nor drowsy students, but there are multiple inner and outer channels of communication. You can, for instance, type something to a student in a private channel, and they can do that with each other, as well. You can invite students to group up in unique ways within the same virtual space. In a physical space, the voices would overlay into a cacophony. These are just some examples of the blurring of the boundaries that virtual space enables.

RN: I am curious about how you think about using virtual space to teach digital visual rhetorics given that the virtual classroom itself has now become an object of rhetorical analysis. Does it change how you teach visual rhetorics now that virtuality locates your teaching inside the same medium that your students are using to do rhetorical analysis? 

Cynthia Haynes: This is an interesting question. One thing that must be said right away is that I have become much more attuned to the question of accessibility in virtual spaces and especially in terms of “visual” rhetorics. I have a doctoral student who is visually impaired, and I recently chaired a search committee for a new faculty position in Disability Rhetorics. So, it is necessary to “trouble” that visual term in ways that account for our colleagues and students for whom the “visual turn” in rhetorics is problematic.

That being said, I am inviting the visual into a rhetorical intervention into what visuality means. We have an inner visuality, in other words, that is easily as visual as what we re-present to ourselves via our eyes. In my Visual Rhetorics seminar this fall, we will study and re-orient the visual via a number of alternative modalities, such as “art brut” (raw art) that is produced by “outsider” artists (self-taught, mentally ill, imprisoned, etc.). What we “see” will be determined by “where” and “how” we see the visual being played out by people whose inner visions turned outer in non-traditional ways and with non-traditional materials, means, and motives. 

For example, in 1895, a German seamstress named Agnes Richter was admitted to a psychiatric hospital in Heidelberg, and she used her straitjacket to embroider a “diary” of thoughts and snippets of text (“no cherries,” “I wish to read,” “I plunge headlong into disaster”).

I believe we are all reinventing the visual in similar ways and using similarly innovative inner and outer means of expression. I am eager to see what my students make of “art brut” as a break with the old aesthetic.

Jeffrey Green: What, for you, is the most profound aspect of the  experience  of the virtual teaching of writing — teaching writing in a virtual space that we “occupy” in ways so ontologically Other compared with the physical space?

Cynthia Haynes: There are people that I have met virtually and known ONLY virtually for over 25 years. Yet, I do not feel as if our relationship is any less real than if we had met physically. I interact with them via what they choose to present to me in language and time. This relates to the “swift trust” notion I already mentioned. So, I think the most profound aspect of the virtual experience is that “being-with” someone virtually or physically is simply a variation on the modes of ontology. Being IS. It has no boundaries, no other versions of itself than “is-ness.” I’m being very Heideggerian here because that is how I encounter the language of ontology. We are, of course, granted different affordances of Being-with when we are physically present with another person, but we language with each other, right? Whether gesturally, vocally, or writerly. So, teaching writing is profoundly about Being-with languaging beings as we language together.  

JG: I want to ask you about the experience of teaching composition and critical thinking and the rhetorics of our so-called post-truth age. Do you worry that the technics through which we now teach the intellectual and ethical demands of writing and sound reasoning is also the technics that enable the explosion of misinformation, disinformation, and the pathological discursive practices of various paranoias? Does it concern you that recordings of our classes become one more of the virtual commodities sitting on the digital shelf with purveyors of intellectual rubbish?

Cynthia Haynes: It does not concern me only insofar as I understand rhetoric to be both a poison and a cure (a pharmakon , in Greek). It always has been. That is why Plato was so critical of writing. It had the capacity, in his view, to degrade the truth of the oral presentation of the message and the presence of the orator who spoke the words into being. It could also be used to ill purposes by unethical people. We know this is how language works. And teaching others how to language necessarily means we cannot control whether they will use it for good or bad, for truth or disinformation. What we can do is teach the art of discernment, the importance of ethos, and the consequences of commodification.