Imagining Rhetorical Equity:
Thoughts on Unshaming Audience
Rhetorical equity is an ethic for composing texts keeping in mind an array of audiences needs and preferences alongside technological and distributive forms of access. Inspired by transmedia storytelling, universal design principles, and Barthes's notions of readerly and writerly text, Imagining Rhetorical Equity offers starting point for thinking about rhetorical equity and guide for putting rhetorical equity into practice.
Reading and Viewing this Webtext
This webtext practices a straightforward and basic form of rhetorical equity. The two forms of this webtext are intended to meet audience needs and preferences in coming to understand the concept.
1. Gist Article: Below is an article describing the gist of rhetorical equity, offering an understanding of the theory and a "jumping off point" for scholars to consider the concept. The article is intended to provoke discussion and inspire scholars to explore the theory in more depth.
2. Author Interview and Origin Story: The following link takes users to video interview with authors describing the concept in different ways, providing examples, and how they came to understand the concept: Imagining Rhetorical Equity Video.
Keywords: Rhetoric, Composition, Rhetorical Equity, Compositional Equity, Transtextuality, Accessibility
Rhetorical equity is different from rhetorical equality. With rhetorical equality, one gets an equation like this for a particular text: technological access (i.e., what technologies are available and accessible to audience members) + distributive access (i.e., how accessible is information for sharing) = rhetorical equality (accessible meaning).
The ethic of rhetorical equality rests on a value system emphasizing one all-important, primary text being made accessible to all. An ethic of rhetorical equality, in other words, assumes an ideal position and perspective on an audience. Such an ethic exposes a conceit of authorship, a way of thinking that one way to present a text is enough and/or completes the relationship between an author and an audience with regard to meaning.
Accessibility through the lens of rhetorical equality is, furthermore, technological: The same content is designed for online and offline environments, for printing, reading, and distributing. With rhetorical equality, the content remains intact. An audience experiences a text in this interface (print on page), or this interface (digital pdf), or this interface (html). While, certainly, technological access and distributive access are important matters for rhetoric and composition (rhet/comp) scholars to consider, these accesses are more or less commonplace for writers and designers working in digital environments.
Rhetorical equality offers no new avenues for understanding, no alternative ways to engage with a text and/or its meanings. From a rhetorical equality perspective, audience members’ experiences, preferences, and knowledges in a particular field or a particular discourse are similar. There’s no specialization: no digital rhetoric, feminist rhetoric, code-meshing composition, or process theory. Audience members are expected to get-it-all, prefer-it-all, and know-it-all. And if an audience member doesn’t get it, prefer it, or know it, it’s his/her/zer fault for missing out. Rhetorical equality can be considered a little audience shaming.
An ethic of rhetorical equity includes equality but pushes further. Rhetorical equity considers access beyond universal design principles aiding in technical design and technological access for people with diverse abilities (e.g., access on different screen sizes, device types, providing transcripts of video and audio, design for descriptions of visual imagery). Rhetorical equity presumes compositional and design transtextuality (a constellation of texts expressing a core concept, theme, or vision) rather than a singular text like with rhetorical equality1 . If rhetorical equity were an equation, it might look like this: technological accesses (i.e., what technologies are available and accessible to audience members) + distributive accesses (i.e., how accessible is information for sharing) + readability accesses (i.e., how accessible are the varied texts for understanding and comprehension) + preference accesses (i.e., how accessible are the varied texts designed for audience member predilections and/or kairotic needs) = rhetorical equity. Practicing rhetorical equity is less common than rhetorical equality.
Rhetorical equity offers new avenues for understanding, alternative ways to engage with a text and/or its meanings. From a rhetorical equity perspective, audience members’ experiences, preferences, and knowledges in rhet/comp are unique. There’s specialization: digital rhetoric, feminist rhetoric, code-meshing composition, or process theory. Audience members are not expected to get-it-all, prefer-it-all, and know-it-all. And if an audience member doesn’t, get it, prefer it, or know it, it isn’t his/her/zer fault for missing out. Rhetorical equity is audience honoring.
We write this article to address our feelings of shame and frustration when experiencing texts in rhet/comp which provide limited ways to engage with and “get”—with texts that offer little beyond intertextual references and long works cited. With texts expecting us to know more, do more, to understand and/or expect us to be experts in a large, diverse discipline. We don’t presume to speak for all rhet/comp scholars out there, and we acknowledge readers must do work, must research and engage with texts themselves in critical ways. However, we suspect feelings of shame are common in our field. We have a suscpicion there is frustration in rhet/comp with experiencing texts in exclusive ways and there is a need to develop a theory for more inclusive textual practices.
As scholars with desires to feel included and empowered when experiencing texts beyond our own rhet/comp sub-fields and to break academic silos and facilitate intradisciplinary connections, we offer an—not the—understanding of rhetorical equity as something to keep in mind when creating rhet/comp scholarship that is inclusive and audience honoring. We hope scholars push the concept even further, critiquing our initial thoughts on the concept, developing the ethic, and adding to the notion of what counts as rhetorically equitable texts.
***Please experience the accompanying video (Imagining Rhetorical Equity) to learn differently about our experiences with rhetorical equity in calls for papers to attend conferences, examples in application, and how it became important to us.***
Table 1: Considerations of Access: Rhetorical Equality and Rhetorical Equity
Considerations of Access
|Considerations||Considers audience members with diverse abilities and diverse technologies||Considers audience members’ ability to distribute and share information with each other||Considers audience members’ varied knowledges and expertises||Considers audience member desires and kairotic needs—needs of the moment, of a situation|
Designing Rhetorical Equity: Readerly & Writerly Texts
Though the concept has not been named explicitly, rhetorical equity expands upon Boyle's and Rivers's “versions of access” and Artz, Hashem, and Mooney’s ideas on transmodality in which authors are encouraged to “translate the primary modes of expression in a text into new and different modes while maintaining the essential meaning of the original text.” Rhetorical equity plays a role in establishing accessibility within a text, as practicing rhetorical equity can remove barriers to those who may not yet understand all of the specialized terms and concepts within their field. Boyle and Rivers discuss those barriers, and “recognize that not all texts are created equal nor does equality exist between any textual corpuses” (35). The authors instead highlight rhetorical accessibility as a means to balance the nonequal (35). The act of crafting accessibility within a text is more than ensuring clear communication, as Boyle and Rivers underscore the need to understand accessibility as a rhetorical concern (33), a concern rhetorical equity addresses.
Access to meaning—to understanding the core concepts of a transtext—through considerations of readability and audience preferences are foundational differences between rhetorical equity and rhetorical equality. Being conscious of various forms of readability and audience preferences are overlooked, especially when the ethic is biased towards identical content rather than the “gist” or “heart” of a scholar’s vision or core concept. Rhetorical equity is concerned with constellations: with composing collections of versions of text and providing assistance to audience members for comprehension, proclivities, and needs at particular moments and spaces. Imagine a situation where there is a kairotic time “crunch” where reading an infographic would serve on better to get a concept than a long-form article 2 .
Articulating texts in a variety of ways can come with an unfortunate assumption: that there is a “primary” text, a text that is the One for which all other texts become paratexts. Such an interpretation creates a hierarchy of readers where there are those who are privileged enough to “get” the “authentic” primary text. Rhetorical equity cannot function if there are hierarchies of texts. Rhetorical equity asks authors to think more horizontally, to do more in regards to content creation and accessible literacy. It asks writers to consider presenting content differently and in addition to, calling on writers to acknowledge audience member agency in textual interactions—in selecting the ways audience members would like to experience the text and understand meaning.
Roland Barthes might describe the practice of rhetorical equity as “Inviterly”—in inviting readers to experience texts in various ways. Barthes’s notions of readerly and writerly, though focused on literary texts, are helpful in understanding rhetorical equity. The concepts are practical and functional for describing rhetorical equity and imagining it in practice. By thinking in terms of readerly and writerly texts, a scholar can better imagine how to negotiate inclusivity in his/her/zer scholarship. Ze/she/he can imagine ways to compose texts that are persuasively accessible and inclusive to audience members with different educational histories, backgrounds, and reading preferences in addition to the technological and distributive aspects of rhetorical equality. Barthes’s concepts are not necessarily a dichotomy between different types of texts, but more of a spectrum in which a text is more readerly or writerly, like a text can be more and less “Inviterly” or inclusive and exclusive.
Barthes makes distinctions between texts that are more closed to interpretation (readerly) and texts that are more open to interpretation, where readers are co-constructors of meaning (writerly). Simply put, “the readerly is what we know how to read and thus has a certain transparency; the writerly is self-conscious and resistant to reading” (Culler 22). In readerly texts, writers write closely in line with traditional conventions and styles. Readers are viewed more or less as passive recipients of the text: readers know how to read such texts. Readerly include using accessible language (i.e., less technical to a discipline), defining concepts for readers (i.e., closing interpretations), and genre expectations are generally followed.
Writerly texts, on the other hand, challenge conventions, encouraging readers to be part of the writing process as active participants in making meaning. A reader is not sure how to engage with a writerly text; the text is more avant-garde and challenging. A reader/proposer doesn’t really “get” what ze/she/he is being invited to do or how to participate. Writerly moves include more abstract language (i.e., left open to interpretation), technical language (i.e., concepts that are not well-defined), an embrace of ambiguity (i.e., not assisting a proposer in the invention process through questions), and using non-traditional genres or challenging genre conventions.
Again, with Barthes, the discussion is singular, limited to types of text rather than versions of texts. The keys to rhetorical equitable thinking—to being “inviterly”—are designing readerly and writerly, designing for gist and core concepts in multiple ways for audience constellations.
Table 2: Practices of Access: Rhetorical Equality and Rhetorical Equity
Practices of Access
|Practices||Text/texts is/are technologically accessible: Alt-text for visual imagery, tabbed browsing, transcripts and closed-captioning, etc.||Text/texts is/are distributively accessible: Text is easily copy/pasted, options to share among social media platforms and email, etc.||Transtextuality communicates the gist or heart of a concept in a variety of ways for understanding differently: readerly and writerly texts.||Transtextuality communicates the gist or heart of a concept in forms that meet a variety of audience needs and preferences: infographics, videos, comments, remixes, image macros, interviews with authors, etc.|
Rhetorical Equity & Rhet/Comp Values
Though not a rhet/comp scholar educator Curtis Linton describes well the purpose of equity, providing a foundational value: “Equity is about building the possibility for everyone to succeed, no matter what they look like or where they are from” (Linton 14). For him, “building equity=understanding difference + access & opportunity + social justice” (58). And the flagship conference in rhet/comp is fundamentally grounded in rhetorical equity, reflective of Linton’s foundation. The Committee of the Conference on College Composition and Communication’s 1974 revolutionary resolution on students’ rights to their own language, affirming students’ right to use “their own patterns and varieties of language—the dialects of their nurture or whatever dialects in which they find their own identity and style” (4). Essentially, this resolution set the stage for equity, for everyone to succeed, by emphasizing the instructor’s role in respecting diversity and the students’ rights to employ their own dialect/language.
More recently the Conference, in response to the Black Lives Matter movement, emphasized racial rhetorical equity in their position statement: This Ain’t Another Statement! This is a DEMAND for Black Linguistic Justice! Scholars have attended to the ways in which language normalizes racial inequalities. The statement demands pedagogical and linguistic change—equity for Black students that acknowledges how current pedagogical and rhetorical practices, “creates a climate of racialized inferiority toward Black Language and Black humanity” (Baker-Bell et al.)
Rhet/comp scholars, too, already utilize equity in their educational practices and in their critiques of culture—be it racial or multicultural issues3 , feminist4 , and/or technological5 . It is something rhet/comp values and performs, though not quite in the way we suggest—to offer audiences constellations of texts and encourage inclusivity in forms and expressions.
David Greene writes convincingly about a common, related, and writerly rhetorical problem in academics—one rhet/comp scholars in various subfields confront: “by using the academic language we are developing, we increase the odds that other academics may interpret our writing as alienating and suspect due to a paradoxical belief that technical language – specifically language from other people’s fields – is gibberish” (34). Greene, however, is mistaken with regards to his transdisciplinary assumption: scholars in the same field are also confused and alienated by some ways language is used and, for us, how ideas are presented. Academic writing is often very writerly. Though, for those in the know or for those who get the “gibberish, it is actually quite readerly. Conversely, readerly texts for those in the know, might be viewed as “simple” or “trite,” but for those outside the field, it’s accessible and a bridge for understanding. Rhetorical equity requires both texts, offering them to readers and inviting them to participate in scholarship.
Though it seems we overlook authorial agency in composing texts, an ethic of rhetorical equity does not forget about scholars’ voices and their writing preferences, though our article certainly emphasizes audience experiences. Rhet/comp scholars should consider rhetorical equity as additive, as taking their preferred ways of writing—be it more readerly and/or more writerly, using preferred Englishes—and offering versions that are both/and rather than either/or. Considering audience members more as a constellation of readers/users is an opportunity to create accessibility in their texts.
We understand practicing rhetorical equity is more laborious than rhetorical equality. Rhetorical equity takes more time and expertise from authors, asking them to become designers of more than one type, version, and/or genre of text. Rhetorical equity and collaboration, theus, go hand in hand. An ethic of rhetorical equity asks for editors, conference chairs, and journal editors and editorial boards to consider systemic changes in how they present texts and communicate to their audiences. This is no easy task; however, we feel it is worth it to keep in mind rhetorical equity when composing and think of it on a spectrum of what one can do to articulate texts inclusively and meet audience needs: assume they don’t know it all; help them get it; and present it in ways the audience needs and/or prefers.
1.The constellation of texts in transtextuality refers to the ways celestial bodies have their own histories and positions. Starlight in constellations arrives from different distances and takes different amounts of time to reach earth. Similarly, transtexts, in terms of rhetorical equity, are composed keeping different “distances” and “times” in mind. Constellations of texts acknowledge audience members have their own educational, cultural, and socio-economic histories and kairotic (“distances” and “times”) needs.
2. The internet acronym TL;DR (Too Long; Didn’t Read) can be considered reflective of both a preference and a necessity. A reader might prefer a shorter, condensed version of an article that has the gist but less explanation and details. A reader might need the shorter version (e.g., refreshing one’s understanding of concepts before teaching a class). Though not as ubiquitous as TL;DR, TS;DR (which we take to mean Too Short; Didn’t Read rather than Too Stupid; Didn’t Read) is an equally valuable position for preference and necessity. A reader may prefer more explanation and details. A reader might need the longer version (e.g., ze/she/he is critiquing specific concepts and details in an article and presenting counterarguments).
3. See, for instance, Asao Inoue’s Labor Based Grading Contracts; Vershawn Ashanti Young, Rusty Barrett, Y’Shanda Young-Rivera, and Kim Brian Lovejoy’s Other People’s English: Code-Meshing, Code-Switching, and African American Literacy; and Frankie Condon and Vershawn Ashanti Young’s edited collection Performing Anti-racist Pedagogy in Rhetoric, Writing, and Communication.
4. See, for instance, Cheryl Glenn’s Rhetorical Feminism and This Thing Called Hope; Jacqueline Jones Royster and Gesa E. Kirsch’s Feminist Rhetorical Practices: New Horizons for Rhetoric, Composition, and Literacy Studies; and Krista Ratcliff’s Rhetorical Listening: Identification, Gender, Whiteness.
5. See, for instance, Danielle DeVoss, Angela Haas, Jacqueline Rhodes recent special issue “Technofeminism: (Re)Generations and Intersectional Futures”in Computers and Composition; Patricia Ericsson and Richard Haswell’s Machine Scoring of Student Essays: Truth and Consequences; and Cynthia L. Selfe’s touchstone Technology and Literacy in the 21st Century: The Importance of Paying Attention.
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