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Rhetorical Listening in the Classroom

We can imagine a full sequence of writing projects in which students consider the kinds of literacy narratives that appear in the DALN and re-mix and re-circulate them as part of their own efforts in rhetorical listening and to invite others in local and networked publics to listen also. Because space in this chapter is limited, we necessarily abbreviate the following assignment descriptions. When we use the word texts in the following assignments, we mean to include video, audio, and alphabetic texts. Although we use the sequence found in The McGraw-Hill Guide: Writing for College, Writing for Life (Roen, Glau, and Maid), we could just as well have used a sequence from any textbook designed for first-year composition.

Writing to Share Experiences: Craft a narrative of your own, re-frame a narrative in the DALN archive, and/or juxtapose one of your narratives with a DALN contributor's narrative in ways that either reinforce, challenge, or complicate the ways contributors have constructed progressive and regressive narratives.

Writing to Explore: As you consider the private worlds that are made public in the DALN archive, what public issues of shared concern seem important to explore? What questions around an issue are you most interested in exploring as you think about the ways that issue shows up (or doesn't) in your own life as well as within and across the narratives in the DALN? Draw from a variety of media, texts, and perspectives to engage in a multi-voiced inquiry (Flower) around this area of concern.

Writing to Inform: Given your experiences, as you listened for and constructed critical incidents from the DALN interviews, where were gaps in your own understanding or in the understanding of the DALN contributors apparent? What did it seem that contributors would like others to learn from their experiences? What do you think is important for you and others like you to learn from their experiences? Drawing from perspectives and critical incidents in the DALN archives, craft a multimedia text that informs an unfamiliar audience or informs a familiar insider audience in a dynamic and grounded way about a public issue that DALN contributors gave attention to.

Writing to Analyze: Identify patterns across a set of DALN interviews and remix clips across them to design a composite critical incident around a shared issue of concern. Craft the composite critical incident to bring to life both relevant background information and the range of representative experiences that render the situation problematic or challenging for one or more stakeholder. Most importantly, craft the incident to engender multiple legitimate readings of what's going on and why.

Writing to Convince: Construct an argument in which you try to convince readers that a certain under-recognized form of literacy (video, audio, alphabetic) is important. Alternatively, you might argue that a certain kind of literacy is not as important as it used to be before the age of Web 2.0.

Writing to Evaluate: Develop a composite or constructed critical incident in which contributors suggest or explain some action taken to address a problem or potential problem, and evaluate the suggested solution against well-reasoned criteria that you or the contributors establish. Remix the critical incident to forefront your evaluation of the proposed solution.

Writing to Explain Causes and Effects: As you think about critical incidents you heard or constructed from DALN narratives, focus on one area of tension or concern and rival potential options for addressing the problem, weighing the potential outcomes of each one for varied stakeholders.

Writing to Solve Problems: Re-mix and re-circulate DALN narratives to engage others in a local or networked public in a timely, relevant, problem-solving dialogue around an issue of shared concern.

Each of these assignments asks students to consider the DALN interviews in a specific way. Collectively these kinds of assignments help students to reflect critically on public issues of shared concern. Such a sequence can help students to understand some of the complexities of loaded cultural issues as they show up in a range of critical incidents. By better understanding the ways private issues can inform public deliberation and by engaging others in shared inquiry, students can better appreciate taking informed action in a risk-ridden world.


As public-spheres theorists make clear, public world making and the circulation of public discourse are complex rhetorical phenomena (cf. Warner)—made all the more challenging within the constraints of university writing courses (Trimbur; Welch). Critical incidents, such as the ones we've sketched above, stand to contribute significantly to these phenomena by moving relevant situated knowledge into public discussions.5 As we hope to have demonstrated, such contributions make it well worth the efforts of writing teachers and students of writing to learn to listen to literacy narratives from the DALN to craft, test, and refine critical incidents and to imagine and construct viable venues for circulating them in public that they might engender the sustained attention they deserve.

5 The design of “Accessing Private Knowledge for Public Conversations” commends the critical incident for the “action it is used to accomplish”—to quote Carolyn Miller. On the one hand, this design goal meant drawing the reader’s attention to the very idea of the critical incident as a rhetorically significant unit of analysis, that is, a discrete genre to listen for when attending to these or other literacy narratives in the DALN. On the other, this design goal meant directing the reader’s attention to the particular critical incidents of Jane Fernades, Christopher Driscoll, Warren Francis, Brenda Brueggemann, and the anonymous contributor to the DALN. We wanted the design to draw attention to the particularities of literacy learning at the intersection where individual lives encounter institutions that sponsor literacy learning, especially for members of the Deaf and Hard-of-Hearing community. In our appraisal, the design of our exhibit works to the extent that the exhibit spurs the reader’s own data-driven theory building about this intersection—theory building, that is, where at least part of the data driving a reader’s new or refined understandings are the situated knowledge “contained in” these incidents, knowledge contextualized and made meaningful in light of the larger day-to-day trajectories the contributors describe in their literacy narratives.

From the outset, then, we coded for these critical incidents. And we composed our argument with video in mind from our analysis of literacy narratives from the DALN that we thought would serve these twin goals of commending a concept and theorizing its significance. We selected information from the constellation of media available to us on the archive—images, video, audio and transcribed excerpts—that we thought would instantiate our terms of art. Likewise, we transcribed excerpts of selected video to represent textually the gists of the critical incidences around which we built our argument. In many ways, designing this part of our exhibit was the easy part. And our design decisions underscore the benefits that come from the DALN archiving video footage (as opposed to, say, to transcripts). All this to say, designing the exhibit to commend the critical incident as a publicly relevant genre to listen for in literacy narratives such as those in DALN was the easy part for us.

More challenging was designing the exhibit to anticipate the navigational habits of online readers. To be clear, we had written the argument with a through-line. However, we also knew that online we could rely on a dutiful linear navigational path from our readers even less than in print. On the one hand, we handled this by trying to make each screen “work” as its own meaningful unit—so a reader could “land” anywhere on the exhibit—jump to any screen thereafter—and, we hope, still construct a meaningful experience. (Or if they didn’t, this lack of meaning construction wouldn’t be entirely our fault.)

But this attention to research on readers’ online reading habits didn’t assuage our desire for readers to find themselves attending to the critical incidents embedded several layers down in the design of the exhibit—under the heading, Three Ways of Listening for Situated Knowledge. In fact, in the exhibit’s initial format, we couldn’t be sure readers would ever stay in the exhibit long enough or travel deep enough into it to find their ways to the incidents featured here.

In light of this challenge, we added the video-camera icon to our exhibit. Since we couldn’t rely the linearity of pagination to take readers to the part we wanted them to visit most of all, we imported the text convention of the little video-camera icon as a signal, a lure, indicating how DALN narratives are featured in this exhibit. To make this even clearer, our web designer added the tag, “Access contributors’ videos in this section.” Our intent is that the video-camera icon on the homepage will prompt at least the most curious or committed readers to click on the icon early in their visits to the exhibit. Once they do, they will see six more video-camera icons announcing critical incidents that dramatize connections among access and Deaf Culture, technology and discourse. With this added level of detail displayed before them, readers can then decide whether to return to the top of the exhibit and read more linearly through the exhibit; stay right here awhile to listen to these video clips; or create a navigational path of their own, but at least with an understanding of the exhibit’s basic architecture and offer. The table of contents on the left aims to reinforce readers’ constructions of the exhibit’s architecture, as well.

In sum, then, as designers, we had both to acknowledge readers may not persist on their own to find what we consider the richness of the exhibit and to forecast to readers that getting to this point (by whatever path) would be worth their while. Of course, we do hope they will consider these excerpts from the DALN to be thought provoking in their own right and also illustrative of the theory of public knowledge-building we forward in this exhibit.

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