A Rather Long and Wandering Reflection on Ong and Arroyo

As I write this reflection, I am faced with two worrisome tasks in my own teaching—and they both involved orality, literacy, and electracy.

My first task is repairing my own shortcomings. I largely teach our hybrid/blended sections of Composition II, and I have created a series of my own instructional videos as well as embedded appropriate ones created by others. Time and circumstance meant that I never captioned my videos to Americans with Disability Act (ADA) standards. I never had to do so—until now. When I arrived at our first face-to-face meeting last week, I learned (when the interpreters introduced themselves) that I had a deaf student in my class. I was crushed. I was the unprepared teacher.


My original thought for these videos was to make them reflect my personality and the same “orality” I would use in class. I take my very basic PowerPoints, draw my “doodles” on them, and give my lesson in my own voice. I didn’t write a script; instead, I made an outline and spoke from the outline. Now, I totally regret my decision to keep things informal and not craft a script.

While we sometimes bemoan the loss of orality and spontaneity (I certainly did), writing out even an oral text can save problems and open doors. As Ong notes, “With writing, words once ‘uttered’, outered, put down on the surface, can be eliminated, erased, changed. There is no equivalent for this in an oral performance, no way to erase a spoken word” (102). We can rehearse orality through writing in ways that aren’t possible in impromptu speaking. It took me many tries to not make major mistakes in my video presentations; there was also a great deal of editing to eliminate some minor errors. Now, I must transcribe what I said so that I can create the correct captions for my student. Had I created a script in the first place—made use of literacy in an electronic world—I would be facing one less difficulty in my professional life.

More importantly, working with and applying the written word to my digital productions makes the video accessible to someone who otherwise would be missing the bulk of my online teaching. I’m likewise struck by the work of a good friend, who serves as president of the Michigan Federation of the Blind and advocates nationally for the visually impaired and accessibility to educational resources. He would definitely be congratulatory that I do a great deal of speaking in my videos, rather than relying on pure text presentation. However, I’m sure it would have helped had my oral presentations been more organized and clear.

Therefore, it occurs to me that the switch from orality to writing to electracy is a very good thing in terms of accessibility. Writing made learning available to those who cannot hear. Orality makes writing available to those who cannot see. Ong explains, “Thus writing from the beginning did not reduce orality but enhanced it, making it possible to organize the ‘principles’ or constituents of oratory into a scientific ‘art’, a sequentially ordered body of explanation that showed how and why oratory achieved and could be made to achieve its various specific effects” (9). Now, electracy provides the key to Universal Design for Learning. We can share ideas in formats available to everyone, and they can respond in ways that work form them. In short, I believe electracy is not just about a participatory culture, but an equitable participatory culture.

The second situation I am faced with is the near total revision of my public writing assignment for my Composition II class. In the past, I just believed students need to work in public, electronic formats. After the election, I became absolutely committed to a “pedagogy of civil discourse.” James Hoggan, author of I’m Right and You’re an Idiot, says, “Today’s public square is a toxic mix of ad hominem attacks, tribalism and unyielding advocacy. It’s a kind of pollution that sabotages public discourse and discredits the passion and outrage at the heart of healthy public debate, because it polarizes people and stops them thinking clearly” (qtd. in Biggs). I believe it is my responsibility to teach how students to work toward resolving problems and issues in a way that moves the discussion forward and creates results—rather than the angry, hostile, stalemate we have now.

James Crosswhite argues for just such a pedagogy in The Rhetoric of Reason: “The alternative a rhetoric of reason presents to a program of ‘teaching the conflicts’ is to take a step back and teach students how to have productive and meaningful conflicts. The process of conflict itself, in the context of written reasoning, can be the orienting idea and educational focus of a program in written reasoning…a course in written reasoning should reflect the fact that writers need real interlocutors and audiences –a real rhetorical community” (280-281). However, I think the growth of the internet has helped to spur the angry, fear-driven discourse we are now experiencing, so we now should move beyond the pure print text and work with students to creative positive civil discourse in the new online, digital, participatory culture.

As Arroyo points out almost immediately in her introduction, “Electracy can be compared to digital literacy but encompasses much more: a worldview for civic engagement, community building, and participation” (1). Consequently, I have decided that must students must have a public conversation in addition to their actual public writing assignment. In addition to teaching the mechanics of more sophisticated digital composing, we need to have discussions about what effective civil discourse means and how we make that happen online. Needless to say, the actual pedagogy to make the theory a reality in my classroom is going to take a lot of work.

As a result, some of the actual other theory I’m interested in will take a back seat for a while. After reading Peter Elbow’s book, Vernacular Eloquence, I became rather obsessed with how platforms like Facebook and Twitter more closely resemble our regularly spoken language than they do written language—even though they make use of text as the primary conveyer of meaning. In many ways, I find good social media content reflects what Elbow described as “the myriad linguistic and rhetorical virtues in unplanned spoken language—virtues that most people can’t find when they’re engaged in serious writing” (1). From that point on, I began seeing interactive social media content as the best of both worlds.

After reading Ong, I want to explore this idea even more. First is the idea of returning to a producer-centered culture. Ong explained the history of this movement:

Manuscript culture is producer-oriented, since every individual copy of a work represents great expenditure of an individual copyist’s time. Medieval manuscripts are turgid with abbreviations, which favor the copyist although they inconvenience the reader. Print is consumer-oriented, since the individual copies of a work represent a much smaller investment of time: a few hours spent in producing a more readable text will immediately improve thousands upon thousands of copies. The effects of print on thought and style have yet to be assessed fully. (120)

Now, thanks to Web 2.0 capabilities, we have returned to a producer-centered culture. And just like medieval illuminated texts, graphics and layout matter. We are not only producers of texts and graphics and videos; we again produce the whole package in ways never imagined, and that package can be shared everywhere, with everyone, almost instantly. Arroyo notes that digital technology is “creating a need to invent new practices for living in an electrate world” (5). To me, that means exploring how some principles of orality is making a comeback in ways we don’t suspect.

The one thought I had reading Ong was the idea of epithets and mnemonic devises reminds me so much of the “feeling” and “doing” tags that can automatically be selected on Facebook. Ong states, “The oral poet had an abundant repertoire of epithets diversified enough to provide an epithet for any metrical exigency that might arise as he stitched his story together—differently at each telling, for, as will be seen, oral poets do not normally work from verbatim memorization of their verse” (22). The epithets were simply a shortcut. Now, we can simply tag what we’re watching or doing (without having to compose the activity into unique text) and can spend our more time creating analysis and giving meaning to what we are doing. In other words, those tags are shortcuts.

Likewise, I was also struck how Web 2.0 communication has meant a return to interaction with the creators of text. Ong describes how the change from hand-written manuscripts to printed texts changed reading from a social to private activity: “…manuscripts, with their glosses or marginal comments (which often got worked into the text in subsequent copies) were in dialogue with the world outside their own borders. They remained closer to the give-and-take of oral expression. The readers of manuscripts are less closed off from the author, less absent, than are the readers of those writing for print” (130). The internet and the “Comments Section” has clearly again, made reading social and interactive. It may not always be pretty, but Arroyo is correct: We are creating a participatory culture.

We just have to find a way to make it a consistently civil and positive experience—which is why I need to get back to work now.


Works Cited

Arroyo, Sarah J. Participatory Composition. Carbondale, IL: SIU Press, 2013.

Crosswhite, James. The Rhetoric of Reason. Madison, WI: U of Wisc. P., 1996.

Biggs, Dave. “The Toxic State of Public Discourse and How to Clean It Up.” MetroQuest, 5 July 2016. www.metroquest.com/toxic-state-of-public-discourse/. Accessed 8 Jan. 2016.

Elbow, Peter. Vernacular Eloquence. New York: Oxford U.P., 2012.

Ong, Walter J. Orality and Literacy. New York: Routlege, 1982.