Confused Speech

Bonnie Stewart’s “Academic Twitter: The intersection of orality & literacy in scholarship?” is one of the most inspirational works I came across recently. Bonnie talks about identity in open scholarship from many different but connected angles: personal/professional divide, multiple identities, performative identities, quantified identities… What interests me most is where she talks about the difference between literate and oral traditions:

Slide 39: Oral Tradition: Participatory, Situational, Social, Formulaic, Agonistic, Rhetorical
Slide 40: Literate Tradition: Interiorized, Abstracted, Innovative, Precise, Analytic, Indexical

I find this distinction, although it is quite obvious to me now, fascinating, because it makes me think about the dominant traditions in academic scholarship and how alternative modes of communication like blogging, tweeting, having a Google Hangout with colleagues, and multimodality challenge that tradition. In an earlier post, I talked about how Nick Sousanis, for example, created a comic book for his dissertation (you can find more examples for comics as scholarship here).

Bonnie also says that we’re experiencing a confusion between oral and literate traditions on Twitter. She talks about how some treat informal speech online as if it’s print based material. The reverse is also possible, very often I see tweets which look like informal speech (they happen in a conversation) but they sound like quotes pulled from a book, which makes me think that they are out there for dissemination. I’ll call these blurry lines in oral and literate traditions “confused speech;” I’m sure a better term exists somewhere but for now it will do the job. 🙂

Confused speech can happen everywhere in education. I see it in text-books (e.g., text that might sound conversational but in fact designed to transfer factual info), in conference presentations (e.g., presenters read their paper in front of an audience), and in conversations (like a Twitter message created for reproduction in  a conversation). Confused speech is also evident in a book I recently started reading:  Introducing Foucault: A Graphic Guide. I wanted to read this book because I came across this journal article (published as part of Comics as Scholarship, a special issue for Digital Humanities Quarterly) on multimodal educational texts via one of Maha’s blog posts and wanted to learn more about Foucault through a non-traditional way of academic writing. The author of the article, Aaron Scott Humphrey from the University of University of Adelaide, says:

Academic writing has generally been understood as operating primarily within the linguistic modality, with writing remediating the “voice” of an educator or lecturer. Comics, by contrast, are more explicitly multimodal and derive much of their meaning from visual, spatial and linguistic modalities. Because of their multimodality, educational comics challenge the conception of an authoritative author’s “voice,” as is typically found in traditional educational and academic writing.

If we throw images into a book, does that make the text multimodal? I don’t think so. I see a confusion between oral and literate traditions in the Foucault book. When I see two people in the same comic frame, I expect them to communicate somehow. I don’t expect them to go into a disconnected monologue and certainly I don’t expect them to talk like a “textbook.” What I actually see in the images below are text highlighted from the book in disguise as “comics.” Take out the text and what meaning is left in the drawings? I think these images just give an illusion of multimodality, the illusion of “something interesting is happening here.”

What do you think about confused speech? Does it make sense? Please leave a comment and let me know; perhaps we can refine this post together. 🙂

3 thoughts on “Confused Speech

  1. Great post. Now I want to check out Foucault-in-comics as I will confess Foucault-in-text-only kind of overwhelms me!

    Though I think it’s interesting that right now there are so many different communication channels happening and it’s no longer possible (if it ever even was possible) to tease things out as being only in one camp or another other, I think it’s even more interesting the ways that this new turn of “confused speech” and especially graphic novels/comics has made us aware of the way context impacts perception.

    As you said, you read Foucault differently within the panels of a comic because you are more aware of the other images, relationships amongst characters and spaces, etc. The presented context changes your perception + experience of the text because suddenly there are all sorts of other actors besides just alphabet characters.

    If we zoom out a bit more, how might the context in which we encounter any form of communication impact our perception + experience? For example for me, reading an article at home on my couch is different than reading the same article on an airplane or while waiting for a dental appointment. The core message doesn’t change but the other human and non human actors around me change in major ways and the impact of those elements shifts my experience and thus my perception + experience. In a sense, perhaps we’re all in little comic frames as we navigate messy and confusing communication acts. : )

    I love the idea of “confused speech” because it means that we’re giving voice to all sorts of inputs we once may have passed over and now the exciting work becomes trying to figure out how to build communication channels of understanding…even as they may communicate without traditional words.

    1. A fascinating post,Suzan.

      I haven’t yet read Bonnie Stewart’s article on oral and literary traditions but one point I would like to make is with regard to innovation. Having researched oral traditions for my dissertation on slave narratives, the innovation shown by slaves to communicate subversive,coded messages through the oral tradition of song was, not only, ingenious (slave owners viewed the singing as harmless and allowed it as a means of monitoring where they were at any given time) but demonstrates the power of orality,despite literacy being privileged. Slaves were prohibited from becoming literate (as few as 10% were literate) as a form of control, and this brings to mind the ‘alternative modes of communication such as blogging, tweeting etc’ as a challenge to the ‘privilege’ of academic writing.

      In response to your question about Foucault’s book and whether the images convey meaning if the text was removed, in the second picture the man on the left seems to be cast in shadow and is wearing dark glasses which reinforces the statement that he is making, whereas the second man,the ‘enlightened’ scholar is not in shadow.

  2. Thanks for this Suzan. I hear u on the comics. They don’t really add value in the way Nick Sousanis’ book does. They do do something tho – they r like highlights of key points of the book and sometimes the imagery helps make the idea more memorable. But they definitely still read likd textbooks. There is a comic journal article coming out soon that should be doing this better. Will share w u when I can.
    And now I need to go see Bonnie’s presentation! I retweeted before reading it

    Ah. It’s supposed to be a presentation. Oral. But we “read” it.

    I agree some tweets read more conversational and some more like…text. As do blogposts and such. Your article inspired me to include some of these ideas in an article i am writing about how using informal/conversational speech in online relationships is key to making them feel more human..

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