University Press of Colorado Blog Q&As share the perspectives of scholars working within their disciplines, bringing readers closer to their knowledge, research, and voices. Join us today as we talk with Rich Rice, an associate professor of English at Texas Tech University, and Kirk St.Amant, the Eunice C. Williamson Endowed Chair in Technical Communication at Louisiana Tech University. They are coeditors of Thinking Globally, Composing Locally: Rethinking Online Writing in the Age of the Global Internet.
What do you think is the most common or problematic misconception about research in your field?
Kirk: The most common—and problematic—misconception in the area is the failure to realize how complex this situation is. This failing leads to an equally (if not more) problematic misconception where individuals mistakenly think a few persons, one organization, or one nation/culture understands and can effectively address the new international online context of education. It’s big and it continues to expand and become more diverse with each day as more individuals representing more cultures gain access to and participate in international online interactions—particularly ones involving international online education.
The research needed to effectively address this new educational context—and it is new, truly new, and requires a new pedagogy to effectively address it—must be collaborative in nature. Most importantly, it must involve collaborators from different nations. The failure to recognize these central requirements and to think “we know how to do this” or “we’ve developed an approach that works” with no input or collaboration from international partners is the greatest problem/challenge facing the field right now.
Failure to recognize this misconception and address it will lead to a new form of educational colonization—or at least a colonial mentality. That is, it will yield systems in which individuals from one culture try to dominate this area and force their approaches to online pedagogy on all others. That would be disastrous, for it would miss the great opportunity international online educational spaces have to facilitate truly international collaboration. This one-sided colonizing approach fails to address this topic—and this overall area—in meaningful ways to create new, inclusive, and representative pedagogies best suited for the complex contexts in which students and instructors from different nations meet online to exchange ideas and to learn from each other. And that’s the key to success, isn’t it? Learning together online from each other and with each other. Hopefully, projects like our book (Thinking Globally, Composing Locally) can provide examples of how to address such misconceptions and avoid the resulting problems.
Rich: I’ve thought about the importance of paying attention over the years to issues of technological literacy in particular. Haves versus have-nots is an important topic in many ways—certainly there’s access: access to high speeds, mobile access, software. But I think about this on another, related level these days. Globalization is about technological affordance, in large part. As we write in the book, it’s not a level playing field, but if one doesn’t pay very close attention, it’s hard to see. Like Kirk says, it’s a failure to read how complex a situation is. Access to technology—which in some ways today very much includes access to education, to the world, to unbiased media, to understanding fake news—these are all related. There are so many things against us that limit us in truly understanding another’s cultural perspective and why the perspective is different—to me that’s technology, education, and access rolled into one. But it’s hard to understand if one can’t see it, face to face. That’s a limitation, one of access. The news doesn’t give you the full picture.
What do you think is the most common (or most irritating) misconception about research in your field?
Kirk: Definitely the “myth of the monolith.” When it comes to examining international and intercultural interactions, there is a problematic tendency to revert to thinking in terms of cultural blocs—usually associated with national or ethnic identity—that represent entire groups of individuals. This problem can be seen in overgeneralized claims like “persons from culture X do Y” and are exemplified by statements such as “the Chinese are a collectivistic society (or are more collectivistic than most Americans); for this reason, when interacting online, they tend to [insert behavior here].” Think about that for a moment: 1.7 billion persons, and they all tend to be collectivistic/more collectivistic than Americans and tend to do Y. This approach views and treats culture as a monolithic entity in which all members are relatively the same.
Yet this perspective of viewing and treating cultures like large, unified entities where all or most of the members have similar attitudes and behave in similar ways overlooks a central factor of humans: we’re all individuals. And while humans often do organize around commonalities, they generally involve overlapping and interlocking groups that make up different aspects of our identity. So, one’s education, socioeconomic status, profession, hobbies, etc. all affect the groups we belong to within a culture and the attitudes and behaviors that shape our communication practices based on such factors. And such factors affect how individuals compose and interact online based on these backgrounds and the different kinds of groups—within a culture—they are interacting with through online media. This means while you can use overarching national-ethnic models to create a foundation for thinking about national and cultural differences, you need to move on from that point and examine groups within cultures—and the communication patterns and preferences of such groups. Doing so is essential to effectively understand the complexities of cross-cultural interactions in cyberspace.
The only way to really address this factor is through experience—via direct interaction with individuals from other cultures. Without such experiences, it can be difficult to see beyond the monolithic perspective. Even worse, it can create problems where we go into an international interaction expecting certain behaviors and even thinking we see them because of how we’re predisposed toward the “other” group going into such situations. When we collaborate with individuals from other cultures, however, we get to see how variations in communication styles occur within and across a culture. Such experiences challenge the misperception of the monolith and help us better understand individuals in international online spaces. Though such interactions, and many of them, we can develop a better understanding of the factors to consider when interacting with individuals from other cultures when online. It is this level of understanding that is essential to developing effective composing—and teaching of writing—practices for global cyberspace.
Rich: In most academic fields, clarity of thought is often less appreciated than convoluted complexity. The field of technical communication and rhetoric has celebrated brevity, teaches simplicity of style, and promotes removing ambiguity when audiences are increasingly diverse and complex. But “plain” language is not stupid language. In fact, there’s great art in making the complex simple. I often say that what I do best is make a simple idea complicated. For instance, here’s a simple idea: if students could see the mistakes they’re making, they wouldn’t make them. Well, yes. But we can make the idea more complicated pretty quickly when we question what they see and what they don’t see, why that might be, and how one can go about retraining or developing understanding. Then, how much understanding is needed becomes of great concern. When I teach intercultural communication competence, I often struggle with how much competence is needed about another culture in order to interact effectively, and how does one know one knows enough? Suddenly, the simple is complex. Still, the logical move from one idea to the next, and the presentation of the idea, working toward solutions, can be simple. Removing ambiguity doesn’t mean lessening the importance of the idea.
Related to this is how people come to value research. In my field it has often seemed that publishing in the most prestigious venue has meant that the fewest people see and use the ideas. Perhaps the cost of the publication is high, perhaps the distribution is low. But publishers like Utah State University Press see beyond that. The value is in the impact, and the impact in our field is often something that happens quickly. New media becomes old media pretty quickly. It’s an irritating misconception about research that open source, print-on-demand, or other readily available/reasonably priced materials aren’t every bit as rigorous and critical and complex and well-situated and valued research as other types of venues. We need to get our good ideas out there, simply put, quickly, and to the most people possible.
Rich Rice is an associate professor of English at Texas Tech University, where he teaches courses in new media, intercultural communication, rhetoric, and composition in the Technical Communication and Rhetoric program. He is a US Fulbright-Nehru Scholar, and his teaching and research extend to India and China, where he has served as a Visiting Research Professor.
Kirk St.Amant is the Eunice C. Williamson Endowed Chair in Technical Communication at Louisiana Tech University and an adjunct professor of international health and medical communication with the University of Limerick.
St.Amant, Kirk, and Rich Rice. 2017. Thinking Globally, Composing Locally: Rethinking Online Writing in the Age of the Global Internet. Logan: Utah State University Press.