Digital Reading and Lanham’s Looking

In my digital rhetoric course this morning I asked students to build on our ongoing conversations about genre and the rhetorical situation, writing and technology by looking at Anne Wysocki’s “The Multiple Media of Texts.” Although this piece is a little too oriented to analysis (instead of composing), I like this piece. I’ve been assigning it for several years in a variety of FY and upper-level rhetoric and writing classes. Usually this reading comes before a project that asks students to compose in multiple modes and media–as is the case in my digital rhetoric course this morning.

In the past I focused on the vocabulary of design and the scopes of analysis that Wysocki offers: [1] Naming the elements on the page/screen; [2] articulating the relationships between elements; [3] considering the contexts of elements.

Today, I tried a slightly different focus: one more oriented to the visual conventions of genres. Keying to our past discussion of Devitt, we considered how those conventions help readers act and make meaning. As part of that conversation, I asked students to look at Lanham’s AT/THROUGH oscillation, a concept in The Electric Word (1991).

Richard Lanham's AT/THROUGH OscillationsThrough that concept, Lanham makes the argument that because pixels make all texts malleable,
traditional acts of reading have been transformed. To make this point, he troubles the window metaphor of reading and cultural values/histories about good text design. As he notes, a text was well-designed if the design was rendered invisible so that when a reader engaged with a text, they could look past the words on the page and to the meaning they signify.

Pixelated or electronic words has made the text (or the surface or the container–pick a metaphor) visible again, because writers and readers can exert control over the display and presentation of texts. Thus, when reading digital texts, readers oscillate between looking at and looking through the textual surface.

Digital Reading as Looking AT/THROUGH

Looking at Lanham’s theory of reading and meaning alongside Wysocki’s resulted in a really insightful conversation about mobile design. As part of our activity, we looked at the NYTIMES site on a desktop and on a cellphone. Based on that looking, we identified how the desktop version bears strong resemblance to the print version–an observation Bolter and Gruisin also make. The desktop version invites multiple oscillations between looking at and looking through. When deciding where to start on the homepage, I have to oscillate between looking at and through to situate a particular article within a section of the paper to eventually decide if an article is worth reading. In other words, I have to look at and through repeatably to decide if I want to read a particular article. In contrast, the mobile site offers a linear feed, requiring little orienting therefore little oscillating.

My students and I were somewhat surprised that the mobile site operated through what is typically described as a print approach to composing: a kind of reading that is more linear than not, more about looking THROUGH than AT.

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