I begin with a topos of the contemporary rhetorical scholar, if you will allow me to act as if I am one.
“Imagine that you enter a parlor. . . .”
So begins Kenneth Burke’s invocation of the unending conversation wherein we find ourselves surrounded by discussions not entirely of our own choosing—especially true my first year in the CRDM program. Bouncing around the first-year parlor of classes and cohorts, every new-fangled idea, every theoretical conversation sparked what was sure to be my next research project, or better, my yet-so-distant dissertation. Digital Rhetoric. Locative Media, Space, Place, and Mobility. Posthumanism. Visual and Material Rhetorics. All flowing conversations. All tempting. All resounding.
“You listen for a while, until you decide that you have caught the tenor of the argument; then you put in your oar.”
So continues Burke’s description of the unending conversation. And so goes the second year.
Where I spent my first year flitting about the parlor listening to all conversations, I spent my second year looking for my oar. Or, given that he was an inveterate punster (and as Dr. Hans Kellner told our contemporary rhetorical theory class), Burke may have been implying, “then you put in your or.” In my second year, I went looking for my o(a)r.
The o(a)r : research interests manifesting as scholarly poses, as exam areas and reading lists, as disciplines and methodologies, as dissertation chair and committee, as dissertation topic and prospectus.
The second year marks an increasing pressure to find and pick conversations and to put in your o(a)r.
Rowing is more difficult than listening.
In your first year, you are or should be listening to as many conversations as you can (and, as Lauren Clark suggests, reading at least a little of everything). In the second year, you should begin to narrow your listening, to narrow your research interests. Row, row, row.
In the first year, you are expected to write seminar papers and to submit them to conferences. In the second year, you are expected to go to those conferences and to present those papers. And once there, you are expected to find those panels, those conversations wherein you can put your o(a)r—to acquire a scholarly pose, to begin the process of professionalization and disciplinarity. In my case, the contemporary rhetorical scholar with which I began this post. Row, row, row.
In the midst of my third semester, I began to ask more earnestly the quintessentially rhetorical questions, “Who do I want to be as a scholar? Who is my audience? What are my arguments?” Drawing upon all those first-year parlor conversations and seminar papers, I decided that my research interests should center on the role memory—individual, social, cultural, collective, public, digital and otherwise—plays within digital media contexts as studied from contemporary and digital rhetorical perspectives. Row, row, row.
With my o(a)r in the conversation, whom I needed as my dissertation chair become clear, Dr. Victoria Gallagher who studies visual and material rhetorics as they relate to issues of public memory. And with her help, my fourth semester schedule fell into place. I proposed and planned two readings courses—one with Dr. Gallagher and the other with Dr. Kellner—that furthered my research interests in the rhetorical nature of memory and digital media. And with these reading courses and with the advice of Dr. Gallagher, my exam areas—what conversations will help me write a successful dissertation?—became more defined along with my dissertation committee—who will help me write a successful dissertation? Row, row, row.
In addition to the two reading courses, I also took, along with my cohort, the required CRD 790, a special topics course dealing with issues of multi-, inter-, and trans- disciplinarity. Here, again, I was, as you will be, forced to think about the choice of o(a)r as discipline, however multi-, inter-, or trans- disciplinary that choice may be. Row, row, row.
Second year conversations and pressures induce you to put in your oar and to row farther down the stream of academia and professionalization.
Nevertheless, unless you are among the few and the rightfully proud, the second year is still early to know exactly what your dissertation topic will be. There is always time to rest from rowing and to listen and to change o(a)rs.
Or, that is what I have been told.
Row, row, row into the third year. . . . ready to make a splash.