When I was first trained to teach first-year, introductory composition at the University of Michigan in the late 70s, one of the encouraged class activities asked the instructor to work at the board and lead the class in a discussion contrasting Spoken Language with Written Language. It was always a productive conversation with the class, since students could come up with important differences in sentence and discourse structure, vocabulary and usage. They could raise issues of register, formality, permanence, intimacy and immediacy, considering how language could fit a particular situation, a notion at the heart of rhetorical analysis. We would urge students to be conscious of the differences between speaking and writing, and to move toward the more formal control characteristic of academic writing and Standard English.
In the years since, the emerging hybrid genres of electronic communication blur what once seemed fairly comfortable distinctions cast in the useful polarity of speaking vs. writing. Is email more like speaking or writing? What about messaging or Twitter? They have a certain permanence, but what about Snapchat? What about recorded conversations or online meetings or podcasts? What about video?
Differences among hybrid media genres are of pressing concern. Hillary Clinton cannot shake the accusations of mismanaging her email communications, but she can be forced to surrender all the email that was not effectively deleted. Email is a written record and therefore discoverable. Would instant messaging, or Skyping, or Snapchatting have the same qualities? Face-to-conversations still provide some measure of confidentiality, but what about phone conversations? Could she have managed her communication, keeping private or confidential or top secret communications all contained within appropriate media? What are the differences among media, the affordabilities and the risks, and how do we choose what to use? From the current vantage point, it is ironic that Nixon got into trouble by choosing to tape oral conversations, while Clinton gets into trouble by trying to hide written conversations.
Over the years, I have urged students in business communication classes to choose carefully when to write and when to speak, what to put in an email and what to convey F2F. But we now see an explosion of video coverage and reportage of supposedly spoken messages. Police are caught by lapel cameras and recorders; domestic abusers and homophobes are captured on phone cameras. Everyone is viewed by security cameras, so you can’t even rob a bank anymore without your face being shown on the news. As I write, we have a wave of resignations at the University of Missouri for things people said that were captured and repeated: a command to bring in some “muscle” to remove video reporters from a campus demonstration site and an email to class about standing up to hatred resulted in the resignations of two professors. The president and chancellor both resigned, more for what they did not say (and do) about campus climate than for what they did say. So even being silent or too quiet can bring down top administrators.
We can’t put two columns on the board anymore, contrasting speech and writing. But we can raise awareness of what happens in a media-saturated environment, where it seems that very few communication events are not recorded in some form, and where intended audiences are often not identical with broad, unintended audiences and consequences. As we continue to move toward teaching diverse, hybrid, multimodal genres, we can engage students with thinking about when to communicate, using what technologies, always anticipating how messages will often escape our control. That is still what rhetoric is about.