Peer Interview: Trent M. Kays

This peer interview is with Trent M. Kays. You can follow him on Twitter @trentmkays. All links open in new windows. If you read this interview and find it interesting or useful, please take a moment to share it on your networks. Thank you.

Trent M. Kays

Trent M. Kays

Ernesto Priego: Can you describe who you are and what you do?

Trent M. Kays: I’m a writer, teacher, agitator, and PhD student (soon-to-be candidate) in the Department of Writing Studies at the University of Minnesota, where I teach and study things related to digital rhetoric, critical pedagogy, social movements, and the Internet. My writing appears in both scholarly and popular publications.

I do a lot of other things too. I’m a historical collector, once upon a time poet, bourbon drinker, judoka, and world traveler. I wasn’t always these things, of course.

I was born in a small town just north of Santa Barbara, California (USA). I grew up next to a military base, and my upbringing certainly has affected how I view the world. In one way or another, most members of my immediate family have been involved with aerospace technologies and professions. My father is an influential member of his field and works with all sorts of cool missile things, though he wasn’t always directly in this field. He was originally trained as an electrician, and he’s still a master electrician today. My mother has worked as some form of technical writer or publishing official on a military base for most of her career, one of my grandfathers worked for NASA and the other was in the US Air Force and then worked for an aerospace company.

I grew up around people who often think like engineers, so this has given me an appreciation for brevity and the power of writing. It’s one of the reasons I always wanted to be a writer. Writing creates, writing destroys, and writing allows one to belong. My family’s early working-class background instilled in me an omnipresent feeling of privilege. I understand how lucky I am, and I understand how hard my family and I have worked to get to our current life circumstances. Despite my doctoral studies and being separated from my family by about 2000 miles, I understand and appreciate their impact on my life.

My studies allow me to travel and think about the world in amazing ways. Currently, my research is looking into the discourse practices of the Occupy Wall Street Movement, and even though my family isn’t always interested in some political aspects of my research, they are still always interested because I’m doing something. This is important to me because I’m the first member of my family to go to college, complete college, go to graduate school, complete graduate school, and then go to doctoral school. There’s a lot of pressure being the first in my family to go to college, graduate school, and doctoral school. I don’t mind it, but I often feel like I have to be successful because I’m responsible for a new chapter in my family’s autobiography.

EP: Tell us how you decided to enroll in your current program and department. What brought you there? Please do tell us as well what is ‘digital rhetoric’ and why it matters…

TMK: I never thought I would be a teacher. My original career path was leading me to government work, but during my undergraduate studies, I took a course in persuasive writing and got hooked. I had always considered myself a good writer; my mother always told me I wrote well as a child. After I completed my BA degrees–one in Professional & Technical Writing and the other in History–I decided to get my MA in the former. It was during my MA years that I really got a taste for teaching. The feeling was amazing. I was able to help struggling students become better writers, to help them become impassioned with their own studies, and work with them as equals. It was then that I knew I wanted to work with college students–or any students, really–and help them achieve their life goals. So, I decided to go to doctoral school.

The will to teach wasn’t the only reason I went to doctoral school, of course. Another driving force behind my decision was that I wanted to understand how people used discourse to do things in their lives and in the greater public community. Therefore, I picked doctoral programs that would allow me to experiment with teaching while pursuing my interests in public discourse and sociality. I applied to nine programs across the United States and got into most of them. The first program to call me back was the one in Minnesota. I talked to the faculty and grad students there, visited the department, and I loved it. The people, culture, and program were a perfect fit for me.

Digital rhetoric? Well, that’s a tough one. The definition is sometimes fraught with dissension amongst the peers in my field. I consider digital rhetoric to be the discourse practices (broadly defined) implemented in online and digital spaces. This includes visual communication, traditional text, online networked discourse, and methodologies for critical analysis of new media arising out of the digital age. These are quite broad and definitions abound. Some of my peers consider coding and other coding-related activities to be digital rhetoric; however, I don’t consider that digital rhetoric. I consider those types of activities to be in the realm of software studies and critical code studies.

Digital rhetoric matters because it is the driving basis for rhetorical theory in the 21st century. It allows us to understand, analyze, and critique the evolution of discourse in online and digital spaces. It helps us think about how the Internet has changed discourse conventions among offline, online, and hybrid communities, identities, and narratives. This works its way into teaching, learning, and other aspects of educational practice. This differs in many ways from classical and modern rhetorical theory in that digital rhetoric isn’t solely concerned with traditional print text and speech. Digital rhetoric forces us to think differently about how we communicate and contribute to contemporary and future knowledge systems.

I am, of course, boiling this down. I could talk for hours about rhetoric and 21st century discourse practices.

EP: I have no doubt of that! When we have thorough knowledge of something we often take for granted its importance- until we meet someone who does not have that knowledge… which brings me to Twitter, where I ‘met’ you. Please tell us why you use it– what’s there for you, how do you use it…

TMK: Great questions. I joined Twitter when it originally became available in 2006; however, I didn’t find it at all useful or interesting, so I deleted my account and moved on. But, after some time, I realized the value and rejoined in 2009. I’ve been on it every since, and my use of Twitter has only increased the longer I’ve been on it. I love Twitter. It’s connected me with a diverse group of both scholars and non-scholars, people doing really interesting things, and global conversations that I might have otherwise missed. I use Twitter because it’s a wonderful space for collaboration and discussion, friendships are made and lost there, and–in this way–Twitter is an excellent representation of augmented interactions.

I have another motive for being on Twitter: It’s a great place for research. Some of my main research interests are enacted in the discourse communities present on Twitter. As I mentioned earlier, my current research is focused on the discourse practices of the Occupy Wall Street Movement, and I’m especially interested in how they leveraged social media (in particular, Twitter) and online discourse to affect offline action. The movement used social media in a particular way never seen before, and it’s exciting to see the evolution of the discourse they used on Twitter to really bring action to the streets.

So, I have a heavy investment in Twitter. I’ve been able to collaborate with peers all over the world, make new friends and colleagues, and participate in dynamic discussions and debates (e.g. #fycchat, #digped, #edchat, etc). It’s a wonderful tool. It seems I’m almost always on Twitter, and it’s become more part of my identity than I initially thought it would. I’ve received job offers via Twitter, and my various writings have been amplified through the network I’ve developed there. It’s a must have space for any public intellectual (or aspiring one!).

I know some don’t see the value or have trouble “getting it.” To them I would say: be patient and give it a chance. Social media is only as social as we make it. It can’t automatically be social for us. It’s about connection–for better or worse–and it’s about understanding the influence of networks on our everyday lives. I’ve heard people consider Twitter (and most social media) to be mundane, overly pedestrian, and silly. Those are all valid points. But, we shouldn’t use Twitter for just those types of activities, or we shouldn’t assume that all interactions will be mundane, etc. We should assume that every interaction is a valuable one. We should assume that those we encounter are worthy of our time, our graciousness, and our knowledge.

Too often, some online spaces can be poisonous. There was a great article a few years ago by John Suler titled, “The Online Disinhibition Effect.” Basically, when our communication is mediated by computers and we are unable to be physically present in front of our fellow discussants, we have trouble interpreting social cues and, consequently, can act like real jerks. This is old news in the computer-mediated communication world, but it’s still important to remember.

I only go into this detail because I don’t want people to get discouraged or feel intimidated by those who broadcast on Twitter. Those interactions are insignificant compared to the great good the tool can help others enact. Revolutions have begun and ended on Twitter, governments have been toppled by social media use, and disasters have been better managed because of social networking. These are important and historic things, and we shouldn’t forget them when our Twitter timeline fills with pictures of someone’s eggs benedict or adorable cat (both of which I am guilty).

EP: You seem to have a more optimistic view of the power of social media than I do!  I still see a huge disconnect between what happens on social media and what happens outside, “IRL”. Not that both worlds don’t co-exist, of course, or that social media is in any way “less real”. But there’s huge numbers not engaging in social media, and not only within Higher Education. Do we see social media through rose-tinted glasses sometimes you think? Or it might be that since these are still very early stages (relatively speaking) maybe there is not much room for critical nuance yet… Could you elaborate on this?

TMK: I have been accused of idealism, and I’m happy with that descriptor. In a lot of ways, I’m an idealist wrapped in a realist. I believe in the best parts of the Internet and the interactions we find there; however, I’m not so naive as to think that there isn’t a negative or less than positive aspect to our online participation. There are plenty of examples where the Internet has facilitated interaction that resulted in negative consequences. There are prominent instances of cyberbullying and suicide, academic bullying and slander, and issues of social media-induced depression. Some of these things I grant more weight to than others.

Heck, I’ve been bullied and slandered by some academics on Twitter who take issue with my critiques. I usually just shrug them off. I’m proud to be a scholar-agitator. I hate the status quo, and I want to knock it down! Of course, not everyone agrees and, thus, friction arises with my more critical-sedentary peers. Despite these incidents, we often forget that without the human element, social media is nothing particularly significant. Humans place value in the tools used, and we can take that value away. I tolerate and welcome divisive and productive discussions because I know I’m communicating with another human being, and it is through our conversation that we come to define our discourse communities and social media use. That’s valuable.

Unfortunately, many still argue that social media is simply an extension of the offline self or a complete separate self from their “IRL” self. This just isn’t the case. They aren’t separate things. This sort of binary allows people to dismiss what happens in online spaces as something different, something not always connected with responsibility. So, sometimes, I do think we look at social media through rose-tinted glasses, and it is because of this rose tint that the false dichotomy of offline and online selves continues to be perpetuated.

We hear or see this all the time. You hear pundits on news shows casually say, “Oh, it’s just social media” or “Don’t worry. They’re just Twitter users.” These types of dismissals are harmful to not only the great potential of social media but also to all sociality. It’s at the crux of sociality and network that critical nuance can flourish. I don’t think critical nuance is dependent on time from birth to adulthood. We can bring a critical eye to social media; however, I think there are too many pundits, teachers, and researchers who simply don’t want to try. They see social media as a burden or a loneliness-inducing experience; but, one does not suddenly become lonely. It takes time to build and is present outside of social media spaces. (Can you tell I don’t buy Sherry Turkle’s latest argument?)

I’m not too worried about the slow crawl of some groups to contemporary social media; I just think many in those groups–higher education included–haven’t had a chance to really jump in and explore, or perhaps they’re afraid too. As networked educators and researchers, I believe it to be our job to offer a helping hand and show our colleagues, students, and friends that online social media spaces aren’t scary or intimidating.

Most of the uncritical nuance I see thrown at social media is usually by those not deeply invested in its use or research into its use (e.g. news anchors, pundits, politicians, etc). But, like I mentioned before, I’m not too worried. I think we need to be patient and keep moving forward. At the very least, online interplay and social media forces us to reconsider how we interact outside of those spaces and in face-to-face circumstances, and that alone is worthy of our attention.

EP: To conclude, can you please share with us your vision of the future of Higher Education at an international level, and how you think we could get there?

TMK: My vision? That’s a lofty request, or it feels lofty. Honestly, right now, I think higher education is heading into an uncertain future. It costs too much, there’s hardly any government funding anymore, there are people living in parts of the world who don’t have access, and it’s seemingly becoming the playground for the privileged and financially well-off. It’s a sad time to be in higher education because it seems the more we move into the 21st century the more we encounter antiquated thinking. The romantic idea of college still exists in the minds of some, and, unfortunately, the reality is far from romantic.

That being said, I think higher education around the world needs a serious reboot. We need to change, and we need to do so sooner rather than later. I am very Freirean in my perspectives: I firmly believe that education is a tool to help people liberate themselves from whatever oppresses them. But, the type of debt-slavery being reinforced in many areas of the world is frightening. It sets students up to fail. Couple that debt-slavery with no to low access and we have a very scary future.

This is why I sometimes get jumpy and agitate things: I don’t want this future to happen. My vision of higher education is one where learning is treated as a process, where there are no grades and only assessment, where there are no tests that pigeonhole people, where the idea that everyone must go to college is no longer sold to children, and where professors’ teaching and research responsibilities are equally weighted and valued.

My vision is one where universities serve the community out of which they arose, where students are always put first, and where government funding means significant financial investment. I want to see administrative bloat properly addressed, and I think it’s time tenure was abolished in many contexts. We really need to focus on class size and strategically using technology, and we need to work toward making higher education freely available to students.

I know some of these things seem overly idealistic, but I wouldn’t believe in them unless I thought we could achieve them. I believe in the very best of humanity, social media, and the Internet. I think we can get to these things by focusing on connecting with the public more, by engaging in hierarchy-smashing social media discussions, by being public intellectuals, and by becoming involved in the political processes that have financially divested higher education. These are all doable things. We can start doing them tomorrow, and they are not difficult.

We need to burn down the ivory towers and become truly egalitarian. We need to throw open the doors of knowledge, make all our work open access, and work to liberate the oppressed. That’s my vision for the future of higher education. It’s going to be a lot of hard work, sweat, and tears, but I believe it’s achievable.

EP: Thank you for talking to us, Trent.

About Ernesto Priego

I coordinate the editorial work at Networked Researcher. I founded The Comics Grid Journal of Comics Scholarship, a pioneering open access, peer-edited, collaborative online journal. I've got a PhD in Information Studies from University College London and I'm a lecturer in Library Science at City University London.

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