As students, we research course descriptions and register for classes online. As social individuals, we send Facebook and text messages to connect with friends near and far. As contributors to a globalized economy, we apply for jobs using email and make purchases on Amazon. Yet both within America and across the globe, diverse populations are not yet included in this contemporary digital age: 19% of Americans and 61% of people worldwide do not use or have regular access to the Internet. While the world has flattened and shrunk for many of the world’s more fortunate citizens, new lines of a virtual geography are being drawn, which segregate cultures and inhibit access to basic human rights — such as education within a system that practically requires computer connections.
Over the past decade, the controversy over this disparity — commonly called, in print media and academic circles, the digital divide — has widened beyond its political and economic origins. Questions of a production gap between the vast majority of consumers and the few users who create online content have arisen. Simultaneously, as more people plug in for the first time, digital literacy and the ability to interact as informed, critical subjects within this new media environment have become increasingly important rhetorical skills often overlooked.
Arguing the Digital Divide (RHE309k) is a course in which students will closely exam these and other digital divides: their root causes, broad implications and differing responses. The class will work to construct a vocabulary and a conceptual framework through which we can discuss the differing digital divides. Informative, critical and influential articles will introduce students to a variety of controversies within the larger topic, positions within those controversies, and stakeholders who hold those positions. To do this, we will follow the origins of the term digital divide through its historical development, beginning with geographical, economic and political examples of technological inequality on both a micro and macro (local and global) level. With a basic background established, we will then trace the term as it has been used to describe consumerist dynamics on the Internet, gaps in how new media literacy is (not) taught, and demographic divisions that have developed within Web 2.0. Longer work will be augmented by short writing assignments throughout the semester and a creative multimedia project that will ask students to engage the problems of the general controversy firsthand.
Additionally, an ancillary curriculum running throughout the semester will introduce students to the terms and tools of rhetoric, broadly defined. This is for reasons beyond departmental affiliation and university requirements — at the very heart of the course is the belief that the ability to recognize and utilize common tropes is fundamental to a politically functional society. Learning to critically identify cultural and economic structures of power, and then to articulate one’s own position within those complex dynamics, is an increasingly difficult yet important task within the Internet era; to do so will thus serve as a structuring aim for the class as a whole.