Today’s post is the start of a new project. It ends with an open-ended question, and I’d love to hear your answers!
In my Business Writing courses themed on social media, I often hear myself speaking of targets: “Who is the target audience of this advertising campaign? What group is our business targeting with this approach? What issues or struggles are you targeting here?” In a culture of targets—target audiences, target weight ranges, target locations, target treatments, law enforcement targets, Target© shopping, and even Sarah Palin’s infamous “target list”—it is surprisingly comfortable to conceive of goals, places, and even (especially?) people as targets.
Introductory Composition hosts a long history of questioning the rhetoric of target audiences, attempting to show students how they themselves are targets of cultural advertisements that want them to identify, purchase, and repeat. Assignments advocating rhetorical and visual analyses of cultural artifacts emerged with Jim Berlin’s Rhetorics, Poetics, and Cultures (1996), and with the larger Cultural Studies movement in our field. As a leading figure in this movement, Berlin argued that cultural critique could help students understand “the role of culture in shaping them as the subjects of their experience and their role as critical agents in a democratic society” (132). The purpose of such work, he argued, is not for students to reject their cultural positions, but rather to recognize them and become “reflexive agents actively involved in shaping their own consciousness as well as the democratic society of which they are an integral part” (132). Inspired by the ideal of the democratic classroom (and resulting democratic society), Berlin’s pedagogy continues to inspire cultural critique in first-year writing classrooms.
Since I began teaching first-year Composition in 2008, my syllabus has always included an assignment focused on cultural critique—from visual analyses of advertisements to cultural analyses of community spaces. When I began teaching Business Writing (BW) in 2011, the kind of cultural critique I encourage in my teaching philosophy statement and in my approaches to teaching Introductory Composition seemed strangely out of place. This is partly due to less flexibility in Business Writing syllabus approaches at my University, but more importantly due to pressures beyond my institution’s control. As I composed a syllabus for my future junior and senior-level students, I seriously considered how our assignments might help them obtain and maintain business careers. I felt an intense personal responsibility to prepare them for professional work and for writing efficiently, respectfully, and knowledgeably within business settings. In other words, I found myself in a mode of operation nearly opposite of my Introductory Composition classrooms. Suddenly, I was teaching my BW students how to do the kind of targeting that I taught my freshmen students how to resist.
I first realized this contradiction in the midst of a discussion on target audiences in social media. My BW students were writing white paper reports for local businesses to share current research on advertising with social media. Mid-lecture, I heard myself ask students to consider who their businesses should target with social media, and which sites might host such “targets.” The targets in my suggestion were, of course, people. More strikingly, however, since most of my students were writing for local businesses (most of them adjacent to campus in a college town), the targets I spoke of were in fact my students. I was teaching my students how to target themselves.
Why is it so difficult to align everyday practices with larger theoretical or ideological positions—especially in the realm of academic “business”?