Gallagher, John R. “The Rhetorical Template.” Computers and Composition 35 (2015): 1-11. Web. 25 March 2015.
John R. Gallagher addresses the role of the “template” as a component of the rhetorical situation when writing for Web 2.0, a question with implications for the debate over the relationship between form and content. He bases his claim that Web templates can be used creatively, flexibly, and even subversively on his own experiences as well as the responses of students to an assignment designed to increase attention to the role of templates in guiding writers’ actions. In particular, he focuses on Facebook’s “profile” and “cover” photos to illustrate how users of these standard forms can reinterpret the possibilities they offer.
To situate the template in the form/content debate, Gallagher presents the concerns of Kirsten Arola that as a preordained form, templates allow writers to insert content without consideration of the role of form. The form becomes “invisible” (qtd. in Gallagher 1). To address this claim, Gallagher reviews the scholarship of the rhetorical situation, which has historically revolved around the question of whether the situation or the intentions of the rhetor call forth “rhetorical discourse” (2). Gallagher affirms subsequent scholarship on the rhetorical situation that maintains that rhetor and situation are not discrete entities available for analysis in isolation, but rather are components of a process in which situation and rhetor are constantly repositioned by their interactions with each other and with their contexts (3). In this view, no situation is ever self-contained; its final meaning is always deferred as it awaits “another word or idea with which to create a comparison” (3).
Application of genre theory allows Gallagher to foreground how Web 2.0 contexts develop through social interaction as users of templates share “standardize[d]” processes and options that are nonetheless open to interpretation and multiple iterations (4). Gallagher argues that users participate in the creation of the conventions that characterize Web 2.0 discourse, including the ways templates can be manipulated. Far from being a stable form that dictates particular responses, Gallagher contends, templates, like genres, “are stable only in their historical and temporal contexts” (4), always subject to updates and new uses in which the actions of writers make the form meaningful (8). While the template privileges certain decisions and choices, Gallagher writes that all forms of media require rhetors to work within constraining boundaries and to explore the possibilities within those boundaries for meeting rhetors’ goals (8).
The developers of templates are also actors within the situation of which the template is a part, updating and revising templates in response to user actions (4). Ultimately, although the template does provide “a baseline series of choices” (4), what the template invites depends on the ways writers find to use it: “A template is never complete without a writer” (8). Gallagher disagrees with Arola: the influence of a template only vanishes when writers fail to think of the template as “a rhetorical tool” (5).
Gallagher provides examples of his own use of the Facebook profile and cover photos as well as the status update template to show that the content inserted into these forms can take on varied and unexpected meanings depending on his individual decisions about selection and arrangement of the standard elements (5-7). He includes a classroom assignment, “Examining the Template on the Internet,” which asks students to take explicit notice of the role of the template as they use it: “to see design, layout, and arrangement as part of content” (9). Reflective writing on this assignment generates discussion on how changes to templates alter rhetorical opportunities, how different templates on different sites affect such opportunities, and how the privacy elements in template use affect decisions about audience (10). Gallagher argues that a fuller awareness of templates as an element in rhetorical situations will make visible the ongoing construction of meaning their flexibility and openness to iteration enable (10).