Tag Archives: teaching

Teaching with Blogs: SUNY COW 2014

The following is a list of resources my panel compiled for SUNY COW 2014 on teaching with WordPress. If you’re going to be there, we’re the happy hour panel on Saturday, E1, from 4-5:15 pm. Our panel is entitled “The Public Syllabus: Migrating Your Course to WordPress.”

Good places to start

Cadle, Lanette. “Why I Still Blog.” Kairos: A Journal of Rhetoric, Technology, and Pedagogy 19.4(2014): n. pag. Web

Cavender, Amy. “Why Use an Online Syllabus?The Chronicle of Higher Education Blogs: ProfHacker. N.p., 16 Sept. 2013. Web. 25 Sept. 2014.

Parry, David. “WordPress a Better LMS.” The Chronicle of Higher Education Blogs: ProfHacker. N.p., 18 Mar. 2010. Web. 25 Sept. 2014.

Reid, Alex. “Why Blog? Searching for Writing on the Web.” Writing Spaces: Readings on Writing, Volume 2. Parlor Press, 2011. 302–319. Web.

Richtel, Matt. “Blogs vs. Term Papers.” The New York Times 20 Jan. 2012. NYTimes.com. Web. 25 Sept. 2014.

Smith, Kevin. “Guidelines for Public, Student Class Blogs: Ethics, Legalities, FERPA and More.” HASTAC. N.p., 2012. Web. 22 Sept. 2014.

Williams, George. “Make Your WordPress Site More Accessible.” The Chronicle of Higher Education Blogs: ProfHacker. N.p., 22 Jan. 2014. Web. 25 Sept. 2014.

Books on teaching with blogs

Rettberg, Jill Walker. Blogging. 2nd edition. Polity, 2013. Print.

Richardson, Will. Blogs, Wikis, Podcasts, and Other Powerful Web Tools for Classrooms. 3rd Edition edition. Thousand Oaks, Calif: Corwin, 2010. Print.

Recent computers & writing scholarship

Clark, J. Elizabeth. “The Digital Imperative: Making the Case for a 21st-Century Pedagogy.” Computers and Composition 27.1 (2010): 27–35. ScienceDirect. Web. 22 Sept. 2014.

Rankins-Robertson, Sherry et al. “Multimodal Instruction: Pedagogy and Practice for Enhancing Multimodal Composition Online.” Kairos: A Journal of Rhetoric, Technology, and Pedagogy. 19.1. N.p., 15 Aug. 2014. Web. 21 Sept. 2014.

Santos, Marc C., and Mark H. Leahy. “Postpedagogy and Web Writing.” Computers and Composition 32 (2014): 84–95. ScienceDirect. Web. 21 Sept. 2014.

Wolff, William I. “Interactivity and the Invisible: What Counts as Writing in the Age of Web 2.0.” Computers and Composition 30.3 (2013): 211–225. ScienceDirect. Web. 21 Sept. 2014.

WordPress links

Examples of syllabi

Examples of student blogs

Green Team Chronicles
Jon Lee
The Syracuse Eight
The Denny’s Incident

Comments from students

Experiential learning and materiality

kolbOne of the more interesting questions to come out of my recent teaching experiences with DIY publications like zines is how teachers measure rhetorical success of their students’ public texts, whether they take the familiar forms of civic writing, multimodal embodied forms of protest, or through more ephemeral social media. More specifically, I’ve been asking and speculating about the role rhetorical circulation plays in that question, and what it might mean to differentiate between learning about the concept (i.e as a subset of critical reading skills) and experiencing it (i.e. producing texts that actually circulate). In short, what does it mean to really experience circulation — and by extension what does it mean to experience rhetoric?

Lately I’ve been looking in a few disparate places to answer that question. Thinking about it literally has led me to experiential learning theory (ELT) — originally conceived by John Dewey, developed in various ways throughout the 20th century (by folks like Vygotsky, Piaget, Lewin, Jung, and Freire), and more recently theorized and applied by David Kolb. Although he developed his theory in the early 70s, Kolb’s book, Experiential Learning: Experience As the Source Of Learning and Development (1984), is widely influential, having been cited more than 20,000 times (including a few times in the pages of CCC). In a more recent text from 2005, Kolb and Kolb define experiential learning as “the process whereby knowledge is created through the transformation of experience. Knowledge results from the combination of grasping and transforming experience (Kolb, 1984: 41)” (194). This grasping was initially characterized via two pairs of dialectically opposed modes: Concrete Experience (CE) v Abstract Conceptualization (AC) and Reflective Observation (RO) and Active Experimentation (AE). As the authors put it:

Experiential learning is a process of constructing knowledge that involves a creative tension among the four learning modes that is responsive to contextual demands. This process is portrayed as an idealized learning cycle or spiral where the learner ‘touches all the bases’ — experiencing, reflecting, thinking, and acting — in a recursive process that is responsive to the learning situation and what is being learned. (194; emphasis mine)

This creative tension is created by asking learners to scuttle between acting and observing, analyzing and experimenting, consuming and producing. Yet because human experience is the basis for this model, such tensions cannot occur in just a classroom. Central to ELT is Lewin’s notion that transactional learning occurs via the interdependency of individuals and their environments. Kolb and Kolb use this to create what they call learning spaces, which emphasize learning as “a map of learning territories, a frame of reference within which many different ways of learning can flourish and interrelate. It is a holistic framework that orients the many different ways of learning to one another” (200).

Conceptual map of a learning space using nine modes of experience (Kolb and Kolb 2005)

Conceptual map of a learning space using nine modes of experience (Kolb and Kolb 2005)

As I re-read Anne Wysocki’s intro to Writing New Media (2004) this week, I was struck with the similarities between the ways both ELT and new media attempt to highlight this interdependency between agency (individual) and structure (environment). More specifically for Wysocki, a materialist definition of new media allows students to “see a possible self — a self positioned and working within the wide material conditions of her world, even shaping that world — in that object” (21). Aside from Wysocki’s decision to reject traditional definitions of new media as inherently digital, I love this piece for how it pushes teachers of writing to consider not so much “technology” as monolith as much as the tools and materials with which we ask students to write. Interestingly, many of the lessons in the Activity portion of her chapter ask students to occupy various positions within ELT’s learning space. In one exercise, students take two hours out of their weekend to observe and jot down any and all visual texts. When they come to class, Wysocki asks them a number of reflective questions about how and why they chose those texts, how they shape action and ways of thinking, etc.  As she argues at the end of this section, she’s “not trying to lead the class to definitive conclusions about sight,” but “to see how much visual attentions are called upon in our day-to-day actions” (25). There is more to this lesson, which is connected to other lessons, but I point out this sliver to note how some of tensions articulated by ELT are working in this example. Students are asked to use concrete experience (CE) — writing down what they see — as a occasion for reflective observation (RO) —  via large-group discussion — which is put into tension with abstract conceptualization (AC) when they are ultimately asked to conceptualize the role visual rhetoric plays in our moment-to-moment material experience.

I realize I risk bastardizing ELT with such an application, so I’m not totally committing to this analysis, but for now I am interested in ELT enough to see how it might help me start to approach a question like “how do students experience rhetoric or rhetorical circulation?”

Next up is to look back at Michael McGee’s “A Materialist’s Conception of Rhetoric” to think about what he means when he drops a knowledge bomb like this one:

…the whole of rhetoric is “material” by measure of humans experiencing of it, not by virtue of our ability to continue touching it after it is gone. Rhetoric is “object” because of its pragmatic presence, our inability safely to ignore it at the moment of its impact … From the material perspective “speech” is an integral part of a “speaker/speech/audience/ occasion/change” phenomenon, peculiar as an element of rhetoric because it survives and records the moment of experience. (23; emphasis in original)

Teaching preciousness

2013 Buffalo Small Press Fest

2013 Buffalo Small Press Fest

Last week I posted a relatively brief description for HASTAC’s Pedagogy Project about how I’ve used zines in the classroom in my last two classes: a 200-level pilot course called DIY Publishing and 100-level regularized course on creative nonfiction called Writing Culture. My intention, of course, is not to suggest a monolithic approach for teaching writing, but to use DIY culture and zines as a pedagogical moment to consider larger issues in composition, especially problems related to agency, circulation, assessment, mediation, and materiality. Still, I ended that post somewhat hastily, claiming that student-made zines — as print art/ifacts — have the potential to produce for students a feeling of preciousness that is largely absent from scholarly papers or more ephemeral digital projects. But such a claim raises some questions: What is “preciousness” and how is it measured? Why might “preciousness” as a quality for a student text be valued — and what are its rhetorical effects? Its social value? What is its place within the institution? Can we assume preciousness is a quality absent from academic or digital projects? And if it is, what are the affordances of those forms that might be lost when teaching students to make things like zines?

Before I go further, I have to say that my use of zines were particular to these two classes — one which made self-publishing its chief object of study and another whose genres have a long tradition of circulating texts via independent print media (i.e. poetry chapbooks, underground newspapers, comix, and, of course, zines). Hopefully my post made clear that I’m not claiming that zines should be assigned in every writing class or in FYC. That said, I would argue that self-publishing has a place within courses or units that emphasize particular concepts that have been widely discussed in writing studies: multimodality, circulation, mediation, social justice, etc. And to argue that zines in particular have a place is to argue that at least some of the time student writing should be seen by both their makers and readers as precious. So what does preciousness mean and what can it afford?

At a glance, preciousness connotes both childlike innocence (i.e. darling, beloved, dainty) and an aesthetic judgement based on scarcity (i.e. rare, valuable). It evokes an interesting tension between production and circulation that was first articulated 14 years ago by John Trimbur in “Composition and the Circulation of Writing” (2000). Trimbur saw an unavoidable characterization of students in composition studies that figured them “as an active meaning-maker in relation — in loco parentis — to a powerful teacher figure” — that is, as a subject who is asked to give an account of things akin to a father at the dinner table (193). For Trimbur, the field’s default stance of in loco parentis comes from its tendency to equate writing with the moment of production, which is typically accounted for within the home space of the classroom. In so doing, we fail to raise questions about writing that go beyond assuming bounded, close readings of texts.

Trimbur thus suggests we ask what it means to look at writing “as it circulates through linked moments of production, distribution, exchange, and consumption” (196) by re-theorizing the thing that circulates. He borrows from Marx’s Grundrisse to suggest that we use the category of commodity — “the materialization of an underlying and contradictory social process” exposed through the dialectic between use value and exchange value (207) — to understand how instantiations of materiality (newspapers, TV programs, etc.) contain traces of labor in its forms. For Marx and Trimbur, it “is not so much where the commodity goes as what it carries in its internal workings as it circulates” (209). More to the point, Trimbur is interested in how processes of knowledge distribution reveal a commodity’s dialectic — that is, when its use value (the degree to which it satisfies material needs) is or isn’t rewarded by its exchange value of the market (profit/capital extracted from the process of labor). To get at this in his teaching, his students examine various forms of professional knowledge as it is distributed (from journal article to new article, for example) in order to understand how their “systems of distribution, exchange, and consumption enter into and determine consequentially how the means of production operate” (215). Ultimately Trimbur hopes such work can help increase public participation in order to more widely distribute the making of knowledge — that is, he uses circulation as a means to imagine a version of writing as DIY.

A zine from one of my DIY Publishing students.

Aside from opening a space in composition studies for thinking about writing beyond production, Trimbur’s analysis asks us to look at how we teach circulation to our students in terms of the means of production. What I’ve found is that digital writing provides several occasions to think about how new forms of production — writing with audio, video, html, etc. — move throughout the web. The anticipation of circulation,  like all assignments that make publishing their goal, in turn, effect decisions in production (for more on this, see Ridolfo and DeVoss on “rhetorical velocity“). But zines, as precious commodities that move from dispersed materials — cut and pasted texts, strings or staples, folded pieces of paper — to idiosyncratic booklets that travel through the mail or are showcased by the author at a marketplace (i.e. zine fest), provide occasions for students not just to learn about circulation, but to actually experience it. Although economically speaking, zines have little to no exchange value, symbolically their materiality — based on scarcity — provide them with an edge over digital productions. In fact, the word “precious” comes from the Latin word pretiosus, meaning “of great value,” and from pretium, meaning “price.” Whether or not readers see a zine as having any use value, as precious objects they highlight rather than obfuscate the commodification of writing.

Another zine from one of my DIY Publishing students.

A quick example: students in my Writing Culture class made at least five copies of their zines — at least two of these went to classmates and the others to whomever they wanted after the last day of class. They had to consider how to arrange their writing from part to whole, thinking about how they might differentiate the zine in terms of layout, weight, size, color, binding material, etc. In this way, this process isn’t all that different from designing a website — except that the raw material is more scarce. Students had to think carefully about what to include since each of them had between 40-60 single-spaced pages of drafts to choose from. In this way, to ask students to produce and exchange zines materially is to ask them to bring together aspects of aesthetic judgement with the goal of commodification. It asks not only what design would be rhetorically effective, but how those designs are limited by the materials at hand and how they might be distributed. I don’t expect any of my students to become makers of zines after my class, but I do expect them to better understand the relationship between writing and materiality in ways term papers or blogs simply cannot get at.

Using zines in the classroom

I’ve posted a lot about using zines in my teaching, but this post is my attempt to pull it together into one space. It’s also my contribution to FutureEd/HASTAC’s upcoming Pedagogy Project. 

I’ve helped students compose with a wide range of digital tools — Google Docs, WordPress, Twitter, Audacity, etc. — in my eight years at Syracuse, but for the last year, alongside some of these tools, I’ve asked them to make zines — that is, small, limited, and expressive, do-it-yourself print publications. When I tell friends and colleagues that I’m into zines, the declaration is often met with mild surprise: “People are still doing them?” This then leads me to list a number of places — some physical, some virtual — where zines still thrive: online shops and distros, underground bookstores, subway stations, ad-hoc libraries, and yes, classrooms. (Although it’s hard to assess, one could make that case that new media has paradoxically boosted zine communities to new heights of visibility.)

While I’m far from the first teacher to use zines in the classroom, there were many reasons why I wanted to; in short, like other analogue, multimodal projects, the format defamiliarizes materiality and circulation in ways other traditional modes tend to obscure. These assignments occurred in two lower-division writing electives: a pilot called DIY Publishing and a long-standing course called Writing Culture, which teaches various genres and conventions of creative nonfiction. I’ll briefly describe these courses and how I used zines in them (with links to direct interested folks to the original course material), address the sticky issue of assessment, and finally offer some suggestions on why you might consider using them in your own classes.

WRT 200: DIY Publishing

The DIY Publishing course was set up so that students would experience and experiment with various approaches to publishing on their own throughout the course — whether it was through informal print networks or online with WordPress and Twitter. Our work with zines occurred in the first unit as I sought to define and historicize the idea of DIY. Alongside readings about zine histories (including primary sources and oft-cited books like Stephen Duncombe’s Zines: Notes From Underground), students visited the University Library’s Special Collection Research Center, which houses several publications that qualify as DIY: abolitionist newspapers, Dada booklets, Tijuana bibles, various underground newspapers from the Sixties, and hundreds more. With the help of some amazing librarians, students had to pull an item from the Collection, research its history, and teach the class about it during a special session in the library. Specifically, students had to talk about the artifact in terms of its origins, significance, audience, materiality, and circulation. This was meant to serve as a text that would inspire their own zine, leaving them to interpret “inspiration” broadly: it could mimic the artifact in terms of form and/or content, take a more reflexive approach by making a zine about the artifact, re-interpreting the research process, or by doing something else entirely. Meanwhile students also ordered zines from several online outlets, including distros like Sweet Candy or Nieves, online underground bookstores like Atomic Books or Quimbys, or directly from the writers through hubs like Broken Pencil or the POC Zine Project. Once they arrived in their mailboxes students brought them to class for an informal show and tell. We also attended a bookbinding workshop hosted by one a wonderful book-arts scholar at Syracuse named Peter Verheyen.

Importantly, the unit culminated in Syracuse’s first-ever zine festival, where students peddled multiple copies of their zines in a rented room in the library. We invited anyone we could via our personal networks on Facebook and Twitter, which produced a pretty good turn out of 30+ strangers. The Special Collections Resource Center also blogged about it.

WRT 114: Writing Culture

Unlike DIY Publishing, which left the question of content open and admittedly rushed, Writing Culture asked students to respond to more than 35 prompts throughout the semester and in any format they wanted — using MS Word, spiral notebooks, on WordPress. Yet, it required that they produce five copies of a mini-memoir in the form of a zine at the end of the course. Since 35 prompts produced pages and pages of content, students had to read back through their work carefully and look for themes that matched their ambitions for print. Like DIY Publishing, students were introduced to zines gradually: they watched a video about Portland’s Independent Publishing Resource Center, visited the Special Collections to see examples of zines; ordered zines from bookstores, distros, and hubs; and experimented with various ways they might make their own. Our workshops specifically addressed copying, binding, and otherwise differentiating their work with traditional bookmaking practices like stenciling, stamping, stitching, etc. On the final days of class, students performed readings of their zines and asked me to host an exchange, whereby I distributed zines based on certain affinities (which I connected using abstracts they emailed and/or discussed with me). For our event, I dressed up as Santa (it was December) and ceremoniously introduced each student’s zine, essentially gifting them to two other students in the class. At the end of class, students had enough zines left over to informally gift leftovers or to request copies from writers they admired.


Toronto’s Broken Pencil, one of the few contemporary publications dedicated to zine culture, recently ran a thoughtful story about using zines in the classroom. Inevitably author (and editor) Lindsay Gibb cites several academics who argue that the issue of grades is one of the main challenges when adopting zines for school. As U Iowa librarian Kelly McElroy says: “What makes an ‘A’ zine, and who the hell are you to decide that?” In both classes, then, I relied on process texts — proposals, contracts, emails, and reflections — to help me make sense of the rhetorical goals of each author’s zine. First, students had to draft a proposal that asked them to pitch an idea for their zine that included details about its format, materials, content, circulation, and connection to the course. After meeting with me to discuss it, they revised these into “contracts.” Scare quotes seem necessary because as any crafter will tell you, nothing was really set in stone; students made important discoveries through the acts of making. For that reason, and others, the contracts were more or less used as a starting point; students then completed the project by composing a statement on the entire process. I provided questions that helped guide this. For example, for DIY Publishing, students could answer any of the following questions:

  • Think about yourself at the start of this unit/course. What was the extent of your experience or knowledge of zines and DIY print communities at the beginning of the unit? What did you learn about them and how did it apply to your zine?
  • Discuss how you arrived at the the idea for your zine. Was it inspired by the Special Collections Resource Center (SCRC) first or was an initial inspiration nuanced through your research at the SCRC?
  • What goals did you have for this zine and did you meet them? How did your SCRC item influence your choices?
  • Talk about the limitations and choices you made with regard to the materials of your zine and the tools required? What was your vision and how was it compromised by these tool and technologies?
  • Reflect on your experience planning and witnessing the Syracuse Zine Fest. Were you inspired by the reception of your zine in the Spector Room? Disappointed?
  • Discuss the implications of creating your zine with regard to your future as a writer. How did zine’ing support or complicate your goals?
  • What will Issue #2 of your zine look like? How will it build from the lessons of Issue #1?
  • Reassess your grade based on the contract. What did earn and why?

As you might suspect, these process documents are a lot to keep track of. It worked well for me, but as graduate TA, I only teach one class per semester. I’m not sure I’d have as much success under a 3/3 or 4/4 load, so that is something to consider. Nevertheless, unlike countless writing instructors at the end of the semester, I didn’t dread reading and responding to student writing; I reveled in it.


Folks interested in using zines in their classes would do well to spend a few minutes reading the Broken Pencil article as Gibb explores some of its other perils: potentially co-opting an often misunderstood underground ethos, forcing students to disclose personal information, or misrepresenting the histories of zine or DIY culture. On the other hand, print gets a bad rap in many circles these days. Aside from privileging alphabetic and/or academic literacies, the arguments go, teaching the conventions of print do not seem as relevant as asking students to engage inherently collaborative, digital spaces. Yet print has its affordances too. As anyone who’s asked students to exchange papers in class knows, print is tactile, cheap, portable, immediately exchangeable, and often designed for reuse. It’s an intimate, one-way medium whose arrangement and distribution is inherently personal and tactical. Print and its potential for preciousness, is also is able to document a writer’s thoughts, identity, or history more permanently — as any archivist will tell you — than most digital formats. When students work with print, they recognize this preciousness and they feel a certain ownership and pride that simply doesn’t occur with the traditional term paper or even their own blogs (though, as Cathy Davidson reminds us, they do often write more with the latter). I still teach both formats, of course, but the zine is an intriguing multimodal approach offering affordances these other traditional venues cannot.

Exigence(s) for the diss

The more I talk about the minor exam with folks in my program, the better I understand how it can lay important groundwork for the dissertation. Although the goal is to produce an annotated bib and publishable article by the end of the year (at the latest!), it’s clear that these can feed at least two chapters of the diss. Needless to say, and as I mentioned last week, this is an exciting and terrifying time, knowing the weight of these choices for future work and scholarly identity. The rub at the moment has to do with considering the exigence of my work. Why exactly would this dissertation matter? Or perhaps, how could it matter? I have a rich, multimodal site worth pursuing, but the exigence and questions for that study are a bit hazy. One faculty member advised me to reflect upon what bothers me about the field and start there. When I do, I think about a few things.

First, I think about the need to explore literacy and writing as an ongoing and complex process — as networked, multimodal, and difficult to predict. We have many theories and tools in place for these conceptions of literacy, but virtually no RAD writing studies of amateur writing cultures doing it. Moreover, like Jody Shipka, I’m bothered by the tendency in the field to equate “technology” with the digital. More explicitly, I wonder how “old media” and its meanings/uses get altered through a particular new media lens. How do codes and spatial templates, for example, constrict the possibilities of form? How do digital technologies assist — as well as limit — the circulation of writing? Again, zine communities, which embrace a variety of modes for production and distribution, provide an interesting space for learning the nuances of our writing tools.

Second, I wonder if we overdetermine our pedagogies; that is, in pursuit of our own relevance/professionalism, we place too much emphasis on curriculum, assessment, and instruction. As a ex-writing center director and continuing consultant and teacher I’ve been more attracted to true studio models of writing, where teachers/consultants create or restrict the conditions for various attempts at writing, but do not micromanage the interactions. How might a more responsive, ongoing syllabi, where readings are curated by students and occasions for writing/heuristics are co-constructed (to give a few examples), open up some of the possibilities for learning? My sense is that zine makers — as self-organizing communities — have a lot to teach us about the autodidactic functions of literacy.

Finally, for many years, when it comes to the way writing works more generally, I’ve been struck by ongoing tensions between structure and agency. That is, I wonder when or in what ways is writing the product of sociocultural forces and when is it the act of our own choosing. In what cases are those acts of our own choosing actually the product of structuring forces? Here I am drawn to the work of Marilyn Cooper, Deb Brandt, Berkenkotter and Huckin, and the theories of Pierre Bourdieu.

Taken together, I imagine a diss that studies the various spaces and moments of zine-making —  individual composers cutting and pasting in their rooms, writers and presses trading at zine fests, and interactions on online spaces like We Make Zines — to consider what a DIY praxis or self-sponsorship might teach us about multimodal composing and pedagogy. Two or the more compelling questions for me include: Why print and why now? What are the affordances of the medium in an era of Tumblr or Twitter? Secondly, how do self-sponsored zine-makers develop and learn multiple literacies? How can these be traced at the level of composition, production, and circulation?

The only problem with this approach is that I don’t quite trust it — yet. That is, depending on what I’m reading, or who I’m talking with, these problems/questions shift. At the same time, this might not be as much of a problem as it feels like at the moment and that these shifts are important for winnowing toward a more consistent prospectus. To come to terms with this, I’m planning to take the approach that another faculty member suggested: to write dissertation chapter maps every few days. That is, spend an hour or so summarizing what I imagine a chapter looking like and to try and generate as many of these as possible as I read through my exam bib. It’s difficult to know what a map might look like before the thing is written, but if I understand this properly, I need to be reading for potential ideas for setting up my study. I’ll start with Shipka’s Toward a Composition Made Whole. More soon…


Searching for truth in rhetoric

This semester I’m pumped to be teaching a pilot course called DIY (Do-It-Yourself) Publishing. This is one of several of the Writing Program’s 200-level courses designed to offer an elective among the lower-division (as opposed to the compulsory, lower-division service classes that teach academic writing). Someone once described these classes as gateways for our Writing major, which thrives, but is always in competition with either one of the other writing-intensive programs on campus (the Newhouse School of Journalism, English and Textual Studies, or Communication and Rhetorical Studies) or (more likely) content-driven majors like Psychology or Marketing. Planning and teaching this course has been an absolute blast considering I attribute my interest in comp/rhet to producing both print and digital zines throughout my youth. Yet, one of the questions we have struggled with early on is defining DIY. What does it mean? What does it look like? How can we know it? If we replace “publishing” with “rhetoric” our questions inevitably bring us to concerns with agency and authorship. Are zine producers, for instance, totally free to circulate whatever ideas they want? To what extent can cut-n-paste aesthetics or CSS’d blogs claim to be original? In applying the expression “DIY” to publications or performances throughout history — as I’ve asked them to do in the first unit — who or what are the selves doing the doing? What are they are doing and why? For whom? What are the limits and boundaries to their actions and effects?

For me these are fun, theoretical and rhetorical (which is to say natural) questions to ask, but for some of my students who have are charged with practical and accountable tasks (like trying to find examples of DIY publications from our library’s vast Special Collections) the questions can be frustrating. The root of that frustration — and this is true of any class that puts rhetoric at its center — is that is at odds with a long pedagogical history that posits knowledge as an objective (i.e. testable) reality.

Several of the readings in 631 this week challenge or nuance this traditional definition of truth, though the discipline clearly is fuzzy when it comes to the relationship between rhetoric and epistemology, which I’m defining as the philosophical tradition concerned with knowledge and truth. The question of “How do I know?” is complicated, bringing out the fundamental disagreements between philosophy and rhetoric, but also rhetoric and the sciences. Of the five pieces we read this week from Part II of CRT, I found myself agreeing vehemently with two — Robert Scott’s “On Viewing Rhetoric As Epistemic” and Barry Brummett’s “Some Implications of ‘Process’ or ‘Intersubjecitvity'” — and challenged by one (Dilip Parameshwar Gaonkar’s “Rhetoric and Its Double”).

Scott’s piece is the oldest (1967) and most cited of the bunch and argues that rhetoric is epistemic so long as truth is conceived of as meeting “the demands of the precepts one adheres to and the demands of the circumstances in which one must act” (138). Structures and philosophies may guide us, but truth is also something “created moment by moment.” Rhetoric as argument or persuasion thus helps us to predict those moments as they unfold in front of us and require action. It is through the action that we begin to know and shape truth. In the context of my class, then, we may have certain ideals of what DIY should look like — amateur in aesthetic, noncommercial in purpose, minimally mediated — but that knowledge is only as good as the occasion when we need to make arguments about the significance or consequences of a DIY approach to publishing, such as the extent to which corporate conglomerates control 90% of the media.

Admittedly, a more accessible version of this argument surfaces in Brummett’s piece almost ten years later. Borrowing from a different essay by Scott, Brummett argues that intersubjectivity is a view of reality that understands others as the source of meaning (e.g. truth), while objectivity sees it as objective reality and subjectivity as solipsism (159). (At scale in the realm of social knowledge, Thomas Farrell calls this consensus, or common sense, which is the MO of hegemony.) According to Brummett, the problem with objectivity is that in the realm of science — via the tradition of Newtonian mechanics — parts are singled out from the whole and thus reduced. The tools, lens and frames used to isolate parts essentially distort the truth of that phenomenon, yet the conclusions are often passed off as truth. Intersubjectivity is thus more real because it exists within a system of a whole where meanings shift because of happenings within that whole. Rhetoric is necessary for sorting out these meanings:

“Humans are necessarily involved in sharing and manipulating messages to give and gain meanings about experience. But what experience means is not by any means agreed upon. This ambiguity is a feature of the essentially rhetorical nature of reality. Ambiguity generates conflict and disagreement about meaning and a constant striving to resolve these divisions. This striving is rhetoric; while rhetoric may be defined in many ways and on many levels, it is in the deepest and most fundamental sense the advocacy of realities.” (160)

In other words, rhetoric is necessary for reaching some kind of agreement, which the authors call truth. In some ways, this is what I’m aiming for in my refusal to settle for one definition of DIY. I’m interested in seeing how my students’ research or experiences might help us define it. And rather than start the conversation completely ignorant, I can suggest or volley certain utterances to get us going — histories of zines, documentaries on small presses, reports on contemporary indie publishers. The hope is that their own research will contribute to a conversation that leads us to certain classroom-constructed truths about DIY, especially with regard to what works, what doesn’t, etc. The problem I’ve found with this approach is that students sometimes have trouble accepting this shift. As a colleague put it to me recently, they think it’s a trap.

This is something that became more real to me in reading Gaonkar’s “Rhetoric and Its Double,” which argues that rhetoric — as the search for the available means of persuasion — is always the supplement to knowledge and truth. Recent conceptualizations of rhetoric, epitomized perhaps by Scott and Brummett’s arguments, deny this role for rhetoric and thus, unendingly defers to a more dramatic role than perhaps it ought to. While I’m tempted to evoke Robert Hariman’s essay, “Status, Marginality, and Rhetorical Theory,” from last week to question some of Gaonkar’s framing for this essay, I’m at least partially convinced that our departments across campus consistently have to make the case for our legitimacy; yet, ironically, if we look at the market for comp/rhet folks, there are comparatively more jobs available for us than other sectors of the humanities. While the cynic might argue this has more to do with history of the academy than the any real need for teachers of writing (hey, anyone can do it!), surely we teach something in our classes (though intersubjectivity helps make a strong case that we do it better in the writing center). In the field of power that is the academy, Gaonkar’s arguments are consensus. The writing center serves the classroom, not the student. A long history of graded work hardens students to the expectation that the purpose of your classroom is to teach knowable truths — whether that knowledge is a process, a formula, or a text. This is what rhetoric, the discipline, is up against.

Multimodal v digital writing

In my last post I reflected on a set of readings that considered digital composition and the digital humanities. After a fab class discussion in 733 on Monday, however, I realized that I erroneously conflated “digital” with “multimodal.” Considering that there are important differences between the two, I should have been more careful.*

Image from San Diego Air & Space Museum, Flickr Commons

I suppose part of the reason I opted for “multimodal,” however, is because “digital” feels so redundant. Nearly every text a college student composes in the 21st century is born digital, whether as a doc, rtf, txt, html, etc. Instructors increasingly require papers to be turned in electronically (I haven’t graded a printed paper in at least two years; for some of my colleagues, it’s been longer). A paper written in MS Word is hardly a “digital composition.” As WIDE argues in “Why Teach Digital Writing?” “[c]omputers are not ‘just tools’ for writing. Networked computers create a new kind of writing space that changes the writing process and the basic rhetorical dynamic between writers and readers.”  The networked properties of writing spaces (or scenes), of course, are essential to a digital curriculum; students should learn how to use RSS readers, write blogs, and rethink invention as collaborative “ongoings” instead of a singular beginnings. But what I’m looking for in a digital curriculum isn’t just about networks or networked spaces.

A multimodal digital approach, then, would require students to experiment with various electronic tools (video, audio, multimedia) in order to defamiliarize their previous understandings of analogue, print-based texts. How do those various media affect meaning making in productive ways, even (maybe especially?) when it comes to academic writing? How would they support a critical pedagogy? These are the questions I continue to research.

Consider Jeff Rice‘s 2003 piece from CCC, “The 1963 Hip-Hop Machine: Hip-Hop Pedagogy as Composition.” In that essay, Rice argues for a concept of “whatever,” taking seemingly-unrelated samples from sources (i.e. summaries, paraphrases, quotations) and juxtaposing them. It’s a productive starting point, since students often come to a research project having already anchored toward an agenda, finding sources that match up with a pre-determined frame. A whatever approach disrupts that move. I also love it because it’s an extension of hip-hop and electronic music. For example, I’ve used Girl Talk to introduce students to synthesis in WRT 205 by having them engage with Girl Talk’s sources on Wikipedia, or sites like this one, that visualizes the layered sources as they come and go in a track. All that work is done to make academic writing more accessible and playful for students, so they begin to see all meaning making as inherently intertextual, but also start to notice how print based texts synthesize meaning; they don’t just splice blocks in. Another example comes from our own Patrick Berry, who has asked students to summarize complex texts (like Haraway’s “Cyborg Manifesto”) using slideware, leading to some fun results. So while we tend to think of summary and synthesis as traditional academic, print-based moves, multimodal writing can help student both access these moves while also teaching them new sites and tools for composition.

Not that this is all so simple. While I’m just starting to tackle post-process theory (via Dobrin, Rice and Vastola’s recent collection, Beyond Postprocess), for now I would not argue that comp instructors stop at these activities in their lower-division courses. Since these courses are compelled to prepare students to actually write print-based academic texts, obviously students need practice with linear approaches to writing since that is still the world they’ll live in before and after their required composition sequences.

*Even multimodal, as a concept, still feels vague to me (and judging from the volume of scholarship on the subject, I should not be surprised). It could mean a student uses paper and crayons to produce a project (I’m thinking of some of Jody Shipka’s student projects), or it could mean drawing from the range of tools available in one’s immediate space (as my peer Allison argued in a presentation this on multimodal writing centers). Or it could mean teaching many different modes (i.e. academic genres). I haven’t researched the term as much as I need to, but alas, it’s on the agenda and first up will be Cindy Selfe’s book, as well as Claire Lauer’s piece from Computers and Composition).

Digital humanities and multimodal composition

Last week I mentioned that I’m considering having next semester’s students write scripts for Soundbeat, the audioblog produced by SU’s Belfer Audio Archive. The project appeals to me for a number of reasons, one of which is simply including more multimodal composition pedagogy without having to wait to teach a specialized upper-division course (such as Writing with Video or Digital Identities). I suppose in limited ways I have experimented with such compositions before (for example, in Spring 2010 my WRT 205 students used their smartphones or digital cameras to upload pictures of a day-long campus symposium on sustainability to Flickr). As I noted last week, however, a potential partnership with Soundbeat poses interesting questions about exigence, invention, and arrangement within a curriculum that already has specific, challenging outcomes regarding difference and academic writing. My hesitation, of course, has been with those outcomes. Thankfully we’re reading some interesting readings this week on digital composition in 733, my Digital Humanities class (S/O to @ahhitt for the selections) that help address this question:

Knievel, Michael. “What is Humanistic about Computers and Writing.” Computers and Composition 26 (2009): 92-106.

WIDE Research Center Collective. “Why Teach Digital Writing?” Kairos 10.1 (Fall 2005).

Reid, Alex. “Composition, Humanities, and the ‘Digital Age.” Digital Digs. 11 May 2011.

Shipka, Jody. “This was (not!) an Easy Assignment: Negotiating an Activity-based Multimodal Framework for Composing.” Computers and Composition Online (Fall 2007).

Hisayasu, Curtis, and Jentery Sayers“Geolocating Compositional Strategies at the Virtual University.” Kairos 12.2 (Spring 2008).

Sayers, Jentery. “Integrating Digital Audio Composition into Humanities Courses.” Profhacker: Tips about Teaching, Technology, and Productivity. The Chronicle of Higher Education. 25 May 2010.

I wish I had time to write a proper synthesis of these texts this morning, but one obvious takeaway is that not only are multimodal compositions okay in the composition classroom (FYC included), but a responsible, 21st-century pedagogy requires them. As Knievel notes, the contemporary phase of computers and writing in the humanities (dubbed “digital literacy and action”) has become particularly production driven, thanks partially to Web 2.0 technologies which have “turned the literacy lens around.” That is, digital literacy, as an “active and productive disposition toward working in and understanding electronic writing environments” (99), becomes a given for studying and for teaching. As Stuart Selber and Cindy Selfe imply: “the literacy activities taking place in electronic space — reading and composing, analyzing and producing, manipulating, and remediating — become the stuff of real intellectual and social concern” (Knievel 100). As if that argument wasn’t strong enough, consider how WIDE puts it: “today all writing is digital,” all writing occurs in electronic, networked space. More than anything, it’s this latter characteristic — networks — that changes the game for compositionists: “Networked computers create a new kind of writing space that changes the writing process and the basic rhetorical dynamic between writers and readers.” For WIDE, the implications of these changes are important:

1. “Conventional, print rhetoric theory is not adequate for computer-based writing—what we are calling “digital writing.”
2. “It is no longer possible to teach writing responsibility or effectively in traditional classrooms.”
3. “Teaching writing in digitally mediated spaces requires that we shift our approaches.”

In terms of this last point, then, what would a digital-oriented approach look like? The examples on the WIDE site are mostly dated, upper-division courses, but thankfully Allison provided a batch of diverse, inspiring, more recent examples.

  • Jody Shipka had students research words from OED and then “re-contextualize and amplify” findings using various media.
  • Curtis Hisayasu and Jentery Sayers, borrowing from critical cartography, had students geoblog at U Washington as a way to get them to “re-imagine routine campus practices as ‘encounter-possibilities.'” Students contribute to an ongoing space, the “Geoblogging Project,” where they upload images, video, and sound from campus and critically engage with representation in a way that can be potentially endlessly negotiated. See this assignment for example.
  • Jentery Sayers (via Profhacker) also has several cool ideas for incorporating audio into a comp classroom as recorded talks, audio essays, playlists, mashups, or interviews. Such an approach will do several things including “enrich their understandings of text-based scholarship.”
  • Alex Reid provides five concrete assignment/activity ideas for digital composition in FYC: slidecasts, Prezis, website, webzine/blog, and a wiki — with ideas for production/challenges, lessons, specific assignments, and evaluation criteria for each.
  • Finally, in terms of online tools and spaces for composing, check this recent link from Edudemic.

Perhaps tomorrow I’ll reflect on some ideas for how these theories and practices might be useful in a FYC or lower-division composition class without completely jettisoning academic writing.

Belfer Audio Archive Tour

On Tuesday I had an opportunity to tour SU’s Belfer Audio Archive, the 4th largest sound archive in the country. It recently doubled in size in 2008 when Morton Savada, the owner of NYC’s Records Revisited donated more than 200,000 78s, making it the 2nd largest collection of 78s in the the US (second only to the Library of Congress). But Belfer also has a large collection of cylinders (22,000, in fact), some of which have already been digitized and made publicly available within their searchable and browseable digital library.

The studio for digitizing the archive

I was invited in because of a possible collaboration with Soundbeat, the Archive’s snappy audio blog that produces a daily podcast on one recording from the archive per day. Jim, Soundbeat’s thoughtful producer, has been working with instructors at SU to have their students write scripts for various episodes. Since each episode is only 90 seconds, the scripts are quite short (125 words) and tell a specific story. And since the episodes require research — both primary and secondary — the project would be a natural fit with a composition class.

A phonograph cylinder

Since I’m gunning for a WRT 205 section this spring, it looks like I might try to match up the goals of that critical research writing course with a collaboration with Soundbeat. What I’m trying to sort through first are issues with invention and exigence. How would a student choose a recording they are genuinely interested in? How would that recording and the script fit into a larger unit of inquiry? Likewise, what should the writing process look like for such a short piece? What research methods will be necessary in order for my students to write informed pieces that tell the right story? How will I balance the project alongside the other WRT 205 outcomes?

Right now I’m trying to think about how these recordings might work in a course more broadly focused on remix culture, which is necessarily countercultural and will get the class thinking about intersections of discourses from agents and groups who have traditionally been silenced (i.e. DJs in the Bronx). I also like this idea because Belfer has some obvious restraints to making their recordings publicly available (restraints that will affect our choices for Soundbeat) and so it will open up conversations about copyright, IP law, creative commons, artistic license and access. For instance, although Belfer owns half a million recordings, only 1,600 cylinder recordings are currently available for download from the site. They will, of course, digitize more and the public can get streaming copies of the other copyrighted recordings upon request, but they have to submit said request and wait their turn in the queue, which can take weeks or even months.

But I’m also interested in the idea of having students work backward from a contemporary point they’re interested in and finish the course having written a very lean script for Soundbeat (as opposed to a 15-page paper). When I think of work in our field, like Jeff Rice‘s “The 1963 Hop-Hop Machine,” I think students will invent and find good work through juxtaposition, which is another value of remix culture.

In any case, if folks who are reading this have other ideas, I welcome them in the comments.

Silos and Intersections

Yesterday I wrote a quick summary of Jonathan Alexander’s excellent book, Literacy, Sexuality, Pedagogy, which considers how composition courses might teach sexual literacy. As Jonathan summarizes, LSP argues for

…creating pedagogical spaces in which writing instructors can approach the topic of sexuality in their writing courses as a literacy issue — a realization that becoming increasingly aware of how “talk” about sexuality is tied to some of the most fundamental ways in which we “talk” about ourselves, our lives, our communities, our nation, and our world. (178)

I ended yesterday’s post by asking how an instructor might avoid an add-on approach to sexual literacy in an already existent curriculum; we had an interesting conversation in class yesterday afternoon about that anxiety, specifically when the course already deploys a cultural-studies based critical pedagogy (as we do in our lower-division courses). The WRT 105 shared syllabus, for example, addresses many issues of difference, but does so through frames as “re-imagining the normal,” “contested space,” or “visual analysis,” so that students can choose to focus their analysis on a variety of cultural representations (that are constructed via discursive hegemonic scripts) in a variety of contexts. Put another way, our instructors are trained to teach students theory as heuristic, heuristics that could get at discourses of sexuality, but that also have an equal chance to getting at other silos of difference: issues of race, class, etc. The ultimate hope, however, is that students will address intersections of complex cultural phenomenon that traverse more than one of these silos. For example, one of the required readings in the shared textbook this semester is a Slate.com article, “Does This Purple Mink Make Me Look Gay?” which discusses hip hop and homophobia so that students have to analyze issues of sexuality which are bound up in issues of race, which are ultimately bound up in issues of language.

Our Skype conversation with Jonathan yesterday helped make more sense of these problems. Although he makes this clear in LSP, he reiterated how tokenization should be a real concern for any critical pedagogue and shared some thoughts about this in a few different ways.

For example, when I asked him how he has implemented sexual literacy as a WPA, his response was, “I don’t implement. I invite.” He shared a perspective on the recent passing of California’s FAIR Education Act, or SB 48, which, starting in January, will require public schools to teach gay history in its social studies curriculum. According to Jonathan, this will inevitably lead to a checklist-like approach to covering the curriculum, obscuring more nuanced approaches to collective agency. Harvey Milk, he said, is a choice example. Milk was elected to the SF Board of Supervisors because he collaborated with other minority groups to change the way the those supervisors were elected. Yet a legislated curriculum is likely to ignore such a nuanced understanding of the complexities of that narrative.

Jonathan agreed that adding sexual literacy to a larger curriculum of difference, as we have at SU, is a smart approach since those intersections are always present (it also, perhaps, makes implementing said curriculum across a writing program a little more doable). A class on sexuality, for example, could be inflected with issues of race. The point for Jonathan is to push back on the normative functions of culture, which are always executing at rapid speeds. In another example, Jonathan critiqued the “It Gets Better” Youtube campaign if only because of the monologic effect such a campaign has on the discourse of LGBT youth (and, presumably, for normalizing postponement and tacitly tolerating anti-gay agendas that affect our youth).

LSP and our subsequent conversation with Jonathan has interesting implications for my teaching. I’m not sure how (or if) I will incorporate sexual pedagogy/literacy into my curricula any time soon, but I do have to come to terms with it when I think about the outcomes of our courses here at SU and, specifically, as I rewrite both WRT 105 syllabus for this course and WRT 205 next semester. Thanks to @activitysory, I’ve been working with folks at the Belfer Audio Archiveon developing a possible unit for WRT 205 that would have students writing scripts for Soundbeat, Belfer’s daily podcast. Implicit in that work will be issues of IP, remix culture, and at least some accountability to critical pedagogy. I don’t know how I will accomplish all that, but I’ll reflect more tomorrow.