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.