In the thickofit

Fun with the Rudolph app

Yes, it’s that week. The one where I’m jealous that you got all your holiday shopping done and can actually enjoy the season’s events: driving through Lights on the Lake, giggling at a rare public viewing of the Star Wars Holiday Specialsledding walking around the Woodland Reservoir. Don’t get me wrong. I’m not complaining. After the 21st, I’ll be set free from hard deadlines and teaching until mid-January. And it’s not like the work I’m doing is especially laborious. I’m reading some great stuff, writing a ton, and planning curriculum. But if you’re an academic and are interested in giving and not necessarily receiving, here’s my xmas list this week:

  • one publishable book review of Kathleen Fitzpatrick’s Planned Obsolescence (which I’m absolutely loving, btw)
  • a coherent reflection about blogging
  • 3-5 solid, seminal articles about teaching academic writing to undergraduates in the late age of print.
  • a list of free, private, web-based platforms that lend themselves to teaching undergraduates about critical research
  • proven assignment ideas for a critical research course for sophomores
I think that covers it. You can leave these gifts in the comments.

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 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.

Race, Rhetoric, and Reality: Adam Banks and Chuck D

For Steve’s class on Tuesday we read Adam Banks’s Race, Rhetoric, and Technology and was lucky enough to have Adam, a former SU prof now at Kentucky, Skype in. Then on Wednesday night, the family and I went to see Chuck D give a talk he called “Combating the Weapons of Mass Distraction” which was sponsored by our Kappa Alpha Psi fraternity. Both experiences were inspiring, and both addressed issues of race and access.

There’s a nice summary of Adam’s book plus our conversation with him over on Hitt’s page, but essentially RRT argues that when it comes to the Digital Divide, our conversation has to be about transformative access; and in order for tech to be truly transformative we (the field of comp/rhet and beyond) have to go beyond material access to address other functions of technology, namely “critique, use, and design” (44). To get there Adam broadens the definition of technology to go beyond the artifact (somewhat out of necessity) to include processes, discursive practices, and tropes. So, for example, if racism is literally coded into various social constructs — the legal system is one example Adam uses since it imprisons a disproportionate number of blacks — then we need to think about how to undo that code. Drawing from Derek Bell, Adam argues that the jeremiad, “an African American rhetorical form that is both a warning and a lament” (95) is one such “countertechnology” that does this work.

I was reminded of the jeremiad on Wednesday night when Chuck D addressed a group of mostly black undergrads. Although the talk was informal and a little scattered at times, Chuck’s main point was this: “You chasin’ the money, you runnin’ in the desert.” He called attention several times to the Occupy Wall Street as a sign of inequality that is going to lead to a social collapse, and encouraged us to think about what it means to “get money.” “If you don’t know what money is how you gonna get it?” If you’re not “a nerd at your goddamn major,” you’re going to finish college with nothing but debt. Although Chuck underscored these warnings (and framed them through hip hop many times), he was also funny and hopeful. He often reflected on what’s possible in college based on his experiences, at one point talking about the importance of brotherhood and collaboration: “I got four majors out of friendship and paid for one.” And at one point Chuck, also an avid Tweeter, held up his smartphone and said “There ain’t no excuse for you to not have an answer today … it’s impossible to not see somethin’ comin’ at you.”

Throughout Adam’s book, which was written six years ago (read: a long ass time in tech terms), I did wonder what role mobile devices are playing in the black community and how that changes the access game when it comes to his axis of critique, use and design. It makes me think about some of the affordances and limits of those devices as reading and writing tools. In a way we did talk little about this when a classmate of mine asked Adam about the role of Twitter in the black community, which does have a proportionately high rate of use among nonwhites. Adam had some interesting ideas about future work in those areas which was rich for discussion about the role of public and private discourse, counterpublics, and the underground.

There were other interesting, subtler connections between Adam’s project and Chuck’s talk: the function of hip hop in both liberation and domestication, African American intellectual identity, and the role of language in all of it. But both experiences also have me thinking about how I can bring some of this work back in to the classroom next semester since I’m betting on getting a WRT 205 course that I’d like to center on either remix culture or countertechnology, hip hop, or countercultural music more generally. Adam had some cool ideas in this regard; the intellectual mix tape, a petcha kutcha style assignment and other ideas are worth trying out. I’ll be revisiting those when the time comes.

Reefer Madness

I expected to get a lot more reading done in Canada, having entered the week wondering if my two books — Sam Lipsyte’s The Ask and Gregory Colon Semenza’s Graduate Study for the 21st Century — would sustain me. And while I did dig a bit into the latter, I jettisoned The Ask once I tore into the intro to my wife’s second pick for the week: Reefer Madness, Eric Schlosser’s focused, investigative look at the American black market.

Anyone who reads regularly (or breathes) should recognize Schlosser as one of two leading authors on contemporary food politics (the other being Michael Pollan). I haven’t read his main claim to fame, Fast Food Nation (FFN), but remember liking “Why McDonald’s Fries Taste Good” from the Atlantic in the early oughts, and of course I’ve seen Food Inc., which I imagine is a hybrid product of Pollan’s Omnivore’s Dilemma and FFN. But after reading Reefer Madness, I might read it. (I’m also now sorry I missed Schlosser’s visit to Syracuse last March.) Reefer Madness is a little outdated with drafts appearing as early as the mid 90s in national magazines like the Atlantic, but I had a difficult time putting it down, toting it to doctors offices, boat rides, etc. The book persuasively executes wide and narrow scopes using data and narrative to explore the black markets of marijuana (“Reefer Madness”), illegal migrant labor (“In the Strawberry Fields”), and porn (“An Empire of the Obscene”).

My quick take on the content:

“Reefer Madness” – The decriminalization of marijuana is a no brainer and it’s maddening to read about hemp prohibition’s effect on our legal system. The discrepancies in penalties in particular, is distressing. (Here’s a shortcut.) Twenty grams or less in New York will lead to a $100 fine, while the same amount in Florida can lead to a misdemeanor and 1 year in jail. And mandatory minimum sentences essentially move sentencing power from jurors and judges to prosecuting attorneys, subverting our basic legal system.

“In the Strawberry Fields” – Schlosser’s shortest chapter, on California’s illegal migrant strawberry pickers, is a helpful digest on immigration issues in the US prior to 2003 and good starting point for folks like me who know very little about immigration reform. Since 1980, Schlosser notes, the hourly wage of the California farmworker dropped by 50%, mostly thanks to policies that have encouraged growers to hire the cheapest laborer possible. And that’s really still the issue today. Most folks agree that the deplorable wages ($6-8 per hour in California) preclude most Americans from even considering these strenuous jobs. It’s a given. So introducing any strict, serious immigration reform would create a worker vacuum that would harm specific economies in central California and beyond. But instead of raising wages or trying to protect migrant’s from exploitation (“There’s nothing more permanent than temporary workers” says one economist), states like Arizona and South Carolina have instead adopted cat/mouse local enforcement policies that try to catch as catch can. And House Republicans just introduced the Legal Workforce Act (AKA the E-Verify Bill), which would require business owners to use an expensive federal database to check workers’ SS#s against a central database to see if they’re legal. The LA Times has good coverage on the bill, which has several of its own problems.

“An Empire of the Obscene” – The last essay in Schlosser’s book explores the rise of the porn industry after 1950 through the captivating story of Reuben Sturman, a distributor first of adult magazines, but later of peep machines and films. When various local, state and federal agencies could not bring Sturman down with obscenity charges, they went after his tax record. Eventually he was caught hiding millions of dollars in offshore accounts and served time for tax evasion, and later extortion. Of the three essays in the book, the last one is the most narrative driven. After reading his story, readers should feel amazed that hadn’t ever heard of Sturman, who died in 1997 (about the same time Schlosser was crafting early versions of this essay).

As I finished Reefer Madness, I wondered how well the book would hold up in an undergraduate research writing class. The book could be used as an interesting springboard for various inquiries into capitalism or the black market (and all could use some updating), or the chapters could be treated as separate essays used in more focused inquires on sex workers, marijuana, or illegals. A predictable but major issue comp instructors would have to address is Schlosser’s soft documentation. Presumably to aid with readability, Schlosser cites vaguely, using 60+ back pages for “notes” on methods and sources, which I admit I probably could have spent more time with. Otherwise, though, the books successfully blends numbers with characters, establishing shots with close-ups, and manages to check self-righteousness at the door and let the muckraker’s research do the talking.