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.

DH buzz

I wrote this a few weeks ago, but we never got a chance to discuss the set of readings mentioned. I wanted to post it just to have the log.


In 733 we are still grappling with definitions of DH (although I honestly feel disingenuous saying “still” since I reckon that we can debate its definition throughout the entire course). A few weeks ago I ended a post by asking whether or not there is an honest disciplinarity to DH or the term was just a buzzword. If there was something in common in this next set of readings, then, it was to take up that question more or less head on.

For Wendell Piez it meant asking of what value DH could bring students. Acknowledging full well that DH is the “smoked salmon, sour cream, capers and dill of the English Department smorgasbord,” he gradually gives DH due, arguing that the field affords what the humanities always has: “a world view that is not only critical, but tolerant of criticism and therefore capable of vitality, creativity and growth” (para 11). The piece seems to narrate this come-to-jesus moment.

For Oya Rieger, DH enthusiasm is more buzz than substance, seeing how more than 80% of Cornell’s fellows for the Society for the Humanities (n=45) didn’t know what the phrase even meant (she cites Hayles, who claims only 10% of humanists seriously participate in research that require digital tools). While she does call it a catchphrase, essential to the term is its evolution (Rieger calls it a “moving target”). DH is not easily defined because it is always changing.

Patrik Svensson agrees, arguing that the “territory of the DH is currently under negotiation” and that “these ongoing negotiations occur on multiple levels, from an individual graduate student and local institutions to national funding agencies and international institutional networking.” Svensson’s approach is comprehensive in that it examines DH at various modes of engagement: via literature review and four concrete encounters (i.e. visits at DH centers in North America).

One of the implications that both Rieger and Svensson draw from their work is that there needs to be a sustained investment in the DH. Rieger claims that one reason the numbers are low in the humanities is because the academy needs “service frameworks”: labs, software, services, professional development opportunities, etc. Svensson calls this “cyberinfrastructure.” Like writing centers, DH projects are, as McGann argues, “born into poverty” (qtd. in Rieger).

What confuses me though, is the difference between “humanities computing” and “digital humanities.” So while both Rieger and Svensson claim that DH is emergent, Piez feels that the former “no longer serves in an era when the computer club has become an in-group: the rule of identity politics seems to be that for one’s old identity to become fashionable, you need a new name for it” (para 3).

Oya Y. Rieger. “Framing digital humanities: The role of new media in humanities scholarship.” First Monday. Oct. 2010. 14 Sep. 2011.

Piez, Wendell. “Something Called ‘Digital Humanities’.” Digital Humanities Quarterly. Summer 2008. 14 Sep. 2011.

Svensson, Patrik. “The Landscape of Digital Humanities.” Digital Humanities Quarterly. Summer 2010. 14 Sep. 2011.

Intro to digital humanities

Thanks to Labor Day, this past Monday was the first time my digital humanities (DH) class met having to read something from the field beforehand; as one might assume, these essays sought to define DH, articulate some of the core problems DHers address, provide a brief history, and pose several methods that make DH important to the humanities, the academy, and knowledge production more generally.

Considering that Matt Kirschenbaum argues that the term “digital humanities” (DH) came at least partially from the process involved in titling the Blackwell Companion to Digital Humanities (CDH), it’s fitting that we not only read his short piece from the ADE Bulletin last January (originally based on address from the summer of 2010), but also bits and pieces from Part I of the CDH (freely available online, thank god). So this blog post is an attempt to outline some of the arguments in those pieces and maybe (maybe?) make sense of them.

Kirschenbaum answers the questions in his piece, “What Is Digital Humanities and What’s It Doing in English Departments?,” rather directly if not generally. In response to the former, (What is DH?) Kirschenbaum (appropriately, says me) relies on Wikipedia’s definition, but also adds that DH “is more akin to a common methodological outlook than an investment in any one specific set of texts or even technologies,” embracing approaches to common humanities texts using powerful analytical tools and archiving processes.

In terms of history, Kirschenbaum argues that the the creation of the Office of Digital Humanities at NEH — and all the grants and visibility that came with it — was the “tipping point for the branding of DH.” He likens the creation of DH to the Birmingham School and discusses general ways that a ADE crowd might have encountered (or missed) DH visibility, such as through tweets at conferences or articles in the Chronicle/Inside Higher Ed. After connecting DH interests to the academy at large, he then makes a case for why DH belongs in English departments. He gives six reasons: text is the primary data, the “long association between computers and composition,” the editorial theory that lead to digital archiving (curation?), the excitement and following of hypertext and e-lit, the inclusion of cultural studies in those departments, and finally the growth of e-reading and associated hardware. He ends his piece with a call to scholarship and pedagogy that is both “collaborative and depend on networks of people and that live an active 24/7 life online.”

The intro to the Blackwell Companion to Digital Humanities by Schreibman, Siemens and Unsworth argues that the collection, which was published in 2005, marks the first time scholars of DH, representing several disciplines, came together to share their perspectives on the purpose, functions, methods and tools of DH. According the authors, DH uses “information technology to illuminate the human record” — distant reading practices, for example — “and bringing an understanding of the human record to bear on the development and use of information technology,” with things like usability technologies and geographic information systems (GIS).

Aside from Susan Hockey’s chapter on the general history of DH, Part I of the book provides as survey of the various disciplines’ engagement with and contributions to DH. Archaeologists/historical geographers use GISes to reconstruct key historical sites; literary studies engage various computer-assisted tools to quantitatively (and controversially) detect patterns is large bodies of text (a later chapter by Martha Nell Smith talks about how these methods have assisted scholars in putting major debates — like Dickenson’s use of the dash — to rest); performance studies use CAD software to construct sets in virtual 3-D; multimedia theorists consider what should be digitized, how those objects will represent the original, and how media manipulation alters meaning. Based on these readings, some of the common tools used in DH include:

  • GIS
  • CAD
  • databases and archiving code (TEI and XML for records, images, or corpora)
  • database mining (searching and sorting)
  • hypertext

Throughout all of this, though, as the introduction to CDH makes clear, representation — specifically how the digital environments alter artifacts’ meaning — is a fundamental concern for DHers. At the end of the introduction, Schreibman, Siemens and Unsworth puts it this way: “Ultimately, in computer-assisted analysis of large amounts of material that has been encoded and processed according to a rigorous, well thought-out system of knowledge representation, one is afforded opportunities for perceiving and analyzing patterns, conjunctions, connections, and absences that a human being, unaided by the computer, would not be likely to find.”

In order to do this, DHers must, as Hockey puts it in her history of humanities computing, “embrace the two cultures”: to use scientific and systemic analytical methods to reach new humanistic problems. As one might expect, a push away from hermeneutics and toward more objective, science and thus quantitative methods, received its fair or direct or indirect resistance.

A few questions came out of these readings in class. Questions, I’m sure, that don’t have definitive answers, but will become easier to approach as the semester goes on.

  • At the conclusion of the chapter on multimedia, Rockwell and Mactavish claim “There are two ways we can think through multimedia. The first is to think about multimedia through definitions, histories, examples, and theoretical problems. The second way is to use multimedia to think and to communicate thought.” This led us to ask if the same can be extended to DH approaches more generally. And so if that’s fair, how does comp/rhet as a discipline contribute or help define the activities of DH? What’s our place? What does a statement like this one from Hockey say about our influence outside of the classroom: “Gradually, certain application areas spun off from humanities computing and developed their own culture and dissemination routes.’Computers and writing‘ was one topic that disappeared fairly rapidly.” Say what?
  • Susan Hockey’s history goes back as early as 1949 to trace the evolution of “humanities computing” to the current moniker of “digital humanities.” Given the sales pitchiness of Kirschenbaum’s address (not necessarily a critique given his audience), I can’t help but wonder if there is an honest disciplinarity to DH or if it’s a buzzword. (Just previewing some of Wendell Piez’s piece in DHQ, part of our reading for next week, I’m led to believe I’m not the only one.)
  • Related: Can scholars arrive at a better understanding (or rhetoric, even) of the major tenets and purposes of the humanities via DH methods? That is, given some of the recent claims in the academy about the relevance and future of humanists’ work, is the invention of the term and concept “digital” useful as a heuristic for better defining our relevance in the academy?
  • If I’m going to pursue a major project on fanzine history (something I’m interested in), how can DH approaches support that project? How can the technologies, but also the methods, help me develop a better understanding of the transition, for example, in the mid-90s from print-based subcultural zines to e-zines. What work has already been done here? What would such a study tell us about other forms of writing? Remix culture?
Kirschenbaum, Matthew. “What Is Digital Humanities and What’s It Doing in English Departments?” ADE Bulletin. 150 (2010). : n. pag. 31 Aug. 2011.
Schreibman, Susan, Ray Siemens, and John Unsworth, eds. A Companion to Digital Humanities. Wiley-Blackwell, 2005.