Selber’s Multiliteracies for a Digital Age

Stuart Selber’s Multiliteracies for a Digital Age (2004) develops a tripartite approach for teaching computer literacy, drawing from: (1) the functional approaches that treat students as users of tools, (2) critical approaches that treat students as questioners of cultural artifacts, and (3) rhetorical approaches that treat students as producers of hypertextual media (25). A key problem for Selber is reinserting a humanist, or what he calls “post critical” (3), edge into the more positivist orientations of digital work — stances that too often “consider technology to be a self-determining agent” (8). This instrumental view of technology (a term borrowed from Haas and Neuwirth) views technology as neutral and leads two problematic perspectives in English departments (and other depts imbued with liberal humanism): they either jettison everything tech because hermeneutics and close reading is their business, or embrace it but only as a handmaiden to the larger agenda of textual study.

MFDA is broken into five chapters: Chapter 1 outlines the recurring problems with computer literacy as currently articulated and deployed at universities; the middle three chapters sketch functional/critical/rhetorical approaches to literacy; the last chapter, Chapter 5, addresses the implementation of said approaches both across a program (i.e. one class per approach) and within individual courses (i.e. one assignment/unit per approach). Within each of the middle chapters, Selber provides helpful parameters for each approach. For example in Chapter 4, on rhetorical literacy, he considers how persuasion, deliberation, reflection, and social action all might play a role in teaching students how to design interfaces using a “thoughtful integration of functional and critical abilities” (145). In general, this is a praxis-oriented book and a text I’ll go back to when it comes to rethinking and/or developing curricula on digital writing.

I won’t dedicate too much space to my personal connections to the book, but there is one I want to mention. Selber begins Chapter 4 by introducing Johnson-Eiola’s discussion of production/connection from his article “Negative Spaces: From Production to Connection in Composition.” By emphasizing connection in our classes, J-E informs us, writers might “write with fragments,” focusing on “reorganizing and representing existing (and equally intertextualized) texts — their own included — in ways that are meaningful to specific audiences” (135). This reminds me of the difficulty in focusing on both — production and connection, or composition and circulation (see George & Matheiu) — and how important it is to consider shorter forms in curricula that want to do both. For example, in my DIY Publishing course last spring, asking students to produce a zine in 5-6 weeks privileged form(s) and arrangement, but it didn’t leave much time for content and the sort of inventive work that might help with it (actually, the same can be said for other aspects of the course, including our work with new media). Thus, it is important to be open to short forms and visualization, and other ideas of connection and curation so teachers have time to support students who have trouble making objects and texts.

In terms of how this book aligns with others I’ve read from the list, Selber, while critical, is interested in working from within institutions, offering a different approach than someone like Sharon Crowley, for whom the entire institutionalization of universal requirement of FYC is the essence of the discipline’s problem. That said, while Crowley critiques the entire structure, she is also clearly writing from within it. And what I appreciate about MLDA is its ability to use theory to richly qualify the recommendation it makes about practice. This seems necessary since Selber’s audience is broader than the traditional comp/rhet crowd — a strength and a weakness of the book. A strength because it is able to articulate a broad rhetorical vision for computer literacy to a wide camp of folks (English profs, deans, even students); however, at times his “heuristics,” although always carefully qualified, still feel too prescriptive. Certainly someone like Byron Hawk, who argues for a more ontological, vitalist approach to composition would take issue with both the structure and the tone of some of Selber’s recommendations.

Finally, MLDA would be a useful book for approaching exam questions about critical pedagogy/literacy, humanistic approaches to technology, discussions on the role of heuristics in the field, the purpose and function of composition, local v global curricula, self-reflexive methodologies and praxis, or conversations about the view of tech as tools.

The Rhetorical Limits of Participatory Culture

A few weeks ago  I reflected on the radical possibilities of zine (and other youth) subcultures by exploring texts about the rhetorical situation (i.e. Bitzer, Vatz, and Biesecker). I ended by raising a more recent argument by Biesecker that concerned the role of sublimation in radical political agency, considering how DIY cultures and amateur rhetorics use more affective approaches in scene-building in order to create alternative spaces — large-scale movements that widen the scope of the so-called rhetorical situation. I ended by citing Stephen Duncombe’s book, Zines: Notes from Underground, where he argues that zines — as politically conscious DIY publications — are radical simply because they “offer up an alternative, a way of understanding and acting in the world that operates with different rules and upon different values than those of consumer capitalism” (10). Mass media outlets, on the other hand, are very effective at negating the very possibility of alternative spaces.

But alas, the Internets! The Internets with their majestic, never-ending, completely democratic ones and zeros. Everyone has an alternative space in the digital era. Right? I’m being a little sarcastic here because I think it might be tempting to dismiss this week’s “Rhetoric in the Mass Media” readings from Contemporary Rhetorical Theory since not one of them was published after 1991. Yet, perhaps because of this, I found the tensions vetted in this set — between rhetor/audience, structure/agency, symbolist/materialist, psychological/cultural/economic perspectives — helpful in considering the various scenes of DIY publishing in the 21st century; of course, I’d also wager these tensions are messier than ever.

My go-to praxis this semester has been the course of that same name and since writing the post I referenced above, my students have moved from producing print zines in Unit 1 to experimenting with various web platforms in Unit 2. This unit, dubbed “Participatory Culture,” asks students to blog and tweet regularly (#WRTDIY) while also dabbling in seemingly less-agentive spaces like Yelp, Amazon, or Wikipedia as well as those that require them to compose with sound (e.g. Audacity) or motion (e.g. iMovie). It’s a quickly-paced unit so even though Twitter conversations bookend our meetings, we only spend on 80 minutes on each platform or mode. Still, it’s enough time to touch upon the major advantages and disadvantages of each space and provide students with enough information to decide if they want to explore that space further in the unit or in their final projects. We’ve also dedicated some time to evaluating the space’s independence or DIY ethos.

As with the last unit, I’m learning a ton. Either I force myself to experiment in order to have better insight into the spaces/platforms/tools we’re using or my students introduce me to them. Last week for example, while discussing wikis, one of my students mentioned TV Tropes, a site that catalogues the “devices and conventions that a writer can reasonably rely on as being present in the audience members’ minds and expectations.” TV Tropes allows users to describe or read about common — but not cliche — tropes used in various mass-mediated narratives: comic books, films, literature, TV, video games, etc. (in other words, the site isn’t limited to TV). The site is searchable and browse-able, linked through specific media, and its tropes are nested. For example, there’s a page called “Pregnancy Tropes” that has two pages dedicated to abortion tropes: “Good Girls Avoid Abortion” and “Magical Abortion.” Under each of these are numerous folders of various media that contain instances of the trope by way of plot summary. As if the site itself isn’t mind blowing enough, the list of contributors (“tropers” in the parlance of the site) tops out at more than 1,000.

Of course Barry Brummett’s essay, “Burke’s Representative Anecdote as a Method in Media Criticism” comes to mind as one looks at both the list of tropes and their examples to the point of objectification. Brummett borrows from Burke to argue that dramatic discourse as “widely used symbolic strategies” may serve to support audiences through the particular exigencies of their time. Exaggerated narratives — like both versions of The Invasion of the Body Snatchers — would help audiences deal with the technological shifts, economic instability, or big brother jeremiads pervading their pschye (to borrow from Rushing and Frentz).

So this argument goes, the tropes listed on TV Tropes, then, might “serve as better equipment for living” so long as the rhetorical critic can help others make the connection (480). While this assumes the public actually listens to critics, Brummett’s article has a forgiveness to it that allows the reader to not feel so bad about having recently watched yet another episode of Workaholics. For your health, as Dr. Brule would say.

A similarly optimistic perspective on mass media has been taken up by numerous cultural studies scholars and critical audience analysts since at least the 1980s and Celeste Michelle Condit references several of them in “The Rhetorical Limits of Polysemy.” She accuses John Fiske, Janice Radway, and others of being overly generous in their assertion that popular media allows for pleasurable, productive, and liberating polysemous readings. Condit then uses two case studies to show how an episode of Cagney and Lacey requires more work for a resistant reading — a decoding — depending on the viewer’s subject position.

Such additional work can preclude resistance because of its ability to silence viewers, qualify their pleasure, or suppress already limited or barely visible counter-rhetorics. Moreover, the elite public at the time influences the possibilities of kinds of abortion narratives aired or told (TV Tropes further supports this claim) so that the third personae must do “double work– deconstructing the dominant code and reconstructing their own” (504).

Condit does not want to guilt intellectuals into feeling bad about taking pleasure in decoding or simply viewing TV shows like Cagney and Lacey or reading romance novels; however, claims that polysemous readings lead to liberation must be qualified by considering “collectivized (group, internally organized through communication production) action and pleasure” (507). Without collectivization, social change is not possible by way of mass media. In this sense, zinesters in the 80s and 90s provided an important site for the possibilities of social change in pushing back against consumerist culture through mail-order circulation of their print zines that simultaneously adored mass media (think: sic-fi zines) and also rejected it. I believe their contributions have been unfortunately overshadowed by terms like “participatory culture” which have magically appeared once the internet became widespread. Before the web, we had zines and other small presses.

But that’s a historical take. I find Condit’s analysis compelling and wonder how it might be applied to more contemporary scenes of DIY production, namely by participatory cultures writing for sites like TV Tropes, or larger sites like Wikipedia, where ideally audiences are simultaneously positioned as rhetors — rhetors as coders and decoders. On one hand a powerful collectivization occurs when a reader witnesses hundreds of users exposing culture industry tropes — and the problems that occur when those tropes appease certain audiences’ expectations. On the other hand, one can watch the collective air leave the room when your average group of students — regular Wikipedia consumers — see how much effort goes into contributing to these sites, and how said contributions are a privilege in and of themselves.

For example, in an effort to demonstrate to my students some of what I’ve only read about re:Wikipedia, I made my first contribution to the site last week by adding one simple, seemingly-innocuous sentence about zine fests to the Fanzine page. To the benefit of my education I ended up in a minor editing war about my sentence’s weight and neutral point of view that took about 1-2 hours of my time. I won’t get into it here, because I’m running out of room. But that’s also my point: peep the Revision History and you’ll understand what went down only if you are literate in Mediawiki code and the revision interface. In other words, while Conidt applies terms of de/coding to mass-mediated narratives, the technological determinist mindset is quickly checked when one is asked to actually contribute to certain sites like Wikipedia.

Alas, this makes me wonder if code — HTML, java, AJAX, and hundreds more — is the way we must reconsider the encoding/decoding a world of 21st century composers and if print is in some way a more accessible space for the third personae — or even the privileged elite. Even to many professors at a private university, 21st century interfaces like WordPress and Twitter (never mind code), can be an intimidating space. Because, let’s face it, most of us in comp/rhet work within code, not with code. That is, we write within already mediated spaces: WordPress, Twitter, Facebook are all containers that we have some, but certainly not total agency over (and let’s not even talk about BlackBoard). So perhaps the current state of mass media isn’t so much negating alternatives, as Duncombe argued in 1998, but structuring/writing them for us. I’m not suggesting we avoid teaching with interfaces, but only that we consider their boundaries and not dismiss print wholesale just because our conception of it is the Times New Roman, double-spaced academic paper.

Concurrent session titles as ideographs?

Just getting back into the week after being at my 4th CCCC last week in Las Vegas. This was my first time actually presenting and I’m pleased to say that it went pretty well, despite having gone dead last (#N.08). I’m intending to post something more extensive on our talk sometime soon, but in the meantime I want to reflect briefly on some of the common terms that were used, explored, critiqued this year by way of a tag cloud of the titles of concurrent sessions.

Yes, the methodology is crude, can’t touch the depth of the individual panels, and lacks any sort of comparison, but here’s what’s revealed when I dump the titles into TagCrowd and limit the frequency to ten.

Screen Shot 2013-03-18 at 7.00.12 PM








Nothing too surprising here. “Writing” and “composition” makes sense given the field’s teleos, and “public” is up there because of the conference theme (“The Public Work of Composition”). But as we read Michael Calvin McGee’s “The ‘Ideograph’: A Link Between Rhetoric and Ideology” this week in Contemporary Rhetorical Theory, I wonder if I can consider these terms as ideographs, “the basic structural elements, the building blocks, of ideology” (428). Ideographs are assuming, abstract terms like “liberty” or “rule of law,” “representing collective commitment to a particular but equivocal and ill-defined normative goal” that “guides behavior and beliefs into channels easily recognized by a community as acceptable and laudable” (435). Ideographs are necessary, argues McGee, because of the materiality they may provide for the symbolist critique that overly relies on myth to explain hegemony. In short, McGee borrows a symbolic unit of analysis in order to develop a Marxist critique that goes beyond materialism.

In treating the above words as ideographs, we might understand the use of “public” or “literacy” or “community” or even “student” as givens for our work that require more critical reflection. As Raymie McKerrow notes in “Critical Rhetoric,” a “permanent criticism” might be our only means to understanding freedom in the context of social movements. That is, by using ideographs to understand common terms at CCCC, it might reveal assumption, or what McGee calls the “interpenetrating systems or ‘structures’ of [our] public motives” (427). In short, ideographs hold vast symbolic ideals of consensus, where community members will “inflict penalties on those who use ideographs in heretical ways and on those who refuse to respond appropriately to claims on their behavior warranted through the agency of ideographs  (436).

Of course while those heretics and refusers have likely already been denied access to the program by one of two stages of readers, McGee tells us we can read the words from the tag cloud as developing via two different ideologies: one diachronically and one synchronically. Ideographs develop diachronically, “expanding and contracting” throughout a term’s history; by understanding its subsequent applications, we begin to understand a particular grammar or logic to the term. At the same time, the ideology can be viewed as synchronic , as horizontal, rhetorical and context-bound. A synchronic structure allows us to consider how certain ideographs clash to create what McGee calls “synchronic confrontations” (433). Moreover, “[n]o ideology can be divorced from past commitments, if only because the very words used to express present dislocations have a history that establishes the category of their meaning” (434).  Kathi Yancey’s keynote at Qualitative Research Network Forum last Wednesday provided an interesting example of such dislocations as she traced the uses of “transfer” throughout the last 10 or so years. She didn’t, however, appear to expose any ideology embedded in the term; I wonder, then, what we’d understand of “transfer” if she treated like an ideograph.

Perhaps the most relevant ideograph for my work, however, is “digital,” especially, if I follow up on the last post, when we think of it in opposition to print. A quick search of the CCCC program app this year reveals that while “digital” received 30 hits, “print” received none. At the same time, print might be receiving a revival in  the term “multimodality,” but one has to wonder how that term gets conflated. As Jody Shipka and Jason Palmeri can attest, there is a gross equivocality given to “digital” and “multimodal” composition. And as Chris Anson noted in his chair’s address this years, MOOCs might also complicate ideographs like “access” or “public.” This post is too brief to experiment with the use of McGee’s framework, but I do wonder how a diachronic and synchronic view of any one of these terms might help reveal some of the ideologies that circulated last week in Vegas.

Burke and the Late Age of Print

As we transition from print communities to digital, participatory cultures in my DIY Publishing class this week, I’ve been of course trying to theorize some of the important differences between these various technologies and/or scenes. The concept of a participatory culture was first articulated by Henry Jenkins in his famous 2006 MacArthur white paper about media education. From the executive summary:

“A participatory culture is a culture with relatively low barriers to artistic expression and civic engagement, strong support for creating and sharing one’s creations, and some type of informal mentorship whereby what is known by the most experienced is passed along to novices. A participatory culture is also one in which members believe their contributions matter, and feel some degree of social connection with one another (at the least they care what other people think about what they have created).” (3; emphasis mine)

In this sense, any DIY community is participatory; political pamphlets, zines, art books, and independent journalism match these same general properties: anyone can cut and paste, learn from the more experienced members of the scene, and of course feel socially connected with one another. Most importantly, in any DIY publishing community, the work circulates among audiences who also produce the content. This begs the question, if participatory cultures have existed with us since the beginning of mass literacy, why has the digital privliged DIY now more than ever. The obvious answer might be located in Jenkins’s first characteristic where contemporary participatory cultures have “relatively low barriers to artistic expression and civic engagement.” That is, anyone with a smartphone or access to a library computer can technically self-publish. You don’t have to spend $50 at Kinko’s to circulate your ideas on Facebook. I don’t want to contest that common sense response as much as I want to think more critically about how the field of comp/rhet has been perhaps eager to claim the digital as the dominant narrative for the imagined future of writing.

While Jody Shipka, Jay David Bolter or Ted Striphas might be more useful for exploring this question, I turn to Burke’s Rhetoric of Motives (ROM) not only because it’s our required reading in 631 this week, but because his concept of identification might allow us to better understand the new status of print inside and outside the classroom.

By the time Burke reaches his section on identification in ROM he’s discussed, among another things, the poems of Milton and Coleridge as they evoke the complexities of death in their work. In the case of both authors murder/suicide resists being reduced to a single motive. As such, no term can capture the motives in these cases, which is a purposeful move of the poet so as to employ image as transformation more generally. Burke chooses death/killing as topoi in ROM in order to illustrate the complexity of motive — as “proportions of a motivational recipe” (17) — but also to argue that depictions of death also identify a thing’s essence through its transformation. This is important for the concept of identification since “transformation involves the ideas and imagery of identification. That is: the killing of something is the changing of it, and the statement of the thing’s nature before and after the change is an identifying of it” (20). I may be perverting Burke here, but I wonder what the essence of print becomes when we declare its death. In a Burkean Burkeian sense, what is it transformed to?

I suppose, per usual, it depends on the context. When Kathleen Fitzpatrick describes the scholarly monograph in Planned Obsolescence, she calls it undead: “not viable, but still required” in the humanities. That is, while “the book” is indisputably the “gold standard for tenure” and promotion, the presses that publish the bound codex cannot support the number of academics writing them. As the title may suggest, Fitzpatrick argues that networked technologies such as Commentpress – which was used throughout the review process of Planned Obsolescence – are necessarily changing the way texts are born. Necessarily because ultimately Fitzpatrick’s argument is that the more grave obsolescence is not technological at all, but institutional: the process by which we produce, circulate, vet, and value the print monograph in the humanities is unsustainable. By declaring the scholarly monograph undead, Fitzpatrick is able to essentialize print, via the image of the zombie, as obsolete. What’s more, Fitzpatrick uses a material consubstantiation of the peer-to-peer network to propose a new way of doing peer review that is more in line with the academy’s needs in the 21st century.

According to Burke, consubstantiality occurs when two identities join as one:

“A is not identical with his colleague, B. But insofar as their interests are joined, A is identified with B. Or he may identify himself (sic) with B even when their interests are not joined, if he assumes that they are, or is persuaded to believe so… In being identified with B, A is “substantially one” with a person other than himself. Yet at the same time he remains unique, an individual locus of motives. Thus he is both joined and separate, at once a distinct substance and consubstantial with another… To identify A with B is to make A ‘consubstantial’ with B.” (20-21)

He goes on later in the section to argue that “[a] doctrine of consubstantiality … may be necessary to any way of life. For substance, in the old philosophies, was an act; and a way of life is an acting-together; and in acting together, men have common sensations, concepts, images, ideas, attitudes that make them consubstantial” (21). Fitzpatrick’s suggestion in Planned Obsolescence, then, is to increase the chances and frequency of consubstantiation via networked technologies. In doing so, our academic communities will limit the role of the monologic reviewer, but permit themselves to create something she calls “peer-to-peer review,” networked spaces such as blog-based platforms that “not only brings in more voices (which may identify more potential issues), and not only provides some ‘review of reviews’ (with reviewers weighing in on the issues raised by others), but is also crucially, a conversation.”

Through the process of conversation where rhetoric is at its center, identification and division compete. As Burke writes: “…put identification and division ambiguously together, so that you cannot know for certain just where one ends and the other begins, and you have the characteristic invitation to rhetoric” (25). Peer review, then becomes a contact zone for consubstantiality — and eventually as identifications takes hold, consensus and truth.

I think Fitzpatrick makes a fascinating and important case for how and why digital publishing networks can help bring the humanities into the 21st century. I’m on board. Yet, as my posts have asserted this semester, context is key. Again: how might the rush to declare print dead or undead transform it for other communities of practice? As Burke writes in Part II of ROM, how one uses rhetoric to gain advantage is dependent on audience: “The same rhetorical act could vary in its effectiveness, according to shifts in the situation of in the attitude of audiences” (62). Advantage, in other words, is defined by its context. Burke uses Aristotle, La Rochefoucauld and others to explain the different fruits that result form the concept of advantage: “happiness,” “love of glory,” “envy of others,” “desire for money,” etc. For Burke, the 21st century’s screen saturation might give print’s death a new meaning. For book makers, zine writers, and others who are involved in various DIY print communities, cool become that transcendent term. Advantage is gained through cultural capital (and obviously material capital since distinction in this context costs money). Yet as some would argue, DIY print texts are fundamentally detached from corporate networks, free from privacy compromises, terms of service agreements, and the like.

Aside from this, this semester is teaching me more than ever that print’s death can help defamiliarize visual rhetoric for “digitally native” students. That is, by asking students to put together booklets or zines, they literally see how form affects function and that they must think about audience in perhaps more experimental, riskier ways. In Burkean Burkeian terms, it helps students think that consubstantiation isn’t always intentional, but incidental.

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).