Histories and Counter-Histories

In the afterward to A Counter-History of Composition, Byron Hawk articulates several conceptual starting places for constructing a “sub/versive history,” a methodology that opens up historiography, that “moves beyond the binary designations and teleology of revisionary history to produce multiple counter-histories” (260). That is, Hawk’s interest is not to replace one history with another as a revisionist historiographer might do (i.e. Kitzhaber, Berlin, Crowley, or Connors), but to multiply histories to open up possibilities for the field that respond to exigencies of his time. As far as Hawk’s is concerned, our present time requires ecological, vitalist theories of composition. His counter-history thus revisits how vitalism has been positioned in order to create pedagogies centered on environments over specific subjectivities that develop from tactics like hermeneutics or heuristics. In other words, Hawk’s perspective on history is that it always already fulfills a rhetorical purpose.

In theory, historiography in comp/rhet has consistently acknowledged this point — in various Octologs, essays on methodologies (especially feminist ones), or in other monographs. That said, the degree to which our histories have been framed as rhetorical has varied considerably. For example, throughout Invention in Rhetoric and Composition, Janice Lauer uses four pedagogies to stress the ways scholars and practitioners have traditionally approached invention: as natural ability pedagogies, imitation pedagogies, practice pedagogies, and art pedagogies. She revisits this typology throughout Invention, but doesn’t explain how or why this lens makes the most sense for her history. Though she admits that sometimes these pedagogies are integrated, this typology is found throughout her work (see “Instructional Issues: Toward an Integration” from 1988). Lauer is certainly aware of the limits of history; she calls her approach merely “illustrative” in the face of the long historical record; but she does not imply that Invention is a work of rhetoric itself.

A more complicated example perhaps is James Berlin’s Rhetoric & Reality. Berlin uses epistemology as a terministic screen (via Burke) to identify three theories — objective, subjective, and transactional — for understanding how the field has approached college writing instruction throughout the 20th century. This method, he argues, should not read as a totality; he notes in the introduction that his “taxonomy is not meant to be taken as exhaustive of the entire field of rhetoric, but is simply an attempt to make manageable the discussion of the major rhetorics I have encountered in examining this period” (6). Here Berlin admits that his method is limiting, but still claims to offer a “true,” albeit incomplete, history. Later in the introduction, Berlin reflects on his role as the historian, that it is up to each “to make every effort to be aware of the nature of her point of view and its interpretive strategies, and to be candid about them with her reader” (17). Berlin’s interpretive strategy, then, is that epistemology is a means to interpret reality and exposes the rhetorical values of the time. This is especially important with pedagogy if, as Berlin notes, the very act of teaching is to provide “students with guidance in seeing and structuring their experience, with a set of tacit rules about distinguishing truth from falsity, reality from illusion” (7). The remainder of Rhetoric & Reality then uses these three epistemologies (objective, subjective, transactional) to structure and define how composition instruction has morphed since the 19th century.

The issue between Hawk and Berlin is not so much that Berlin wouldn’t accept alternative histories, but that he does very little to situate his history rhetorically. The problem with this, as Sharon Crowley argued in her review of the book, is that the taxonomy is “driven by its own inner compulsion.” In other words, Berlin’s emphasis on rhetoric as the search for truth precludes other important possibilities in his 100-year history. How then, does one come to terms with the rhetoric of history? What makes certain histories better than others? Or is that even the right question? After all, although Lauer and Berlin’s do not claim to understand history as rhetorical, as introductions to the field, their books are instrumental.

Hawk’s afterward sketches some of the basic concepts necessary for a counter-history; moreover, he borrows these stances from Nietzsche to describe the rhetorical use of historiography: history as monumental, antiquarian, and critical. A monumental stance offers first-run, archetypal histories, where authors sketch narratives of important figures who might inspire or persuade readers. The problem with such histories is that they are hegemonic. Hence, the antiquarian stance is a necessary revision to fill the gaps or to write entirely new narratives of the past; they “go back in history and bring up forgotten details, to remember those people and events that were pushed aside by historical forces” (261). Whereas Connors’s Composition-Rhetoric: Backgrounds, Theory, and Pedagogy might be monumental, Royster’s Traces of a Stream might be seen as antiquarian because it attempts to recover a history of African-American women that monumental histories exclude. The problem with both approaches, however, is that they tend to be positivist and reinforce the present. Critical stances, by contrast, resist determinism and “remembers only to forget” (261). According to Nietzsche, whereas monumental and antiquarian stances provide narrative accounts of history, a critical stance is fundamentally argumentative and “invents an origin in the past” (261).

One such example of a critical history might be found in Crowley’s Composition in the University, a collection of polemical essays that trace composition’s marginalized status in the academy to the universal requirement of the writing course. Arguing that the roots of the course are found (unfortunately) in the humanist imperative set by literary studies, Crowley shows how English departments have made various cases for the universal requirement based on taste, correctness, “liberal education,” personal moral and ethical development, or textual analysis. Through a variety of (counter-)historical methods in Composition — including a close reading of recent lit debates in the field and case studies like that of Norman Foerster at Iowa in the 1940s — Crowley seeks to remember to forget. That is, in the coda of Composition, she explicitly proposes to abolish the universal requirement.

The point of all these histories isn’t to choose one, but to place them in a particular context — and ultimately in dialogue with each other to do as Hawk advises, multiply histories. The field can only be better for it.

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.

Literacy, Sexuality, Pedagogy

In my Writing Pedagogies class this week we’re reading chapters from Jonathan Alexander’s Literacy, Sexuality, Pedagogy: Theory and Practice for Composition Studies (2008), which is also on the CCR Exam List. The book calls our field to consider teaching sexual literacy, “the knowledge complex that recognizes the significance of sexuality to self- and communal definition and that critically engages the stories we tell about sex and sexuality to probe them for controlling values and for ways to resist, when necessary, constraining norms” (5). Central to this approach is the consideration of narrative since (1) it is the primary means of the “discursive turn” in sexuality studies (see Foucault) and (2) as Butler reminds us, gender performances are repetitions that (hetero)normalize and socially construct sexuality and sexual identity. By revisiting these normalized scripts through carefully designed curricula and instruction and drawing from insight of queer theory, Alexander proposes that we work with our students to interrogate our sexual “self and subjectivity” since it is central to a 21st century literacy. Sexual literacy thus means “knowing how to talk and communicate about sex and sexuality” and “coming into an awareness of the norms that figure sex and sexuality in certain prescribed and culturally normative ways” (63). Although Alexander doesn’t exactly offer up his ideas as a full fledged course in FYC, he does argue for at least portions of our curricula to incorporate objectives that would make our students sexually literate.

While I haven’t drawn from queer theory in the comp classroom, I did collaborate with Emily a few years ago to develop a unit in WRT 205 (our sophomore-level research course) centered on sex work and labor. In that unit our students had to synthesize diverse texts on gender and sex work such as Alexa Albert’s researched nonfiction text, Brothel (about the comings and goings of a brothel outside of Reno, NV), as well as her more scientific texts from the American Journal of Public Health. It wasn’t as comprehensive of a curriculum as Alexander advocates in Literacy, Sexuality, Pedagogy, but I do remember the unit was an easy sell and the class discussions were fascinating. I don’t remember any students feeling uncomfortable with the content either, so I’m not sure why I didn’t reprise it (though Emily has since developed and enhanced the curriculum since her MA dossier focused specifically on the narratives of sex workers, and specifically trans sex workers). I’m not sure if I’ll revisit a sexual pedagogy in the near future, and I wonder why that is. It’s not like I’m unconvinced by Alexander’s arguments; I do see value in drawing from queer theory especially to engage all students with narratives of sexuality. And I’m not too concerned with making a mess or mockery of sexual pedagogy, though I’d definitely show this amazing clip from SNL last year (trust me, it’s worth sitting through the commercial):

I suppose part of it is figuring out how to avoid the add-on, supplemental approach to this pedagogy when I’m not committed to going whole hog with the curriculum. Alexander has kindly agreed to Skype with us today, so perhaps I’ll ask if he has ideas on this.

“Inventing the University” and Critical Pedagogy: Bartholomae and Shor

In Studies in Writing Pedagogy these last few weeks we’ve read two landmark texts from the 80s: David Bartholomae’s “Inventing the University” (1983) and Ira Shor’s Critical Teaching and Everyday Life (1987). Both are on the Program’s exam list. “Inventing” has literally been cited at least a thousand times since it was written; Critical Teaching, at least 655 (thanks, Google). Heavy duty. On top of this, we’ve had the awesome privilege of Skyping with these scholars in class. We spoke with David last week and we’re IM’ing with Ira in a few more.

I don’t want to pretend I know a lot about how these texts have been taken up in the field since their publication, but my distant understanding is that most folks would not put Bartholomae’s pedagogy hand-in-hand with Shor’s. Word on the street is that the former is often interpreted as conservative and the latter as radical. Yet, as Steve likes to say, those are the “cartooned” versions of these folks. The truth seems that while there are important differences between them, they also share some attitude toward students and student writing and both see their pedagogies as liberating.

In “Inventing” Bartholomae argues that students struggle to produce academic writing because they cannot fully invent/imagine their readers as scholars, whose discourses are privileged and specialized. When students do write for us, then, they instead parrot the language of authority (teachers, coaches) instead of writing from genuine invention or inquiry. He analyzes examples from a set of 500 placement essays at Pitt, claiming a text that “continually refers to its own language and the language of others” (412) is the superior text. But getting to that level is tough — if not impossible — for a freshman writer. Language, as “code,” should demonstrate an understanding of one’s own position that “can work self-consciously, critically, against not only the ‘common’ code but [their] own” (413). So-called sentence-level deficiencies found in basic writers are not symptomatic of illiteracy, then, but of a writer trying (and often failing) to understand “key words with the complete statements within which they are already operating” — the utterances of academic discourse.

Given this knowledge, then, what would Bartholomae do with basic writers?

His model is found in Facts, Artifacts and Counterfacts: A Theory and Method for a Reading and Writing Course (1986), which he published with Anthony Petrosky a year after “Inventing.” Their curriculum includes multiple strands: students read a mix of required texts — including Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye, Rodriguez’s Hunger of Memory, Mead’s Blackberry Winter, among others — but also read books of their own choosing. At the same time, they write their own compositions, sometimes based on the readings but more often on the course themes and their lives. Most importantly, they read and respond to each others’ texts in seminar. The purpose of such a curriculum is stated early in the book:

We want students to learn to compose a response to their reading (and, in doing so, to learn to compose a reading) within the conventions of the highly conventional language of the university classroom. We are, then, teaching the language of the university and, if our course is a polemic,it is because we believe that the language of the university can be shown to value “counterfactuality,” “individuation,” “potentiality,” and “freedom.” (4-5)

For Bartholomae and Petrosky, then, teaching students to navigate the conventions of the university is a liberatory act because the university itself values liberation. Introducing students to these academic moves, gestures, ways of reading and ways of writing will lead to better things for them, and, presumably, for (and possibly because of) their various subject positions. The place to begin, then, is with student writing:

A course in reading and writing whose goal is to empower students must begin with silence, a silence students must fill. It cannot begin by telling students what to say. And it must provide a method to enable students to see what they have said — to see and characterize the acts of reading and writing represented by their discourse. (7)

Shor’s book, partially an account of CUNY’s Open Admission period in the 70s, starts with a scathing critique of the community college system (the “budget college”), and vocationalism in particular. At best, community colleges do absolutely nothing for their students except dole out meaningless state-controlled credentials; at worst, they “disguise inequality” (23) and further domesticates them. Community colleges absorb workers at times when the economy has a surplus pool of laborers. It’s a mechanistic structure that denies worker-students full participation in labor while at the same time requires them to work part-time at shitty jobs that enslave them. Vocationalism in particular:

“…is a way of keeping workers materially and ideologically in their place. Vocationalism economically reproduces stratification and politically retards alternative thought. The curriculum enforces the rules of working life. Employers do not want workers who think for themselves or who demand and deserve raises and advancement.” (24)

Vocationalism “narrows human development” because is encourages subjects to remain acritical, to be duped into false consciousness which “conditions people to police themselves by internalizing the ideas of the ruling elite” (55).

In response to such false consciousness, Shor applies many of the concepts Freire laid out in Brazil in the 60s (see Pedagogy of the Oppressed and Education for Critical Consciousness). He advocates flexible agendas/lessons based on listening and open dialogue; he expects teachers to “wither away” so that student discourse may be privileged; classes have a strong sense of community where authority is as de-centered as possible; classes are fun; but most important of all (at least in terms of Freire and conscientização), objects, events, texts, etc. from ordinary life must serve as the primary text (i.e. hamburgers, marriage contracts, work) of study.

Like Bartholomae and Petrosky in FAC, Shor lays out his ideas for such curricula. At times they feel equally scripted as Bartholomae and Petrosky’s, but the “plans” themselves are not as mapped (perhaps because Shor describes himself in his classroom, alone — a point I want to return to in a moment). His courses get students to examine the world around them through the ordinary: to reflect on the nature of work, to criticize the present by way of an ideal future (Utopia), and to rethink gender via marriage contracts.

One of the key differences between Shor and Bartholomae, though, is the timing and amount of reading that is done in the course. For Bartholomae, students must fill the silence, but the texts are the primary starting point — literature and nonfiction alike. For Shor, however, the primary text is “daily life” and “ordinary routines.” Although he does assign readings, they aren’t introduced until after they’ve written a significant amount. In his chapter on the work unit, for example, Shor says he doesn’t introduce readings until “the class dialogue has matured enough to support the introduction of readings coordinated with the problem-theme” (140). That is, the class does not deal with readings until students have: spoken and written with each other about their jobs, participated in several pre-writing exercises (including freewriting), practiced dictation and voicing, sketched a prototype for a bad teacher, analyzed their own job experiences (and limited power in those jobs), and reflected on some essential questions about labor more generally.*

We talked a lot in class about definitions of critical pedagogy and whether or not we practiced it. At Syracuse, I’d argue that we endorse a pedagogy that leans more heavily toward Bartholomae than Shor. Our shared curriculum starts with reading, as a critical encounter. The required 600-page textbook, in fact, is called Critical Encounters with Texts, and features multiple genres. Many of the readings are abstract (if not downright theoretical) and challenging for freshmen who are mostly used to a curriculum of canonical literature in high school. At the same time, those readings are purposefully edgy (meant as literal encounters) and provide an occasion for students to see the world differently. Sometimes they do, and sometimes they don’t.

Another difference between Bartholomae and Shor is the contexts of their curricula. Bartholomae articulates a classroom at a private college with a team of several other compositionists sharing the curriculum. Shor, as near as I can tell, is working alone at CUNY during Open Admissions. From this, some questions:

  • How do these contexts affect the arguments and curricula? Would Bartholomae use a similar curriculum with students who aren’t basic writers? Would Shor teach differently at a private university?
  • How does the pressure of the WPA affect the outcomes and sustainability of a curriculum? (At Syracuse, I would be hard pressed to defend a Shor-like curriculum, especially as a graduate student, since we are accountable to the college and to our students via grades.)
  • Are community colleges still instruments of vocationalism? Or going the other way, is an undergraduate education — regardless of context — now vocational?

Continue reading

Newspaper map

Today NYT’s Gadgetwise blogged about Newspaper Map, a site that uses the Google Maps’ API to plot newspapers from all over the world. The interface is searchable by newspaper or by region, can be filtered by language, and has full social media integration. But the coolest thing is that when users find a paper, they can either click and go directly to the site, click a link to the paper’s or Twitter profile (if it has one), or have the site translate the paper to another language. Just playing around with it, I visited papers in the Congo, China and Afghanistan. I’d like to play around with it more, but I wonder what the potential for something like this would be for research and student writing. Would the site be useful to an average American student in a FYC classroom (or in the writing center) who is trying to locate a primary source in a nation’s own context? Hell, could I? Just by browsing some of the sites in the aforementioned countries, I was a little stunned by how Google translate handled them, and how those sites were casted visually. (Take this one, for instance.) I’ll tinker with this some more this summer to see what I can come up with. But I’m also interested in placing this tool into a larger conversation on research strategies (i.e. when a student might use this tool). More on that soon.