Category Archives: 8900

8900: Enabling recomposition

So I found out there’s a term for something I’ve considered in my own writing for a long time, but Ridolfo and DeVoss call it rhetorical velocity. Instead, part of my composition process has always been to ensure I include a handful of clear sentences that, if stripped of their context, could still manage to communicate key concepts of the text I’m composing. I’ve thought of it more as mile markers for my readers, or even as a rhetorical device. My writing could be characterized as generally too loquacious, but I try to include cogent and succinct statements often.

A device I’ve used often to encourage rhetorical velocity is what I call the “tweet test.” I use it most often in blogging by trying to leave sentences or two that I could visualize someone using as a direct quote. I keep it to 100 characters to allow this fictional tweeter (it’s only happened once or twice throughout all my blog posts) room for a shortened url, my user name, or any other brief thoughts they’d want to include. My thought in writing it this way is that I’m helping my reader know what I find most important, and hoping that if they agree, I’ve given them a concise, interesting tidbit to share with others. I can see how, in determining if a blog post passes the tweet test, I’ve considered a lot of what Ridolfo and Devoss place in the left column of their “Rhetorical Velocity as a Concern of Invention” model:

  • I’ve assessed who might be interested;
  • I’ve considered why these persons might want to share (recompose) my work;
  • I’ve considered what the recomposer might produce, how it may be delivered, and have facilitated it by conforming to tweet-friendly lengths;
  • By intentionally keeping to so short a format, I’ve also enabled cross-platform sharing (not that I presume anything I write is so compelling that it must be reshared on Facebook, Google +, and other blogs);
  • And I obviously assume my writing’s temporal lifespan will be extremely limited, since I’m using Twitter as the standard.

Quite aside from my personal composition device, rhetorical velocity has definite potential in a computer-enabled composition course. If the course plan includes some degree of new media writing, introducing and applying the rhetorical velocity model for several weeks of writing assignments lays the groundwork for understanding the decisions of the writing process at large. The benefit here is that you can discuss and apply these concepts without using the old standard collection of composition instruction power words, but they still apply. Asking our writers to make sure they know and can show the answers to the model’s seven questions passively supports terms like audience, rhetorical situation, argument, illustration, and agency. As is so often the case, students have had previous composition experiences driven solely by these words of power, so anything to divest and reallocate rhetorical power is worth trying. Linking basic composition concepts back to this model is a game of pedagogical smoke and mirrors, I’ll concede, but it could be effective.


8900: The false god of device convergence

I resonate with Henry Jenkins’ preoccupation with the black box effect, and I think the fourish plus years since the publication of Convergence Culture has only deepened the ongoing kludge of our relationship to media technology. Every feature integrated into a device, a new digital community, entertainment venue, or writing space beckons us to acquire more hardware. What we end up with at the current time is both convergence and divergence.

As an example of the divergent, I’ll fess up to some of my own embarrassing hardware missteps. Around 2007, I had thusfar resisted and in fact disdained the Blackberry trend, boggling at how difficult it was for some people to simply disconnect and acknowledge that their time just wasn’t that important. Then came the first iPhone. While my needs for mobile communication had not changed, I, as so many did, fetishized the device. I was lured by the promise of integration – of convergence. Here was a device that was both my phone and my music player, something I had actively been annoyed at carrying separately at this point. The fact that it also offered continuous access to interesting or fun or useful or illuminating content was not as important, but was easily rationalized in favor of its purchase.

I sat out the rush for the first model and came on board with the iPhone 3G. It was everything I wanted it to be, but it wasn’t perfect. I realized its limitations; it wasn’t a robust processor, it provided fenced-in content, and I realized that while it was great for short writing burst, its tiny touch screen came up short for lengthy writing. I never expected it to replace my laptop or desktop. I happily used it and enjoyed as its usability expanded through various updates, and moved on to the iPhone 4 two years later.

Concurrently, my interest in the iPad was increasing. I know this makes me sound like an Apple fanboy, but what I was drawn most to was the form factor. Plainly stated, it was just a big iPhone, but I hoped it would be the balance between the bulkiness of a laptop (the same laptop whose lightness, thinness, and relative power I marveled over only a couple years before) and the confines of the phone. Again I resisted for over a year, but again, I broke down and my wife and I bought one to share.

This is where the divergence begins to reappear despite all these seemingly convergent devices. Despite some buyer’s remorse over the iPad – for it really was just a big iPhone, so what did we expect? – the device has remained and inserted itself into a niche of use. My relationship with four very similar devices is thus: the phone I obviously carry with me everywhere (the irony of my former disdain for the Blackberry cult is not lost on me) and use so frequently for tasks both silly and serious, I cannot see having a “dumb” phone again. The iPad does what I don’t need the laptop’s serious power for, and also enables me to engage in longer and more comfortable screen reading than a laptop can, such as reading articles for classes and my own research. The laptop is there for when I need to seriously settle in to productive, high-intensity writing or research. Finally, a self-built PC desktop rounds out the onslaught as my access to the more processor- and graphics-intensive gaming world, something my laptop was incapable of doing for very long.

I have four devices that do extremely similar things, yet I’ve let them settle into precise and unique roles. This list can expand further, with my wife having a kindle for sustained digital reading, and our accumulation of 10 years worth of gaming consoles, an internet media streaming device, and a music and video serving device. Even one of the consoles has a fractured identity, having found new use recently in streaming downloaded video through the gaming PC. What galls me about this is that despite my wish to simplify, I have carved out so precise a niche for each of these items that I have difficulty considering how to let one go.

Thus, the divergence Jenkins foretells is realized, but in the name of convergence. I can’t deny the device fetishization at work, but each time I’ve acquired one of these devices, its cost relative to its offered service always seems a bargain. Before long, the device has carved out its niche and another golden calf appears on the horizon, promising to be the one device you need to restore balance to our fractious, fraught hardware existences. While I believe only the laptop holds the distinction of being truly required, I know I would sweat the loss of functionality the rest of the pack brings. I can only hope that true convergence happens in the near future, bringing a single (or hell, at this rate I could get by with only two or three) convergent messiah device to unify all these digital wants and needs, and that this is just the divergent storm before the convergent calm.

8900: Emergent Aurality

Situated Aurality

One of the resources included in our reading/listening this week was the Soundmap from Rhode Island. After clicking through a dozen or so places around the tiny New England state, my first reaction was “Meh. So what’s the worth?” I appreciated the concept, and thought its interface within Google Maps was accessible, but I had difficulty articulating its worth. My next thought was, as close to verbatim as I recall, “I’m sure it matters to Rhode Islanders, but it’s not unique; Georgia/Atlanta has a similar project , and so did Michigan.”

I was immediately struck by a wave of homesickness for Michigan, went to its Sounds of the State page, and found the sound closest to where I lived, a lone blue dot in East Lansing titled “MSU Medley.” My ears drank in ducks on the babbling Red Cedar River, Beaumont Tower’s distant carillon bells, and the route announcement of a CATA bus. I was immediately resituated from my desk here in Smyrna to the riverside between the Hannah Administration building and Wells Hall, my feet dangling over the water and ducks pulling at my shoelaces because I was too slow in crumbling up the stale bread I’d taken from Brody Hall’s cafeteria earlier that morning.

That soundscape has become part of my experience, and will always be one of the places I can situate myself. I was there. That has meaning to me. I spent a few more minutes clicking around the sounds back in Michigan, smiling and nodding at a few that resonated, and shrugging at some that had no significance. And so it must be for people living in Rhode Island. Whether they’re down the road or across the world from Narragansett, sounds from its shores, piers, and streets situate them in their experienced places. These sound maps are worth more than their appeal to listeners outside the covered region, more than a digital drinking glass held up to a door for auditory voyeurs; these sounds are, for the residents, communication that carries something much more than the surface level detail. This is auditory composition, and it is a composition that is acutely aware of its authorship, its audience, and its message.

Crafted Auality

Somewhat briefer, I’d also like to acknowledge Jessica Barness’ Common Sounds project. Rather than letting the audience be just the audience, Barness invites them to take control of a handful of layerable soundtracks. I’m sure my progression through this was just like anyone else’s: try each sound individually, shrug and say okay. Then it was time to layer ALL the sounds! I, like everyone else who tried it did probably did, winced as the layers grew into an inarticulate cacophony. I resisted closing the window and I found that my auditory processing was up to the task, no matter how distasteful. My mind quickly organized the sounds into a unified piece that had rhythm and melody, even if a little too eccentric for my usual listening tastes. What occurred to me next was that I was listening to an entirely unique piece; each sound was playing in the order I layered it, which of course was situated differently in time to the sounds already playing and those yet to be added. Likely no one else (or at least very few others) chose the exact order and relative timing of the layers I did. I didn’t let it play long, but I enjoyed the tasks both of listening to the whole, and mentally isolating the individual layers while the rest continued to play.

I’d like to share a similar flash app with the class called The Chrome Project (although it should work well in any browser). I’ll leave it to you to figure out, but I think you’ll find the same sort of self-crafted aurality here, and the same challenges in contextualizing and isolating the different sounds. I hope you enjoy the process of tweaking and refining your compositions.

Pedagogical Aurality

With this week, we appear to be leaving behind the section of the course that has been the most enlightening to me so far. We’ve established that I’m now acutely aware of the fact that composition is a term much broader in scope and content than just writing. Not wanting to make the same mistake I did when we first began our talk of interface and the visual in composition, I kept my mind open regarding aural composition. What I’m left with now is the idea that perhaps composition is better (if somewhat muddily) defined as manipulable communication. Whether we’re engaging in verbal/written, a verbal/spoken, visual, or auditory communication, it is still communication we’re wholly in control of, both in form and content.

A few years ago, during my MA composition pedagogy course, we were asked to craft our teaching philosophies. Most of what I wrote now seems situated perfectly to where I was in my still very rudimentary thoughts on the teaching of composition, a plucky manifesto filled with vague affirmations of responsibility, open communication, and grammar vs. content. It wasn’t all together myopic, but it also wasn’t altogether well-informed. I’ve since discarded that statement, but have referred to it multiple times since, using it as a sort of mile marker in my pedagogical maturation. Most of what it contained is useless to me now, but as time progressed, one cogent, critical statement emerged from the detritus:

My specialty is my passion: writing. The written word is a pure form of discourse, no matter the writer or the audience. Writing provides the author the opportunity to present his or her most considered representation of their thoughts, their identities, and their beliefs. Each word, each thought can be chosen amidst a myriad of alternatives. Each such choice in expression gently shapes a writer’s voice, leaving a unique fingerprint on every work they undertake throughout time.

It’s been tweaked and remediated several times, but the core of what I wrote remains the same (and, oddly enough, its current form above appears on my LinkedIn page, of all places).

So, with my recent revelations in the visual and auditory realms of composition, now it’s time to consider revising it yet again. I come back to the thought of composition as manipulable communication. So long as the author/artist has control of a medium and a message to send, they’re composing. While I may personally have a particular passion for writing, I will do well to at least mentally swap in “composition” for “writing” in my teaching philosophy.

8900: Scholarship rechanneled (or, A meta-analysis of academic blogging)

By the time Yancey’s Made Not Only in Words was published, blogs had been around for a few years. It wasn’t until mid-decade – about the time in which Yancey writes – that the format was beginning to be realized for its scholarly potential.

Since that time many composition instructors have worked course blogging into their pedagogy, grateful to provide an outlet for student writing that was an alternative to, as Yancey stated, “emphasis on a primary and single human relationship: the writer in relation to the teacher” (309). Instructors saw in blogging many potentials: the encouragement of critical thinking and writing; the revoicing of writing into a conversational tone that they wouldn’t feel compelled to call out during grading of a major course paper; and the tearing down of the firewall of official school writing venues so student writers could engage with a broader audience that didn’t necessarily have to include the instructor. Scholarly blogging was, and is still, a developmental win-win.

Concurrently, these same instructors were realizing the potential scholarly blogging held for their own professional development. Blogs, especially when shared with a circle of like-minded pedagogues, were a New Media writing locus somewhere short of the same status as journal publication, but still worthy of consideration as scholarship. The immediacy of an academic blog’s writer-reader relationship helped to refine rhetorical thinking and pedagogy through a much quicker, nimbler, and more negotiated channel than the proposal>submit>rewrite>publish>review>respond process of traditional publishing. While there wasn’t the same strength of quality control we attribute to a peer-reviewed journal, there was a real-time editorial process enabled by peers nonetheless: colleagues in the academy received and reciprocated profoundly helpful criticism. This is a strength that is arguably unique to scholarly blogging: agile, rigorous, yet collaborative pedagogical development.

I’ve already experienced the benefits of scholarly blogging requirements twice as a student. In 2009 (the course that required the development of this blog’s earlier iteration) and now in this course, I’ve felt more free to engage with whatever little item of interest I personally find worth writing about, but to not worry about inflating it to full paper size, scope, or rigor. Comments that I’ve left and that have been left for me continue this sort of development. Much like the professional’s circle of like minds, these course blog rings synthesize that reciprocal development.

I came to choose this topic for this week’s post from two inputs: Yancey’s mention that “faculty see blogs – if they see them at all – as (yet) another site for learning” (302) and Ball’s Show, Not Tell quoting of Steven Krause:

‘Prior to the web, it was east to determine what should or shouldn’t count as scholarship: if it appeared as an article in a peer reviewed journal or if it was published as a book by a respectable press, it was definitionally ‘scholarship’ both in the abstract sense of advancing knowledge and in the tangible sense of being worthy to count toward tenure, review, merit, and so forth.’ [emphasis added] (404)

I too have experienced the sense of reciprocal development the way an academic would when a few of my blog postings have briefly become known to the larger internet community of rhetoricians. There’s nothing like seeing an unknown name as a commenter on your blog to put your confidence in your writing to the test. It is because of these moments that I wonder if blog scholarship really isn’t as rigorous as the more accepted forms of scholarly development. Departments must also be wondering about this status, too, as scholarly blogs are included more and more in instructor portfolios for review, promotion, or even tenure.

Scholarly blogs serve as a microcosm of the Burkean parlor conversation or, to stretch the metaphor a little further, conversations among a small gathering of parlor attendees off to the side. The larger conversation is still in effect, but these sidebars draw from it and later add back to it, enriching the breadth and depth of the parlor topic over time. If we see blogs in composition class as worthwhile (something I certainly plan for 1102 and the next time I teach 1101),  blogs have to be worth something professionally.

8900: Interface in flux

I feel silly saying this so bluntly, but 2004 was a long time ago. So was early/mid 2003, which is probably the rough timeframe Wysocki and Jasken set about writing “What should be an unforgettable face …” for its March 2004 publication.

Let’s round this out to an even nine years ago and snapshot the changes between Fall 2003 and Fall 2012: Windows XP hadn’t reached its dominating saturation point yet, so most users were operating in Windows 98 or 2000. Apple Mac OSX was still a puny minority of usership that had no impact on the greater interface landscape. The iPod was not yet the ubiquitous music serving device, having begun only its third generation. Facebook and MySpace were still nascent. The first iPhone and the waves of similar smartphones were still four years from launch. The dominant social writing venue was still LiveJournal. Public wireless access was still mostly offered only to large university communities.

These and many other interfaces stand between us now and us then. At the time “Unforgettable face” was written, the dominant interfaces of software still played largely by the Microsoft Windows rules; the vast majority of all computing tasks, writing included, happened in Windows environment. Thus, interface advanced only as much as this massive software landscape allowed it. There were the alternatives of Linux and Mac out there, but at that time they served niche users, so virtually all writing applications for Windows had the same over aesthetic.

Admittedly, the growing Mac usership hasn’t really challenged the Microsoft model. In both environments, we still have a row of menus to choose from, and within each the same basic types of functions can be expected to be in the same basic space: the File menu still features saving, opening, and printing; we still have the same icons for basic functions at the top of the screen; our text still appears on a simulated page surface; we still utilize the same conventions of formatting our text – although that may have more to do with the persistence of the academy’s expectations than the software.

What has challenged the model is the explosion of touch screen environments. When opened up to the processing power of these small, inexpensive little computers, app developers have shown enormous creativity in recreating interfaces over and over again. Swiping, taping, pinching, and dragging offers ways to interact with our writing spaces that desktops and laptops still don’t replicate. This has perhaps restored the personal quality of writing that the authors say is missing from computer-based composition. Especially on the larger devices such as the iPad, document drafting, management, and customization has gained depth and immediacy.

I won’t deny that this same omnipresent communications technology doesn’t lead to greater distraction (although at least in cases of Facebook and Twitter, we are distracted from our writing with more writing), but surely the benefits come out ahead. If we continue to expand interfaces to more closely approach invisibility (remember that Google Glass is on the horizon), perhaps we will retake all of the immediacy of tangible composition and enhance it with the flexibility and creativity enabled by the technology we’ve come to appreciate these past nine years.

8900: Identity discovery for the “other” in online spaces

My last two 8900 posts were embarrassingly long, so I’ll attempt to narrow in on my point much sooner this week. I’ll focus just on Alexander et al.’s Queerness, sexuality, technology, and writing.

The first question that comes to mind in choosing to comment on this piece is one of my own identity: what right do I have to speak here? I’m the definition of “default,” as the participants in this conversation would conclude. In virtually any broadly trafficked digital community(that is, a place founded not on those identifying a specific way), users are assumed male, Caucasian, and heterosexual. I do believe the past decade has seen the internet user as a conglomerate entity mature and attain a more nuanced awareness of the non-normative. Still, we humans like social sorting, and any deviation from our concept of “norm” translates to some degree of otherness. These identity-based online communities, as the authors discuss in relation to queerness, are powerful tools in exploring, defining, and contextualizing aspects of the self that users might otherwise never get to know as fully. As the “default” user assumed in so many online spaces, I can only imagine the power of these digital safe harbors for those who don’t see themselves when they look at the internet at large.

Samantha Blackmon contributed to this insight when she retold how the internet was part of her coming out process:

“It gave me a space to contemplate my feelings. Online I was able to experiment with my queer identity. I learned that it was actually okay to be a ‘tomboy’ and that I looked like I was in drag when I wore a dress because I actually was… It was all a question of performativity and ‘performing the femme’” (14).

Blackmon later adds,

“I think it is easier to come out online where nobody knows that you are older, darker, fatter, etc., things that can make you less desirable… a place where the various layers of ‘otherness’ can be hidden if one chooses, where one can ‘pass’ by a simple act of omission” (16).

I’ll tie this back to composition instruction in a way I didn’t anticipate when I started this reading. What happens when the students Selfe was most concerned about – those already at risk of underdeveloped tech literacy – happen to fall into one of the “other” categories? Quite aside from the already significant heap of problems associated with this denial of digital naturalization, some of these students may never experience the same growth opportunities the authors relate. If the digital writing space remains unfamiliar ground to these users, they may never trust it enough to be the negotiator between their real world “in” self and their digital “out” self. Such self-discovery may take years or decades longer as a result, and will be littered with the same pitfalls some of the authors disclose from their pre-digital days.

Again it falls to those of us who are comfortable and initiated in the digital writing world to hold the door wide for those who are not yet.

8900: The digitally absent composition instructor

This is my first semester teaching a first-year composition course – teaching at all, for that matter. When teaching actual class sections was still a far-off, abstract thing I’d get to do soon – way back in May – I had the idealized notion that I’d nail it on the first try. That notion never really solidified into anything specific that I wanted to include, but I’m pretty sure the intent had been to teach a technologically perfect class. That never really happened. Before I knew it, life was consumed by packing, ill-fated house-hunting trips to Atlanta, and finalizing affairs in Michigan. Then after the move, everything centered pretty much on restarting life here; unpacking, becoming a legitimate Georgia resident, and generally orienting myself.

Then it was less than two weeks before the first day of class and I realized I hadn’t the haziest clue of what I really wanted my classes to look and function like. What was clear was the goal of ensuring students would leave my classes better prepared for college writing than when they entered. I think I did what many people do with their first classes: I retreated to something of a safe mode. I’d do a good job now, but try to make it great later. I built a syllabus around in-class lectures on all the bare essentials of writing (as if I am really qualified to make such pronouncements): process, organization, support, audience, revision, and all the other concepts pedagogy suggests. I then populated it with equally safe writing assignments, added a couple of TBD days to accommodate schedule tweaks, and called it ready. I don’t mean to devalue these things above, because they are the crucial parts of composition education that I hope every class I teach will deliver, but one of the things left on the cutting room floor was my notion of a “technologically perfect” class. It was crunch time, so I set aside that which was difficult to define.

My reaction as a new instructor mimics in part what was discussed in this week’s reading for 8900, but I’ll get to that in a moment. It’s important first to note that what Cynthia Selfe tells us comes from a timeline now significantly different from our own. 1997 (and still in 1999, when her thoughts were republished) was right as the brave new world of computer/internet technology was exploding. She was justified in her apprehension over the willful ignorance she saw in the composition instruction community, and perhaps that anxiety worsened in the light of how she viewed a class-based technological divide. I can see how in 1999, the tendency of comp instructors to omit a structured role for computers from their course plans deprived those of lower technological literacy of yet another opportunity to level the playing field. Beyond simply failing to capitalize upon what computers offered to composition, there did exist the risk that populations statistically less likely to own or make frequent use of computers would find themselves on the wrong side of a widening access gap.

Now back to 2012 in Sparks Hall and Classroom South: have I unwittingly done the very thing that Selfe feared? Have I disadvantaged students by not better integrating the use of computers in my own course design, or is the digital landscape sufficiently different now that I can put those fears aside? I believe we can go beyond the examples that are tirelessly trotted out in digital writing discussions, like social media and the proliferation of cell phones, and acknowledge that the economics are now far friendlier; the average cost of a bare bones desktop hovered around $1,000 at the end of the 90s, whereas perfectly capable laptops can now run between $250-$300. I won’t pretend that’s all there is to the issue of access, but I think that should be less of a concern to Selfe by now. On the other hand, I may still be doing a disservice to students by failing to more assertively break the writing venue model they likely had in high school: come to school, sit in a classroom with 20 other students, listen to one instructor talk about how one figures out how to write best, get an assignment, go home and type it out on a word processor (Selber nailed it – the mode is still a glorified typewriter), and finally hand it in.

I believe my hesitation to include formalized digital writing requirements in my haste to come up with a course plan can be linked back to a question I asked myself constantly during the development phase: “What purpose does this serve?” When I attempted answer that question regarding digital writing, I felt my responses were either too corny and trite (“our students are writing digitally all the time, anyway”) or that I risked distracting from the ultimate point of the course by trying too hard to be current. Thus, I retreated to a safe spot and made a copy of the any other old composition course. Write your papers, get some feedback, revise them, and off you go.

As I’m sure was intended when these readings were chosen, and as I hoped for when I decided on this course for my first semester, I’ve just taken a look at what I planned for my classes and am now thinking that waiting for “great” isn’t going to cut it. What I already have planned is good and important, but I think I need to take another crack at my syllabus to see what I can do better.