Hot or Not: Invisible Transgressions in Composition(s)

I was absolutely thrilled to be assigned this week’s topic, as I have long been fascinated about form and content, or the idea of form being content (a comment I made that Kory so brilliantly rephrased into a more eloquent form — go figure!), and how might we teach it. After all, integrated reading and writing is nearly everyone’s Kool-Aid and the general attitude (and I say this, very generally) is that we can’t separate reading and writing processes because they are symbiotic; in that manner, form and content are likewise entwined. I’m today’s Jim Jones and I wish to highlight the complex relationships and challenges that instructors of composition must surmount in order to spread the gospel of visual literacy, and situate ourselves as druids/priests/brothers/sisters/moderators in the cult of new media texts.

Wysocki’s article “The Sticky Embrace of Beauty” takes an interdisciplinary approach to the question of visual appeals and how they might present themselves in the various visual compositions with which we are confronted. She examines graphic design texts, art theory, and even our homeboy, Kant (who, I am convinced, along with Nietzsche are indispensable in every humanities-related field), as sources of inspiration and as possible ways to “decode” and inscribe values to the semiotic challenges that visual texts present to us as readers, viewers, and consumers of “texts” — the audience.


^^_____ Take a look at exhibit A. What are your impressions of this image? Which alphabetic words come to mind? What concepts? What sort of feelings does this visual composition evoke?



Now consider the complete advertisement below:


How does the entire advertisement change our perception of it? To what extent, do you think? As discussed in class and emphasized in the reading (Selfe 70), this is a postmodern culture in which binaries have been disregarded (therefore, we should not pit form against content), and so we can see how alphabetic text/numbers and pictures are manipulated for a specific purpose.

If we were to consider this visual composition as just a “text” isolated and limited to its compositional qualities — its form — how would we be able to evaluate the underlying social, cultural, and historical values of this piece? If we can read traditional, alphabetic texts and cut straight to the content, why are we not affording visual compositions the same consideration of its content, in other words, doesn’t the form itself — the placement, the contrast, the lighting, the angle, even the proportion/ratio of the sandwich vis-à-vis (no pun intended… well, OK, perhaps a little bit) lipsticked, (blow-up) dolled-up model, convey messages and ideas without any alphabetic text. Throw in the alphabetic text, and you have a complete “package” (oh, no, I’m on a pun spree), which brings us back to a tension that Wysocki highlights repeatedly in her article: communication. We are analyzing and composing vials of “communications,” little repositories in which meaning is bottled up and contained, waiting to be uncorked by the audience (OK, OK, no more sexual puns).

However, how do we interrogate this fictionalized “reality” and how do we take this “visual grammar” and go beyond form (or rather, refiguring it) the way many of us have learned how to do with traditional, print-based texts during our educational careers? We know what to do with giant blocks of monolithic texts. And yet we separate form and content in visual “texts,” something that Wysocki regards as a dangerous practice and one that allows us to perceive “content” (in the case of the “Peek” ad, p. 148 as well as the above Burger King ad) in an “unremarkably disembodied” manner, one that in itself encourages the objectification and dehumanizing of said subjects in these Photoshopped, visual compositions, and works “against helping students acquire critical and thoughtful agency with the visual” (149) because a strict emphasis on form cannot account for what Wysocki terms, all the “reciprocal communication” in the work.

Selfe’s article “Toward New Media Texts: Taking Up the Challenges of Visual Literacy,” naturally raises the next question that I am certain many of us have asked ourselves as we plan(ned) our courses and are asking ourselves as we are learning how to teach writing and maintain its relevance an age where just about everything is intertextual, interwoven, and intersectional, including the very nature of composing “texts” themselves or rather, texts as artifacts of constructed meaning. We just don’t know how to approach them. As a field we have focused on alphabetic texts, and as we can see from Wysocki’s article (and the example advertisement I provided) that such adherence is outdated and perhaps even obdurate in the face of practical realities (72). But of course we would do so, as we are just comfortable with alphabetic texts. We feel confident that we can teach it because we ourselves have “developed a comfortable, stable intellectual relationship. We know… how to approach a book or non-fiction essay… we have developed many strategies for reading and understanding such texts, for analyzing and interpreting them, for talking about them” (71).

Many of us, I am certain, are cooking up our technoliteracy narratives this afternoon, evening (and tomorrow morning?). In those very narratives, I would expect some discussion of this topic, if even in an oblique manner. Based on the forum posts I read a couple of weeks ago, it seems many of us feel a need or pressure or expectation to teach visual literacy, yet so few of us feel intellectually and occupationally equipped to do as much,  and in no small part due to the fact that “many of these technologies… are thus unevenly distributed in schools along the axis of material resources” as Selfe claims (71). Both Selfe and Wysocki, echo a post-Saussurean obsession with a transcendent, floating meaning determined by sociocultural contexts. So how should we position all of this? As an interchange of “symbolic instantiations of the human need to communicate” (74).

Yet how does communication occur in a vacuum? It doesn’t. Wysocki writes about graphic design and its ethos: “[graphic design] aligns the values behind many of the formal principles taught in the texts [she has] discussed… with the political and economic structures of industrialization, structures many of us find problematic” (158). Soyoung-man-eating-banana-multi-racial-36025215und familiar? It should, if we read Ohmann’s article. We simply cannot escape the power dynamics and structures that permeate the various compositions to which we expose our students. The “monopoly capital,” in tandem with the postwar intellectual coterie, has continued to work from and support a top-down model in which those who wield power determine how the masses “consume” content. Obviously, we wouldn’t expect the above Burger King ad to depict a man doing the same thing, would we? Although, allow me to remind you, there are many men who would do the very activity the article implies but does not come out and say (all right, last bad pun, I promise). Yet such an ad would be considered controversial, perhaps even transgressive — why?

Expanding our thoughts beyond alphabetic literacy to include new media is perhaps the perfect juncture to overthrow this pyramidal dissemination of knowledge, meaning, and the “old school” compositional skill sets that determine the way (or non-way) we prepare our students for the critical thinking tasks in today’s world.

With our instantaneous, almost ubiquitous access to information and collaboration, and the dialogue that is brewing and of which we are a part by virtue of reading and discussing such concepts in class and on this blog, we owe it to ourselves and our students to find some way to sharpen our own multimodal literacies and to gain the confidence and comfort needed with these forms (and the way they deliver content) in order to successfully integrate them in our classrooms and teach the habits of mind that are relevant not only under the auspices of the institution, but in the present. So to that top-down crap, I say bottoms up (cue tasteless “Peek” ad)!

And with that, it’s time for my Kool-Aid: a bottle of Anchor Steam and a tablespoon of DayQuil.



Some Notes (and Questions) about New Media Activites

In my class (first-year composition) next week, I’m dedicating all three days to visual rhetoric to try out some of the things I have gathered from various readings and discussions with people. My class is between formal assignments and I want to take a break from all the essay writing they have been doing. Plus they are going to need this visual rhetoric background later on in the course for something else. While trying to create a lesson plan, I searched through the activities included at the end of Wysocki’s “The Sticky Embrace of Beauty” (Writing New Media) since I was reading it anyway, but I felt resistant and came up empty. I think that many of these activities are not accessible because they require a lot of planning and scaffolding. Sometimes they include multiple components that are completed over a larger series of classes or they require a certain skill set from my students that I can’t help them with. Some of them also seem to require a certain class “theme” or at least more attention to a certain “theme” or subject.

I know the author’s state that the activities can be adapted, but I’m having trouble with that. So of course after I had this reaction, I had to kickstart my reflection process, as I’ve been trained to do, and think about why I feel this way when I (think) I am eager and willing to include visual rhetoric and new media in my classroom. Am I too lazy, or intimidated, or scared to put in the effort? Did I not give myself enough time to think about what I want to do? Am I not creative enough? Do I feel unqualified? Do I think my students can’t handle it? I find myself falling back on viewpoints and excuses that the authors in this book tell us (teachers) not to have, and then I feel guilty and frustrated.

Since I feel this way, Cynthia L. Selfe in “Toward New Media Texts,” tells me that I should start with visual literacy, so I think great…problem solved! Then I flip the page and look at her activities, and again I feel kind of defeated because they involve some larger lessons, a lot of  planning, and a good chunk of class time, which starts a whole new round of self-reflection. So what is the problem? Right now, I think it might be that I didn’t leave enough time to plan. I can’t just haphazardly throw together a visual rhetoric lesson at the last minute, or if I do I’m just going to have to accept that the lesson won’t be as productive as it can be. I’m starting to think that visual rhetoric is not something you can just include one day out of fifteen weeks, and claim you are pro-visual rhetoric. Of course it’s a start, but I think it needs to be more deeply embedded in a curriculum to  allow  for a series of  effective class discussions and homework assignments. Maybe this whole thought process is what Wysocki and Selfe’s are arguing in the first place.

I’m still going to go through with my “visual rhetoric week,” but when I design my next class I need a better approach then dedicating a week to visual rhetoric with the idea that I can just pull something together the minute before. Probably not the best method for me or my students.

Bringing New Media into My Classroom

In my ENG 114 class, I asked my students to read Pratt’s “Arts of the Contact Zone” and in their next formal assignment I’m asking them to create an autoethnography: “a text in which people undertake to describe themselves in ways that engage with representations others have made of them” (35). An autoethnography asks students to speak to an audience by using that audience’s language, so my students won’t be writing a traditional essay; they will be mixing different genres to speak back to a public audience. Although I am still requiring students to do a certain amount of writing, they are creating a new media composition, at least in the way that Wysocki defines new media in “Opening New  Media To Writing: Openings & Justifications,” (Writing New Media) as texts “that have been made by composers who are aware of the range of materialities of texts and then who highlight the materiality” (15). I’m asking my students to think about the choices they are making and what that means for them as producers, and their audience as consumers. I’m also considering a conversation about Yancey’s “writing public” and the ways in which people communicate outside of school (301).

I’m excited about this assignment, but I’m also a little wary. I’m worried that my students have spent so long writing traditional academic essays that they won’t know what to do! I’m not doubting my students creativity; I think they have great ideas about everything (probably like most teachers do). However, after feeling uncomfortable just reading Yancey’s “Made Not Only in Words: Composition in a New Key,” I’m wondering how my students will feel actually crafting a new media composition for a formal grade in an English class. This is the second time I’ve read Yancey’s piece, and the format of the “essay” still throws me off. We often talk about how teachers feel weird assigning anything other than a traditional essay, so I’m wondering how students feel creating a new media composition in the classroom. I wonder if they enjoy it like we think they will? Or if they think its important or relevant to their education like we think they should? I’m hoping to ask my students about this as they work on this assignment, and a few other assignments in the future.

But for now I’m wondering if any of you have assigned a new media composition in a writing class? Did the students have trouble fulfilling the assignment? How much did they incorporate the new media aspect? Do you think they thought is was fun or useful?

Materiality in Jazz and Composition



When I read at noisy coffee shops, I like to listen to music—mostly jazz. The other day, while reading Anne Francis Wysocki’s “Opening New Media to Writing: Openings and Justifications” (the first essay in a collection Wysocki coedited, Writing New Media: Theory and Applications for Expanding the Teaching of Composition), I listened to a bunch of Thelonious Monk albums (through headphones connected to my iPhone). That’s why when, the next day, I cracked the text open to begin drafting a blog discussing the Wysocki piece and noticed for the first time the book’s two epigraphs, the first one (an excerpt from Stephen Dobyns’ poem “Thelonious Monk”) seemed to me freighted with synchronicity.

The kind of jazz I favor (mostly from the 50s and 60s) has a quality that might make an academic critic call it “meta-jazz.” Players of this kind of jazz (artists as superficially disparate as the Modern Jazz Quartet, Charles Mingus, and Monk) employ tropes that run the musical gamut. Familiar jazz, blues, popular music, and art music themes are integrated into new compositions with prominent improvisatory elements. This is not exactly the musical melting pot one might imagine, though. It’s not smooth—that kind of jazz would come years later. The musical elements in the sort of jazz I’m talking about are integrated but still recognizable. Players of “meta-jazz” do not try to smooth over the incongruities in their music. A Modern Jazz Quartet song may switch from being a fugue to being a down-home blues jam in a beat. And some instrumentalists introduce notes to musical modes that traditional (current-traditional?) western musical theory adamantly asserts do not belong. A lot of the charm for me is in the left turns these players take.

Stephen Dobyns likewise likes the left turns—the incongruous congruity of Monk’s playing, if you will (incongruous because his notes don’t play by the rigid rules of Western musical modes but congruous because they establish more flexible rules by virtue of their integrity with the whole). The first two excerpted stanzas of Dobyns’ poem in the epigraph say of Monk, “I was caught by how he took / the musical phrase and seemed to find a new / way out, the next note was never the note / you thought would turn up and yet / seemed correct” (viii). I would assert that one needs to be supremely self aware, and aware of the tradition that one is working in, if one is to ride the knife blade of incongruous congruity that Monk and other modern jazz musicians ride. That is, one needs to be aware, to borrow a term that Wysocki uses to refer to the composition we do in English classes, of the materiality of one’s music—of the social effects its components have had in the past and the social effect the rearrangement and altering of those components will have in the present.

I would argue that the layout design of Kathleen Blake Yancey’s essay “Made Not Only in Words: Composition in a New Key” (a meta-transcript—which is to say not an exact transcript, a transcript that talks back to itself in asides, footnotes, and graphics—of her 2004 Chair’s Address to the Conference on College Composition and Communication) is all about incongruous congruity. It jumps genres and media in the sort of self-aware way (drawing attention to its “materiality” as a text) that Wysocki makes her main criterion for a text to be “new media” (Wysocki 15-16).

Wysocki asserts that a new media text is aware of itself as a text. It is aware of its moves, and of the material motivation of its moves, and it requires that an engaged reader be aware of these things as well. Wysocki proposes materiality as a complex web of temporal reality. She takes issue with previous commentators who, following Marshall McLuhan, have mistaken the part for the whole and declared that “the medium is the message.” Wysocki’s argument is far more nuanced than McLuhan’s: The medium may not be the message, she contends, but it is an important component of the message.

Wysocki feels that McLuhan’s famous, catchy assertion is reductive but not without worth. The medium does play a significant role in the ideological implications of a text’s instantiation, she argues. This Microsoft Word document, for example, requires that I type in straight, uniform lines. Wysocki argues that this communicates and perpetuates an ethos that favors efficiency and linearity (12-13). But the materiality of a text does not stop with its medium. It also includes the socioeconomic factors affecting the text’s composition and distribution, such as the gender, race, class, and sexual orientation of reader and writer (3-4). A text’s medium is not neutral, but neither is its context. Some materiality we cannot see, but we can very much feel. In order to be truly new[1], therefore Wysocki argues that a text must be aware of (and must try to manipulate) all of its ideological baggage. Its grappling with the complex web of materiality must be made visible. These texts must ultimately (either explicitly or implicitly) question what it means to be a text. I find it appropriate that one of the first “pieces” in a text that begins with an essay that redefines “new media” in the aforementioned way is a paean to Thelonious Monk. His radical yet systematic departures from what was considered appropriate in western music called attention to music’s materiality and questioned what it means to be a song.  

[1] “New” like “post-” (its ideological and aesthetic ambiguity notwithstanding) is an adjective that can connote self-awareness.


New Literacies, values, voices, and technology

There is something especially appropriate about writing a post about “New Literacies” on a collaborative blog, especially a blog that I don’t “own” or control.  I’m participating in an interactive space where I can not only link to relevant things, but other people can link back to me, or reply to me, or any number of other instant social things.  The “owner” of the blog can also potentially come in and edit my words, or migrate this post and all others in the blog into another format.

But, wait, there’s more! WordPress notifies me “Draft saved at 1:46:51 pm”, which also lets me know that the text itself is also being broken up into packets, copied, transported, transmitted, stored, erased, and re-distributed all over the world even now, as I type in these words!  After I click the “publish” button, this text will get pushed and pulled through data centers and and finally onto the machines of anyone who reads this post.   It’s a bit mind-boggling when you think of how different the “mechanics” involved in producing and consuming text are compared to what it is with so-called “dead tree” books.

But all of that is really just an interesting aside, right? I guess you should probably ignore my giggle fits over how freaking cool this is.

Or should you?  (Cue ominous suspenseful music.)

In the first chapter of “New Literacy Sampler”, Colin Lankshear and Michele Knobel discuss how literacies can be thought of as a person’s ability to engage in a specific discourse, and how the advent of social online technologies results in a kind of explosion of various literacies, discourses, and identities for people to occupy.  For them, literacy means more than a person’s ability to read and write–it refers to a person’s fluency and comfort participating in a given discourse. It’s a set of skills appropriate for a given community, and having or not having those skills signal whether someone is part of an “in-group” or not.  There is much much more to their discussion about how to draw a line between old and “new” literacies, as well as how “new” literacies represent and require changes in how we think about everything from authorship, ownership, identity, business, and text. However, the way they implicitly define literacy is what I want to highlight here.

So what does it mean when we apply the metaphor of “literacy” to such a wide variety of practices?   In “Blinded by the Letter – Why Are We Using Literacy as a Metaphor for Everything Else?”, Wysocki and Johndan say that “too much is hidden by [the word] ‘literacy’… too much that we are wrong to bring with us”.  They discuss how “literacy” is problematic not simply because it’s hard to define. They remind us of the social implications and baggage that historically and currently are still tied to the word “literacy”.  They remind us that the “myth of literacy”–that gaining “literacy” will somehow empower and lift people up to the same level–is in fact a myth.  While gaining literacy (no matter how you are defining it) is a useful tool to help one participate in a given discourse, it is not value-neutral, and it does nothing to solve the underlying causes of inequality, socio-economic problems, racism, or other problems.  They remind us that teaching kids in a poor neighborhood to love reading, writing, or Facebook, will not inevitably make them feel like they can participate in the dominant public discourse when they grow up.   Wysocki and Johndan remind us essentially that literacy is not a magic bullet solution to social problems, and caution us not to think of these skills which we keep calling “literacies” in this way.

I think this reminder is especially relevant with regards to discussions about the internet, and especially “Web 2.0”, which is all about participatory webservices, a blurring of the lines between creator and consumer of content, and the dissolution of “authority”.  Many people see the internet as a place where “anyone can have a voice”, and they think of it as a kind of “great democratizer”.  Making sure young people have basic computer skills in addition to reading and writing skills has become a topic of educational policy and practice exactly for this reason.   Companies and industries thrive in their efforts to create newer, more connective, and more feature-ful services and technologies because of how important these “new literacies” have become to us and perhaps because they share the dream of giving everyone a voice online.

I think if you asked Wysocki and Johndan, they’d remind us that there is a danger in unbridled enthusiasm for the technologies driving these “New Literacies”, especially if they are adopted without being conscious of how existing social problems and power structures may be reinforced or further perpetrated within them.

I’ll use an example of a certain social website,  reddit (which is always written in lower-case) is a social news site and web community where members post content, and other members vote either up or down to indicate how they felt about a given article, story, or comment.  The idea is that “good” content, comments, and discussion will bubble up to the most prominent areas of the site, and “bad” content will be buried and eventually drop out entirely. It’s a typical example of a web service that tries to “democratize” the web. Only, there are problems.

Once you begin to engage in discussions on reddit, it becomes pretty clear that there is a set of values, ideologies, and voices that as a whole the community values and seems to give voice to through their votes.  Unpopular values and viewpoints are regularly “downvoted to oblivion”.  Reddit itself is also conscious of this trend, describing this practice as someone being a “victim of the reddit hivemind”.  In response to this culture, minority groups, voices, and people with “unpopular” views carve out their own communities in sub-sections of reddit where, while their ideas and discussions may be more appreciated, they are no longer participating in the “mainstream” portion of reddit as a whole.

reddit is just one example of a place where the dream of technology and literacy empowering and enabling everyone falls short of its goal.   Instead, we find that in our enthusiasm, we may have simply created a cyberspace version of existing social problems that literacy (both old and “new”) have only limited power to truly solve.  Offline, there are countless examples where minority groups who have literacy skills may still not be able to participate in mainstream culture, because mainstream culture doesn’t represent or reflect them.

So what does all of this have to do with the way I started this blog entry? My enthusiasm for how all this technical stuff works wasn’t just me geeking out for its own sake (okay, maybe it started out that way).  Really, I wanted to demonstrate one way that it is possible to become totally unaware of, or even ignore, the social context in which these technologies sit. It’s easy to take these New Literacies for granted, and allow ourselves to forget that technology and New Literacies are not value-neutral, and they carry with them all the things (good and bad) of the society that created them.

Say a 1000 Words About a Picture…What Will Your Words Say About You?

Anne Frances Wysocki’s, “The Sticky Embrace of Beauty” was a difficult read for me. Wysocki argues that the contemporary approach to helping students critique visual texts is incomplete and may prevent students from being able to thoroughly critique those visual texts. What is missing from our approach is the realization that we, us, as viewers are culturally accustomed to seeing form in particular ways, ways informed by Western conceptions of universal beauty, and because we don’t realize how our judgments are culturally informed, we divorce form from content. In divorcing form from content, we objectify whatever material/media makes up that content. In Wysocki’s argument, her example is the body of a women used in an advertisement. The woman’s body has been divorced from the content, and is used to enhance the form of the visual ad. The objectification of the woman’s body goes unnoticed because her body is presented in a visual form that is pleasing and in line with our cultural ideals of “universal beauty.”

Wysocki borrows this term of “universal beauty” from Kant’s Critiques. I admit I was lost in much of her explanation of Kant’s theories, especially when she notes that Kant states that our judgments of beauty “should be disinterested” and that Kant himself is always gendered. I thought maybe what she meant was that since we all partake in the judging of “universal beauty,” we are all like Kant and are all gendered in our judgments of beauty (and beauty could easily be replaced with the words “truth” or “goodness” here).

Wysocki proposes that we strive to present visions of beauty that highlight how parts of the everyday fit into a larger and more communal ideas and activities. She posits, “How then, might we learn to appreciate—see the beauty of, take rich pleasure in—the particularities of our experiences and those of others within this shared day-to-day?” (171) (My immediate response to this was, “Wow, that is a very intellectual form of beauty. Will the whole country get on board with that?” Images of Susan Boyle come to mind. People were so shocked that a woman who didn’t fit a visual ideal of “universal beauty” could produce something so “universally beautiful” She disrupted the whole process of objectification and people were shocked.)  ImageI think that Wysocki’s goals are ambitious, and I find myself a skeptic because of the sheer scope of the problem she presents. I want violence against women to be less reified by society, but I don’t see the presence of sex leaving advertising anytime soon. I was troubled by how hard it was for me to envision what she is talking about. What Wysocki proposes definitely falls into critical pedagogy (pedagogy that has an aim of social justice), and I have to remind myself that in discussing what art should do she is not expecting that a composition student would perform a visual rhetorical analysis and immediately be cured of biases, but its easy to get overwhelmed when reading this kind of scholarship.

The other reading this week, “Between Modes,” by Madeleine Sorapure, answers a very straightforward and prescient questions in the context of new media assignments like the ones that Wysocki would have her students participate in, and that question is how do we assess works in the composition classroom that contain visual imagery? What is a success and what is less effective? Sorapure presents the notions of the metaphor and the metonym, a metaphor being a substitution for an idea, and a metonym being a trope that evokes ideas that are in proximity to the image being used. I really appreciated the simplicity, and the practicality of her method of assessment. It’s not foolproof–teacher assessment can still be subjective when a student is assessed on their use of these tropes—for example, I didn’t think that world on a hook was so bad.

The Wysocki reading was REALLY difficult to read at times, but it did get me thinking about how I could perform similar analyses with students. I nominate this picture of Nancy Reagan sitting on Mr. T’s lap as a possible photo to analyze, but it might be too dated for my students.

This is a good example to me of a photo that has a lot going on in it, and the metonyms and the metaphors you could draw from it would be evocative even though they may not be intentional due to the context of this photo.

Photo Credits:

Susan Boyle:

Mr T and Nancy Reagan:

The Medium and The Message

In “Opening New Media to Writing”, Wysocki invites teachers to use new media as an addition to their composition-based pedagogy, and to allow new media to inform the composition classroom in new ways. In “Composition in a New Key”, Yancey does the same, and Cynthia Selfe joins in as well in “Toward New Media Texts: Taking up the Challenges of Visual Literacy”.

There is a call to arms in Wysocki, Yancey, and Selfe’s articles to push composition into a future of public writings and readings, visual analysis in addition to text, and examination of the construction of self, identity, and place through the lens of the internet. Ohmann, a skeptic, offers some minor cautionings and perhaps occupies a similar mindset that I do in “Literacy, Technology, and Monopoly Capital”: New Media and technology have the potential to be incredibly beneficial to education as a whole, but our goals and purposes will ultimately decide whether it is successful or not.

While I am enthusiastic about the potential benefits of such an application, I conflict with the purpose of inserting new media in a classroom.  Each reading contained a specific kind of reasoning for this shift, however I still struggle to except justifications at hand.

So, by adding new media into the composition classroom, are we training students for future jobs? Ohmann seems to think that this is an exaggeration of the future state of technology. He relates this ‘age of technology’ to previous ages of economic revolution; in this, technology is a tool of workforce stratification where only a few will need the specialized skills of technology.  By no means is Ohmann alone in his skepticism of the political implications of technology.

Certainly there are niche jobs in technology, and training for them is done in specific classes that may even happen in specific technology-centered schools. And, if future students are becoming proficient with new technologies earlier than ever, then how are we, who may often be behind their skills, going to help them with future jobs?

While there are those who would argue that even the most recent generation is under-prepared for jobs involving even the slightest technological skills, I’m not sure I understand the task of training for technological jobs in the writing classroom. Based on my job technology-related job experience, I envision composition classrooms working in Excel, Word, Outlook, and alike. And this seems like a challenge to me, even if Yancey does detail an interesting idea for using PowerPoint in the classroom.

Then, if we are not training a future workforce, are we leveraging new media as a means to engage students and motivate them? Yancey offers different points in her articles where she details several moments in history where writing and reading activities were done on a large scale outside the classroom. She asserts that not only do people not need formal instruction to participate in different forms of social reading and writing practices, they especially do not need assessment to validate these acts.

Ultimately, people don’t need grades to be active readers and writers. If we then decide to pull things from technologies that drive people to read and write more into the classroom and assess them, are we just going to slowly suffocate their joy?

Ok, so we’re not trying to be kill-joys and grade your favorite internet activity. Continue to make Willy Wonka memes without fear. Then, is this move into a related, but seemingly separate field a last-ditch effort to give composition departments a fighting chance in the academic world? Yancey, Selfe, and Wysocki spend a lot of time detailing how composition should be moving into the future–presumably so that we don’t get left in the past.

There’s been plenty of concern about the direction of composition studies over the past couple of decades (See: End of Composition Studies by David Smit– the title says it all). And so, it’s no wonder that we want to make sure that we’re presenting something fresh and appealing to colleges. But I think some of this progress has the potential to dismantle the field and place it in the realms of other disciplines. I think this is why Yancey mentions WAC classes and their new importance to composition teachers.

Ultimately, I’m conflicted with what our purpose is or could be, even if I can see all of these justifications as potential benefits. The answers I have are certainly a product of being here and now for me, grappling with teaching myself for the first-time, and generally doubting everything I do in the classroom. Perhaps though, others have more insight for the use of New Media in the classroom and the choice, like inserting anything into your teaching, is a personal one based on personal reasoning. Clearly, I’m not quite there yet.

Ah Violetta! A different kind of Multi-Tasking? Collaborative Function as an Index of PostModernity

Recently, at a desk bestrewn with empty coffee cups, a half-dozen books, digital audio equipment, handwritten lists, old syllabi, and class notebooks, I’ve found myself multitasking. Similarly, my typically tidy virtual desktop has become cluttered with quite a number of pdf articles, garage band files, electronic “sticky” notes in all colors, word documents in various states of editing or abandonment, and a slew of photos awaiting sifting and sorting.

Given the mundane/virtual dust-devil of texts I’ve been interacting with and generating these days, I’m very interested in the discussion of multi-tasking I’ve been encountering in critical discussions of digital and new literacy.  After all, if my desk/desktop is any indication, shouldn’t I, as a multi-tasker with a laptop at the heart of it all, be able to find myself represented in articles discussing digital textuality and new media?

Lankshear and Knobel, in their 2004 plenary address to the NRC, “New” Literacies:  Research and Social Practice, commented glowingly on the work of Angela Thomas, noting her interest in the “ways in which children construct their identities in multimodal digital worlds,” and held her research up as “an excellent exemplar of how weblogs and chat spaces, among other online media, can be used as research tools.”

When I cam upon Lankshear and Knobel’s discussion of Thomas, I was drawn to the words of Violetta, one of the digital insiders interviewed online by Thomas:

I need to make a confession right now, I am talking to you but at the same time I am talking to this cool guy Matt who I know from school, and trying to do some homework – an essay for which I am hunting some info on the web – you know, throw in some jazzy pics from the web and teachers go wild about your ‘technological literacy skills’ skills.  Big deal.  If they ever saw me at my desk right now, ME, the queen of multi-tasking, they’d have no clue what was happening.

Re-reading Violetta’s last line gives me, a teacher and older user of technology, pause.  Don’t older or less frequent user-creators of new media, many of us latecomers to the party, multitask too?  Are our styles of multitasking really so different from Violetta’s?

In “Sampling the New Literacies” Colin Lankshear and Michele Knobel write:

Multitasking has become ubiquitous among digital youth.  Moreover, the multitasking mode is not seen simply [as] some casual kind of modes operandi confined to interactions with one’s closest friends – as when chatting, roleplaying, updating a weblog, IM-ing, etc. simultaneously . . . . Rather it is widely seen as a way of operating that applies generally in everyday life at home, at school and at play. (15)

On the basis of such input, I’m still not convinced that Violetta has anything on me.  I like to sneak a text out to a friend during class at least as much (hell, perhaps more than) most of my students.  And, to be sure, I’ll leave facebook open while paying bills, g-chatting, answering professional correspondence, writing for fun, emailing my parents, taking notes for a role playing game, listening to music, or playing/recording a guitar.

Through coordinations of self/technology/and context, we perceive ourselves, and intuit how others may read us.

However, Lankshear and Knobel do have more to offer.  In positioning their concept of new literacy into the discourse theory of James Gee, they cover the idea of coordinations through which our situated-selves enact literacies within discourse.  This catchall phrase reminds us to consider the myriad elements bound up with incarnating literacy:  thoughts, feelings, rules, institutions, tools, accessories, clothes, language, etc.  “Within such coordinations,” according to Gee, “we humans become recognizable to ourselves and to others and recognize ourselves, other people, and things as meaningful in distinctive ways.”

Perhaps Violetta’s statement suggests a refined sense of how the various coordinations invoked in her digital literacy present (or interpolate, in the Althusserian sense) her as a subject, one with creative agency, but one who also may be seen, even studied, as such.  After all, she casually mocks teachers for praising even a cursory expression of “technological literacy.”  That is, to take up Gee’s reasoning, she has a subtle awareness of how the coordinations that frame the ongoing practice of her own literacy simultaneously enables her generative self-styling of a public persona and provides surfaces through which others may find her persona legible.

Thinking through Gee’s coordinations again, which include thinking and feeling, I’m led to consider the possibility that, even if people like Violetta and I each use some of the same technology, perhaps even in somewhat similar ways, perhaps the way we think and feel about our respective digital practices are what matter.

In Lankshear and Knobel’s charting of the ethoi underpinning the practices of typographic and digital textuality, we find a wide range of theory suggesting that typographic literacy and digital literacy carry with them a number of rather different assumptions, such as the way in which ideas are given value – such as through scarcity (typographic) or sharing (digital).  I grew up in a world in which the economic model of scarcity-derived value gave ideas and academic credentials their feeling of worth; not everybody had them.  This kind of thinking is of course still with us, and I hear it expressed whenever a student expresses worry that someone might “steal”  his or her ” idea.”

Lankshear and Knobel quote Barlow’s perspicacious claim that “dispersion . . . has the value and [information’s] not a commodity, it’s a relationship and as in any relationship, the more that’s going back and forth the higher the value of the relationship” (11).

Perhaps this point isn’t so different from being, in the years before before GPS, lost with someone who checked a paper map versus being in the same situation with someone who was happy to ask for directions.  Is it worth starting a face-to-face relationship with someone when what you want is a bit of information? (Yes, this opens a fertile line of gender-based inquiry generally absent from the more accessible layers of the theory Lankshear and Knobel cite).

Barlow’s  idea, that information is conceptualized differently by practitioners of differing literacies, helps me to infer a possible difference between my own approach to the web and that of someone like Violetta.  Let me illustrate the point with a problem that came up during a recent period of multi-tasking heavily weighted toward my current academic commitments.

A few days ago, I encountered a problem using a forum a professor had set up using SFSU’s ilearn for a class.  I’d asked my professor to modify the default settings for the forum.  One of the side effects had been that all of the group members ended up locked out from posting to the forum.  Before alerting my instructor to the problem, I tried to query ilearn’s online help several times, and quickly came up against an electronic brick wall, a invitation to search that kept resulting in:  “There are currently no QuickGuides in the system that match your search criteria. Please try again.”

Reflecting on the matter now with Barlow’s statement in mind, I realize that I tried to solve the ilearn problem from a scarcity-model informational standpoint; the smart money would have been to solve it relationally, to find someone who could help me step by step through the situation, perhaps through the obviously displayed email or chat support options.  Seeking that kind of help isn’t as comfortably in my playbook.   Looking back, I realize I  also have a few people in my networks (both professional and social) with whom I might have interacted in order to solve my problem.

Why didn’t I?  I bet that, in terms of digital  literacy, I am several, even 10s of thousand of hours short of Violetta’s time online.  If indeed, as Walter Ong famously wrote, “Writing is a Technology that Restructures Thought,” Violetta and I may very well negotiate such problems differently.   I bet she would have gotten the results, and probably through a more social source than the help files I looked at, which are simply digital analogues of mundane owner’s manuals — a typographic solution.  A digital insider might ask: why open the manual when you can instant message an expert?  Perhaps Violetta might have started by asking that “cool guy Matt” she was already chatting with, and he might have had the answer.

I think that we might be in the midst of a social change that dethrones, or destabilizes, our traditional view of a narrowly defined executive function as the preeminent organizational skill.  It may be that this concept was formulated in an era of, or under the influence of values generated by, typographic literacy.  Perhaps collaborative function, an ability to effectively access collective sources of knowledge, is a more apt descriptor of the underlying capability for problem solving in the digital era.

Where is the collaboration in this executive function model?

Lankshear and Knobel note how wikipedia, for example, “leverages collective intelligence for knowledge production in the public domain.”  The literature on digital literacy that has come across my workspaces of late suggests that some kind of collaborative function will increasingly trump the sort of executive function that typically is associated with students’ ability to focus.  If we fail to recognize this, we not only impair our own digital literacy, and misunderstand the classroom presence of our students, but also, even while using digital and new media, stage our attempts at problem-solving with a scarcity-based model of information lurking in the wings.

Given the frequency with which New Media theorists invoke Jameson, Derrida, and other postmodern luminaries, it has become difficult to disassociate digital textuality from postmodernity itself.  Lankshear and Knobel note that the 2.0 digital mindset may be seen “as an aspect of the postmodern spirit.”  In “Blinded by the Letter:  Why Are We Using Literacy as a Metaphor for Everything Else?” Anne Frances Wysocki and Johndan Johnson-Eilola contrast, in a line of inquiry somewhat parallel to the scarcity/dispersion dichotomy, the private linearity of printed consciousness and the spatialized intertextuality of digital thinking.

Perhaps the world where the full implications of “an unseen network of reference” that is “visible, navigable, writable and readable, on our computer screens” is also the world of collaborative function, where users not only see/access links between texts, but are much more free to see/access the social relationships based upon textual exchange, the affective and informational networks through which texts, reified artifacts, useless in themselves, are transmitted and granted meaning.

In my youth, fan-generated responses to Star Wars often looked more like this.

Where Violetta and I may well overlap, in terms of our digital-literary consciousness, though, would be in our appreciation of fan-generated media.  Consider this fan-generated video of a Star Wars space battle, which reveals  the fervor and technical prowess of the normally faceless imperial pilots that form part of the menacing backdrop  of the films.

Sleigh Bells

Although my information-seeking instincts may be still been conditioned by a youth of scarcity-consciousness, at least I’ve come this far – I can admire fan-fictive remixing, and don’t want to see either Lucasfilm (or Sleigh Bells, which someone other than the fan-author added to the vid as a righteous musical backdrop)  pull down the video by flexing their scarcity-derived intellectual property rights.  I’d go further, and assert this fan-creator’s right to draw upon these sources to make new texts.  Many of you are probably already familiar with Larry Lessig’s TED talk on Read/Write culture, so I won’t belabor the matter.

One last takeaway from Violetta’s statement, I think, is that we don’t want, by studying digital and new medial literacies, to fetishize their demonstration.  Users like Violetta are aware that their practices are the subject of academic/pedagogical inquiry and appropriation.  They may know all too well that scholars like Lankeshear and Knobel dedicate works like “Sample ‘The New’ in New Literacies” to “the young (and not so young) digital insiders who inspire people like us.”   In that spirit, let’s make sure we do our best, then, to listen to what student-users have to teach us about working collaboratively with new media.

Taking advantage of tools and bewaring of false promises

In “Blinded by the Letter Why Are We Using Literacy as a Metaphor for Everything Else!” Anne Frances Wysocki and Johndan Johnson-Eilola address two myths that are associated with discussions of “literacy,” one, that literacy is always a tool of liberation for oppressed peoples, and two, that literacy will improve an individual’s sense of self and moral character. I have often had a bad taste in my mouth when reading academic discussions of literacy in the sense that academic efforts to offer literacy to oppressed peoples are like wealthy philanthropy—rich people donate money because it makes them feel good, but more often than not, not because it will really create substantial change. I’m not saying that efforts to share literacies are not worthwhile and effective, but I don’t think teaching someone to read and write is the panacea that will dissolve class inequity. Literacy is just a piece of the puzzle. The Wysocki and Johnson-Eiolola article was refreshing to me. This quote from Ruth Finnegan words it well, “So, when people might want, for example, houses or jobs or economic reform, they arc instead given literacy programs. (41)” 

The second myth taken up by Wysocki and Johnson-Eilola is that the book, and the book alone, offers people the necessary self-reflection to become more self realized and moral individuals. A book or literacy for that matter does not by default make you a moral person. I hear this in the tone of people’s voices when they react to discovering that another individual has never read a book or only plays video games. Yes, reading does open you up to considering moral ideas, but it does not inherently make you moral. The cultural expectation to read can be oppressive. This Portlandia sketch sums up this myth pretty well to me.

Wysocki and Johnson-Eilola continue their argument by applying their discussion of literacy myths to computers, urging readers to consider the use of the term “literacy” when applying it to computers—for fear that we might apply the same assumptions and myths to computer literacy. Efforts by the Clinton administration to put a computer in every classroom seem to be tangential to this idea of applying the same myths of literacy to computers. Computers in every classroom did not save students, but I’m sure it didn’t hurt them either.  

The second assumed promise of literacy that the authors warn us to consider carefully is this idea of improving the self, the bildungsroman of literacy. A bildungsroman is a literary term for a coming of age story. Computers are very much tied to self-improvement and authoritative self-identity. We can see these myths embodied in rags to riches stories like that of Mark Zuckerberg, Steve Jobs, and Bill Gates, all wunderkinds whose abilities and destinies were unleashed because of computers.


We cannot assume that people are missing out on the good life if they don’t know how to work an iPod.

But to completely dismiss computers and computer literacy because it brings along some myths of overzealous promise is unwise.

Computers can be powerful tools for discovering identities and understanding how power is negotiated. InColin Lankshear and Michele Knobel’s article, “’New’ Literacies: Research and Social Practice,” the authors analyze “‘new’ literacies” (which at the time of the article’s publication are new but today are more broadly accepted as commonplace)

in the form of blogs, online fan fiction and “synchronous online communities (this appears to be a precursor to things like World of Warcraft).


It took me awhile to wrap my head around the idea that each online community represents a separate discourse community, thereby offering an individual the ability to become literate within that discourse community.

Each community: fan fiction fans, synchronous online community members, and bloggers, all three of these discourses offered community members avenues for re-imagining their identities and expressing themselves in ways that conventional media and reading and writing outlets had not.

Lankshear and Knobel classify communication through fan fiction and online synchronous communities as “relationship technology” rather than “information technology” (while blogs seem to stand in both categories), and they argue that awareness of these literacies can be applied in the classroom. I would rephrase this suggestion as “know your population. ”

Framing curriculum in formats that are personally compelling for students is beneficial in terms of engagement for the students. Students can have “authority” over their school assignments in ways that traditional research papers may not allow, capitalizing on the “relationship technology” that youth are so adept at navigating.

An article in A New Literacies Sampler continues along similar lines as Lankshear and Knobel. In “Popular Websites in Adolescents’ Out-of-School Lives: Critical Lessons on Literacy” by Jennifer Stone, Stone explores how popular websites used by teenagers support literacy practices encouraged in schools (a la Robert Brooke’s “Underlife and Writing Instruction” wherein the transgressive activities of students in class actually reinforce classroom goals). In Stone’s research she observes youth using the rhetorical skills that complement classroom practices. Stone suggests that schools can help students to “begin addressing the convergence of genres, modalities, and inter-textuality to promote consumption” (61) that is inherent in many popular websites.

In conclusion, it may be beneficial to use technological literacy in the classroom as a tool for empowerment and self-realization, but it is necessary not to overstate what our claim of “literacy” offers students. We are offering them tools, but we are not necessarily offering liberation or morality. It is also important to note that the tools benefit not just the students, but also, us, as teachers in our ability to engage our students.

IPhone post: producing critical readers

I’m having some serious technical issues today, which is why I’m writing and posting my blog post via my iPhone. Hopefully, Internet in my apartment will be resolved tomorrow at noon, but until then, I have my trusty smart phone to lead me through the darkness. On a side note, I have never had a problem with my Internet in the whole year and a half I’ve had AT&T. I feel like I’m living one of the major concerns of using new media in a classroom; what happens when it fails and the coffeeshop on the block with wifi is closed?!

This week focused on visual rhetoric, and specific activities to do in the classroom. While selfe discussed the composing of visual rhetoric, I was refreshed to read Anne Frances wysocki advocate for teaching critical reading of visual texts. For my thesis, I’m looking at Guy Debord’s Society of the spectacle, and how the ideology transformed into visual masks the complexities of real life. A great debate in the world of cultural criticism and Marxism is whether society has the tools or the will to debunk the spectacle. All of this praise of visual rhetoric has left out any skepticism about the nature and power of the visual. More than just teaching students how to compose, we must teach how to read critically.

This provides a great opportunity for students to think about visual representations of the body, gender, race, developing countries, and other categories in a deep, nuanced manner. Yes, students are mostly reading/viewing visual rhetoric at home, but who is producing the new media they are consuming? What underlying messages and ideals are embodied by the visual/ the culture of illusion/ the spectacle?

Debord asserts that to undo the power of the spectacle, society must engage dialectally; that is the recipe for liberation. The classroom provides this foundation, and like Wysocki, I believe it is our responsibility as teachers to provide that space.

I’m curious to see how and when cultural criticism about the spectacle and the culture of illusion merge with new media studies. Both are concerned with the visual, how it manifests and how it is consumed, but they have a slightly different agenda. Thankfully, compositionists, like Wysocki, are bringing these issues to the forefront.

I apologize for the shortness and the formatting of this post. My thumbs are tired, and I hope the words speak for themselves!