Author(ing) Author(ity): Collaboration/Isolation and Digital Students

I’m going to step away from commenting on some of the great texts I’ve been reading and use this space to just mull through some ideas that educators should consider when working with student-authors. The word author is, obviously, not easily defined, and there is a distinction many would apply between the concepts of an author and a writer. The main accepted distinction I see between author and writer is the placing of authority. An author is published, screened, vetted, edited. The author is read. A writer is one who writes–and some of the writing may not see the light of day. As educators, we shy away from applying the word “author” to our students. Students write in the class, and it is our job to help them develop towards the (add sarcastic tone) prestigious concept of “author.” To one day be big and proud. To be the author(ity).

So, here’s my argument against this whole student-writer v. student-author: in the classroom, our students are writers. Their audience is, for the most part, the professor and perhaps a few other students forced to do a peer review. But, consider for a moment, a student’s day-to-day life and how much of that includes writing to a significantly larger audience than our peer-reviewed, blood, sweat, and tears, published article. The separation and neglect of students’ existing author-ship from the classroom, I would argue, works against the goals we have set up as composition instructors.

An area where our un-acceptance of student author-ship works against the goals of the composition classroom is with collaboration. I stop here because, as an educator, student, writer, author, academic-community member, I have seen, heard, commented on the absolute importance of collaboration. Collaboration is beneficial for all of us–in every role and aspect of the academic–and we not only preach, but force our students into utilizing their peers. Collaborative discussions. Collaborative peer reviews. Critical thinking, development, writing cannot happen without collaboration! But, hey, you know all that collaborative composing you do online–the sharing, the tweeting, the retweeting, the liking, the commenting–all of those compositions you made or contributed to that have dozens, maybe even hundreds, of people interacting with, all of those have no place here. That’s not acceptable collaboration. That’s not writing. That’s not author-ship. THIS is writing–the one you’re writing by yourself on your dorm-room bed in the middle of the night; the one I make you share and read and awkwardly comment on with your classmates. And one day, if you’re skilled enough doing it yourself, secluded and alone, you might get those handful of readers and be an AUTHOR!!!! (If you decide to stay in the university, of course…otherwise, well, you know, good luck!)

We take an author, who works with others/strangers on collaborative texts; who has a following and audience larger than even they realize; who participates in a community, where compositions will circulate for who knows how long online; and we take that author, shove them into a tiny room to sit quietly at a computer to write. And then we take that forced isolation and try to turn that into forced collaboration–which will lead to beneficial revisions…to be made in further isolation. Revisions that will ultimately lead to a dead file on a computer, in a folder marked with this class’s name, that will inevitably be deleted completely.

I wonder if we try something different, something new from our traditional, glorified composition lesson, might we have a better shot of really showing students what writing really is. We tell our students: “writing is collaborative,” “writing is never finished,” and yet everything we do shows the exact opposite. What if, just for a moment, we consider taking a step out of our ‘long ago demolished’ ivory tower and perhaps use a, dare I say, not prestigious piece of writing to show what composing really is. To show the importance of collaboration and revisions. Say we, for the hell of it, have students compose a Wikipedia entry. Together. We all know Wikipedia is not at ALL credible–and it gets more traffic than database articles; and even the glorified academic may or may not use it (and deny it) from time to time–but it’s an encyclopedia of texts that strangers have composed (and cited) together.

A way to consider using this in the classroom is the class can work together on a Google Doc set up as a Wikipedia entry for each text or theme covered in the unit. This entry must include research, proper citations, and audience and genre considerations (calling for multimodality). Any inaccurate or unsupported information will be “taken down” by the administrator (the professor).

As educators, we really need to start considering what we say and what we do with students, and how much our pure intentions lead to contradictions. We have a choice, we can utilize the skills and credibility students bring to the classroom to further their author(ity), or we can neglect their skills and stunt their development. We also need to be careful of blindly accepting and encouraging a single, prestigious text with our students. Perhaps what we’re really doing when we glorify the academic essay is, instead of making a writer into an author, we’re robbing an author of their author(ity).

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Digitizing Theory

Jason Palmeri’s Remixing composition: A history of multimodal writing pedagogy (2012) proved a useful text for more than one reason. As a doctoral student nearing comprehensive exams, he provided an interesting read on the history of composition and rhetoric scholarship. As an educator, his suggestions, admittedly not foolproof or the end-all-be-all, will break the boundaries of the composition classroom that many of us still struggle with. For my purposes here, I will focus on his read of the literature, although many (if not, all) his suggestions will be making their way into my classroom.

Palmeri’s (2012) title suggests a focused look at multimodal pedagogy–preparing the reader for a look at fairly recent scholarship on the benefits and pitfalls of multimodal composing in the classroom. His history, however, took a look at staple pieces of theoretical scholarship, from all three major threads (expressivist, cognitive, social-epistemic), and fore-fronted the inherent multimodal aspect found in the history of composition and rhetoric. What I want to stress through Palmeri’s read of composition and rhetoric literature is the underlying relevance of all three strands of theoretical scholarship. No one scholar got it right, and no one scholar (myself included) will get it right. But by taking the advantageous aspects from each theorist, we stand a better chance of forming our composition theory into something that works as the landscape of composition continues to change. As Palmeri shows, digital technology has altered the way we compose and think, and how our students compose and move through the process of producing text. Multimodality has become a greater component of our compositions, and with new software (and social networking sites and online composing forums), it is now essential. The pages of these articles, from Emig to Elbow, have been read and marked by all of us, but due to the relevance and necessity of multimodality in composition, Palmeri noticed what was always there. Which brings me to my point on theory (both in this post and in my exams): composition theory should never be thrown out (as I’m sure everyone would agree). But while these theorists made their arguments privileging alphabetic text, as it was (and is) the main goal of the composition classroom, we can take what works and apply it to the changing nature of composition–to the increase of the digital and multimodal. Palmeri remixes composition, remixing the theory into a multimodal history. I say we mash-up the theory–take the best of the best, take what works and get rid of the excess, and apply it to a digital, multimodal, mashed-up composing world.

Reference

Palmeri, J. (2012). Remixing composition: A history of multimodal writing pedagogy. Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois University Press.

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Composing Modes

composing(media) = composing(embodiment), edited by Kristin L. Arola and Anne Frances Wysocki, brings together a fantastic array of articles on media production and consumption and how that manifests in our interactions with the world. For the purposes of this post, however, I will focus on two of the articles found in this compilation: Wysocki’s Drawn together: Possibilities for bodies in words and pictures (2012) and Kristin Prins’s Crafting new approaches to composition (2012).

Wysocki (2012) illustrated (quite literally at times) the power and potential behind compositions and different modalities therein. Many scholars have made the claim that compositions are used to create identity, but Wysocki described how compositions also reflect components of an individual’s identity, including through the decision of what mode the composer uses to compose. Different modes hold meaning within them and are, thus, a reflection of the composer’s class, economy, history, etc. This meaning cannot be removed, but, as Wysocki argued, it can be used to help the continued formation of the composer’s identity.

Building on this thought laid out by Wysocki (2012), Prins (2012) stressed the importance of incorporating multimodality into the First Year Composition classroom. She introduced composing as a craft that uses different modes and is necessary for communication through digital technologies. In line with Wysocki and many others, Prins agreed that composers are transformed through their craft, but multimodal composing has yet to be used in the craft of the academe. She called for students and teachers to learn this craft together by testing out new technologies and provided potential options for doing so.

What we see here, and why I chose these two articles from this collection in particular, is the importance of multimodal composing. I’m hardly the first scholar to plead for the incorporation of multimodal composing in the composition classroom (obviously), and I am most definitely not the last, but the key here is that modes bring with them a meaning all their own—one the composer might not have considered in the first place, or even thought to consider. Take this post for example. I read a few articles, had a few thoughts, and thought to share them with my colleagues. My focus is on my meaning and what these words are conveying—but I made a conscious choice to use words. The written word holds a certain level of “prestige” (although, that isn’t why I chose this mode). They show my status as an academic. My inclusion in a group of elite. This meaning is attached only to my mode, not to my message, yet it influences my message immensely.

Why I chose to use only words in this post, though, is to show how my lack of different modes bears a direct influence on my message in other ways, too. Yes, a meaning all its own is attached to each mode, as Wysocki (2012) argued, yet I would say that meaning might not always be the main point taken away from a composition. The written word might reflect my membership in a group of elites, yet notice how here I argue for multimodality in composition and the academe, but I fail to incorporate it in the very argument itself. My mode might be one of prestige, but in this case, it destroys my argument by showing hypocrisy (and tearing down my credibility). Wysocki, herself, made a point of using the blank space of her article and incorporating illustrations and comics in connection with her written argument.

Many (dare I say, most) articles on multimodality steer clear of using it themselves. While that is a thought to ponder over, what I mean to show here is the relevance of Prins’s (2012) point. Multimodality has a lot to offer, especially in a digital environment (for instance, the inclusion of links in this post), and as the meaning of each mode may not be able to be removed (Wysocki, 2012), there might be meanings that ‘trump’ them that are also conveyed through mode, not message. All this further shows the absolute need of incorporating multimodality in the composition classroom—through the points made by Wysocki (2012) and Prins, but also through this post. Multiple modes bear a lot of influence on a message—to further it and/or to break it down. Our students, entering into a composition classroom to learn composing, deserve to be given effective tools to communicate through multiple modes, as well as in a digital environment.

References

Prins, K. (2012). Crafting new approaches to composition. In K. L. Arola & A. F. Wysocki (Eds.), composing(media) = composing(embodiment) (pp. 145-161). Logan, UT: Utah State University Press.

Wysocki, A. F. (2012). Drawn together: Possibilities for bodies in words and pictures. In K. L. Arola & A. F. Wysocki (Eds.), composing(media) = composing(embodiment) (pp. 25-42). Logan, UT: Utah State University Press.

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