Composition in a Larger Frame? Updated 2.27.11

April 26, 2011

So several years ago, I gave a talk at Wayne State focused on composition studies as cultural studies.  In that talk, I looked at some of the questions we might ask about composing, about texts, about the technologies and social relationships that are both motivated by composing and that motivate new composing practices, texts (genres), and responding practices. I haven’t read it yet, but I think that’s in part what Sid Dobrin is advocating in his new Postcomposition, due out in June. And at some level, I think that’s what this sabbatical project is about: a cultural and historical study of vernacular writing in America in the 20th century–and peeking into the 21st.   It’s writing studies as writing studies without reference to students. (Not that I don’t like students: I do. )

Several points that need exploration here:

One is that we have used activity system theory quite usefully to help us understand both the situated-ness of writing and the relationship of one genre to another (ie, by means of genre families).  So there’s a local/larger at play here. But what we haven’t done is take activity theory and use it as a frame to think about writing in moments in time. Henkin, for example, makes the argument that in NYC in the 19th century, there were many public texts–both visual and verbal–that basically enculturated people into literate behavior. I think that’s so. A trivial example: when you look at images of old building, their surfaces often functioned as billboards, with many of them having wonderful visual compositions on them (even if they were advertising). Look at the sides of buildings today: in part because of new materials (think of glass replacing brick and how the materials function or not as a writing surface), our buildings are very plain. The writing surface has disappeared. My point:  environment makes a difference in the way we understand composing. And activity system theory could help us locate writing relative to its environment, both as a tool of analysis and as a heuristic for design.

Another area that I want to explore is the set of networks that always locate composing and composers. And it’s a set, not  a single one.  How does the set function? How are networks over/layered on each other, and to what effect? Where is the point of purchase for a composer? As composers, what kinds of engagements do we have with/in networks?

Sometimes, as in the case of one scrapbook commemorating (or documenting, constructing representing, narrating, reporting?) the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, it seems more a representation of what is, which representation is implicated in networks of commercial manufacturing. In a 1942 diary from the Santa Anita assembly camp, it leads to the creation of a new network with personal, social, and explicitly ideological dimensions to it. Another case is the so-called Red Orchestra, a group of German resistance fighters during World War II: as in the case of the diary writer, the purpose here was to create a network of resistance, largely through newspapers and flyers. In the case of the website Patients Like Me, a network of participation is available, one that has the collective aspirations of the diary but the technological networked materiality and affordances of the web. And the website quakebook.org is providing space and publication for the stories of Japanese earthquake survivors.

So composing is more than process, more than genre, and more than grammar 😉 It’s a set of  human technologically mediated verbal and visual situated practices located in environments that foster attitudes and imitations and in larger networks with multiple dimensions to them that offer different kinds of engagements.


April 24, 2011

is an area I’ll be exploring over the next several months, in part because I hope to return to my CCCC Chair’s Address, revisit it, and expand it into a book. In the post preceding this one, I provide a reflection on the composing theory course I taught this term. There is something about toolness and the way it connects to writing that needs expl

oration. I saw today, for example, a license place with the inscription “Jesu Est.” The author didn’t write this in the sense of marking a surface, but did write it in the sense of asking for it. Does this count? And what about the ESL student discussed on WPA-L who used an Apple ap to translate his Korean into English for a composition assignment. In short, we haven’t theorized our relationship(s) to the materials and tools of composing, and for a theory of composing, such sub-theorizing is needed.


Reflection on Composing

April 23, 2011

What did I learn this term? Several things worth noting.

One: I appreciate very much how one’s view is re-set by teaching, perhaps most especially when it’s material you think you know well, and perhaps most especially when you have others with different experiences and perspectives in the conversation. So I loved the connection between form in rc and technique in cw, and the research on digital composing that Kat is looking at, and Jen’s question about what has replaced our kitchen tables (if they have been replaced). Question: how might our theories of composition be revised by their findings and explorations?

Two: the tools of composing are, perhaps more now than ever (but only perhaps :), in flux. I think I had assumed that because my students are younger than I, they (you) would have tweeted and felt competent and comfortable with it, so I was surprised that this was such a new and seemingly difficult task for some. But at the same time, when given a collaborative task, these same students (aka, you 😉 chose an appropriate space for that, not the single screen of a word processor, but the networked space of a wiki or the collaborative space of a google.docs. That did not happen even as recently as two years ago, and as I noted in my CCCC Chair’s Address, we aren’t teaching these tools, these spaces, these practices. Where do they come from? Outside school? Inside school in a kind of underground composing economy, analogous perhaps to the underground economy of notes that elementary school kids write to each other, another kind of underlife that Robert Brooke writes about? Where do I learn these practices, or how to use new tools? Mostly, word of mouth, friends, sometimes in mainstream media, sometimes on facebook, sometimes on blogs. Research on composing, in other words, like composing itself, has changed, and it isn’t the institutions of learning that are changing it; it’s the practices that are developed on the street, in the workplace, and, occasionally, in the classroom. So what we think we know about composing has to be informed by those practices. Is there a theory that is dynamic enough to accommodate tools, spaces, materiality layered upon each other, with possibly none being lost but simply in intermediation with the new?

Or: composing is *changing* right before our eyes, and perhaps one way to think about that, theoretically, is through a set of terms that allows us to think about how people composed, how they currently compose, and how they might in the future. It seems clear to me that the surfaces on which we compose are pretty diverse, from rocks where the Japanese centuries ago scratched warnings about tsunamis to kinds of paper—which can still be categorized according to purpose (see the notebooks designed to record baseball plays)–to kinds of screens to kinds of remediated spaces on the web, for example google.docs, which I take to be a multiple remediation: of a word processed text in a stand-alone computer, which is of a typed page, which is of a handwritten page . . . . How do we talk about composing when it is not any longer a process, but a set of practices including multiple resources and tools (with differing affordances) and materials? The tools, I think, highlight the materials, and the materials are connected to epistemologies and cultures, and all of these go into very different kinds of composing. And at the same time, even when not taught, these practices both don’t often cross spaces and cross them more than we think: is that what made tweeting so weird, ie, tweeting on a blog? Would texting—a more familiar practice–have felt the same way?

The fact that I am still looking for answers to these questions, and that the questions have persisted for the life of my thinking, is not—oddly—frustrating, but interesting, challenging, invigorating. What makes all this especially fun and interesting is that I see composing through eyes of others, their account of practices, their syntheses, their questions—which in turn raise new questions for me.

My own composing this term has benefited from revision. When I gave my talk (on vernacular writing) at the Borders conference in February, it went ok, but I was surprised at the decided preference/understanding of most of the audience for composing-as-language. It was a pretty useful wake-up call: nearly an entire field—especially the “field” as it was represented there, with folks from psychology, linguistics, and education–has defined composing as words, with a newer generation seeing composing as multimodal, but there was/is very little sense of past composing as multimodal. If you took this last idea seriously, and if you took seriously the idea that people did like to compose—to create scrapbooks and photo postcards and letters and diaries—we’d see that we have a very rich history of composing, which would mean that certain mythologies of the field would have to be revisited. So in my own revising—for CCCC and for a talk at Auburn–I brought in the visual specifically, locating it more largely in the environment and literally showing how present it was as a phenomenon, and how the visual interacted with words, and I showed how large corporate networks interfaced with personal networks, linking that work to Kress’ thinking but also to book culture’s notion of networks. And I talked to a more receptive audience 😉 I suppose we could say that my current theory/ies of composing, in this regard, is/are informed by my historical sense, one which I am still developing and refining. And key to this theory are the key words above, and the ways they help us understand a composing theoretically and historically.

So my interest in the current moment of composing is interfaced with my interest in the ways that our undocumented history of composing contextualizes that.


Writing Assessment References

February 3, 2010

“Looking Back as We Look Forward: Historicizing Writing Assessment.” College Composition and Communication 50 (Feb. 1999): 483-504.

(Still) Historicizing Asssessment: An Update of Looking Back as We Look Forward and Historicizing Assessment:Postings on the Last Decade In Ritter, ed., Defining Composition Studies: Research, Scholarship, and Inquiry for the Twenty-First Century.

“Writing Assessment and Its Reward Function: An Historical Review and a New Agenda” in Inoue and Poe, eds., Racism and Writing Assessment.

“In the Service of Student Learning: Literacy, Assessment, and the Contributions of NCTE.” In Erika Lindemann, ed., Reading the Past, Writing the Future: A Century of American Literacy Education and the National Council of Teachers of English


More on Information Literacy

September 27, 2009

One of the distinctions that I think it’s important garden library architecture 012to make has to do with the difference between what’s credible and what’s plausible. Typically, we don’t attend to plausbility, and what students often do is look for what’s plausible, which for them counts as credible.

So one suggestion is to distinguish between those two.

A second is to ask students to use Janice Walker and Todd Taylor’s schema for citations. Again, what we typically do is ask students to use a given citation practice, and sometimes we explain it.  But what’s interesting, as Walker and Todd point out, is that if you read across all kinds of citation practices, they share five characteristics. 


»intellectual property




These principles are part of the content of information literacy, and a good question is what other content might be useful. I’ll try to address that in the next couple of days.


Information Literacy as New World

September 23, 2009

Creating and Exploring New Worlds:

Web 2.0, Information Literacy, and the Uses of Knowledge



Materials=Verbal, Visual, Multimedia

Use of the Materials of Others

Creation of Materials

 Practices; Application; Knowledge; Reflection


 An historical moment

  Courtesy of the Albert and Victoria Museum

 The web enters . . .

  Same system (print uploaded): different space

 Convergence of interacting sources . . .

  Different systems: an ecology



 Using an historical heuristic (thanks to Sam Wineberg)

 Heuristic 1: Corroboration. Corroboration, in the words of Barbara Tuchman (1981), is the “great corrective” without which historical practice would “slip easily into the invalid” (p. 34). Stated as a heuristic, corroboration could be formulated as “Whenever possible, check important details against each other before accepting them as plausible or likely.”

 Heuristic 2: Sourcing. Stated most simply, the “sourcing heuristic” could be formulated thus: “When evaluating historical documents, look first to the source or attribution of the document.” Historians used this heuristic 98% of the time; students used it 31% of the time. In terms of reading attribution first (as opposed to reading the attribution before reaching the end of the document), all eight historians did this at least once; only three of eight students did so, p < .025, Fisher’s exact test.

 Heuristic 3: Contextualization. Stated in its simplest form, the contextualization heuristic would read: “When trying to reconstruct historical events, pay close attention to when they happened and where they took place.” The “when” of this heuristic refers to the act of placing events in chronological sequence. The “where” of this heuristic is concerned with situating events in concrete spaces and determining the conditions of their occurrence – issues of geography, weather, climate, and landscape.


           1. Case Study: Analysis of Encyclopedia and Wikipedia

            2. Case Study: A Blogging Map of a Community

            3. Case Study: Sourcing NY Times Editorial


1. Identify the logic contextualizing research practices

 2. Identify key terms of research and ask students to map them


Prior Knowledge/Post Knowledge: Iterative Process

Threshold Concepts: Credible; Corroboration

Critical Incident Theory

The Future . . .   



Bransford, John. Learning and Transfer. In John Bransford et al., Eds., How People Learn: Mind, Brain, Experience, and School. Washington, DC: National Academy Press, 2000: 51-78.

Wineberg, Sam. Historical Problem Solving: A Study of the Cognitive Processes Used in the

Evaluation of Documentary and Pictorial Evidence. Journal of Educational Psychology 83.1 (1991): 73-87.


Yancey, Kathleen Blake. 1998. Reflection in the Writing Classroom. Logan, UT: Utah State UP.


Convergence Culture

September 21, 2009

During the last couple of years, I’ve  taught a class called Digital Revolution and Convergence Culture.  The first version focuses on multi-media and networked culture, and the blog for the class is here–>http://convergence2.blogspot.com/2008/08/welcome-to-convergence-2.html Currently, I’m teaching what seems to be the same class, but it’s a second term of the class. This term we are focusing on culture, technology, and literacy with an emphasis on networking, assemblage, and the making of knowledge. In the process, we are creating maps of the cultures of literacy over time, representations of different terms as they circulate, and entries for Wikepedia. That blog is here–>http://convergencethree.blogspot.com/

Feel free to take a look 😉

This term I’m giving a talk on information literacy, and I’ll post some of what I’m saying here, and I’m also talking on the connection between high school and college writing, and ditto 😉