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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.

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