Traveling! Computers and Writing and the Rhetoric Society of America Summer Institute

I’m on my way to C&W to present with my peers Carrie Hall and Kerry Banazek on “Visualizing Reading: Transmedia Assignment Sequences.” I’m speaker three, calling upon my investment in commonplace logs (which I’ve spoken of on the blog at various points) and its resurgence as a reading practice in digital spheres. If you’ll be there, we’d love to see you at our panel! Here was our full proposal:

Given the many ways computers work on human readers—inciting us to interact with texts in new physical ways and by means of new tools and new logics—and computers’ ability to work as literal reading machines, we contend that ours is a moment in which pedagogical work on the complex, interactive relationship between reading and composing deserves renewed attention.

In her 1996 article, “Conversations with Texts,” Mariolina Salvatori argued for attention to reading as an argument against instruction that valorizes writers as “visionary shapers of meanings and their works as venerable repositories for those meanings.” Salvatori argues not only for the inclusion of reading instruction in composition classrooms, but more specifically, for instruction that enacts “the interconnectedness of reading and writing.” Reading, she argues, needs to be made tangible, and this panel takes that claim seriously. We see Salvatori’s claims as deeply resonant with the pedagogical affordances of digital and multimodal composition assignments. While Salvatori is arguing for students’ metacognitive awareness of the processes of reading, we argue for the literal making visible of the reading process, not only as a pedagogical tool but as a way to more fully understand the relationship between the textual and the visible.

Moreover, while this presentation takes conversations about computerized reading and scoring of student essays, the introduction of speed-reading technologies like Spritz, and computation-based theoretical models like Stephen Ramsey’s “algorithmic criticism” or Franco Moretti’s “distant reading” as part of its exigence, each speaker begins not with a “new” practice but with an “old” practice that grounds a composition assignment with digital components. Rhetorical histories of description, metaphor, and the commonplace book invite students to work across several media while reading—to try out active, new-to-them practices that emphasize the interdependence of reading, writing, and visual composing.

Speaker One: Metaphor

According to Giambattista Vico, meanings of words “are not fixed by convention,” but live, grow and change in metaphor.  In fact, for Vico, metaphor is the most “luminary…necessary and frequent” aspect of language, in that it “gives sense and passion to insensate things.” Speaker one seeks to investigate the transmediation between reading and metaphor. For example, if we ask readers to draw an image informed by a text, we are asking them to create an allegory—and not always an explicit one.  If a reader draws the ghost in Beloved, the metaphor lies not only in the shape of the ghost, but also in the colors of pen the artist chooses, the weight of the line on the page, what else appears in the scene.  Discussing a simple drawing such as this may prove a valuable means of interpretation.

The speaker offers an assignment sequence which integrates both reading and drawing, centered around Medievalist Jeffrey Jerome Cohen’s essay “Monster Culture: Seven Theses.” Cohen’s essay reminds us that the word “monster” comes from the Latin “monstrum” meaning “to warn,” or “to show” and focuses on the difficulty of defining monstrosity while arguing that a culture is defined by the monsters it creates. Students are asked to create monsters of their own whilereading the text—not as an initial schema-building exercise, not as an ultimate comprehension exercise, but as an exercise that interacts with the text, that examines both monstrosity and “monstrum” as metaphorical understandings of text and culture.

 Speaker Two: Description

Speaker two proposes that a rich understanding of the history of description as a rhetorical mode can also contribute to this conversation—especially in the context of digital media classrooms. We all have some idea what the word “description” means. It invokes, as the subtitle of Mark Doty’s book The Art of Description suggests, the act of getting “world into word.” But production of a satisfying definition of description is difficult; description often gets framed in a negative way: understood as that which interrupts narrative or as something that becomes of value only when subservient to theory and critique, which are presumed to be “higher order” activities. However, looking to the shifting roles description plays across historical and cultural contexts (e.g. those 18th century practices outlined by Cynthia Sundberg Wall), we might come to understand it as a modal model that is differently rigorous, differently inventive.

In the praxis segment of this panel, speaker two introduces a multimedia storytelling assignment based on Italo Calvino’sInvisible Cities, in which students describe and annotate texts variously, create respondent visual art, and examine Christopher Cerrone’s operatic adaption—including a version delivered over wireless headphones for audiences moving through Los Angeles’ Union Station. This assignment foregrounds description’s relationship to world building, and it asserts words’ potential failure to describe visual experience as a unique invitation to readers-as-composers—rather than as a symptom of lack.

 Speaker Three: Commonplace Books

The practice of logging text in a so-called common-place book was popular in the late Renaissance and into the early modern period. Thought of primarily as a repository for significant passages for later reference or use, many common-place books ended up containing textual scraps from a myriad of sources, from news clips to recipes. Speaker three offers a take on the impulse to make and circulate various forms of digital citation (via Tumblr blog, Tweet, meme, and other social sites of invention) as within the tradition of keeping commonplace books. This contemporary common-placing makes reading tangible by transforming portions of a text’s material context, and, to steal a phrase from Lauren Berlant, creating “a poetics of attachment.”

Digital citation is something students do whether specifically prompted to or not. In the praxis portion of this talk, speaker three describes both prompted and unprompted student common-placing, as derived from two different semesters of introductory composition, one in which students employed common-placing in a class WordPress blog, and another in which students were asked to keep digital common-place logs in a shared class wiki. As an extension of Susan Miller’s historical work, imagining contemporary forms of digital citation and circulation as the same impulse to make common-place foregrounds the material and social circumstances of reading and writing practices across many media. However, it also makes material the reader’s affective encounters with language in and through dynamic spheres of activity and circulation.

After C&W I’m headed onward to Madison, WI for the Rhetoric Society of America’s Summer Institute for a workshop in Rhetoric’s Algorithms with Annette Vee and Jim Brown. I’m very much looking forward to this workshop, as my work in “hand-made” procedural attachments to texts has plenty of connective tissue to the exciting work in rhetorical machines. If you’ll be at RSA, I hope to chat with you there!


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