Cs 2017: Beyond Productive Tensions: Reconfiguring Modal and Disciplinary Expertise

I’ll be presenting at CCCC 2017 (#4C2017) on navigating tensions that arise when operating outside of one’s expertise, as brought about by situational or methodological necessity. Speaking with Melissa Yang, Laura Feibush. Chaired by Ben Miller. Saturday at 12 noon, session M. 34 in D137. Here’s our proposal/abstract:

At CCCC 2016, thirteen talks foregrounded “failure” and “difficulty,” indicating an emergent interest in compositional and methodological practices where being a novice may be preferable to expertise, or where failures, in hindsight, can be refigured as potential. Talks ranged from personal and professional perceptions of failure (Boyle, Vitanza, Bernard-Donals), to when artifacts seem to fail us (Rice), to programmatic successes balanced with failures (Waters, Young, Dean), to collaborative failures (Riley-Mukavetz, Powell, Levy, Selfe). Presenters called for colleagues to embrace opportunities to “be bad at stuff” (Vee, Ittersum, Lockridge, Sullivan). Perhaps we are merely catching up. An article on start-ups, “Failing Upwards,” calls storytelling around failures “a way to wring insight from failure, but…also a way of proclaiming membership in a community of innovators who are unafraid of taking risks” (Losse).

Invoking the call to “cultivate capacity,” each speaker relates an experience where an unexpected circumstance or rhetorical exigence led to new (to them) modal and methodological practices. Speaker one, researching constrained writing practices, relates the experience of learning computer code. Speaker two, who studies embodied listening in pedagogical contexts, tells of how physical injury necessitated using web-conferencing software to teach. Speaker three shares her experience transforming a paper written for nonfiction and history of science courses for an English studies journal. In each, the speakers have modal and disciplinary expertise that should have helped the transition into new practices, but ended up rubbing up against that expertise in challenging and unexpected ways.

The speakers will initiate a conversation about transformative experiences in the labor of academic work, and will keep presentations short for ample discussion. They will offer a writing/reflection task for attendees, to invite all to reflect on, share, and troubleshoot their own experiences. We are in familiar territory when risk of failure is framed as experiment (via Shipka, among others), difficulty (Salvatori and Donahue, and more), maker mentalities (Bogost, etc.), or novice experiences on the path toward expertise (Beaufort), especially in pedagogy. Little work exists in our field, however, about the risk of failure outside of safe spaces, or about situations not temporally distanced enough to benefit from hindsight. Ultimately, this panel will spark dialogues about cultivating, for ourselves and our colleagues, spaces for pushing through the challenges of adapting to and selecting from an increasingly wide range of methods and modes available to composition and rhetoric scholars.

Constraint is not Constraint: Procedural Literacy and Learning to Code (Moriah Purdy)

Speaker 1 meditates on the calls to computational and procedural literacy and making (as advanced by scholars such as Vee, Bogost, Mateas, Wing, and diSessa) and her own experience learning some computer code for a distant-reading genre study on commonplace book practices circulated through Pinterest. With a background in experimental, highly constrained, procedural poetics, the speaker is “fluent” in what she’ll identify as “hand-made” procedural modes of making, the design of systems to constrain one’s use of language in authoring acts. But as a novice programmer, authoring computer functions was an exhausting task, albeit ultimately worthwhile. Researchers interested in the digital humanities consistently meet up against the technical limitations of learning the vast array computer-assisted methods becoming viable to us in rhetoric/composition. The speaker will begin to unpack what is really happening when critical understanding rubs up against the practicalities of enacting new methods, in order to ask: what are the stakes (personal, institutional, critical) when one throws oneself into the unfamiliar territory of the (largely autodidactic) acquisition of new methodological tools? How might we cultivate an optimistic orientation toward the exigencies at the crux of the innovative, though still emergent, methods of our field?

Virtual Boundaries: Online Teaching Platforms and Embodied Listening (Laura Feibush)

Speaker 2 focuses on injury as the mother of invention. After a mid-semester spine injury, she was forced to introduce a virtual platform into prior research that had seemed to preclude it. Drawing upon theoretical frameworks in pedagogy, sound studies, and gesture studies, the speaker’s research on listening and gesture in scenes of writing instruction furthers a notion of “gestural listening,” or the physical manifestations of listening in the body. Although these arenas of study had until then seemed to demand situations of in-person presence, she ended up conducting several weeks of class via online conferencing programs like Skype and, later, BlueJeans, a platform with different audio-visual affordances. This challenging turn of events prompted a heightening and rethinking of the gestural listening paradigm, and the negotiation of a modal shift from the analog, or “in-person,” to the digital and virtual. Speaker 2 uses this exigency to ask: how do the processes of listening essential to composition classrooms function across virtual boundaries? How do aspects of physical presence, with their dimensions of embodied and aural reciprocity, change in classes conducted via virtual platforms? More broadly, this talk reflects on how teachers can cultivate what philosopher Adriana Cavarero, in For More than One Voice, calls “the reciprocal intention to listen” within the limitations and affordances of virtual classrooms.

Composing Chimeras to Cultivate Interdisciplinary Invention (Melissa Yang)

Speaker 3 posits the importance of “chimeric compositions,” or critical-creative projects yoking together modes, methods, and ideas from multiple disciplines in ways that may appear messy, even monstrous – but open up inventive possibilities in productive ways, after initially illuminating the limits of one’s expertise. The focus will be a case study featuring chimeras: a project on tales of footless fowl rising to fame after being fitted with prosthetic devices. Each of the disabled birds develops a prosthetic relationship with its adopted human owner; the birds and their owners become unusual extensions of each other. Concurrently developed between a history of science seminar and creative nonfiction workshop, this project is now pending publication in an English department-based journal. Speaker 3 will discuss challenges and rewards in constructing this project, which called upon writings on digital media, animal histories, disability studies, and the process of bringing it back into an English studies context. She will use historical and theoretical context to situate disciplinarity and interdisciplinarity as linked to the rhetoric of expertise(via John Lyne and Henry Howe, E. Johanna Hartelius, etc.). Poultry and prostheses will serve as artifacts to generate discussion on cultivating chimeric compositions, and on best practices to advance multimodal, multidisciplinary invention in the field of English composition.

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