Fall 2019 Conference: Connecting Literature and Composition Pedagogies

On October 25th, we held our fall conference on the relationship between literature and composition pedagogies and the role of literature in the composition classroom. As we face changes in the FYW program, it’s important to consider what skills we have as literature scholars that can and do transfer to our composition classes and to the teaching of writing across disciplines.

We decided to use an excerpt from Ocean Vuong’s 2019 novel On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous as a common literary starting point, which shaped at least the first half of the conference. Vuong is a Vietnamese-American poet and novelist who grew up in Hartford, and the excerpt we chose from the novel describes the nail salon in which the narrator’s family works and his mother’s experience with a customer with an amputated leg. That excerpt, and a recording of it, can be found here.

In our opening session, Scott Campbell outlined the main questions we wanted to address throughout the conference:

  • How should we approach a literary text?
    • Do you come to it as someone seeking to interpret it? (Is it a literary object?)
    • Do you think about how it addresses a reader or conveys an argument? (Is it a rhetorical object?)
    • Do you think about how it conveys history, experience, place, identity? (Is it an evidentiary text?)
    • What else is possible?
  • What can students produce, with a literary text as a starting point?
    • How can we ask them to compose through or with literature rather than just about it?
  • What are the advantages of turning to literary or cultural materials in the midst of a cross-disciplinary inquiry?

In each of our first breakout sessions, we discussed possible ways to teach the excerpt from On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous. We had one session on multimodal assignments, one on major project assignment sequences, and another on research projects. We also had sessions on in-class composition and in-class activities and discussion. All of the materials for each of those sessions can also be found here. In our second breakout sessions, groups of teachers workshopped and brainstormed for their own classes. We considered how we teach writing through literature now and how we might do it in the future.

We ended the conference (after a delicious Thanksgiving lunch) with a dress rehearsal of a panel presentation for another conference, NCTE 2019. In “Off Campus but in the Conversation: Acknowledging Complexity in High School-College Partnerships,” Scott Campbell, Lalitha Kasturirangan, Emily Kilbourn, Kristen Mucinskas, Jeff Roets, Lauren Shafer, and Marc Zimmerman explore the variability of sites within a dual credit/concurrent enrollment program. They consider how their presumed marginal role within the university might be better understood as a significant contribution to the university itself.

In some ways, this conference asked more questions than it answered, but that’s how it should be. We had many productive conversations that will not and should not end with the end of the conference. We all know that there is value in keeping literature in the composition classroom, and it’s important that we’re able to articulate that value, to ourselves, to our students, and to our administrators. We also all know that there’s a difference between literary analysis and writing through literature, but there is an overlap in those pedagogical skills.

Thank you so much to all the presenters and participants for a really engaging and complex conference. We hope that these conversations will continue!

If you would like to be involved in future ECE conferences, please reach out to me (Hannah), Scott, or Jason.

Abandoning the Formula: Multimodal Writing at Montville High School

We are introducing a new feature to the ECE English website. Each semester we will feature an ECE English teacher’s writing assignment or in class activity as a way to showcase and celebrate the excellent work our teachers and students are doing in ECE. Do you have an assignment or activity you’d like to share? Please email ECE English at eceenglish@uconn.edu.

On a rainy Friday afternoon, I sat down with Susan Laurencot in her classroom at Montville High School. Laurencot has been a certified ECE teacher since 2015. I asked her what originally drew her to the ECE program.

“[ECE English] has freed me up to be more creative with my kids, and it has allowed me to make a case against formulaic writing.”

Laurencot participated in the Connecticut Writing Project (CWP) Summer Institute when she was first certified as an ECE teacher. During the CWP Summer Institute, she researched writing without a formula, and says this was a primary inspiration for the development of her ECE English course.

Currently, her course is interdisciplinary with ECE History. Titled “What Haunts Us,” the class explores the lingering consequences of major historical American events.

One writing assignment she shared with me asks students to consider one of those lingering consequences, what Laurencot calls a “critical issue,” from the expansion of the American West. This is a multimodal assignment, and student work gets posted to Laurencot’s blog Raise Your Voice. Students also write a reflective piece in which they explain and defend their design and composition choices.

Laurencot explained that she wants students to be intentional when it comes to multimodal writing: “Don’t just add a photo because this is a ‘multi-modal’ project. Why did you add it? How does it enhance the reader’s understanding of your topic?”

She resists providing prompting questions in order to encourage students to move away from formulaic writing. Instead, Laurencot wants them to be motivated by their ideas, and more importantly their audience.

Typically, a student’s audience is their teacher. With a multimodal assignment like Laurencot’s, the audience is extended beyond the classroom with the use of hashtags. Each student has to research hashtags that define or target the audience they’re interested in reaching. For example, one student blog post titled “Feminism: How Centuries of Negative Connotation Continue to Haunt America” uses the hashtags #WomensReality, #EverydaySexism, and #IAmANastyWoman.

Another student wanted to challenge herself by giving a presentation in the style of a live TedTalk. The student’s critical issue was sexual assault against women, particularly native women as the class had read Tracks by Louise Erdrich. For her presentation, the student set a timer on the large smart board in the classroom without explaining why. During the presentation, the timer would go off and the student would reset it, again and again. At the end of the presentation, she asked the class if they noticed how many times the timer went off. According to the student, every time the timer went off another woman was sexually assaulted in this country. It was a powerful performance, and an example of how multimodal encompasses the gestural, as well as the digital and analog.

I asked Laurencot if students immediately embraced this kind of assignment, or if they were hesitant about moving away from the traditional essay.

She laughed and said, “They’ve heard rumours, ‘Laurencot does not like formulaic writing!’ So they’re a little bit unnerved. Kids are like, I can’t write like that.” Laurencot acknowledges that it’s challenging for some students to leave the formula behind, but also incredibly rewarding for student and teacher alike.

One change Laurencot would make to this assignment in the future is to encourage students to compose multimodally for all of their writing assignments. This year, students tended to see multimodal as a discrete assignment, instead of as a way to approach composition in general.

Click here to see the full assignment prompt and learning scale Laurencot uses in her ECE class.

Spring 2019 Conference

Naming What We Know: Threshold Concepts in the Classroom

Our conference this spring was inspired by Naming What We Know: Threshold Concepts of Writing Studies. Collaboratively written by Linda Adler-Kassner, Elizabeth Wardle, and many other composition scholars, Naming What We Know determines and describes the threshold concepts of writing studies.

A threshold concept is troubling, transforming, and transferable. It is troubling because it challenges commonsense ideas; it is transforming because once we understand a threshold concept, we can’t go back to how we used to think; and it is transferable because it can be used in multiple disciplines, as well as outside of academia.

We used Naming What We Know and it’s five major threshold concepts (and thirty subconcepts!) to organize our ECE conference. Each breakout session engaged with a major threshold concept of writing studies. For example, for the threshold concept “Writing is Social and Rhetorical,” we began by investigating commonsensical notions of writing and writers. We did a Google Image search of “writing” and “writers.” “Writing” yields images of disembodied hands using a pencil. Images of “writers” often show a single person, usually older, white, and male. Oddly, they’re using a typewriter or fountain pen. It takes some scrolling until you get to someone using a laptop. We discussed how these images communicate an idea of writing as isolated, clean, and exclusive; in fact, as the threshold concept demonstrates, writing is collaborative, messy, and all of our students are already writers. Part of our work as writing teachers is to challenge received ideas about writing. But how do we do that? How might these threshold concepts transform our teaching of writing?

Each breakout session adapted an assignment or activity that in some way speaks to their threshold concept. The threshold concept “Writing Takes Recognizable Forms” describes the necessity of writers to evaluate their rhetorical situation in order to choose, adapt, and/or create the appropriate genre. One group of teachers described an assignment where students are tasked with creating a teen health magazine about authentic student health issues. This assignment asks students to work within a known genre (the magazine) and adapt it to speak to their peers. Students learn the conventions of magazines–the values and practices the genre enacts–as well as how flexible genre can be to the needs of writers and readers. In the breakout session on the threshold concept “Writing is a Cognitive Activity,” participants explored the relationship between writing and the brain. One proposed activity for introducing cognition or metacognition into the writing classroom is to have reflective writing assignments that asks students to consider the affective domain of writing. Another proposal was to ask students to record themselves composing, perhaps using screen capture. This would direct students to consider how their writing is a way of thinking; how their writing shapes their thinking and vice versa.

All of these activities were shared during a large group discussion just before lunch. You can find more about threshold concepts and the activities we brainstormed at the ECE English website here. Click on the Session Materials folder to be taken to slides made by each breakout session. I’ve only highlighted a few examples of threshold concepts in the classroom here, but you’ll find many more in the slides. We also provided a brief overview of the developing Writing Across Technology (WAT) curriculum in First Year Writing.

The day ended with a meeting of the interest groups. In the multimodal interest group, we discussed the specific challenges facing ECE teachers when incorporating technology into the classroom. It was a very productive conversation for sharing workarounds, but also brainstorming how these challenges may be addressed in the future.

Thank you to all the participants and presenters for a wonderful day!

Rhetoric, Literature, and Conferences, Oh My!

Reflections on Our October Conference

What is the relationship between critical thinking and the personal, between our contexts and the intellectual work we do in the writing classroom? Our conversations at our Fall ECE Conference often explored the kinds of writing we ask our students to do and the extent to which those arguments serve them in both their educations and, more broadly, in the development of their interactions with the world around them. In the morning session, we met as a large group to discuss small excerpts of student work taken out of context in order to talk about what we see happening in that work and how it makes us think more deeply about the ways we discuss the genres of our students’ work. As we went over these excerpts, we wrote anonymous responses in a web-based program, “Padlet,” regarding moments we found interesting and the audience and genre of each piece. Each of us could see each other’s responses as they came in. Part of the intention of recording these responses was to ask ourselves to think about the ways we read student writing and to reflect on the ways we write assignments.

In that spirit, then, there were a few trends that came from both these responses and from the conversations we had during the session itself: the common terms we use to categorize student writing, as well as the problems those categorizations pose for those of us who are both instructors of literature and of writing. A number of terms came up multiple times: analysis, synthesis, argument, academic (audience/argument), and lens. In some specific examples, there were times where people seemed to not only agree with one another but also take up their terms; when one or two people identified the genre of a piece as an op-ed, for example, many soon followed.

What might these terms tell us about our practices and the ways we read student work?

While some responses and terms varied throughout, there did seem to be a general, common vocabulary that we were drawing on. The linking of two texts, such as Rodriguez and Pratt’s “Arts of the Contact Zone,” we often identified as “synthesis.” While it may seem obvious to us, it seems worthwhile to then ask, what does “synthesis” mean? What is its rhetorical use in writing? How might it gesture at some sort of larger stakes beyond the boundaries of our assignments? Linking two texts together might allow us to discover something new or interesting about each piece, potentially, and this might be its value to us as instructors of literature. At the conference, however, we also asked how students might be able to connect to, or make use of, the texts by using them to talk about higher-stakes issues.

In other words, while we might value synthesis and close, sustained analysis, we can also frame synthesis and analysis as rhetorical tools that allow our students to critically engage with and explore complex ideas. How might an analysis of Slaughterhouse-Five allow our students to think more deeply about Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder? About the effects of war, and the role writing might play in speaking about or to those effects? Why might arguing that Rodriguez’s memoirs could, perhaps, be considered an autoethnography be something intriguing, inspiring, or exciting? We spent the end of the session thinking about how we can encourage our students to use the valuable things they notice in and across texts to address larger issues – such as, for example, asking students to compile an anthology of excerpts about World War II aimed at veterans and write an introduction to the anthology. What synthesis or analysis looks like will differ depending on the rhetorical particularities of the assignment and each student’s approach to it – in other words, their audiences, the medium, the mode, and their goals/purpose.

For those of us who are instructors of literature, we are, of course, invested deeply in the worth and value of literary texts. Many instructors also have to contend with having to fulfill a certain amount of content each academic year to ensure their students either meet curriculum guidelines and/or are prepared to take an AP test. At times, then, it becomes challenging to balance the demands of the content of the course (literary texts) and the deep work of writing that First-Year Writing courses prioritize. First-Year Writing asks students not to write about texts (whatever genre those texts may be), but rather, to engage deeply with and explore the practice of writing itself, to approach writing as a complex process through which we can encounter and expand on complex questions, particularly as First-Year Writing offers a groundwork of writing and critical thinking practices meant to be cross-disciplinary. If our students need to read Frankenstein, what kinds of questions about the world, various cultural assumptions (for example, regarding gender), scientific practices, etc. might they be able to write towards? What kinds of arguments is the novel making, and how might our students expand on them in new and interesting directions in their 21st century contexts? What kinds of writing can they do that might serve them broadly in future writing practices?

This kind of thinking, I’ve found, has also helped shape my approach to teaching content-based literature courses not housed under First-Year Writing. My initial approach asked what texts they would be expected to read, ensuring I was teaching what I was ‘supposed’ to. However, when I taught a survey course on Poetry, my class consisted of forty students, many of which were not majors. So I had to question my own assumptions about the role of the course. I not only asked, “what kinds of poems will they be expected to know?” but I also asked my students, “why are these the kinds of poems others will expect you to have read in a course on poetry?” Moreover, I asked them to consider the rhetorics of poetry – how it makes use of sound and space, how it both overlaps with and differs from various kinds of speaking, knowing, or writing, how it intervenes into larger cultural arguments. Literary texts don’t need to be static, and we can also address their historical contexts without also neglecting our very real, 21st century contexts at the same time, especially. We can also explore the ways all kinds of texts – literature, film, critical essays, websites, TV shows, etc. – engage their own kinds of rhetoric and composition, and how our students’ exploring those rhetorics can affect their own writing practices.

Several of the excerpts seemed to speak to audiences outside of the field of literary studies. Many found excerpt 2, a reflection on differing cultural practices surrounding food between the United States and China, “authentic” as opposed to other excerpts, although some felt it demonstrated a lot of bias. Similarly, excerpt 3, a strong statement against gender-coded graduation gowns, was seen as contributing to conversations beyond the more specific boundaries of academia or the classroom, but again, some found the tone overly contentious. We might ask ourselves how our students imagine themselves speaking to the outside world and what rhetorical choices they’re making; what sorts of discourses might they be drawing on or mirroring in writing these pieces? Both pieces included use of the first person; in excerpt 2, the student referred to themselves in order to make claims about their own culture. In excerpt 3, the student referred to a “We” in order to establish that they were referring to a whole community. I remember the first academic paper I wrote that sought to fill in what, to me, was a pretty big oversight in the conversation on a Renaissance poet’s work – I recently revived that piece in hopes of publishing it, and realized that I was performing the voice of scholars I had read, trying to match the perceived rhetorical situation of my argument. As a young scholar, even one in his MA, I drew on the tones of voice I was familiar with and attempted to imitate them, still trying to understand how differing rhetorical situations might my affect my writing. Students might be drawing on examples of the genre they’re writing in, ways they’ve heard others speak about similar topics, or their own understandings of how their audience expects them to respond (particularly if they believe their primary audience is us, their instructors).

These students may indeed have been writing in their own voices, and many in the comments on excerpt 2 found it authentic, as I noted above. Nonetheless, these students’ rhetorical situations (both imagined and real) have led them to make certain choices about what they’re presenting, what contrasts they’re drawing, the way they engage with evidence, and what point they’re hoping to make (however we might evaluate the “success” of each student’s draft). We should question and critically think through our own assumptions about our students’ perceived rhetorical situations. Interestingly, for example, there were mixed responses to the fourth excerpt, a video essay taking up Baudrillard’s assertion that “the Gulf War did not take place” – perhaps since it was a video, the various references may have been difficult to catch, but many felt that it had the tone of a “conspiracy theory.” Perhaps it was something about the statement that “the Iraq War did not take place,” the use of images, and the calm tone of the student – either way, that the video was taking a complex idea from a text and using it to then explore a wider issue (the portrayal of war more generally in the media, and how this applied to the Iraq War specifically) was not generally accounted for. It seems crucial, then, to question our own assumptions about various modes of composition – if we assign our students to write an op-ed, why? What kinds of rhetorical moves will they practice, and how do we talk about them with our students? How will they build on a complex conversation? If we ask them to write a video essay, what are our assumptions about voice-over videos? How can we account for those assumptions as we write assignments?

These are all fruitful questions that have no definitive answers – but, as I balance writing an intensive literary dissertation on Romantic poetry and my work in the often separate field of Rhetoric and Composition and writing program development, they’ve proven particularly generative for me in the weeks since the conference. I hope that we can continue reflecting on these questions and practices moving forward.

 

I Talk Fast

Podcast speed indicatorSometimes my students will tell me I talk too fast. And they’re not wrong. Blame coffee, nerves, my many years spent in New Jersey and New York, or just my usual state of edgy excitement. For whatever reason, I get a high word per minute count when I am teaching. I can promise to try speaking with more measured, spondaic, or prosed deliberation. And yet—and there’s always an “and yet”—there’s something worth considering about the many ways we try to cheat the careful cadence of prepared discourse. In speaking, we often look for ways to thwart the simple left-to-right, top-to-bottom linearity of writing. In simple terms, I think we are looking for ways to say many things at once.

If I’m feeling grandiose, I will compare this to John Coltrane’s “sheets of sound” phase, where he would play as rapidly as he could to suggest chords that, as a saxophonist, he could only arrive at in series, one note at a time. Play these notes fast enough, and they sound like chords.

Stylistically, there are lots of things we can do to play “chords” with our language. I am a big user of the long series of related elements that forestalls closure with conjunctions, commas, em dashes—like this one—, shifts of gear, perhaps taking a moment to remind of the “and yet” in the paragraph above, parentheses (I will sometimes use brackets, too), and whatever else to prevent the sentence from ending; semi-colons can keep the momentum going as well. I want to allow for options and variations in response, and I can’t know what an interlocutor or auditor will choose to take up. Would you like me to call this prose: juiced, like Proust, or At the Royal Roost? Maybe one of these references will work for you, so I’ll include them all.

In written academic discourse, we have footnotes, quotations, winking allusion, direct reference, and all kinds of signposts and gestures for helping a reader choose paths other than the one spelled out by the linear progress of the text’s consecutive sentences. Likewise, the more literary uses of the essay, characterized by digression and the observation/collection of heterogeneous materials, are experiments in saying many things at once. Sometimes, even, an unexpected second section will emerge to mark a shift.

2.
I started this chain of thinking because I have been watching student presentations and noticing that even the best prepared, thoughtful, and productive of presentations often leave other students looking beleaguered and grumpy. What I noticed was an impatience with linearity, a desire to paddle more quickly down whatever prepared river of discourse the presenter was offering. I’m reminded of a surprising conversation I witnessed (via Twitter) about how “no one” listens to podcasts in normal speed now, preferring 1.5x or 2x speeds to better take in the information of these podcasts (many of which in this case were essentially academic lectures). My class watched a Vox video recently that had a similarly amped up audio track. Hyperspeed, manipulated audio is all around us, and I suppose my question is how writing (or even talking) will keep pace. Does even a seminar conversation feel like slow-motion to students raised in a post-talk world?

We can and we should experiment with design and typographical elements to suggest speed and plurality (like this amazing Futurist book). And we’ve got to keep talking about plain, old writing as a still workable technology. But my interest at this point is with sound’s capacity for conveying layered, multiple, flows of information.

In the next few months, I’ll be working on a project that explores elements of creativity and composition through a musical/pedagogical partnership I’ve been developing. That is [he writes, attempting a second pass at similar information], I want to provide forums for experiments with sound, music, and composition that are simpatico with our ongoing FYW work. I’m sure to ask for collaborators soon enough, and I hope to run the Fall 2019 or Spring 2020 conference around this topic. In the meantime, let’s keep talking (rapidly, at the same time) about what’s possible.

 

***I didn’t really work a reference into this post, but I should mention this remarkable book that has been a support for some of my recent thinking about sound and writing pedagogy. Take a look or listen when you get a chance. You can even download chapters in podcast form so you can listen to them at 2.0 speed.

On Using Infographics in a Composition Course

An infographic about infographics.
A home-made starter infographic. Click on image for full-sized PNG file. 

Skeptic that I am, the whole business of using infographics in a writing course seemed suspicious, unwelcome when I first considered it. Sure, who doesn’t like to punch up a text with some visual flair or some bold typeface choices. And, yes, I see these things everywhere, often in police stations, post offices, and the dreariest corners of the public library. The term “infographic” is off-putting to me, a space-age portmanteau word not too far from “edutainment” or (*shudders*) “chillax.” Can’t graphics be informational? Isn’t information often in graphic form? Do we need a special word for this? And don’t get me started about the inertness of the word “information,” which too readily suggests frozen over Truth rather than a content to engage with critically.

However, at the Digital Media and Composition institute (DMAC, or band camp for writing program administrators), we were introduced to infographics as a mode of composition, and, to my surprise, I quickly became convinced that the very crudeness of the genre could be an asset, that the ham-fisted mechanics of making an infographic via templates might aid rhetorical awareness. That is, because those of us who are not artists or designers require templates—and free ones at that—to make infographics, the almost prohibitive constraints of apps like Canva require a profound awareness of what is not possible. It’s a little like trying to write a paragraph with only the first 12 letters of the alphabet; you can do it, but you’d better put aside your dreams of eloquence. In a strange way, this boxiness is liberating. Our charge is not to teach students professional media skills (heavens, no) but rather to ask what happens when one’s work takes another form. How might you take an aspect of a project you are working on and communicate it to a potentially different audience in this alternate mode? 

I’m not a fan of templates, schema, or universal rules for writing. You won’t find They Say, I Say in my teaching toolbox because the last thing I want to do is settle the question of what’s possible. Genre may be built out of expectations, but this doesn’t mean that each new iteration doesn’t in some way revise that expectation. Templates for infographics, especially those on that small list of free models to draw on (steal from), do feel like sturdy, finite forms. But as a single-class diversion from the openness of the ongoing project or as a way to feature rhetorical appeals and design, I think the infographic can work. I look forward to the conversations about aesthetics that this mini-project opens up. And I’m hopeful that some students will have talents in this area that add things to the class beyond my ability to do so. 

As the visual designer said to his funding source, “we’ll see.”  

Murmurs

About 18 students. Facing each other in pairs. Students leave cell phones in netting at front of room. Lots of physical support for the work of the course, including desks that are mobile, a pleasant room space, a crate for collecting work, the aforementioned netting, and a very wide range of images, texts, maps, signifiers on the walls—[the teacher’s] degrees and college info, some runners’ racing bibs, wigs and crowns (for dramatic performances), a whiteboard with today’s lesson, a map of Greece/Crete, and lots of photos of students. An enormous paper roll about three feet wide. [Update: yes, those are specially chosen curtains, too.]

—Excerpt from site visit notes

 

One of the new, small traditions of ECE events is my sharing with Kim Shaker the title of a completely obscure but wonderful movie I’ve just seen. I’m a Filmstruck proselytizer, and I can’t help talking about, say, Vera Chytilova’s Daisies (wow, drop everything and watch this tonight) or The Lure (described on the site as a “genre-defying horror-musical mash-up…[which] follows a pair of carnivorous mermaid sisters drawn ashore to explore life on land in an alternate 1980s Poland“). Today I’ve got Agnes Varda’s Mur Murs on my mind. And, yes, it has something to do with teaching writing. I’ll get to that.

My classroom

In the first part of my place-based 1010 course, we examined our campus buildings and grounds. What should an academic space be? was a key question driving our first projects. Also: Who is academic space for? With bell hooks’ essay, “Keeping Close to Home: Class and Education,” and a few other readings, we looked at our campus and explored hooks’ claim that education should be “the practice of freedom.” A frequent point that students made was that our clean, new spaces lacked a feeling of “home.” One student compiled images and descriptions of a student union space at CCSU that functions like a lodge or den, where students can be informal, eat, and watch television (her hierarchy of “freedoms,” not mine). But a second student was even more focused on classroom space, and she argued that the blank white walls of our classrooms communicated a cold, modular indifference to the character of the conversations and work going on in these spaces. She asked why her high school classrooms had been so wonderfully “homey” while the college rooms are so blank.

I had certainly noticed the difference between high school and college settings in my visits to various high schools. My epigraph describes just one of the high school classrooms I’ve visited recently that feels quite different from the arid “multipurpose” room I’ve documented in these photos. But I had never before considered how regional campus students—as commuters—share something significant with their high school counterparts: their sense of community, if they have one, largely comes from what happens in their academic spaces. Residential students at places like the Storrs campus have dorms and dining halls (and a lot more) to build community. (We are familiar with the trope of the college student decorating a dorm or even painting a rock to establish a sense of home or belonging.) I’m envious of the ways that high school teachers transform school spaces into worlds infused by contributions they and their students have made to the classes (so much posted student work!).

When Agnes Varda made Mur Murs, she was living away from home—in California, not France. And she was estranged from her husband. A companion film to her fictionalized, personal story in Documenteur, Mur Murs turns outward, to the stunning public murals painted throughout East Los Angeles. The paintings are massive and often magnificent; I can’t hope to describe them. Most feature people from the community, the artists in most cases overtly countering a feeling of being underrepresented in more conventional art. The murals reclaim and remake space. As Varda puts it, “in Los Angeles, I mostly saw walls—murals as living, breathing, seething walls. Murals as talking, wailing, murmuring walls.” Varda, we can see, finds solace and stimulation in these interactions. Her camera adds yet another layer of connection and documentation.

My classroom (detail)

I’m not about to bring paint to my classroom. I don’t think a 100-foot collage of “the forgotten people” (striking workers, soldiers, nurses, etc.) would go over well with our campus administration. But I don’t think it’s too much of a stretch to see our courses as performing a similar kind of community building. To an extent, the work we’re doing in composition is a territorialization—of texts, of academic topics, and of spaces. And often multimodal composition makes this work of reclaiming and remaking more apparent. It was the photographing of our campus that led to these first thoughts. And now, deeper into the semester,

most days include time spent with students projecting work—often photos, maps, and sometimes drawings—onto these blank walls. One student has recently been photographing the tiny, stressed public library spaces in Hartford’s South End. Another has been showing us images of open space that has been fenced and padlocked. I show them a particular building that I photograph every day. The writing and conversations are better when we’ve populated our walls with images and texts that we’ve selected. It doesn’t last long, and the dazed look that students have when the lights come on isn’t entirely about adjustments to light. But it feels, too, like we’re getting past the blank page.

10,000 Steps Forward

I’ve spent the new year devising a completely rebooted ENGL 1010 course, one that fits better with the new location of my campus and with the ongoing developments in UConn’s FYW program. It’s a little unsettling to work with entirely unfamiliar texts, assignments, and processes, but I like the “clean sweep” feel of starting fresh.

I’m trying to take on the call for more attention to multimodal composition, and I’m encouraged by the examples I’ve seen—at Storrs, Hartford, and ECE sites. But I’m aware, too, of how open these terms, multimodal composition, are. It’s a little like getting the suggestion from your physician that you should “add a little exercise” to your daily routine. Sure, I could order a $3,000 RunJumpLift Contraption and drop it in my living room. But maybe I’ll just, you know, walk a little more.

I consider the multimodal wrinkles I am adding to my course a textual version of “walking a little more.” I say this for two reasons. First, I am primarily thinking of multimodal composition as a continuation of work I and my students already do. We write academic essays, which, at their best, take their force from a back and forth between evidence and exploration. Quotation is a kind of technology, a device for bringing other voices—contextualized and transformed no doubt by our work of appropriating them—into the conversation we’ve set up in writing. Similarly, other modes of “capture” such as sound recording, photography, or mapping can extend our understanding of how we might bring the world into our work. Composing, in this sense, is a collecting of evidence that is not just described but also experienced, at least in some clearly still mediated way. So, to return to my metaphor, I’ve added steps to my daily walks—seeing a little more of the park, say, or another block of a road I’ve spent less time on. But I’m not (yet?) throwing out furniture to make room for an all-new apparatus.

In another more tangible sense, I am walking a little more, literally, with my new course. Because we’re involved in a place-based inquiry (“What’s Behind Front Street?”), we are exploring the walkable periphery of our downtown campus, using photography and mapping (and text) to tell the story of our discovery process. This movement through space is buttressed by a set of readings, videos, images, and guest appearances that introduce conversations and arguments about cities and people. Michel de Certeau, for example, tells us that “Walking affirms, suspects, tries out, transgresses, respects, etc., the trajectories it ‘speaks’.” Or, from Jane Jacobs: “Any single factor about [a city] park is slippery as an eel.” Although some students may well pull things together into a recognizable academic essay (now with photos!), I expect others to find this more embodied encounter with people and places a poor fit for the familiar forms of the academic essay. No longer just copying quotes from an assigned text as “support,” they have a more unwieldy and multivalent collection of materials. How they compose them becomes a more urgent question. And, if the experience of considering options for design and execution of their projects for 1010 yields some insight into the need for ongoing critical reflection, the time spent wandering in the city will have been worth it.

In time I expect to make more decisions about how I’m defining multimodal composition and what I hope to see with it. I want to add a more actively creative dimension. In the last year, at site visits and in on-campus classes, I’ve often been impressed with student creativity and ownership—presentations with unexpected elements like hand-drawn images, short videos with humorous narration, or one student’s improvised Shakespearean soliloquy, written in 15 minutes but performed, brilliantly, to a rapt class.

At this point, I’m trying to bring a lot of the work back toward a reinvestment in evidence gathering and exploration. Take a look, for example, at this amazing example of an essay discussing digital maps by a cartographer with a deep understanding of both Apple and Google Maps. There are so few words in this carefully argued, wonderfully composed demonstration. And yet, here I am, piling on words within the limitations of this Aurora website (where the images are blocky and the line lengths are too long). I’ve included some images, however, to suggest how I’m taking my first steps toward a more multimodal presentation.

The Ethos, Logos, Pathos Lesson—or, the Question of “Content” in First-Year Writing Courses

Here’s an easy question: If a math teacher teaches math, and a geography teacher teaches geography, what does a writing teacher teach?

Writing, obviously. Like I said, an easy question.

Or at least it seems easy until we consider it alongside another question: Does a math teacher teach math and does a geography teacher teach geography in the same way that a writing teacher teaches writing?

What does it mean to teach writing? A math teacher—we’ll just send our geography teacher to the capital of New Zealand for now—might have her students learn theorems and formulas. Is there an equivalent of theorems and formulas in ECE English classes? Should there be?

I would say that as writing instructors we do have some conceptual frameworks and sets of terminology that can play a role similar to the math teacher’s theorems and formulas. For example, ethos, logos, and pathos. Or the rhetorical triangle, to offer another example. A student can memorize and learn to use these conceptual frameworks in the same way that he can memorize and learn to use a2 + b2 = c2.

But writing isn’t algebra. It isn’t geometry. (It may be calculus, but let’s leave that idea for another post.) So what is the point of portable neat little concept-constellations like ethos, logos, pathos and writer, text, reader?

First, let me argue in favor of portable neat little concept-constellations. I like them a lot. As someone who thinks about writing often—and often has to discuss writing with other people—sets of terms like ethos, logos, pathos help me to recognize aspects of writing that I likely would not have noticed otherwise. It’s like putting on my ethos, logos, pathos glasses. When I wear them, I can see these different concepts in practice.

Sets of terms and conceptual frameworks aren’t just glasses. They’re also the elements of a language that allows me to discuss writing precisely with students and other instructors. Without this language, it would be difficult for me to offer useful feedback. It would be difficult for students to communicate with one another about their drafts or write reflectively about their writing.

But sometimes when I wear those glasses, the big plastic frames block certain areas of my vision even as the lenses help me to see other areas very clearly. If I never take them off, I may even forget that there’s much more to be seen than what is visible in my (admittedly sometimes very useful) EthosLogosPathos-Vision.

And sometimes when I speak my ethos, logos, pathos language, I suddenly find myself trying to express a concept for which the language has no word. But I’m so used to this language that I use to discuss writing—I think in it, I dream in it—I fool myself into thinking that it’s not the language that’s deficient but rather the inexpressible idea. So I push it away.

For these reasons, it’s important to treat our writing-related sets of terms and conceptual frameworks as tools. Depending on the particulars of a situation, a tool may be productive. But a hammer’s no help for cleaning glass. We have to remind ourselves and emphasize to our students (when we introduce them to these tools) that they aren’t always productive—in some cases, they may even be limiting. And when they do start to hinder how we think about writing, we have to be ready to cast them aside and engage openly and flexibly with a writing project.

It may be the same way in real-life math or geography. I don’t know. But that’s certainly not the case for my straw-person math teacher with her theorems and formulas. We do things differently than she does. And when it comes to the teaching of our straw-person geography teacher, we’re on a whole different continent.

For further (and less flippant) reading about possible roles for “content” in writing courses, I highly recommend Writing Across Contexts: Transfer, Composition, and Sites of Writing by Kathleen Blake Yancey, Liane Robertson, and Kara Taczak. (With your UConn credentials, you should have access to the book in PDF form through JSTOR.)

Thirty Pages

My essay’s like a flock of birds,
It’s almost at 9,000 words.
—Anon.

It’s hard to have a conversation about UConn’s First-Year Writing courses without falling into a debate about how to gloss that most stubborn of lines in all of the FYW canon, that often featured phrase in trochaic pentameter:

 Thirty pages of revisèd writing.

It’s a line that’s been scanned and interpreted by scholars and pedagogues. There are the more orthodox literalists, who read it as a plain requirement to assign thirty pages of revised writing in each FYW course. There are the more liberal interpreters, who see it more as a guideline or recommendation that might flex to meet the needs of a particular situation. And, typical of English departments, there are the “philosophers,” who, drawing on theory from the ‘90s, argue for a ruthless critique of reified generalities. These anxious souls point to the absurdity of “pages” in a course that increasingly depends on digitally-created and circulated work, noting, too, the weirdly flat emphasis on a fixed quantity of writing rather than, say, quality or purpose. (“Positivists,” they exclaim, “there is no greater abstraction than this falsely ‘concrete’ criterion!”)

But enough about me. Let’s take a look at how this phrase is interpreted in the most recent Handbook for ECE English:

Thirty Pages of Revised Writing
Although expressed as a minimum page requirement, the impetus for this element is a desire to have all students in FYW seminars share similar experiences in composing and revising several major writing projects throughout the course. The nature and genre of the writing may shift and develop across multiple assignments, and some instructors may use a wider notion of project or composition that includes something more than just a quantity of pages (e.g., a multimodal assignment).

There’s something in this description for any FYW teacher. We might notice a shift away from sheer quantity of finished writing to an emphasis on project and composition. These terms allow for a more expanded notion of productivity in FYW, and both suggest a heterogeneity of “parts” within a larger goal. One’s project might include drafts, proposals or presentations, ancillary or complementary work, or a whole range of activity that includes writing. Likewise, a composition puts attention on how an assemblage of parts might come together for a particular purpose. In more explicitly articulating the work of the course as an ensemble of diverse modes of engaging with the world, we make room for a conversation in the course about what writing is and how it functions.

Speaking as a fellow teacher of these courses (and not as the arbiter of an exact policy), I will say that I continue to see the value in posing the course in terms of a small number of larger projects (e.g., essays plus a wide horizon of supports to and extensions of these essays). That is, I see the course as a site for pursuing a small number (3-5?) of larger clusters rather than, say, a long series of unrelated weekly assignments. “Project,” for me, connotes something that takes a fair amount of time and ambition to see through. Similarly, I prefer sequenced assignments that build on one another throughout the course.

It’s probably still meaningful to think about the relative work it takes to achieve the most conservative reading of the guidelines, those thirty pages. If I’m asking students to produce an audio clip or a graphic, how is this comparable to producing prose paragraphs? How do I support and evaluate this work? Do I simply subtract a certain number of required pages to make room for this other work? Do I combine, say, presentations and final drafts into a single grade? These are questions that, in a mature writing program like ours, are sometimes best left as questions, as negotiations between students, teachers, and writing program administrators rather than settled dogma. These are rigorous courses, requiring substantial work from students (and teachers). But, at this point, we needn’t count pages like Keats’ Beadsman, telling his rosary with “frosted breath.”

Stefano Della Bella, Thirty Archers and Thirty Pages (1633)