Poetry and Progress

So I’ve been doing this Mellon fellowship where I’m working with a local two year college. I spent some time this past Friday working with my mentor teacher, Mike, getting involved in his classes, mid-term progress meetings with students, and even getting to attend a departmental meeting. A few experiences this day really made me start to see some key differences between the students I teach at a top research institution and the students at this community college. What struck me about these students, in general, was how willing they were to take the time to set themselves, and each other, up for success, even if (or maybe because) they didn’t believe in themselves.

During the mid-term reviews for Mike’s pre-college level writing course, I was amazed how many students, given the option to skip a class and move ahead more quickly through their required writing coursework (based on their current performance), chose to take the slow approach and move ahead to the next level. The fact that these students 1) recognized the benefits they were getting from a slow and comprehensive introduction to composition and 2) wanted to stay with this approach as opposed to speed through required coursework as quickly as possible struck me as mature, deliberate, and free of ego. Four students were performing well enough to skip a class; all four rejected that offer. All of these students were taken aback by the praise and success they were receiving.

Thinking about my own students, I can’t say as many would recognize the long-term benefits of being patient with coursework. I can think of a handful of students who would have absolutely made the same choice, but most would not. My students are some of the highest performers in the state; most have been top performers their entire academic lives, and this can sometimes bring with it an “I already know how to write” attitude. For other students, they’re hyper-focused on getting ahead in their desired majors and don’t want to waste time, or credits, on classes not directly related to their chosen degree. Yet for others, with the time and money they are spending on their education, they would simply rather be taking something they’re interested in as opposed to something required of them. Granted, by the time students get to the portfolio, most often realize the value of a college-level composition class. But given the option to skip over a writing requirement (even after such an experience), I believe there aren’t many who would pass up that opportunity. But Mike’s students, even when told they have the skill and ability to skip ahead a level, want to keep chipping away at their foundational writing skills. The foresight shown by such a decision is something I think, in many ways, can give community college students an advantage over students like my own; instead of thinking in the short term, they’re thinking about the long term benefits of their education.

Another thing that struck me this day was the vulnerability and support shown by Mike’s poetry students. They were working in small groups (3 people) workshopping their Hurts-So-Good poems, a poem in which the student confronts the topic they least want to write about. As expected, this assignment asks students to be quite vulnerable with and respectful of one another as many choose to confront issues such as rape or abuse. I spent the first 10-15 minutes floating around the room, just taking in both students’ poetry and the conversations they were having with one another about their work. One group of young women invited me to join their group and give feedback on their poems. Again, I was struck with a realization about these students — they has such a desire to help one another, to build one another up, as writers, as students, as people. They were critical of each others’ poems as writers, but each piece of feedback was delivered with careful attention and framing. They were genuinely invested in helping each other get better; they were open and eager to not only receive feedback, but to give feedback as well. The buzz around the room in general, both what I heard before I sat in with this particular group and the continued energy and conversations I caught snippets of while working with these ladies, suggested that this was not unique to this particular group.

While I’ve absolutely witnessed these types of conversations and dispositions in my classroom, but I can’t say every student is as willing to be as open to, as vulnerable with, and as invested in each other as Mike’s poetry students. Now, of course I have to acknowledge that, since this is an elective and not a required course, everyone in the class wants to be there (at least in theory). It would be foolish not to consider this as a contributing factor. But I also can’t help but think that the same maturity and purposefulness that motivated Mike’s ENGL 097 students to want to take the slow and steady path also motivates his poetry students to take the time and energy to build up each other as writers, students, and people. Additionally, since these students may not be used to being top performers or having strong educational support systems prior to college, they recognize the value of having someone in your corner believing in you.

When thinking about what two year schools and tier one research institutions can learn from each other, I think Mike’s students demonstrate foresight and a commitment to building a classroom community that 1) may not be inherently valuable or favorable to students like my own and 2) teachers at institutions like mine should (and do, to be fair) deliberately work to foster within our own classrooms, departments, and campuses. I’m not sure exactly where to go beyond these initial thoughts, but I wanted to take a moment and reflect while the experience was still fresh.

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The Struggle is Real

I want to write about Jason Palmeri’s Remixing Composition:A History of Multimodal Writing Pedagogy. I want to talk about how much I appreciate his project, his offering of an alternative history of multimodal composition. I want to tease out the ways in which this book helps my own work with rhetorical delivery, especially since a significant part of my own project is reframing delivery’s history within rhetorical theory/practice.

And yet, for the last 3 days or so, every time I try to sit down to do so, I can’t. It’s been a pretty rough week for me mentally/emotionally. My anxiety and depression flared up swiftly and (mostly) out of nowhere, and I’m having a hard time finding the motivation or energy or spark to create, specifically critical writing. I’m feeling comfortable and confident in my teaching right now, which thankfully is keeping me grounded through this current rough patch. I consider teaching a creative endeavor; since I tangibly see and feel the impact of that work immediately, it’s easy to find the motivation to do it. And thankfully, it’s rare that I cannot muster up the energy to read, since 1) I’m a compulsive reader (like, I’ll read the shampoo bottle in the shower)  and 2) reading, to me, doesn’t require the same type of energy, focus, and engagement as composing/creating does.

However, no matter what I do, when I try, how I try, I’m finding myself unable to compose. And this isn’t just affecting my scholarly/critical writing; I’m hitting a rough spot in my songwriting as well. As I said before, when my anxiety and depression act up at the same time, I often lose my ability to create. Sometimes I wonder if it’s a chicken/egg thing — which one comes first, the anxiety/depression or the loss of creativity? Whatever the relationship, it’s real, and I feel it very deeply. It’s almost an identity crisis — who am I, what am I worth, if I can’t do the thing I do best: create?

The musician part of me has been living with this for so long, I’ve learned to recognize that this is temporary; I will write again soon. And when it happens, I most likely won’t be able to stop for a while. That’s a pattern of mine; I hit a lull where the songs aren’t coming, and then out of nowhere I write 5, 6, 7 songs in an explosive burst. More importantly, I’ve learned that when I am in one of these lulls, I can still be connected to my art, my music, by simply playing. Grab my guitar, choose one of my bands, and run through the catalogue of songs; grab my guitar, play some covers, and figure out how to play a new song; grab my guitar, sit in front of some background tv (baseball, football, old wrestling PPVs, mindless reality shows, etc.), let my fingers and brain just wander for a little. You get the idea.

So that’s what I’m doing now. I’m grabbing my instrument, sitting in front of the Pittsburgh Steelers game, and letting my fingers and brain wander. I can’t write about Palmeri’s inviting, accessible, and useful reframing of multimodal writing pedagogy. Now right now. And I’m going to have to (learn to) be ok with that. I have to listen to and learn from my practice as a songwriter — this is simply a part of my own creative ebb and flow. I have to acknowledge that it’s ok to struggle with my work, my brain, my process, my emotions in my scholarship, which is difficult considering the high (obsessive) standards I (and my anxiety) set for myself. Instead of contributing to the feedback loop of anxiety, instead of forcing a creative act that doesn’t want to come, I’m going to stay connected to my art and practice through another (albeit less creative) avenue, even if that means simply reflecting on how my current struggle with anxiety and depression is effecting my scholarship.

Anne Frances Wysocki: Writing New Media

Anne Frances Wysocki and company’s Writing New Media has been an enjoyable and valuable read this past week. Foregrounding issues of materiality, multimodality, and even intellectual property, it’s full of both theoretical and practical content for writing teachers/scholars. Most notably, the book contains curricular suggestions for integrating new media focused reading/writing assignments into the classroom. These activities range in depth and complexity, and most can be adapted to a wide range of classes that rhet/comp scholars can find themselves teaching. Not only do I feel like this book will be on my exam reading list, there are also a number of texts referenced within that may end up on my reading lists. All in all – fantastic, valuable read whose core ideas and activities do not feel outdated in today’s technological/compositional environments (important given that this book was published over a decade ago). In fact, I’d love to see an updated edition of this book soon, to address additional/further concerns surrounding new media that have developed since its initial publication.

Anyway…

That quick overview of my impressions/thoughts/takeaways aside, I’d like to reflect on this text briefly in the context of my dissertation work. As I envision it now, my diss will focus on making delivery a (the?) central concern for rhet/comp scholars. Delivery has been chronically undertheorized, ignored for a large part of rhetoric’s tumultuous history, and while many scholars over the past few decades have called (explicitly and otherwise) for closer attention to be paid to delivery, from what I’ve seen, this work has been scattered and marginal (though this is slowly changing). As I’m thinking currently, I want to centralize delivery as the core, defining canon of the rhetorical arts since delivery colonizes every other canon; that is, we encounter concerns of delivery at every moment of the composition process. Given that I’m still in coursework, I’m a little while off from having something more concrete or realized than those scattered thoughts, but hopefully that bit of background helps me frame where I’m coming from as I reflect for a minute on Writing New Media. 

In the introduction, Wysocki makes two important moves when it comes to new media texts and the composition classroom. First, Wysocki feels that the field of new media studies, no matter the disciplinary entry point or perspective, has been historically concerned with either analyzing individual texts or writing about broad contexts and functions, with little-to-no scholarship that “[helps] composers of texts think usefully about effects of their particular decisions as they compose a new media text, [helps] composers see how agency and materiality are entwined as they compose” (6). She claims that writing teachers are in a unique position to facilitate meaningful conversations around composition/reception of new media texts, particularly because we are skilled in “[helping] others consider how the choices we make in producing a text necessarily situate us (or can try to avoid situating us) in the midst of ongoing, concrete, and continually up-for-grabs decisions about the shapes of our lives” and, thusly, “can bring to new media texts a humane and thoughtful attention to materiality, production, and consumption, which is currently missing” (7). This move is essential for my work on delivery; I intend to argue that the exact things she says writing teachers bring to new media studies are all under the domain of delivery. Wysocki highlights how writing teachers can bring attention to “materiality, production, and consumption”; yet each of these concerns deals directly with delivery. We’re so quick, as a field, to tether delivery to the consumption of a text, that we have been blind to the ways delivery is present in the production of our texts via the material concerns of the medium and modality. From the moment of exigence, a rhetor considers how to best reach her desired audience, which includes considering what practices of reading and meaning-making that audience will bring to the text. Such considerations shape decisions related to the material production of the text. Thus, delivery colonizes every part of the composition process, since the audience as well as the socially agreed upon conventions of a given genre are always already present, shaping the text in practical, material ways. And as writing teachers, we know this; we already help our students consider such things as they are composing. It’s about time we rightfully identify these material considerations as belonging to delivery so, as a field, we can begin to centralize delivery in our theory and practice.

Second, Wysocki’s definition of new media isn’t grounded in, and doesn’t rely upon, the digital. Instead, she defines new media texts as “those that have been made by composers who are aware of the range of materialities of texts and who then highlight the materiality” (15). Further, “what is important is that whoever produces the text and who- ever consumes it understand—because the text asks them to, in one way or another—that the various materialities of a text contribute to how it, like its producers and consumers, is read and understood” (15). This definition/understanding leaves room for a wide range of textualities to be considered a new media text, which is hugely important for my dissertation. My argument will be grounded in the claim that delivery has always mattered, has always been concerned with such things as materiality, we just haven’t needed to consider it as explicitly as other rhetorical canons because our composition technologies were limited. While Wysocki doesn’t frame her observations as concerns of delivery, she does notice the same rupture as I have: “we have a time of opening here, a time to be alert to how these choices of material very much articulate into the other structures that shape writing and our lives— and that being alert to these choices can help us shape changes we might want” (10). Digital technologies and new media texts, then, have exposed the importance of delivery, as well as the blind spot surrounding it, that has developed in our field over the passing millennia. By positioning new media texts as those that foreground their materiality, traditional textualities (print and performance, for instance) can still be considered new media. One example I anticipate turning to to exhibit this is the work of novelist Mark Z. Danielewski, particularly his groundbreaking novel House of Leaves. This novel, by calling attention to the materiality of the print novel, created a work of fiction that can ONLY be effectively delivered as a print novel; in other words, the text calls attention to, and relies upon, the delivery system of printed pages bound together in a portable, hand-held form. Wysocki’s definition of a new media text will, without a doubt, become critical for framing my understanding of delivery, precisely because it harkens back to an Aristotelian notion of discovering the available means of persuasion; discovering the best available means of persuasion means considering the material concerns of a given modality, which immediately takes the conversation into the realm of delivery.

So there you have it, some of my quick, initial thoughts and reactions to Writing New Media. I can tell already that this book will become an important one for supporting some of my work on delivery going forward. Good read!

All quotes taken from:

Wysocki, Anne Frances, et al. Writing New Media: Theory and Applications for Expanding the Teaching of Composition. Utah State University Press, 2004.

Reflection: Privilege Walk

The results are in. The activity? It worked. It wasn’t the amazing, inspirational, groundbreakingly powerful moment I had imagined, but it went well. A few students had done similar activities before, but nothing that asked them to physically move in space. One student said she did a variation where she had to add and subtract based on statements to come up with her “number.”

giphy-1

But this visual/spacial rendering of privilege worked well and was a new experience for all of us. The immediate post-activity conversation was sparse, and only a few students participated in this. Considering that I just asked them to be vulnerable in doing the activity, I wasn’t going to push my luck by forcing a deeper group reflection. However, the discussion that followed examining some of the issues surrounding service and service learning was engaged, fluid, and had a majority of students contributing their thoughts and reactions. So while the personal reflection on privilege wasn’t as robust as I would have liked, the activity totally succeeded in opening up a conversation around the sticky terminology I mentioned last post. So in terms of the larger goals, I’m feeling fairly satisfied in how it went.

There were a few surprises along the way. First, I was genuinely surprised that most of my students ended up clustered in the same general “privilege space” (for lack of a better way to describe it). It’s hard to tell exact positions because of conditions in the room, but if I had to guess, most students ended up like 4-6 steps forward of the starting line. I had students fill out getting to know you surveys for homework the first night of class. According to that survey, 15 languages other than English are collectively spoken at home. Students have come from other countries or are first generation Americans. Given this, I expected a little more spread, especially considering some of the US centric items on the list of statements (for example, “If you’re a US citizen, take a step forward”). I think this was a good realization for my students, as well as myself, since we can use this activity to springboard a conversation about how we can use our privileged positions to empower others. Second, I was preparing myself (mentally, emotionally, pedagogically) for students to end up behind the starting line at the end of the activity. When I calculated my space prior to leading the activity, I ended up back on the starting line (which, to be honest, was a little surprising for me. I figured I would be maybe 2 or 3 steps forward). It feels good to say no one ended up behind the starting line. More so, when I took my spot among the group at the end of the activity, only one student was in my vicinity (either on the starting line or a step ahead – again, hard to tell in the space), and we shared a similar reaction afterward: feeling more privileged in our lives than the activity mapped out.

Ultimately, I’m happy I decided to do the activity. The reaction may not have been ka-pow, but I think it set a tone that this class is going to grapple with difficult subject matter.