Category Archives: Contemporary Composition

Welcome to the United States, Developing Writers!

Although only the hardback version (a.k.a. expensive collectors’ item) of our new book, Developing Writers: Teaching and Learning in the Digital Age, shows up on Amazon and Barnes & Noble, the Buy Now and Desk Copy buttons at Open University Press, U.S.A. are now functional! (Amazon does have a Kindle version.)

With Richard Andrews, Dean of Faculty and Professor of English at the Institute of Education, University of London, I argue that although existing theories of writing development have provided insights into the teaching and learning of writing, we need to bring such theories up to date in the digital age—an age in which, among other things, writing needs to be re-conceived as one crucial component of communication among other modes.

In the book, we review and compare existing models of writing pedagogy, and invite readers to discover for themselves their working theories for how writing and development happen. The theories with which we make pedagogical decisions are the driving force behind why we do what we do; however, they are often tacit, working in our lives unnoticed and unarticulated—making them very hard to be reflective about. In the book, we offer a new theory and model for understanding writing development in the multimodal and digital age. The last few chapters are all about how this model would work in teaching practice and policy.

I can’t wait to be able to discuss it with teachers, teacher educators, literacy researchers, digital scholars, policy makers and writers of all ages!

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Take a Poll on Plagiarism in the Digital Age!

A poll in preparation for an upcoming guest post from Roey Ahram, expert in education equity issues and urban school reform, as well as photographer extraordinaire (featured in The Local East Village New York Times). His post is in response to Imposters and Doppelgangers: Plagiarism Remixed.

Multimodality is Old News: The Incas and Khipu

I have been off the grid for a bit, but more importantly, I have been on vacation.

With some old and some new friends, I hiked the Inca Trail through the Andes mountains from outside Cusco, Peru to the oft-photographed Machu Picchu. Machu Picchu and its location were impressive—as expected. The trek, however, which covered about 25 miles of elevation gains of up to 13,000 feet at Dead Woman’s Pass and losses and gains again across several passes, was the personally satisfying portion of the trip.

The following two photographs show a bit of the extent of this trek: The first, where we were going on Day 2, and the second from the other side while atop the next mountain range still on Day 2. We continued hiking that day.

While trekking we were led by Peruvian guides Marco and Roger, as well as hosted by 18 porters who packed and prepared all of our daily needs (amazing!). At each pass, Marco discussed Incan history with us (punctuating the tales with some great punchlines). At one particular pass, Marco impressed upon us the expanse of the Incan empire, which in the 1400s extended across several current South American countries and was the largest South American pre-Columbian empire. Food, supplies, building and expansion plans, astronomical predictions, and military commands were all transported across this terrain by chasquis (runner messengers) at a much quicker pace than we were keeping. (The trek had been run in 3:45 and we were taking four days!) Impressive as just that is, our guide said that at one point, the chasquis’ tongues had been cut off so that the secrets of the empire could not be shared. (I haven’t been able to corroborate this yet. If someone has a source, please let me know.)

So how did they do it? Without tongues, the only other reasonable alternative to expect was that these runners carried some type of text—a large scroll or a tiny printed words on coco leaf (implausible, but go with me). Well, we’d be wrong in such an assumption. Apparently, the largest pre-Columbian empire built stone cities with precision, expanded their reign across cultures, and managed their empire without a formal writing system.

As one of my students used to say, “Let’s let that percolate.”

Continue reading Multimodality is Old News: The Incas and Khipu

Rethinking ‘Global Audience’ & Networked Digital Composition

Though not synonymous, digital composition and networked digital composition are often thought of as one and the same. In addition to the ease with which text, image and video can be manipulated digitally—especially with especially designed software for such purposes—networked digital composition explodes the possibilities for composition.

We can access information from a broader range of sources than ever before, including tapping into the flow of knowledge-building as it occurs via social media such as wikis, Twitter hashtag feeds, blogs with comments, etc. For example, recently Jack Dougherty and Kristen Nawrotzki launched a digitally-born text that would result in both digital and printed text. By being not just digitally-born, but networked and available publicly, the text could be truly open-review and collaboratively composed. (I participated in the initial concept-generation phase, suggesting a chapter exploring how the processes of composing text [as opposed to the products that are the result of composing] in the humanities has been influenced by networked digital capacities, called The Composing Processes of Writing History Digitally.)

With networked digital composition, we can compose with media previously available only to programmers and professionals. Of course, we don’t have to be ‘networked’ to use software we’ve purchased, but with the Internet we have immediate access to freeware and online webpages such as Picnik for images or Aviary for music.

We also have access to audiences like never before–both during the composing process and for our finalized digital products. On deviantART artists of all skill levels can create portfolios of work, ask for feedback on pieces or pieces-in-process and can create little enclaves of similarly-minded artists. Text, image, sound can also be taken up by those who view it and remixed—or plagiarized, if you will—with ease. Not only is networked digital composition available to one intended audience, it is potentially available to any number of individuals and enclaves, both nearby and global.

It is this final idea—the potential global audience—that I’d like to pause to consider. Though the fastest adopted technology we’ve seen worldwide—doubling in the last five years—the actual access to global audiences, who can participate similarly to those within the US, is far more limited than it may sound. Only 20% of those in ‘developing’ countries are online (see the link to “The State of the Internet Now” below), and those who are mostly on their cell phones. Marion Walton’s research out of South Africa asks us to question the assumed dominance of the computer in the digital age. She describes a ‘mobile-centric’ use of digital media: books via text, tweet, or the like; links to Youtube-like sites sent via text; chatting on the phone. Not only is the access to the Internet different across countries, but their devices, forums, and thus practices are also different.

State of the Internet 2011
Created by: OnlineSchools.org

All of this leaves me to wonder:

  • When we are composing with networked digital tools, what do we need to take into consideration regarding our potential global participatory audience?
  • What influence does this have on our composing processes and products? What influence does this have when reading texts from global sources? What influence should this have?

In the comments, I’d love to hear further questions that come to mind, as well as ideas you have as to how to begin to answer these questions.

Imposters and Doppelgangers: Plagiarism Remixed

Mural with De La Vega’s Signature Fish on 104th Street and Lexington

This post comes again from running in NYC’s Central Park. If you are one of the thousands of runners who frequent the park, you already know of street artist De La Vega’s recent increased running path messages. If you are not in NYC, here’s an intro and here’s an article about the one-part controversial/one-part mainstream artist. De La Vega pushes the envelope of art and the idea of artists’ statements. Sometimes his pieces are just quotes–often they’re social commentary, statements of witness to the social milieu of historically underserved parts of NYC, such as Spanish Harlem and the Bronx.

104th and Lexington (working on license)

Most often, the De La Vega pieces I see are sidewalk messages. And most often these messages involve fish, a fishbowl and the message: “Become Your Dream.” The sidewalk pieces in Central Park are unfailingly similar to his Spanish Harlem and the Bronx sidewalk chalk messages of hope and encouragement, De La Vega’s work is recognizable without a signature–just as a Monet or a Miro is unmistakably their own.

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Imposter De La Vega’s close but not quite print and fish

Two week’s ago, however, a few chalked images appeared that I immediately questioned as De La Vega. They used the fish, but not exactly the same fish. And they said, “Become Your Dream” but not exactly  the same print. I then noticed between these drawings were sometimes signed, “Imposter De La Vega #4” or “Doppelganger De La Vega Strikes Again.”

The sidewalk sketches then morphed and the fish were then engaging with each other in ways I haven’t seen De La Vega do. The lines of the art then also shifted–more angular and graphically pronounced. I imagine this is the “imposter’s” aesthetic when he or she is not playing this game of artistic identity. It’s even possible that this all was De La Vega, himself, at play with style.

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How do we understand what “Doppelganger De La Vega” was doing? Is it plagiarism of form and style? This month’s English Journal theme is all about ethics in the English classroom. Obviously there were multiple articles about plagiarism in the digital age. The articles hinted at the ways that plagiarism is “easier” now that we have the Internet–and not just with words, but with multiple modes. However, in the end, most of the articles concluded that we need is to have better conversations with students about how plagiarism is wrong. But is it? Is it in all it’s forms?

One of the Imposter’s quotes read something like: “Stealing can sometimes be good–when it’s a De La Vega.” The artist was cognizant of the act–even intentional. Is that the difference between “stealing” and “tribute”? Down the street and around the corner is a piece by De La Vega himself, which is obviously a “copy” of Picasso’s Guernica. It is signed “De La Vega Homage to Picasso.” What makes this a not a “copy” of another artists’ work? The last five photos in this blog post were taken by me on my phone. What part of that is “copying” these artist’s pieces? Is just transferring media enough to ethically appropriate an image as mine? What about those shirts and magnets and  key chains with images stretched across? What about transducing to another mode? Can I set De La Vega’s quotes to music and call them my own? Can I interpret them into image–and then is this finally not “stealing”? It would be silly to pretend that now that we are in “the digital age” we are suddenly new to repurposing, remixing and regurgitating others’ works. This practice is not new–and it may not even necessarily be “easier.” These artists did it with chalk and sidewalk.

The bigger question is: How else do we make new ideas, if we don’t have another’s ideas to start from? The discussion of “plagiarism” must move past “it’s wrong” and how to make it “right” by incorporating references, understanding digital licensing, and copyright checks. Further still, perhaps we need to fundamentally reconsider what we imagine an individual does when he or she creates.

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De La Vega’s Homage to Picasso on 110th and Lexington (taken on my cell phone)

From Positive/Negative to Affordances/Constraints

Yesterday, the International Business Times reported on a couple of studies regarding the relationship between memory and the Internet. Like many titles, the purposefully evocative title of this article, “Google Effect: Changes to our Brains,” was misleading. Instead of “changes to the brain,” the article reported some of the new ways people use their memory capacity and use digital devices as external memory. One of the studies conducted by a team at Columbia University found that people remembered where they saved things rather than the items themselves. The researchers dramatically described the ways the Internet is being used currently:

We are becoming symbiotic with our computer tools, growing into interconnected systems. We have become dependent on them to the same degree we are on all the knowledge we gain from our friends and coworkers — and lose if they are out of touch.

Again, the use of the digital devices hasn’t changed our brain; rather, we use computers much like our friends and coworkers with whom we chat, the notes we jot, the diaries we fill. We have another external memory device, and since we load so much on these devices, we often refer to them when thinking.

Regarding this article, Carol Jago, past-president of the National Council of Teachers of English, recently quipped in a tweet:

I like Carol’s response. Yes, all the tools we use and all activities in which we often engage definitely affect how we think and approach our lives. Recently, my friend and colleague Tim purchased a 1938 manual typewriter. Not only did it look stylish, it worked. I demanded that he help me find my own. On a bright Saturday afternoon he and I went to a flea market in Brooklyn, we made our way to a booth that specializes in reviving the classic composition tool. I walked away with my very own ROYAL Signet portable manual machine–complete with a carrying case lid.

Tim’s 1938 ROYAL Model O Series and Anna’s 1960s ROYAL Portable Signet

Like riding a bike, it didn’t take me long to remember how to press the keys with intention, if I wanted a letter to be left on the page. I tried, first, to revise a piece I have been working on in my writing group, Harlem Writers’ Circle, and immediately I found that I could not compose as I had. If I wanted to change a word, I backspaced several times and XXXXX-ed out the previous word, and then I continued. [Sidenote: The piece soon looked like the cards my grandmother used to send typed each birthday.] In the time it took between XXXXXX-ing the offending word and typing the new one, I often considered new directions for the story. If I went in one of those directions, I found myself typing the entire piece from the beginning, and in that act, found myself–again–entertaining new directions. Neither with a computer nor with pen and paper did I do either of these acts. Because of the speed with which I could change direction with these composition tools, I would have never considered the options for the piece that I found myself considering when using a manual typewriter. The typewriter was changing my brain.

Obviously, it didn’t actually change my brain. I just have another tool for composing that affords and constrains different composing practices. Most technological changes (i.e. from ink to pencil, and typewriter to computer, and now to digital networked communication) have been framed as a issue of the “ruin” of previous forms of communication. Rarely, if ever, has the new compositional tool completely supplanted previous forms and ways of composing. Instead it has been a “both/and” experience—old practices remain, are influenced by new forms of composing. Instead of positive and negative effects to existing ways of thinking, I’ve found it generative to frame the question as affordances and constraints. Instead of worrying about the effects of new tools, what if we asked questions such as:

  • What kinds of compositional decisions, practices and challenges do digital, networked communication afford a developing writer?
  • What are the constraints of composing with networked and/or digital devices (not necessarily the same thing)?
  • At the same time, what are the affordances/constraints of composing with a pen and paper?

Each of these affordances and constraints has implications for the rhetorical, compositional and framing decisions we make as we compose. Conversations about the affordances and constraints, as well as conversations about the implications for compositional decisions are generative for both teachers and their students to investigate.

What affordances and constraints have you noticed when using particular digital tools? How have you found these to relate to your compositional practices?

Composing as Making: 21st Century Bricolage

I paused mid-step. A red-bellied bird had just hopped in front of me and she too had suddenly frozen in her tracks. In her beak hung a long, droopy piece of grass and a short, thin stick. We eyed each other. A cool April breeze whipped around the busy street corner. She took another hop forward balancing the items she had gathered for her nest. I reached for my phone to take a picture. I already had my 140-character tweet in mind. And she was gone.

It may seem like a stretch at first, but my thought in that moment was a comment Sid Dobrin casually made in a presidential session at CCCC 2011: “Writing is making stuff.”

Here on a fresh Spring morning a bird was composing.

CC licensed by DRB62

Her tools? Her beak and ingenuity. Her medium? This piece of grass and a yellowed stick. Birds, like writers, are bricoleurs (or if you’re hip to the scene, writers are DIY warriors—prime examples deviantART and CC). When we “make stuff” via writing, we aren’t making from scratch. We have been collecting bits and scraps from language, experience and idea. Blogger Mark Kerstetter poses the following:

Writing as Bricolage
Cutting and pasting, the use of found text, the willingness to use any type of discourse whatsoever, a complete disregard for genre and a love of the hybrid text—these are some of the features of the bricloeur as writer. She will read any kind of text or listen in on any conversation for no other reason than love of language.

And in addition to language, the 21st Century writer/composer/bricoleur has access wider range of media  and modes of communication (e.g. image, text, video, sound, color) than ever before, and the digital tools that make the act of bricolage (the collection, mixing, revising, repurposing) with that media easier and more accessible than we have yet known. Just in this one blog post, I have copied and pasted links and text, resized and edited images, searched and gained access to over 19 different websites, IMed with a colleague who then did an index search of her digitized notes—all of which I have drawn from to compose this post.

Unlike the birds, as 21st Century bricoleurs, we don’t just have our beaks and ingenuity as tools, and our media is not just limited to that which we can spot and then carry in a short flight from our nests.

How have you digitally bricolaged today?

In our forthcoming book, Developing Writers: Teaching and Learning in Digital Age, Richard Andrews and I explore the affordances of 21st Century composition the modes, media, tools and sociality of communication in a digital age, and what these affordances mean for the teaching and learning of composition.

We suggest that in addition to linguistic elements of writing, developing writers grow in their experiences using and navigating multiple modes, and that our schooling assessment, policy and curriculum must adapt and encompass the these aspects of growth. Below is a list (from our book) of some of these areas not yet addressed in most curricula:

  • understanding the affordances, and the communicative and interpretive possibilities of various modes, e.g. writing, video, sound, diagram, artistic rendering;
  • facility with and adaptability to tools for creating multiple modes;
  • telescoping in to compose within a single mode and expanding out to compose, position and layer several modes together;
  • drawing on modes other than linguistic to complement in a variety of positions in relation to the written word;
  • transduction – engaging in decisive changes from one mode to another;
  • remixing and appropriating existing communicative messages in multiple modes, i.e. using an image within a film or a section of speech in a song.

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