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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5 thoughts on “Composing as Making: 21st Century Bricolage

  1. These are really the thoughts of all men in all ages and lands, they are not original with me,
    If they are not yours as much as mine they are nothing, or next to nothing,
    If they are not the riddle and the untying of the riddle they are no…thing,
    If they are not just as close as they are distant they are nothing.
    This is the grass that grows wherever the land is and the water is,
    This is the common air that bathes the globe. – Whitman, Song of Myself

  2. Your composition philosophy is very much in line with my thinking as we anticipate a broadened literacy in the digital age. I found your blog through my student, and I look forward to getting your forthcoming book. Thanks for addressing important issues in this field. I like the conceptual framework you are working in here. (You may be interested in the eBook my students recently assembled, Writing About Literature in the Digital Age

  3. It’s really fun for me to read these posts from 2011 and see how digital writing and literacy has continued to dynamically expand. I see how excited my own students become, particularly with the idea of remixing information with multiple sources. What was once a new idea is common place for them now, which I think is great. I wonder if the idea of remixing information started with something like fan fiction: people can take a published plot line and create their own spin-offs, illustrations, etc. and share with other fans. Today, my students regularly create and view multimedia creations like the “Martin Luther King ‘I Have A Dream’ speech and Dance Remix” ( where someone has taken clips of Dr. Kings famous speech intermixed with popular dance beat music as well as images from the time period to create a mashup of modern and past times in honor of the Civil Rights Movement. Interesting? Yes. A valid way for a student to express understanding and form reliability? Yes.

    As a teacher, I get excited about the possibilities for students to write using this type of inter-text design and creation. I think the new digital writing can tap into creativity in a more broad way that what we’ve seen in the past. In our world today, we are increasingly becoming more and more connected. I wonder what digital teaching will look like in two more year and how can I prepare for it today?

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