I’ve long been interested not only in the verbal arts, but also in the visual arts and how the two interrelate. So book illustration, art with words (the work of Kurt Schwitters, Roy Lichtenstein, Barbara Kruger and others), and the complementarity and tension between word and image have all been areas of intellectual interest as well as enjoyment.
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.
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.
In thinking about “Tips for Tech in Class,” I immediately thought of a section of our forthcoming book due out to the public any day now, Developing Writers: Teaching and Learning in the Digital Age:
There are at least three ways digital multimodal composition might be used in our classrooms today. First, the teacher might use digital multimodal composition for delivery of content. A teacher using a Smartboard for instruction is an example of this application. Second, a teacher may plan to integrate digital technology into the activities students will do to learn content. We see this when students provide feedback to peers on their writing in a writing lab. Third, we can teach the use of digital technology directly, such as learning how to manipulate an image in PhotoShop. All three of these applications are applicable and necessary to teaching writing in the digital age.
Many resources are available to teachers interested in these three applications of digital multimodal composition in the classroom. Check out: Because Digital Writing Matters(DeVoss, Eidman-Aadahl & Hicks, 2010) and the National Writing Project companion website ‘Digital Is’ (digitialis.nwp.org). In true Web 2.0 style, this is not a resource website, but a growing compilation of recourses under these areas with interactive discussion boards and threads.
The “Tip” to Rule Them All:
A Strategic Writing Framework
Beyond these three ways of thinking about tech in the classroom (and the myriad of resources available to support classroom use), for me the most important tip for using tech to teach composition is introducing a strategic-use framework. Writing in classrooms often devolves into assignment-completion. Prewriting becomes a brainstorming-by-webbing assignment. Revising is a rewrite-it-neatly assignment. Teachers and students alike quickly tire of such empty work. My worry is that without a re-framing of composition in the classroom, any use of tech—no matter how cool and innovative—would eventually turn into the same. Brainstorming by webbing on paper could just turn into webbing on the computer. “Rewrite it neatly” becomes running it through TurnItIn.com. Still just “assignments my teacher gave me.”
Many people have addressed this problem. The response I most responded to was Deborah Dean’s Strategic Writing framework. In this way of thinking about any tool for composing—analog or digital—is that we are all building a repertoire of tools, activities or approaches that we can use when we are composing—whether we are inquiring about an idea before composing, investigating a genre, considering the audience and purpose of the piece, and producing a product. Then, we work to become strategic in our use of the tools with which we are gaining facility. In addition to introducing our students to digital tools for composition, we work to help our students become strategic or savvy—intentional, creative and critical—in their decisions of which tools to use when to help with what compositional conundrum. We want to orient our writing instruction in such a way that our aim is to guide and facilitate students as they: 1) recognize the tools, activities or approaches they have in their repertoire; 2) build that repertoire of tools, activities or approaches; and 3) become more intentional, creative and critical in their use of that repertoire.
As teachers, a great place to start in re-orienting from writing assignments to strategic writing is working on our own list of tools that help us with our own writing. In addition to Digital Is, as a go-to site for me as a teacher, as a writer I RSS feed ProfHacker to learn of new digital tools that are working for others for particular compositional issues. (This blog post on ProfHackers’ authors’ favorite apps for composing is a great place to start.) I’ve tried several of the apps, tools, software, hints, etc. from the site and many have become part of my repertoire. Here’s a list of some of the digital tools that help me for particular compositional needs. I’d love to hear some of yours!
In the Music section of The New York Times, music critic Simon Reynolds explored how and why The Songs of Now Sound a Lot Like Then. Right in the middle of this column, Reynolds takes a stab at the larger vintage chic pop culture phenomenon and its relation to the digital age. Just something that made me go hmmmmm….
The fading of newness and nowness from pop music is mystifying. But in the last couple of years a concept has emerged that at least identifies the syndrome, even if it doesn’t completely explain it. Coined by the co-founders of cyberpunk fiction William Gibson and Bruce Sterling, “atemporality” is a term for the disconcerting absence of contemporaneity from so much current pop culture. This curious quality can be detected not just in pop music but in everything from fashion to graphic design to vintage chic.
A prime example of atemporality is the fad for photography apps like Hipstamatic and Instagram, which digitally simulate the period atmosphere of pictures taken in the ’70s or ’80s, using the cameras and film stock of the time. Instant-nostalgia snapshots are part of a culture-wide fascination with outmoded technology and “dead media” (Mr. Sterling’s term) that encompasses everything from the cults for manual typewriters and cassettes to the steampunk movement’s fetish for Victoriana to the recent movie “Super 8.”
Mr. Sterling sees the time-out-of-joint nature of today’s pop as a side effect of digiculture. One of the curiosities of the futuristic-seeming information technology that we now enjoy is that it has dramatically increased the presence of the past in our lives. From YouTube to iTunes, from file-sharing blogs to Netflix, the sheer volume and range of back catalogue music, film, TV and so forth that is available for consumption is astounding.
We can access all this stuff with incredible speed and convenience, share it and store it with minimal effort.
Speaking of access to music of the past with incredible speed and shared with minimal effort…
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
Google may be changing my brain http://bit.ly/nu9C6j but so does gardening. I say learn a new plant name every day. Euphorbia! Potentilla!
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.
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?
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.
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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