The Witness (High Resolution Version)

The Witness.png


Huot – What is (and isn’t) the business of the writing instructor/respondant?

I – Let’s not stop talking about literacy narratives

I’ve been thinking a lot since the class completed and discussed their literacy narratives.  Huot (and especially the sections on context in reading and ideology) have made me consider returning to this experience again.

I didn’t do a great job with my literacy narrative, and I didn’t share mine with the class. I did want to articulate (through Huot) some of the problems I have with the conceptualization we use of literacy in writing instruction today (and of “writing,” even)–and consider the degree to which these issues may or may not be universal, specified, etc.

While I was thinking through these issues, I created a social media post where I talked about why I don’t like to personalize writing experience for my students:


To my great surprise, I received largely very supportive and positive responses from over a dozen past and present writing instruction colleagues, several of whom shared deeply personal stories about either their own literacy or having remarkably similar experiences with their own students’ narratives.  I’ll not share specifics or name names here, but writing instructors recounted dozens of instances of student writing addressing traumatic experience–often in very unplanned (and unproductive) ways–across topics including domestic abuse, bullying, sexual assault and trauma, shame, mental illness, suicide…

A few instructors shared stories of their own trauma and how being asked to write about it opened wounds and unearthed past pain.  For their openness, friendship, and mentorship, I’m eternally grateful.

Both in comments and private messages, I heard from writing instructors at almost all levels–and from a half-dozen contexts from basic writing in the two-year college to professional communications training in corporate workplaces.

Most said they avoid personal narratives entirely these days.  Most are in the same place that I am, and most noted that they are uncomfortable with sharing these conclusions and the choice to stop using these genres because they’ve all been taught that “writing” == “expression” and “literacy” == “progressive.”

But what, I’m sure you’re asking, does any of this have to do with Huot, or the general content areas we’re currently inspecting?

II – What do we mean by personal? What do we mean by ideological?

There have been various periods of writing studies that have reconstituted writing as a deeply personal, intrinsically expressionistic, and inherently narrative act.  There have been many reasons for this, and we can theory-bomb (for instance) the 1980s’ strain of activist language instruction from space at this point (Faigley (1989, 1992), Romano (1987), Rose (1989), Freire (1985, 1987a, 1987b), Giroux (1988), Berlin (1988)–the critical pedagogy/New Rhetoric theory wave of the mid- to late-80s was quite consistent if nothing else) who view writing literacy and theories of language as necessary foundations for progressive democracy.

And so, when Huot (2002) notes Nancy Sommers’ (1982) argument that “teachers’ written comments were more concerned with students’ ability to write correctly than to make any kind of meaning” (110), I couldn’t help but immediately wonder who the field at that time believed determines the value of meaning in that relationship.  I remember that Sommers famously argued that many students “think that personal writing is writing about the death of their grandmother. Academic writing is reporting what Elizabeth Kubler-Ross has written about death and dying” (“I Stand Here Writing” 425).  And I remember that she argues that writing is about “having the courage to live with uncertainty, ambiguity, even doubt” (428).

I can’t think of anything less fair to students than to label the act of skills acquisition a product of necessary courage.  Students shouldn’t need to be courageous to perform to spec in a writing class.  If they do have such needs, then what is being taught to them is no longer writing, but confession.  I don’t teach confession.  And many of my students express more courage than I’ll ever know simply getting on the bus to school in the morning.  It seems unfair to demand further emotional and intellectual “courage” simply to meet basic course requirements–especially when the discipline has defined itself for the last thirty years along a politicized epistemology which is in direct conflict with many students’ personal beliefs.

In this context, the question quickly becomes one of how we can fairly and productively respond to student writing when we’ve declared writing a product of courage and right-speaking meaning-making practices.  Huot explores in significant depth the challenges of contextual situation for writing assessment, and I think this is a very valid concern (and one that we must continue to attempt to resolve at both personal and institutional levels).

This concern is not separated from the questions of feedback and writing response, either.  In fact, Valerie Shute’s definition of formative feedback includes “information communicated to the learner that is intended to modify his or her thinking or behavior to improve learning” (“Focus on Formative Feedback,” 153).  Wow.  No thanks.  “Feedback.” “Indoctrination.” To-may-to. To-mah-to.

Of course, we could look at the facilitative/directive/corrective/evaluative model, which I tend to use without preferencing one over another for any ideological purpose.  But there’s that nasty weasel language of – I tend to manage it.  That’s better than many, but worse than I’d like from myself.  And many instructors are quite simply taught that “facilitative” == “good” and “directive/corrective” == “bad”; so at least some of us likely do not even tend to try.

III – What do we mean by responding?  What is the business of the writing instructor?

So that’s the question.  What do we mean by “responding,” and how do we think about “right thinking” and “right learning” behaviors?  Huot outlines Zebroski’s modeling of different responsive approaches (which largely parallel my own feedback model)–but Zebroski presents each approach as discrete:  as literally emanating from a different mind and a different ideology (115).  And so, I have a problem with Zebroski; under his model, when we have an ethic of cultural influence (116), or an ethic of ideological consequence (120-122), or an ethic of expectation (117-119), we have chosen to be of a singular mind because we’ve chosen to be a single person with an uncontrollable impulse towards preferentialism.  But that model demands that we make student’s cultural, ideological, and situational lives of the mind “our business”–and that we reckon that business through the lens of a constructed identity driven by an ideological (rather than pedagogical) goal.

I remain completely unconvinced that 95% of what the field of writing studies claims is the business of the writing instructor is anybody’s business at all.  Huot would label this as a “context” of feedback, if Huot recognized its validity.  The choice to make students’ personal lives, personal ideology, personal goals for their writing, personal paths to literacy, personal needs as humans the business of writing instruction is to invade the personal and demand doctrinaire “courageous” writing practice without foundation or pedagogical benefit.

A final note–I was happy when Huot cited Halliday’s (1978) arguments that language as communication demands context as “the key factor” of meaning-making and meaning-sharing… only to see context reappear within every facet of successful student writing response in his “theory of response” (Fig 2.)–which is, effectively, a model of response, but not a theory–but I digress, pick hairs, and equivocate.


This is why I’ve always had a problem with the question of how we teach response–because I was largely taught by established writing researchers in the field who strongly believed you can’t.  I tend to agree.  Response/feedback models are inherently… well… responsive.  They can’t be taught, because empathetic response can’t be taught, only learned through practice (and, hey, empathy).

Of course, the first step towards that empathy is to not believe that your business as a writing instructor is to know what is best for your students.  Which is… still a problem in the field?  I don’t know a more charitable way to say it than that.

Annotated Entry – Burbules Virtuality

Burbules, N. C. (2004). Rethinking the virtual. E-Learning 1(2). 162-183.

I’ve previously used these annotations to look at the organization of pattern language in Lemay and the rhetorical functions of interfacing in Carnegie.  For my third annotation, I want to take these concepts to their logical ends using Burbules’ “Rethinking the Virtual” (2006), which reimagines virtuality not as a (traditionally considered) product of technologies of access but rather as the product of the effect of these technologies in terms of the concept of immersion (to this end, Burbules notes that some authors would describe the genre of science fiction literature as one of “virtual realities” (163)).  Secondly, Burbules argues that virtuality must be reconstituted without the distinction between the “virtual” and the “real” based on assumptions that VR offers an “illusion” which substitutes manufactured space for “real” space (which is both non-manufactured and unproblematically “direct”):

The virtual should not be understood as a simulated reality exposed to us, which we passively observe, but a context where our own active response and involvement are part of what give the experience its veracity and meaningfulness. Hence the virtual is better seen as a media concept, neither real nor imaginary, or better, both real and imaginary. In this sense ‘virtual reality’ is a misnomer (163).

For my own project, this reformulation immediately raises several questions which must be reconsidered in virtuality: a) to what extent can we still consider production and mediation technologies to be deterministic in defining virtuality?; b) how should we consider “immersion” as a manifestation of “canny” experiences rather than “buy-in” with the uncanny?; c) what is the rhetorical function of existing in virtuality when virtuality is defined not by mechanism or technology, but by subjective experience?

It is necessary, in Burbules’ conceptualization, to realize that within computing (and especially interactive entertainment) the “bifurcation of the synthetic and the real has obscured a deeper understanding of what is changing in the ways that we make and explore our worlds, mediated by and through new technologies” (165).  The problem, then, is to reveal these changes through specific approaches (or “aspects”) to the concept of immersion.  Burbules offers four such aspects of virtual experience (“telepresence”) to consider (166-67):

  1. Interest: experiences allow us to consistently discover and interpolate new elements, content, or nodes of interactivity–even upon consistent return to the same spaces/experiences/technologies/mechanics.  However, interest is again subjective–“what is interesting to me may not be interesting to you”–which, while potentially challenging also accentuates the personal immersive context of virtuality (166).
  2. Involvement:  according to Burbules, “an experience is involving when we have a reason to care about what we are experiencing: we pay attention to it because it concerns us in some way” (166).  This might be connected to aesthetics, to mechanics, to narrative, to personal or structural goals.  Burbules notes that involvement might be parsed as a product of involvement – or not (for instance, it may be that it is perceived as personally, socially, or contextually necessary or important).
  3. Imagination:  Similarly, imagination manifests in virtual spaces when “we can interpolate or extrapolate new details and add to the experience [because] actively going beyond what is given is part of what engages us deeply in it” (166-67).
  4. Interaction:  Finally, experiences are interactive when users/experiencers of virtuality can participate within it–“not only perceptually or intellectually but also through embodied action and responses” (167).  Again, Burbules notes that limiting this interaction to a technological environment is “a mistake” because components such as relaxation, participatory body language, rhythmic participation (such as with music), make a “synthetic” space feel more real–i.e.: accentuate virtuality and virtual participation.

These acts of participation are, within “networked settings” functional components of “part of the pleasure of discovery,” which, the author gives as an example, might be why we label so many web browser applications with “intrepid names like ‘Explorer’, ‘Navigator’, and ‘Safari'” (170).

Burbules continues on in the conclusion to explore the emergence of the “cyborg self” (171), and the facts of embodiment in virtual spaces and virtual time.  Most significantly, he argues that:

In the end, it is not the existence of new technologies that has raised questions about the necessity of our bodies for our sense of identity; it is a much larger cultural shift that foregrounds the ‘performative’ rather than ‘essential’ character of our embodied selves […] the embodied self is seen as an artificial constraint, falsely prioritizing one dimentsion of identity (which is iteself a changeable social construction) over others […] it is experienced as tremendously liberating not to allow an embodied ‘fact’ [as the ‘real’ body] to be so determining; and the virtual is proving a fascinating zone of experimentation in how people can move beyond these embodied physical facts, not necessarily for the sake of ‘escaping’ them or denying them, but for changing what they mean to themselves and to others (173).

The value of this, for me, is in considering the concept of digital or virtual embodiments within the context of visual rhetoric and the communication of philosophical, intellectual, and personal applications of these aspects within my object of study, The Witness (2016).  I’ll go more into this in coming weeks, but I do think it’s worth consistently revisiting these questions – how does the title communicate virtuality? How many levels of virtual ‘scope’ are present in the text (hint: a lot more than just one)? How do players experience virtuality, and what is communicated by the opaque and transparent virtual experiences?  What can be communicated to players who have a developed awareness of their virtualities (within a game space which encourages mindfulness and philosophical practice in virtual spaces)?

Burbules, N. C. (2004). Rethinking the virtual. E-Learning 1(2). 162-183.


A singular problem – applying “Speculations and Hypotheses” to the student-assembled curriculum

This week, we’re talking assessment in my pedagogy and instructional design course in a run-up to a visit from Dr. Louise Phelps (my personal hero and accidental stalking victim – she and I have haunted many of the same haunts, and it was not uncommon at my previous job(s) to find handwritten Phelps notes and Phelps assessment folders hiding in old drawers and in banker boxes throughout the department).  I’m stoked to hear from Dr. Phelps on this topic this week, so this blog may end up being a little more fangirlish than is usual for me, and a little less topical.  I’ve done assessment readings and work under her previously, but in the context of WPA, and not teacher-level practice.

Also, returning to assessment is always such a treat for me.  I think about it as being one of the questions in the field where there’s still real, hard work left to be done (and where there will always be more work, because feedback and assessment must necessarily be so contextual and responsive).  It’s fun to be elbows-deep (or Elbow-deep! Ah, puns) in the assessment quagmire.

But I know we’re going to spend a lot of time on assessment in class, so I’m going to focus on an issue I noticed elsewhere that I’m hoping to discuss during Dr. Phelps’ visit.

A lot of the readings people are grappling with in blog posts this week are old standards for the returning Phelps student.  I’m happy to revisit them and see what new stuff I can glean from them–and to spend more time in assessment–but I’m especially excited for the early draft of Dr. Phelps’ new “Speculations and Hypotheses.”  (Ed. note: I’m not sure from what we were offered of Phelps’ work that it’s yet appropriate to quote or share any content from this work-in-progress document, so I’m going to be careful and just broadly make references here).

Louise’s argument that the rhet/comp field has neglected curriculum in the face of alluring pedagogy approaches is one that strikes me as necessarily and inherently true.  I have shared her concern for some time that the “ethical commitment” to teaching students may be misconstrued under the ideological frames of current pedagogies which decentralize the curriculum and the work of curricula (Phelps 1).  I’m excited for her active CFP on ideological transparency and classroom practice in Pedagogy–and I’m thinking about submitting a proposal this week.

I’m intrigued by the concept that “curriculum […] designs are typically written and diagrammed” indicating something “systematically structured,” something which exists in a paradoxical linearity which is in conflict with a non-temporality of design (3).  I think one place that Louise fails to expand on this (yet) is the question of student course/trajectory selection–I hope to address this with her this week, but I think one of the great unspoken challenges of broad curriculum design is that we must design a trajectory of learning for unaware students (and sometimes uncaring scheduling advisors) who doggedly insist on signing up for a disciplinary WAC class in the first semester and push their Comp requirement back to the spring to accommodate late sleep schedules, or extracurricular activities, or four day weekends (or legitimate things, I don’t know.  I can be charitable).  I think of curricula as puzzle pieces that are often all shaped exactly the same with different picture faces.  You may have an idea what the final puzzle should look like.  But it’s all too easy to understand how a student perhaps ended up with something different.

It is here that I think we can highlight Louise’s analytic granularity to understand the challenge of “verticle curriculum” design (6) in sequence.  How can we address the modularity of these spaces, even where such modularity is not necessarily “intended” by the original designer?  How can we address the linear temporality, and non-linear non-temporality, at the same time?  When we–given a box of building blocks–see a skyscraper, but our students see a racecar, is anyone right or wrong?

Who, in short, is curriculum “for” in such cases?  I find it to be a fun and impossible question that struggles in the face of much of what Louise offers in terms of development, assessment, value, design, and stakeholder needs.  In this we can also look to Phelps on agency (8-10), but I don’t know if there’s an easy answer to be found.

How do we find “emergent” curricula?  How do we mediate (or advocate for better) student assembly in any meaningful way in the institutional contexts of student success and university-level advising and First-Year Experience and all that jazz?

And when we realize, as Phelps notes, that pedagogy and curriculum are not nearly the same thing, how does our pedagogy have to change to address this?

See you all in class!


Annotated entry – Carnegie’s Interface as Exordium

“Interface as Exordium: The rhetoric of interactivity.” (2009) – Teena M.A. Carnegie, Eastern Washington University

Carnegie, T. A. (2009). Interface as Exordium: The rhetoric of interactivity. Computers and Composition, 26(3), 164-173.

Where Lemay’s “Pattern Language” (2007) took a development-centered approach to understanding component frameworks for interactivity in rhetorical media, Carnegie’s “Interface as Exordium” (2009) instead creates a more broadly cultural and reception-centered answer to the question of how interfaces and interactivity function to engage audiences.

Carnegie separates the rhetorical modes of interfaces into three categories–multi-directionality, manipulability, and presence.  I will briefly address each of these modes in a moment, but first want to touch on the ideas and definitions Carnegie is building from in order to contextualize the significance of these modes.

I – What it means to view interface as rhetorical

For Carnegie, the interface is not only literal, but also figurative and symbolic.  The interface, she argues, is capable of being as rudimentary as the physical page of a book, or any point of interactive contact between two objects, two subjects, or a subject and a object–“the interface is a place of interaction, whether the interactions are between user and computer, user and software, computer and software, user and content, software and content, user and culture, and the user and other users” (165).  From this rudimentary model, she turns back to computer-mediated communication and argues that we have a traditional sense of the interface as including the “physical arrangements and ergonomic configuration of computer systems, user operation of programs, and how the user interacts with the content to solve a task or to learn material” (Marra, 1996, p. 115 as cited in Carnegie, 165).

The core feature of these various definitions, then, is their inseparability, that there is no singular “layer” of interface which exists between user-as-whole and computer-as-whole. This lends a rhetorical interpretation significant power, as the layers of interfacing “function rhetorically by creating interactivity. In other words, the modes of interactivity are the rhetorical modes of the interface” (166, emphasis added).  In fostering an especially active relationship between audience and content (thought this might be debated–any book wonk will tell you that they prefer books over computers for reading in part due to the added active relationship between the material and the human user over the digital), “new media requires action” that “involves and engages the user in using, playing, exploring, experimenting, discovering, and sharing” which effectively creates bodily and spatial rhetorics, while increased engagement produces “higher levels of acceptance, making the user more disposed to persuasion” (166).

II – Multi-directionality

Carnegie explores the suasive nature of heightened interaction through multi-directionality, which she defines through hypertextuality and networked practice (see Castells, Nielsen, Landow for more on this).  For Carnegie, intertextuality is hypertextuality, or at least a form of it, in which “users gain more control over how they discover, view, and connect the discrete units available in the network, [creating] their own paths and organizational structures” (167).

Essential to this is an understanding of the difference between hypertextuality (as referent) and multi-directionality – the latter “applies not just to the roles users can play in the network (receiver, sender, or both) but also to the messages the users communicate” (167). And so multi-directionality is a combination of this commutative role and the hyper/intertext which creat “a feedback model” that allows the user to participate in systems in multiple forms, while the “referential nature of messages is limited”–referentialism being key to increasing (at least apparent) interactivity and thus increased rhetoricity (166-67).

III – Manipulability

However, this feedback does not function as a fully rhetorical form without a belief–or evidence held–on the part of the user that their interactions have a hand in shaping or influencing the interfaced space (imagine, for instance, the rhetorical agency lost in a discussion board which permits comment submissions, but one where you can only see your own comments which are not distributed to other users).

This function of mutability is labelled by Carnegie as manipulability–and does not apply solely to the human interface level of interaction.  She also notes that the very fact that “objects such as images, sound, text [can] become units of numerical code” which are “separated from physical forms” is an expression of mutability, indicating their ability to be duplicated, deleted, combined, scaled, compressed, and so on (168).

Carnegie sees the rhetorical force of manipulability most present, however, in the user’s capability to customize their working/playing/learning environment in digital interfaces.  By adding, deleting, hiding, or moving content, the user exerts their will over the workspace, and as such has a suasive investment in its value, use, and well-suited nature.  That these choices are likely deeply pre-determined by the interests of the designer doesn’t necessarily matter so much as the appearance of choice which suasively functions to enlist users in investment behaviors which makes them “feel empowered and engaged [because] the user is given limited power to construct him- or herself as a user” (168).

Additionally, Carnegie notes that while customization is a nominally low-level manipulability, the ability to add or modify content creates a remarkably high-level manipulability which correlates with an extremely suasive environment centered on interactivity (168-69).

IV – Presence

While the first two modes of interactivity/rhetoricity function as products of networks themselves, Carnegie notes that presence “is a product of the integration of system attributes with user perceptions” (emphasis added), attributes including speed, possible actions, controls, responsiveness, which present the use of the platform “in a natural and predictable manner” which might manifest successfully when users “perceive others as present in the environment created by the medium” and the ability to “gather appropriate and personal information to adequately interpret situations and gain a sense of being connected with others and the system” (169-171).

This equivalence of systems and apparent human connectivity is an essential facet of rhetorical presence within interfaces, and will shape much of my study moving forward.  I will speak more to this notion with my next source for annotation, Alexander Galloway’s The Interface Effect (2012).

V – Interface as Exordium

I will return to these components further moving forward.  However, I would like to end this annotation with a brief quote from Carnegie’s conclusion:

“the shape and design of the interface is not natural and inevitable. The design of the interface is a design of human experience, and, as such, the interface becomes a locus of power. The modes of interactivity it deploys are capable of both enabling empowerment and enacting patterns of control. To see the interface, we must see how it functions rhetorically through modes of interactivity to prepare the user/audience to accept particular world views and constructions of relationships” (172).

I will take this notion, that the interactivity and spatiality of interface and systems functions suasively to prepare users to integrate world views and philosophies/constructions of relationships, much further in exploring my object of study in the coming annotated bibliographic entry.

Carnegie, T. A. (2009). Interface as exordium: The rhetoric of interactivity. Computers and Composition, 26(3), 164-173.

Galloway, A. R. (2006). Gaming: Essays on algorithmic culture (Vol. 18). U of Minnesota Press.

Galloway, A. R. (2012). The Interface Effect. Polity.