Traveling Different Roads at the Same Time

A month goes by in a hurry before I’m back on the blog. A pressing deadline for a book chapter and some teaching to do came first, throw in a conference, some dissertation chapters to read, and the daily life in the Writing Center and suddenly…well, we’ve all been there.

Still, even though it’s been almost a month since 4cs, that’s where my mind is on this rainy Saturday morning. As usual, the conference was a good time and a good time to talk with smart people, plan new projects, and eat good food. Oh yes, and there were sessions to attend. Two in particular stuck with me.

First, I went to hear Doug Hesse, Nancy Sommers, and Kathi Yancey  read the work that came out of a writing project in which they each wrote about a different object each day for thirty days. As they described the project, it was driven by their interest in questions such as, “What may be learned about the evocative power of objects from a sustained attention to them? How do objects reveal or conceal their origins? And what may we learn about the acts of composing from a sustained project over thirty days?” Certainly all of this was contained in the work they did. For me, though, it was a powerful reminder of the power – and the joy – of the essay. Each of the works was a beautiful and insightful exploration of ideas, of possibilities, of connections. As I listened to each author read, I not only was taken inside the consciousness of another person, but I was taken deeper into my own. Doug’s reflections on music and identity, Nancy’s on food and family, and Kathi’s on images and histories, had me simultaneously following their journeys, and thinking about how similar objects and experiences in my own life had led to my questions about identity, family, and history. All  three essays were immediate and powerful reminders of how writing works as way in which we explore our own minds, and then invite others inside. I may be going on too much with the adjectives here – particularly “powerful”  – and yet the power of writing as an individually and collectively transformative experience and medium is what I have been continuing to think about since the session. That session is moving me back to my own essays, though they’re not of the quality of these authors’ work. But it was reminder that writing in print does something special – it opens up the interiors of life to us. And I hope it was a reminder to those at the conference that teaching college writing should be more than about thesis statements and academic discourse. It also should be about the exploration of ideas and the transformation of our ideas. If you want to see a similar project the three writers did at a conference and then turned into published work, track down “Evocative Objects: Reflections on Teaching, Learning, and Living in Between” in the March 2012 issue of College English.

The next day, then, I heard Richard Miller talk about literacy in a digital media world. Richard pointed out that he doesn’t publish in conventional academic venues anymore, whether in print or online.  (You can find his great site/blog/ideas at text 2 cloud.) He then proceeded to remind the audience that everything we know about writing, reading, communication, authorship, and everything connected to it is changing, and changing again, and changing again. He’s not the first to point this out, of course, but he made the compelling case again for how, in a field about composing and interpreting texts, we’re like the folks standing at the end of downhill train, looking backwards down the track and wondering what those things are zipping by so fast. I don’t disagree with him at all. If there’s anything my conversations and observations with students have shown me time and again is that they are engaged with digital media in ways that are often very different in their conceptions of time and text than ours. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t buy into the “digital natives” idea, that young people are completely different in how they engage with texts and we can’t understand what they do blah blah blah. But I do think if we want to understand how they read and write and communicate, we can’t assume it’s the same way we read and write. And we have to talk with them, work on digital media with them, and play around with it ourselves. That means more than using print, it means we have to learn to compose with video and images and sound (and I’ll  have more to say about that soon too.)

It would be easy to find these two session, both of which I found inspiring and intelligent and insightful, at odds with each other. But that wasn’t the case.  Doug, Nancy, and Kathi used digital media and images with their essays to create multimodal performances, and Richard’s presentation was an essay as well as a digital presentation. And I know that none of these ideas are brand new, they were just done so well that they revived my thinking and got me motivated to get back to my own work. Besides, conflict wasn’t what I felt. Instead I felt the thrill of having so many things open to me as a writer and teacher, and a bit overwhelmed – in an excited way – about everything there is to do. The question is not which road I want to follow, but how to travel multiple roads at once.

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