You never know, at the start of the semester, when the pivotal moments of a class are going to take place. You design a syllabus, choose readings, and hope for the best. But in every course I teach there always seem to be moments that resonate for most of the people involved and keep coming back into the conversations in one form or another. I can’t plan for or predict what they’re going to be, because these moments have to emerge out of the distinctive interests and personalities of all the people in the course. Sometimes these moments aren’t even the things I find most interesting, but you have to recognize and ride the waves of the class.
This fall, in my Composing Identities graduate seminar, one of the moments that has had that kind of pivotal effect in the course was the week when we talked about agency in terms of material conditions – but specifically it was the readings and discussion about location and mobility. We read work by a number of people – Kate Pahl, Eli Goldblatt, Robert Brooke, Cathy Burnett – who are exploring the importance of space and location in regard to how literacy practices develop and are perceived. While all the discussions of materiality (and the tension with immateriality) in terms of literacy practices were useful, the questions about location and mobility sent a charge through the course and keep coming up as we read other texts. How does location, and the perception of who you are in a location, shape a sense of identity? How does location the literacy practices you can engage and, just as important, shape the way you feel you can engage in those practices? How does mobility – both on the scale of moving to a new location or on the scale of moving around your community, shape literacy and identity in ways in which we’ve not explored sufficiently? How are stories shaped by place, and then how do those stories shape our sense of identity and writing? How do issues of transnationalism reshape these conversations and concerns? And how does the virtual mobility afforded by digital media add a new layer to these questions?
Clearly we’re still just exploring here. but the discussions have pushed me farther into this area of thinking about literacy and agency and I’m all the more excited to get further into it. I was interested before, but grateful for the unexpected pivot.
Last spring, because of a change in scheduling, I was asked if I would take on another graduate seminar for fall. I agreed, and when I was asked what I would offer I said, “Well, something literacy, identity, and agency-ish,” wondering as I said it what I really meant.
There are some courses we teach that we have a clear sense of what we want to accomplish – the trajectory of the course, the readings, the assignment. This course, which is going on this fall and called Composing Identities: Exploring Literacy, Culture, and Agency, I knew would be a bit of an adventure for me and for the students involved. It’s not that I had no idea what I was doing. I’ve been working on these ideas for the past couple of years as I plan toward the book I hope to start writing in the spring. But the theorizing and research is still very much work in progress and I was still entangled in the ideas, issues, and readings myself.
So, I decided that the course would have to be an exploration for all of us involved. I told the students this on the first day of class, and everyone has been great about exploring the ideas, readings, and implications in a series of discussions that have just been extraordinary all semester. I always tell graduate students that one of the things I love about my job is what I learn from them as they do their research – and that is still true. But this class has been such a generative, productive, and inspiring experience for me as a teacher and as a researcher. Not much more to say about it in this blog post, except to remember that the joy – and value – in teaching, for me, is most effective and fulfilling when it is at its most collaborative. This is one course I will be very sorry to see end.
Still rolling over in my head the great conversation we had in class this week in my Composing Identities graduate seminar. Now that the class is well underway I want to do some reflecting on it here in the next few weeks, particularly as it connects to the book project. This week we were talking about agency and technology, but rather than use the lens of rhetorical affordances we focused on the emotional and social responses and uses people make of digital technology in communicating. The most productive piece for the class (as it has been for me) was a chapter from Mirca Madianou and Daniel Miller’s 2012 book Migration and New Media. We read the chapter on “Polymedia.” Madianou and Miller, define polymedia as focusing “less on the affordances of each particular medium and more on how users exploit the contrasts between media as an integrated environment in order to meet their relationship and emotional needs” (p 128). In other words, in a moment when, if you have a smart phone for example, you can easily and quickly choose a variety of ways to communicate a message (texting, Instagram, Twitter, phone call even) the choice becomes shaped less by the material affordances of the technology and more by considerations of sociality, emotion, and power. “Polymedia is not a range of technical potentials, it is a series of cultural genres or emotional registers that make these contrasts into significant differences in communication by exploiting them for various tasks within relationships” (p. 148).
To think about sociality is to consider how relationships are coordinated and sustained. Such relationships are formed within what the conventions of what Madianou and Miller call the “cultural genres of sociality,” which include the roles and expectations within relationships that are shaped by culture. For example, a mother is both someone in a personal relationship with an individual child, as well as someone acting within and shaped by the cultural genres of the role of “motherhood.” To think about polymedia literacy practices within the context of sociality is to consider how the medium and mode, as well as the message, will be read within the context of the particular relationship. The chapter provided us with a great theoretical lens for conversation and the conversation took off in great explorations of how technology mediates, facilitates, and also frustrates both relationships and literacy practices. Everyone in the class particularly liked the way the ideas of polymedia helped them think through the connections between emotion as an embodied response and as a social response and disposition. People made excellent connections to our previous discussions of rhetorical agency and emotion and cognition. I’m still tumbling these ideas over for myself and eager to see where the others in the class take them next week. More on the seminar to come soon…..