Rewriting the Future

A recent article in the The New York Times (“Writing Your Way to Happiness”) talked about the research by psychologists such as Timothy Wilson who maintain that writing can lead to changes, not only in mood, but also in our perception of self. There has, for a while, been research to indicate that if we write about how we’re feeling, there can be a benefit to how we handle trauma, or just our daily emotions. But the work of Wilson and others argues that, in addition, if we reshape the story we’re telling in our writing, that can have positive effects on our perceptions of self. To quote the article:

“The concept is based on the idea that we all have a personal narrative that shapes our view of the world and ourselves. But sometimes our inner voice doesn’t get it completely right. Some researchers believe that by writing and then editing our own stories, we can change our perceptions of ourselves and identify obstacles that stand in the way of better health.”

The article discussed several studies in which people, after thinking and writing more positive narratives of particular circumstances, ended up with more positive experiences and outcomes than those in control groups who did not do the same kind of writing.

As a writing and literacy teacher, I thought immediately about the literacy narratives that are often assigned to students in both K-12 courses and in universities. The goals of these assignments vary, but often consist of having students reflect on the events that shaped their identities as writers and readers. I’ve assigned these kinds of essays in a number of different courses (and tweaked them for different purposes, sometimes including criticism of cultural constructions of literacy and institutions) and have found the stories students told sometimes reassuring, sometimes disheartening, but always endlessly fascinating.

But what the research by Wilson and others made me think about was a new way of conceiving approaches to revision with literacy narratives. Rather than simply work with students to help them make the draft more focused, more coherently organized, etc., is there value in having students rewrite the drafts in ways that retell the stories about their reading and writing experiences? The point is not to have them create fictions about their past. But what if they considered alternative explanations for what happened? What if, rather than seeing themselves as the victim of experiences that have consigned them to the identity of a “bad writer” they re-interpret those experiences? Or, what if, in addition to the literacy narrative about the past, they write one about the future that tells a different narrative in which they regard themselves as effective writers? Can we have an effect on the confidence of student writers in this way?

How do narrative, memory, and emotion work together to shape our perceptions of agency as readers and writers? (Still working on that one…)


Location, Location, Location

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.

Composing Identities and Explorations

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.

Polymedia and sustaining relationships

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…..

Back on the Blog II

Writing here feels much to me like the work I do in my garden. It’s often generative, certainly intermittent, and sometimes I feel like I’ve left it so long I should just give up and let the weeds take over. Still, I do find writing in here, when I feel compelled to do it, useful and lately I’ve had the bug.

The main thing that has drawn me back to the blog is my current graduate seminar on “Composing Identities: Exploring Literacy, Culture, and Agency.” The conversations we have been having in there have done a great deal to sharpen my thinking on the book project of the same name I’m working on. It is such a sharp, smart group of people who have taken the texts I’ve assigned and run with them in ways that keep challenging all of us to think more carefully and deeply about how agency and identity are shaped by forces of culture, emotion, rhetoric, technology, and material conditions. I’ll have more to say about this in coming entries.

Along with the class the other event that drew me back here was the recent Watson Conference on Rhetoric and Composition at the University of Louisville. I found many conversations there coming back to the relationships we have with our students and others when we write. In particular, the talks by John Duffy, Paula Mathieu, and Jennifer Rowsell gave me different ways to think about how agency and identity are constructed through the relationships we construct and sustain, both in and out of school John’s exploration of the implicit ethical underpinnings of our project in teaching writing and Paula’s essay on mindfulness and teaching are reminders that we’re doing more than teach skills when we walk into a classroom, we are engaged in human relationships that have implications and repercussions far beyond the writing students produce (regardless of whether we want to admit that to ourselves.) I highly recommend their articles in the special Watson Conference issue of JAC that explore these ideas in more depth.

It was an amazing conference, not just for the content but for the genuine and generous dialogue that took place throughout the three days. Mary P. Sheridan and her co-planners planned and facilitated as good a conference as I have ever attended.

That’s is for now, but more soon before the weeds grow up again.

Digital Media and Composition Pedagogy

Another spring, another syllabus. This time it’s the latest iteration of my “Digital Media and Composition Pedagogy” graduate seminar. The last time I taught this course was in spring 2011, so my first question was whether much had changed technologically since then. These days a three-year span can mean a significant change in the adoption of a new technology or a cultural shift in how we think about technology and literacy.

Yet in thinking about my syllabus for the course this time it’s not so much a question of what has changed technologically, but whether there is sense in a course titled “Digital Media and Composition Pedagogy.” For, really, is there much composition pedagogy happening out there that isn’t mediated by digital hardware and software? If that’s the case, then what does a course such as this imply? Does it mean I’m going to focus on digital media that create non-print-on-paper texts, and so be different from the comp pedagogy I started teaching when the students were writing on typewriters? Is it going to be about how the digital has made us filmmakers and calligraphers and sound designers? Or, am I going to try to make explicit how the digital mediates every thing we do, from our discussions of rhetoric – audience, genre, style – to our questions of process — invention, revision, and  so on? And what about how ideas of critical pedagogy, that began in a pre-digital era, have changed – or not- today? What about WAC and Writing Centers and Creative Writing? And where do I talk about the influence of material conditions and institutional ideologies?

Composition pedagogy is inextricable from digital media, just as it is from theory. We’re always talking about both, even if we’re not clear that we’re talking about both.

Designing such a course also gets all the more complicated in the way all courses about pedagogy get complicated. On the one hand, I want to address the questions of theory and research that shape our teaching; yet I also understand that many in the class will want to leave with clear sense of what they can do in their courses with this material. How do they teach with it? All of this in a 14-week semester. There was never enough time to cover what I wanted when I started teaching in the typewriter age. And now?

It’s all musings, I realize, with no clear answers. Designing a course is always a matter of compromise and deletion. And I know that, as always, I assign more reading than I should because I just can’t make all the cuts I ought too. Still, I’ve made my choices for the course and it will be what it is. As always, I am on the eve of teaching and excited about what it will bring, and even more so about how  the students will take the course to places I haven’t even considered. I’ll try to keep up with that some on the blog (though, with a spring of busy job searches and the like, I’m not making blog promises…..)

More soon….

It’s Not Really a Phone, Part 2

So, after years of not bothering for a variety of reasons (cost, learning curve, not wanting to get further tied to my email) I started my adventure in smart-phone land last week. And, while I know I’m not anywhere close to the first person to note a few things about it, I have a few observations. First, it’s not a phone. It doesn’t look or feel like anything I’ve ever called a phone in my life. My embodied, physical sense memory of phones is that they are shaped to fit our heads, with an earpiece and a mouthpiece. I understand that has changed, but when I pick up my new device and look at it, nothing about it physically signifies “phone” to me. And, when I make a call, I feel as if I’m holding a piece of toast up to my ear.

The sense that it is not a phone only increases the sense to me that I have purchased a hand-held computer on which I can make phone calls. When I pick it up, the first think that catches my eye is not the phone icon, but the email icon. And the first thing I look to do with it is check my email or my Twitter feed. What’s more, when I picked it out, I went with the device with the slightly larger screen because I knew I would want it big enough to be able to read articles, dissertation chapters, and the like when I was killing time in waiting rooms, etc. With this, I won’t bother with a tablet anymore (not that I was ever that fond of tablets in the first place.) So, I’m intrigued to see how the use of this portable computer shifts my reading and writing practices in the future. It can’t help but change what I do. I just have to figure out how. I’m also struck by how the mobility of the device is simultaneously virtual and physical (thanks, Brice Nordquist for that insight) and how one reinforces the other.

The final thought is how best to incorporate this technology into my seminar in the spring on “Digital Media and Composition Pedagogy.” I knew, even before getting the device, that mobile technologies had to be part of our conversation. But how? How do these devices fit into the ways that digital media make literacy mobile, malleable, collaborative, and multimodal? Is there any good scholarship yet on using mobile devices in the classroom? More to come…..

Assistant Professor Job Openings at UofL

We’ve had the unusual circumstance of three simultaneous retirements here at the University of Louisville, which offers us the unusual opportunity to make three hires in one year. This is an exciting opportunity and we’re looking forward to the possibilities for hiring great new colleagues. This would be a great opportunity for junior faculty, to be part of an established program with events such as the  Watson Conference, but also with the chance to help shape the future of the program. If you know of anyone going on the job market who might be a good fit for us, please forward the ad information (listed below) to them. I am chairing the Search Committee, so if anyone has any questions, please contact me.

Here is the text of the job ad:

Assistant Professors, Rhetoric and Composition, University of Louisville, Fall 2014.

The Department of English invites applications for three tenure-track Assistant Professor positions in Rhetoric and Composition to begin Fall 2014.  Preference given to those holding a Ph.D. at time of appointment. Areas of scholarly interest may include, but are not limited to, Professional/Technical Communication, Writing Program Administration, History of Rhetoric, Rhetorical Theory and Criticism. Teaching load appropriate to a research institution; salary competitive.  Course assignments range from undergraduate writing, which all professorial faculty teach, to seminars in an established, successful doctoral program in Rhetoric and Composition.

Send letter, c.v., and writing sample to Professor Bronwyn Williams, Chair, Search Committee, Department of English, by email to Applications must be received by midnight, November 15, 2013. All applicants must also apply online and attach a current version of their vita at by November 15, 2013.   Please reference Job ID# 29598 .  If you have trouble with the online application, please e-mail Annelise Gray at or phone 502-852-0505.

The University of Louisville is an Affirmative Action, Equal Opportunity, and Americans with Disabilities Employer, committed to diversity, and in that spirit, seeks applications from a broad variety of candidates.





Yes, But Are You Having Fun?

Irv Peckham, who teaches writing at LSU and whose work I have always admired, stirred up a lively conversation on the WPA-L email list this week (is an email list primarily of US university writing teachers). Irv posted several emails in which he talked about how he was organizing his current writing course on “Life Writing” to try to find a way for the students to enjoy the experience of writing, for them to have fun. (You can see Irv’s blog about this class and these issues here.)  This position definitely appealed to me. I’ve written several times and places in the past about the motivations of pleasure in writing (and so many other things we do voluntarily) and how much of what students do outside of the classroom with writing and reading happens because they find pleasure in it. I don’t just mean a sensual, immediately gratifying pleasure, but the pleasure of craft, the pleasure of accomplishment, the pleasure that comes with engaging a challenge and then accomplishing what you set out to do – what one of Irv’s students called “hard fun.” The thing is, this kind of pleasure is so often predicated on having some control over the challenge, over the goals you’re trying to reach. It’s why students who talk of hating writing when they’re inside school having to complete assignments for which they see no purpose or relevance, will spend hours writing fan fiction.

An interesting thing happened on the WPA email list after Irv made his post, however. The responses very quickly became about whether writing courses should allow for “personal” writing or only be about more “academic” genres. Besides being reductive about those categories, what I found fascinating is that very few people bothered to talk about fun, about pleasure. I think, in part, people took the discussion that direction because they mistakenly conflated pleasure as only possible through personal experience and displays of emotion. But I also think that it probably made some people uncomfortable to think we should be thinking about teaching as, in part, creating the conditions for enjoyment, for pleasure, for fun. Those concepts just strike some people as, by their nature, to lack rigor, or intellectual engagement, or “value” in terms of writing in the academy and beyond. Pleasure and enjoyment are inaccurately (and unfortunately) conflated with ease. Yet, as the research I’ve been doing recently – the observations and conversations I’ve been having with students – shows me is that perceptions of agency are dependent in part on emotional dispositions that include a sense of control and the opportunity for the pleasure of craft and accomplishment. If we want students to embrace writing (and we do) then we ought to be thinking, and not shrinking, from conversations about how to create opportunities for them to enjoy writing.

Everyone understands the pleasure of accomplishment, of craft, of “hard fun” in some area of their lives. Writing teachers feel it too, in their writing and their teaching. Even when people complain about the hard work of writing and teaching (and it’s really not that hard) they also know the pleasure of accomplishment in teaching well or finishing a writing project. Emotion is important. Pleasure and enjoyment help create perceptions of agency. Yet so many schools and teachers, at every level, still insist on taking control out of the hands of students, of reducing their perceptions of agency, of conflating pleasure with ease, lest the schools be considered soft and without rigor.  In many ways I know I’m not saying anything new. Freire and Dewey both understood that you have to start from what matters to people and engage those concerns to create a space for learning. Don Murray argued for this too. In one of my favorite quotes Don wrote:

The writer’s basic job is not to say what he already knows but to explore his own experience for his own meaning. His experience may be in the library or in the pub, but at the moment of writing he uses the tool of language to discover the meanings which exist in his experience. As he uses his language to try to put down on the page what he thinks he means he keeps changing the words—he thinks. As his writing develops under his hand his words reveal his meaning, an order evolves as his mind uses language to expose what is significant in his experience.

Discovering the meanings that exist in experience – wherever that may be – involves control, agency, pleasure – fun.

It’s Not Really a Phone

I imagine what I would have thought if, a quarter century ago when I started teaching, someone had told me that some day the students in my classes would be bringing with them hand-held computers with which they could keep their schedules, take notes, and, best of all, have instant access to a world-wide interactive network of information. I would have probably said something about people in hell wanting ice water and dreamed about what might be possible. This came to mind again the other day when my local school district decided to lift the ban on cell phones in some of the high schools. Of course, because the issue is framed by the word “phones” there was a predictable outcry about sliding standards, distracted students, and the glories of life in days past.

Apple, always the savvy marketers, got people to start buying smart phones by continuing to call them “phones.” Phones are cheap, phones are utilitarian, phones feel like a necessity. Had they called them “computers” people would have thought of them as something they might not need in their daily lives, or have been skeptical about what they could use them for. But, the reality is – and I’m far from the first to say this – that they are used more as computers most days then as phones. I applaud the school district for recognizing the use, and the potential, of these devices and giving teachers a chance to work with them rather than to have to police whether students are breaking the rules.

That said, what we call things makes a difference. I’m guessing I can’t get people to call them “computers” rather than “phones,” but I’m going to keep pointing it out and asking them to think about how the label and the use might change how they imagine using them and teaching with them. What’s more, it’s always important to remember that material technologies change practices, create new ways of considering knowledge and communication, and create new relationships of the social and identity (to borrow from actor-network theory and anthropologists like Daniel Miller.) So, using hand-held computers in the classroom is going to start changing relationships, practices, conceptions of knowledge in the classroom. We can’t just layer them on top of what we do; even trying to do that – bad idea that it is – would be doomed to failure as practices would emerge and escape through the new technology and networks. What do we do, then, when our students walk into class tomorrow, hand-held computers at the ready?