Tag Archives: Agency

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…)

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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…..

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.

How Does it Feel to be Literate?

In the work I’ve been doing this spring I keep coming back to questions of agency. What allows – or constrains – people from engaging in literacy practices. And more precisely, as part of this larger project, I’ve been thinking about how perceptions of agency figure into to the factors that determine agency. When do we feel as if we can participate, or that we can’t?  As Lalitha Vasudevan said at a presentation last year, “How does it feel to be literate?” Although perceptions of agency are shaped by many forces, including power, technology, rhetorical awareness, and material conditions, I’ve been focusing this spring in thinking about how embodied experiences and the emotional histories created through such experiences are often powerful influences on how people understand their abilities to engage in reading and writing. I see people who are empowered and engaged in one setting, suddenly become reticent and unable to participate in another, before anyone has even told them they can’t.

The focus of much research in literacy studies in recent years – including my own – has been on the social and institutional factors that shape literacy practices. This has been important work and I am not in any way writing against this scholarship. Yet while we’ve learned a great deal about literacy works as a function of culture and power, we’ve been less willing to engage in questions of how individuals perceive – and feel – a sense of agency in writing situations. The perception of agency, as opposed to measurable skills, is important in terms of how people respond to writing situations. In particular we have not explored emotion as much in terms of agency. I think people like Marilyn Cooper and Laura Micciche have done important work on emotion and agency (work I will discuss more in a coming post), but I think there is still more work to be done. The emotional histories and the emotional stakes for students in the classroom, for example, have a direct influence on students’ perceptions of agency, and consequently on their ability and willingness to engage in any writing task.

Talking about feelings, even if we call them emotion or affect, tends to make academics nervous. We can’t really measure them and we fear getting dragged off into the sentimental or irrational if we bring them up at all. Tom Newkirk has written persuasively about how emotion makes us nervous, and how that anxiety leads to particular ways of conceiving of writing and responding to students. And certainly in all the writing I have done on issues of literacy and identity over the years I have been more comfortable writing about social factors such as class or race or gender than I have about emotion. Yet every experience, every decision, every perception, is filtered through emotion. Every action has an emotional component that is social and rhetorical – even if it is the display of detachment and rationality (also embodied emotions). As I have talked about this work this spring, I have found the responses of people to be thoughtful and generous and lead me to believe that I am moving in a productive direction.  So my posts in the near future (if I keep my promise to myself to write more posts) will be exploring these ideas about emotion, embodiment, transformation, community, and perceptions of agency (among other things). Stay tuned.

 

Agency

It was a fascinating conversation in class the other night, with a lot of good ideas circulating. What has continued to rattle around in my head is the question of digital media and agency. Cope and Kalantzis, in “New Media, New Learning” argue that one of the genuinely different aspects of digital media is the way in increases individual agency when it comes to creating, responding to, and publishing texts.  I don’t think anyone would argue that they are right that individuals have the opportunity and technology available now to publish and distribute their ideas that was unthinkable twenty years ago. As someone who was trying to get my short stories published back then, and had no venue for publication aside from established magazines and journals, I think there is no disputing that part of the point Cope and Kalantzis make (I say as I type on my blog).

But the question that came up in class concerned the effect of those efforts to write and publish individual texts. Does “agency” mean only the ability to publish, or does it also mean that the action achieves a sense of empowerment, change, critical or political or emotional growth on the part of the writer? If agency is more than the action, but is also the effect on the individual, then have digital media really changed that much? Is writing this blog, which may not be read, that different to my sense of agency than writing the journals that I have kept for decades? Or, how much agency is allowed in a digital world that is increasingly bound by the imperatives  of global capitalism? How much agency is provided to me if I am just doing the marketing work for corporations? What kinds of composing and communication with digital media could actually have an effect on our individual – or collective – sense of agency?

More to come…