A few memorable moments and intriguing topics in Anne Frances Wysocki’s chapter in Writing New Media, entitled Opening New Media to Writing: Openings & Justifications.
In playful metaphor, Wysocki describes the state of today’s writing teacher as that of one who’s had the rug pulled out from under him. This rug, in which “you could lose yourself in contemplation of its well-ordered and contained patterns,” has been rudely yanked away by the influence of digital media on a comfortable, print-centric niche of academia. Even if the physical book, complete with tangible pages, continues its existence in the wake of the e-revolution, the changes in society’s expectations change the way the book is approached, received, redesigned. Wysocki argues that, while all this is true, writing has always changed and must continue to change as we become aware of its function and existence in the current “social, cultural, political, educational, religious, economic, familial, ecological […] artistic, affective, and technological webs.” She doesn’t offer a new, complete rug on which to stand; rather, she hopes her contribution will offer “the equivalent of carpet scraps,” useful bits and pieces to be arranged as necessary or as one finds useful.
The teaching of writing is, necessarily, changing as the creation of and response to the written word shifts. Wysocki offers as a tool (not a remedy) in this state of instability the idea of materiality. In a long quote from Bruce Horner, we find that materiality can be as simple as the technologies used to produce a piece of writing but can extend to incorporate the conditional surroundings of the text’s production (the writing classroom dynamics) or consumption (the power dynamics of the culture in which it is distributed), its subjectivity to consciousness, its interpersonal relationships that shape its reception (race, gender, sexuality, etc.)… in other words, nearly anything that has the power to alter the text’s creation, distribution, or consumption. I am delighted to say Wysocki does not ask us to consider each of these dynamics when analyzing or producing a piece of written work. The awareness of this “materiality,” though, should prepare the writing teacher to approach a piece or an assignment with understanding of the how and why of writing in situation. Being equipped to address materiality, Wysocki posits, may help eliminate the feeling of disconnect many students experience in writing classrooms (they feel they are “writing by themselves,” or writing simply for writing’s sake).
In this, Wysocki proposes five “openings” for writing teachers in a world of “new media.” First, “the need, in writing about new media in general, for the material thinking of people who teach writing”: in other words, not only can new media inform the writing classroom, but writing instructors can perhaps inform the study of new media by their understanding of how “situated people” communicate. Second, “a need to focus on the specific materiality of the texts we give each other”: the widening of possible presentation through new media ought to encourage experimentation with more colorful, more visible, more hypermediate choices both in the way we create (even in typing versus handwriting) and in how we present our ideas (are we really making our information most accessible by confining it to an 8 1/2 x 11″ page?). Third, “a need to define ‘new media texts’ in terms of their materialities”: new media to Wysocki are defined not as much by recent technological development as by “composers who are aware of the range of materialities of texts and who highlight the materiality,” highlighting the agency of the human creators, especially those who attempt scholarly application of visuality and interactivity. Fourth, “a need for production of new media texts in writing classrooms”: the work of writing allows the writer to position himself in his world, and in a world of new media, writers will most effectively position themselves if they engage in and create with those new media. Fifth and finally, “a need for strategies of generous reading”: the use of alternative media, especially in the writing classroom, irritates the orthodoxy of those accustomed to the old “rug,” so asking for explanation and intentionality from creators and a generous (not traditionally critical) approach from readers encourages the responsible production of texts that “can look and function differently” than most writing classroom assignments to date.
To finish her chapter, Wysocki offers several writing classroom exercises ranging from mentally challenging (creating a visual argument) to downright oddball (turn in an assignment written in crayon). These activities reinforce her argument for familiarization with new media production as a viable and necessary development in the writing classroom.
For the most part, I enjoyed and agreed with Wysocki’s assertions. And while some of her practical suggestions seemed a little off-the-wall (and perhaps a little irrelevant to the point of a writing course), she structures a convincing case for new media engagement as a responsibility of the writing teacher. Obviously the first writing course I teach will have to be a little more structured, a little more conventional, and lot more outside my creative control than the class she imagines, but I hope the exposure to this argument and to the media theory and practices we’ve discussed so far will prepare me to influence my students in a somewhat Wysockian direction come next fall.