In “Kitchen Tables and Rented Rooms: The Extracurriculum of Composition,” Anne Ruggles Gere (1994) wrote about the way that writing education happens outside of the university and other formal settings. Writing about groups that collaborate around kitchen tables and community centers, she drew from the work of Simone Weil to note that “walls can be a means of communication as well as a barrier, and I propose that we listen to the signals that come through the walls of our classrooms from the world outside” (Gere, 76). Our experience as writing teachers gives us a similar sense of the importance of paying attention to these signals both in a literal sense (wireless signals, cellular data signals) and in the metaphorical sense (compositional practices, technologies, cultural positionings).
Many instructors are encouraged to use learning management systems (LMSs) in their networked classes. These LMS sites are seen by instructors and students as digital extensions of the classroom both in terms of what sort of writing is done there and in terms of special metaphor. In other words, there are “places” where “students” go to engage in sanctioned writing activity. In terms of the theory of space we articulate in this chapter, because the networked space of the writing classroom is so tightly bound in terms of a “place” that “people” go to engage in “sanctioned” forms of writing, the writing produced in such a place replicates the sort of writing that would take place in the space of the classroom despite the fact that students might be producing it in their bedrooms or, indeed, at kitchen tables.
Douglas Walls, Dànielle DeVoss, and Scott Schopieray (2009) talked about hacking the spaces of computer lab type classroom spaces. They said: “We want to recover notions of hacking as positive” and suggested that hacking instructional spaces can be a way for teachers and students to improve learning outcomes even when stuck in classrooms that are not ideal. They went on to note that “hacking, for us, is a useful term for understanding the ways in which this instructor can make that space useful and more pedagogically appropriate in the context of that class and that semester” (275). We would like to build on and expand the idea suggested by Walls et al. of hacking spaces beyond computer lab-style rooms. We would like to think of ways of hacking the virtual space of classrooms.
Further, Cynthia Selfe and Richard Selfe (1994) cautioned writing teachers about the ways in which computers and software can replicate problematic power relationships at borders. Even twenty years ago, Selfe and Selfe noted that “these electronic spaces—which are subject to increasing legislation and control—are at the same time becoming more expensive and more rigidly aligned along the related axes of class privilege and capitalism” (487–488). While our own institution has recently changed its learning management software to one many of us find much more useable and, perhaps, democratic, it is easy to see how the electronic spaces of the university continue to replicate patterns of have and have-not, where students who have already acquired certain skills are much better able to work within these spaces than those who have not. (Estee Beck, Mariana Grohowski, and Kristine Blair discuss this idea further in chapter 1 of this collection.) One way to get around this is by changing the way the sanctioned technology works; another is to change what technology is used to get the work of the college and the university done.
The prevalence of public and semi public online writing, both within and beyond our LMS, in our writing classes has added another layer of complexity to how we think about classroom spaces, and what we do inside of and beyond the walls of our designated classrooms. Public writing tools, like those provided by Google, are both within the walls of our classrooms and simultaneously transcend those walls, as they are viewable and, depending on various settings, editable by anyone, anywhere in the world. They shift the formerly semi-private space of the classroom to space that is both closed from and open to everyone. Discussing pre-Internet library walls, the philosopher Vilém Flusser (2011) wrote:
Walls are arrangements for distinguishing between public and private space. Walls facilitate vital decisions, for human life oscillates between public and private. A human being inhabits a back wall and experiences a front wall. Walls must be set to allow for oscillation. There are openings to be made (doors) for going out and coming back in; others (windows) through which publicity may be desired in private and through which the private is publicly inspected. (97)
Flusser (2011) discussed how the Internet complicates public/private divides, saying that “we are dealing with technically developed walls, in which the window and picture functions overtake and suspend one another dialectically, making the doors superfluous” (97). Life oscillates between public and private in very different ways on the Web; it moves in more fluid ways, and ways that sometimes slip from our awareness. The “walls” of the academy do not stop wireless or cellular signals any more than they stop the concerns of the working student or the oppressive forces of culture. Reflexively, students work on writing assignments at kitchen tables, in coffee shops, during work breaks, and late at night. The work that we describe here imagines writing spaces and technologies as spaces that are multiple and distributed through the walls of both the formal university setting and the walls of our own kitchens. We think that the assignments we describe in this chapter treat both compositional space and technologies as they truly function in the world that we and students inhabit, where writing opportunities are omnipresent and collaborative. Rather than limiting technologically mediated “writing spaces” or constraining writing to activities that are endorsed and sanctioned, we seek ways to create assignments that sanction activities and spaces already engaged in by students either through activities such as searching the Web or their embodied experiences of simply trying to get to class on time. We pondered how the rapid oscillation between sanctioned and unsanctioned space changes our pedagogy; although we cannot fully address that question, in this chapter we consider how a couple of specific classroom objects complicate the way we think about classroom spaces and about public and private writing divides.
In this chapter, we thus consider how some principles from actor network theory (ANT) might help us think about how we might assemble the “things” of our classes to create spaces for writing beyond the sanctioned college classroom. ANT is a useful way to reconsider Gere’s (1994) kitchen tables as objects that generate activity around them, and then to build on Gere’s discussion by suggesting that digital tools can act as the same kind of activity-generating objects, but only if—and when—networks of people and activities around those objects exist in a way that invites opportunities for meaningful writing work to be done. Our goal is to expand what counts as writing classroom spaces. We demonstrate this idea first with Leslie’s use of Google Maps in a campus transportation problem-solving project for a class in rhetoric and civic engagement, and then with Doug’s use of Twitter in a digital literacy class. We then offer a three-part heuristic for designing writing assignments with an eye toward expanding writing classroom spaces and networks using digital tools. We end with some implications and heuristics that we hope will be helpful to writing teachers interested in similar problems.