Session H ~ Beyond Retrofitting: Unlearning Composition in Digital Times


Review by Mariana Grohowski

Allison Harper Hitt, Syracuse University
Patrick W. Berry, Syracuse University
Lauren Marshall Bowen, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

In this dynamic and inspiring panel, all three presenters (listed below) drew upon Cathy N. Davidson’s 2011 book Now You See It: How the Brain Science of Attention Will Transform the Way We Live, Work, and Learn. Specifically, they took Davidson’s theme of “unlearning” outdated ways of doing things in order to embrace new ways of teaching and learning. All three presenters were careful to explain how their suggested new ways of doing things would allow teacher-researchers in the field of computers and composition to be more inclusive of learning and learners, as well as better equipped for future endeavors in learning, teaching, and research.

Speaker 1: Allison Harper Hitt, “Unlearning Accommodation: Universal Design and Multimodal Pedagogies.”
Inspired by the various questions Davidson poses in the first three sections of her book—about distraction and difference (part one), student learners (part two), and the future of teaching and learning (part three)—Hitt asked her audience to reconsider the design of multimodal composition pedagogy by incorporating the principles of Universal Design for Learning (UDL). According to Hitt, the union of UDL with Disability Studies (DS), and Multimodal Pedagogy has a threefold offering: 1. It offers students and the field a more critical approach to the teaching, learning, and composing practices of multimodality; 2. Thereby providing a more inclusive pedagogy for all students regardless of (dis)abilities; 3. Which subsequently reduces learning barriers for students which Hitt referred to as “unlearning the limitations of accommodation” (the claim which inspired her presentation’s title).

During her presentation, Hitt expanded upon the following principles of UDL and multimodal pedagogy, in order to make her case.

Universal Design for Learning Multimodal Pedagogy
Principle I: Multiple Means of Representations Teaching practices: How information is disseminated and shared with students
Principle II: Multiple Means of Action and Expression Composing practices: How students create and share knowledge
Principle III: Multiple Means of Engagement Learning practices: How students process and organize knowledge

Perhaps the most compelling evidence Hitt offered for why all pedagogy should embrace UDL and Disability Studies, was information about the problems with the systemic issues of diagnosing, reporting, and accommodating learning disabilities in higher education. Instead of trying to deal with a faulty system, Hitt asked that instructors consider UDL and DS simply because it fosters good pedagogy. According to Hitt, supporting student values fosters a disposition—a disposition that values difference as distinction, not as a deficit. This idea was shared not only with Cathy Davidson but also with the other two members of her panel.

Speaker 2: Patrick W. Berry, “Unlearning Publishing: Consolidation and Expertise in the Digital Age.” (Additionally Titled (during presentation) “That’s Not My Job”)
Drawing upon his experience working in publishing and focusing on part three of Davidson’s book, in which she discusses “Work in the Future,” Berry provided some observations and implications for the importance of “unlearning publishing” as we know it. According to Berry, “unlearning” publishing will allow us to more effectively embrace the future of publishing. As the title of his presentation promised, Berry focused on two major premises about the future of publishing: that it will focus on consolidation and expertise.

Supported by the recent establishment of the MLA Guidelines for Evaluating Work in Digital Humanities and Digital Media, Berry argued that these guidelines along with the future of publishing in our field entail the fostering of three implications we must work to address:

  1. Crafting new methodologies
  2. The necessity for collaboration
  3. The necessity for resisting expertise

These three implications support Berry’s claim about the future of publishing dependent upon consolidation and expertise. According to Berry, we are resistant to developing expertise or specializations. Instead, the push is to have more of a breadth than depth of knowledge (claims made also in Gee, Hull, and Lankshear’s 1995 book). Berry warranted these claims by offering a scenario from his experience working at a publishing company. As Berry put it, work was done collaboratively and by people who would often claim that certain tasks were “not their jobs.”

This resistance to specialize has interesting implications for collaboration and the future of publishing and scholarship. Pointing to Kathleen Fitzpatrick’s project Planned Obsolescence and claims about the future of publishing, Berry contended that scholars must change the way they think about these things, they must “unlearning publishing” in order for the field of publishing to transgress.

To end his presentation, Berry offered implications for the classroom and for researchers.  For the classroom, “unlearning publishing” means that all students need exposure to a broad range of skills related to the production/publication process. Berry offered examples for how he has done this in his teaching. Additionally, Berry posed the following questions for future scholarship:

  • What are some of the skills that US, CW faculty have to have in order to do this work?
  • What is the skill set we expect for ourselves as a field ? For our students?
  • Is the new model collaborative? Or is it that everyone becomes a designer?

Speaker 3: Lauren Marshall Bowen, “Unlearning Old Age: What Can Older Adults Teach Us About Digital Literacies?”
To Bowen, Cathy Davidson’s book (about unlearning outdated practices in order to learn 21st century practices), provides an opportunity to unlearn our perceptions about aging and its role on technology use and digital literacy practices. Bowen’s contention was that age structures (labels for life stages like infancy, retirement, etc.) that are supposed to help us to make sense of technological users at a given life stage actually serve to marginalize these individuals and subsequently tell us little about literacy and learning throughout life stages. Inspired by Davidson’s premise that we must unlearn certain things, Bowen organized her talk into five “unlessons” about aging and technological use in order to persuade her audience to consider changing the ways they think about technological users that are in their older adulthood years (at or beyond retirement stage).

Her five unlessons are outlined in the table below. Following the table I will explain her third lesson. However, in themselves, Bowen’s unlessons offer significant take aways. Her premises are fleshed out in her recent published articles in College English and College Composition and Communication.

“Un-lessons” // We must unlearn:
1. Assumptions about how people will / should use digital literacies based on Age.
2. The cultural attachment to a biomedical model of aging
3. Preconceptions of retirement
4. Not all lessons
5. The asymmetrical view of collaboration

Bowen’s third unlesson: “unlearning our preconceptions of retirement” showcased some of her interview data conducted with four older adult women about their digital literacy practices. As Bowen noted, oftentimes we assume that adults at retirement-age have a surplus of free time. In sharing information from one of her participants, Bowen explains that some retired adults are not as idle as society leads us to believe. In fact, some adults are still working and using technologies in productive ways for work and pleasure. Thus, Bowen believes we must circulate more stories of adults using technologies in ways that highlight their use of these technologies for production. She argued that older adults have much to offer us when we examine their digital literacy practices, and, examining the digital literacy practices of older adults helps us to learn that they have legitimate, productive, and beneficial digital literacy practices that we must not ignore.

I personally found this panel to be the most amazing of the sessions I was able to attend. I say this because all three presentations were in themselves dynamic and compelling, but also because each presentation cohesively. The greatest, collective take away was not just to read Davidson’s book. Instead, it was that we all most definitely have some things to re-think or unlearn. Rather than clinging to familiar ways of doing things, we must work to embrace new ways of doing things for the sake of our students and our field—as we begin this (un)learning process, we might look to Hitt, Berry, and Bowen for suggestions and successes.

Mariana Grohowski is a second year Ph.D. student in the rhetoric and writing program at Bowling Green State University. She is researching the digital writing practices of servicewomen of the U.S. Armed Forces.


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