Cyborg History, Steampunk, and Alternative Pedagogies ~ Session B1


Review by Jack Hennes

Read more about session B1 on the C&W conference site.


Matthew Vetter, Ohio University
Barbara George, Kent State University
Cynthia Davidson, Stony Brook University
Matthew Hill, University of Denver


This panel featured a diverse set of presentations surrounding alternative approaches to text, composing, and assessment in the 21st century classroom. Though Matthew Vetter was unable to attend, this panel addressed a series of  cultural perspectives, whether in online DIY communities, the virtual domain of the avatar, or the role of the machine in the composition classroom. Shifting perspectives seemed to be an underlying theme here as the common, everyday practices of online communities were hailed through a rhetorical lens. George investigated the power of DIY crafts online as a practice that seeks to undermine consumer ideology. Challenging traditional notions of identity and text, Davidson noted the emergent practices of everyday cyborgs and monsters from popular culture to online communities. To conclude, Matthew Hill offered a philosophical critique of the debates surrounding machine scoring in composition classrooms, rounding out a panel that isolated and approached pressing issues in computers and writing pedagogy and practice.

Craft and the Digital: Making Meaning—Steampunk, Mason Jars, and the Quilting Bee

Barbara George

Starting off the panel with arts and crafts, Barbara George introduced participants to the simple, yet creative art of jewelry-making. In a refreshing break from the traditional panel format, participants created small items of jewelry as George sought to explore the phenomena of creating and sharing DIY crafts online. The practice of building, sharing, and communicating a culture of DIY online has enabled what George calls a phenomena of the amateur expert. This process of composing empowers artists as they embrace technology and participate in the DIY renaissance through social networking and nontraditional outlets for internet exchange. George notes, however, that DIY contributors truly become authors when their process of making is one of embodiment, through which authors share experience and knowledge.

It is the connections built that amplify the true power of DIY online. Referring to David Gauntlett’s Making is Connecting, George also pointed to the potential of online makers and counter-consumer ideology in questioning the practices of global consumption. The steampunk connection was easily made through Latour’s conception of the black box; steampunk, possibly, can be thought of as an endeavor that seeks to undermine the ‘authoritarian implications’ of the black box. DIY feminism was also noted as a force, through which alternative consumerism empowers female artists in causing a disruption in the status quo of the “private practice to corporate production” continuum. Through her presentation, George helped show the ways in which communities of practice are built that move beyond simple craft.

“The Fantasy of the Ultimate Display” and “The Promises of Monsters”: Avatars and Cyborg Friendship

Cynthia Davidson

In tracing the origin of the avatar to their current manifestation in virtual worlds, Cynthia Davidson drew a fascinating parallel between avatars, monsters, and cyborgs. Through Derrida, she laid the basis for the “monstrous text,” as an analogy of a postcard was utilized as a common thread throughout her presentation. Surely a postcard can be sent, yet it only contains a static textual message. It also cannot communicate the identity of the sender, thus losing a vital element in that message. We can begin to move beyond the postcard, however, when one considers the potentiality of representation possible in online communities. To Derrida, Davidson notes, monsters can be thought of as both unsendable and unnamed text. Representation of our identities, whether on World of Warcraft, Second Life, or simply a message board, take the form of avatars.

A level of interaction seems to be gained from the creation of avatars and the way in which we interact with them in, through, and beyond digital spaces. As hybrid body-machines, we cyborgs were noted as connection-making entities, and Davidson provides an example of internet trolls to illuminate her point. As a type of cyborg, trolls cannot reveal their identity; when they do, they “shrink back into the shadows.” To be certain, a cyborg represents a loss of humanness, yet the ultimate beauty of perfection may also be displayed through the cyborg. Davidson ensured to make a major supporting point that the Doctor (from Doctor Who) can be thought of as a cyborg as well, another player who’s true name is never revealed. Drawing upon the postcard once again, Davidson helped show that our identities cannot rely on asynchronous transmission of the monstrous text. Instead, the synchronous interactions of common cyborgs lead to the revealing of identities in online contexts. The concept of the emergent self relies on the complexity of our connections on these spaces as we seek to understand ourselves.

Popper’s Classroom

Matthew Hill

Beginning with Moore’s Law, in which computers are projected to double their energy every 18 months, Matthew Hill foresees the future of both the ability of a computer to reach human cognition (2040 under Moore’s Law) as well as the cognitive ability of a machine to assess writing. Machine scoring software removes a large deal of work on the part of instructors and can be attractive to teachers for this purpose. Conversely, machine scoring poses a threat to many composition specialists as they promise to undermine the value of assessment provided by human readers. Hill, however, points to a productive theoretical framework for guiding a rational view of machine scoring in the composition classroom.

Building off of Karl Popper, Hill looked to open and closed binaries as he questioned whether “one can be optimistic and pragmatic” in coming to terms with robo-grading. Popper was cited for his views on knowledge, which can be valued as “temporary” and “unstable” with a slow move toward a “rational willingness for scrutiny.” Hill’s perspective is powerful in moving toward a reasoned position on machine scoring, one that invites a “reexamination of our choices despite our perception of them.” While machine scoring may not currently be a feasible option for many composition specialists, the debates about them are widespread, and Hill’s perspective provides a solid theoretical rationale to view machine scoring software through a careful lens. Hill cleverly graded his own conference paper with a machine scoring program, receiving an “A”, providing a provocative point in that the machine may hold its own after all.

This panel unveiled the power of online communities in shaping and sharing identity. As an embodied practice, composition can and should work to revise and critique systems of power, and the work of George, Davidson, and Hill points to alternative approaches to understanding the power of composing in digital spaces and our consistent need to adapt pedagogy to reflect the evolving nature of culture and technology.

Jack Hennes is currently a graduate student at St. Cloud State University. His research challenges traditional notions of composition instruction in, through, and beyond technologically-mediated contexts, emphasizing electronic contact zones, intellectual property, and MOOCs.  


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