Writing Across Media: Social and Material Theories of Invention ~ Session J5


Review by Heather Branstetter

Read more about session J5 on the C&W conference site.


Hannah Bellwoar, Juniata College
Amber Buck, College of Staten Island, CUNY
Cory Holding, University of Pittsburgh (paper read in absentia)

While they were graduate students together at University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, the panelists, along with several others, collaboratively developed a course called “Writing Across Media.” This session traced their experiences adapting that course for the classes they now teach at other institutions.

Each presenter focused on pedagogy and various kinds of new media while offering a theoretical background and justification for their classroom practices. The panelists listed Karen Burke LeFevre’s now-classic Invention as a Social Act as a major influence. Hannah Bellwoar and Amber Buck acknowledged Paul Prior as an important mentor, while Cory Holding cited Kenneth Burke, Brian Massumi, and phenomenologist Maurice Merleau-Ponty. As one of the session’s attendees put it in her tweet, the student work featured during the panel revealed depth of thought and passion. Thus, the panelists’ concern with invention appears to have given them added insight into how they might motivate their students.

Dr. Bellwoar, who has been teaching video projects since 2005, when there were multiple pieces of equipment required to film, revise, and upload their projects, began by talking about how technology changes writing, reflecting on how the rise of the iPad (“only one piece of light equipment”) has impacted her students’ processes and products. Bellwoar explained that she asks students to think differently about literacy and writing while they engage with the Digital Archive of Literacy Narratives (DALN). In order to help stoke her students’ imaginations, Bellwoar shows them the work of previous students and noted that even though her former students have not met her current students, they still inspire and impact one another not only across classes, but also across institutions. The students spend at least one class day examining each video project from past classes, often watching the videos twice, taking time to process and analyze.

Bellwoar incorporated Prior’s and Jody Shipka’s work on “chronotopic lamination” to theorize how the cross-course and cross-institutional influencing dynamic works. The high level of social engagement with the work of others who have contributed to the DALN as well as her previous students–people these students have never met–indicates “a trajectory of sorts.” Students bring their own personal histories and interests while attending to digital material realities, which overlap and influence others. Notably, while engaging with and producing within this digital world, “the theme of embodiment came up over and over.” Bellwoar featured students’ video literacy narratives (one may be found here) that highlighted this point and also connected it to accessibility. The theme of accessibility was especially apparent in a video showing a student teaching his blind friend how to use a video camera in order to document his experience of reality (the student’s reflection on this piece is available here). Two more student reflections on the reception of their pieces may be found here and here. During the question and answer session, we heard concerns about the iPad’s accessibility when compared to an old school video camera, and were informed that actually the iPad would probably be easier to use than a device with physical buttons.

Dr. Buck’s situation in her assistant professor position required her to teach a course with a description already on the books in the current curriculum, but similar to what she had been doing at UIUC. So she adapted the class for an upper-division journalism class, Newspaper Reporting in the Digital Age, and focused on teaching digital journalism and professional identities. “Teaching digital journalism,” Buck said, “allowed students to consider not only the affordances of the digital media for their own stories, but also to consider the possibilities for networking, promotion, and participation with other journalists online.” Such a justification appears to have created a very productive and relevant context for the class and the students it serves.

Buck explained that her work has been informed by Lave and Wenger, Christine Pearson Casenave, and other “scholarship that focuses on the enculturation of individuals within new disciplines and communities of practice,” citing Holland et al.’s Identity and Agency in Cultural Worlds as a stand-out text in this area. Students created e-portfolios of their work. Buck played snippets from her office meetings with students, in which they reflected on how they might use these virtual spaces in the future. Could these e-portfolios work as a home site for an online professional presence? These conversations were the highlight of this talk–it was interesting to hear the students’ reasons for participating, see the ways they constructed their identities online, and hear how they interpreted and negotiated the rhetorical situation. For example, one student already had a different space for this and didn’t want to have spillover from her coursework into her more “professional” presence, so she segregated the two. Others planned to use the virtual portfolio for networking purposes in the future.

Dr. Holding’s piece turned out to be the least traditional “talk” of the panel, in terms of the liberties she took with her writing style and organization. Holding blended poetry and theory, beginning with a creative adaption of Burke’s Philosophy of Literary Form. This final perspective on the possibilities for a Writing Across Media class offered detailed reflection on the material conditions for creating videos. It became clear that explicit attention to the practice of invention impacted the students’ work in a positive way. Holding’s assignments included a collaborative component, adding a layer of complexity to the four units her course emphasizes: tactile, visual, and sonic rhetoric, plus moving images. Holding included student voices in her paper, and their points of view enriched the theoretical and practical information, helping the audience to see which aspects of the class were most valuable. For example, the students seemed to be especially engaged in exploring the boundaries and limits of the moving image portion of the class, and they obviously appreciated the freedom to innovate and experiment.

Ultimately, the examples of student work were the highlight of this panel. For anyone interested in teaching video projects, these panelists’ theories about invention and student examples provide a useful supplement to Bump Halbritter’s recent book about teaching audio-visual rhetoric. Yet perhaps the most important aspect of this session was the emphasis on the students’ reflections. Students in each panelists’ course reflected not only on their process, but also on the reception of their work, while speculating about future iterations of their projects. The session helped audience members see a wide variety of assignments and possibilities for a “Writing Across Media” course in different institutional and curricular contexts. By the end of the panel, the value of teaching these sorts of courses and assignments became obvious for anyone who might not have ventured into such classroom territory before. And for those of us who have taught such projects before, the student examples and panelists’ commentary were both inspiring and pragmatic, offering an infusion of fresh ideas for such classes.

Dr. Heather Branstetter is an assistant professor at the Virginia Military Institute.


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