C&W Session F1: Critical Making As Emergent Techne


Anthony Stagliano, New Mexico State University
Bree McGregor, George Mason University
Rachael Lussos, George Mason University
Steve Holmes, George Mason University

The panel “Critical Writing as Emergent Techne” worked with both criticality and technology, showing how both critical discourse and hands-on, constructive practices could reinforce each other in the college writing classroom.

Anthony Stagliano opened the session with a paper that situated “critical making” as a position that works to avoid both the “Scylla” of self-destructive or naval-gazing skepticism/criticality and the “Charybdis” of an over-excited indulgence in technology in the classroom simply for the sake of technology. The critical maker, Stagliano said, looks at technology with a subversive but playful eye, looks to see how the technologies work, how they can be opened up and modified, how they may be used to challenge the status quo, and how they can lead to perceptual shifts in conversations, in what can be done, what can be seen. “Critical making at its best is affirmative rather than negative,” Stagliano said; it’s about affirming possibilities, seizures, and perversions.

Bree McGregor offered her take on critical making in a video that explored her work with critical making in an online class. McGregor wanted to subvert common assumptions about online classes. Students believed that because the class was shorter, only a handful of weeks, and that it was online, there would be less rigor and less interaction required. McGregor sought to work against these expectations by involving the students in critical making exercises. In the class, students were immersed in “maker spaces” which demanded hands-on, tactile rhetorical constructs. Paper electronics exercises, for example, involved building working circuits on paper and integrating them into drawings and writings. McGregor found that these practices did support critical inquiry. Class reflections and surveys revealed that students felt that engaging in these tactile projects helped them reflect on their research in new ways and further expand their research questions. McGregor also found that the making practice naturally scaffolded student writing by immersing them in hands-on practices of drafting, tinkering, re-making, and revising. Through these activities students were engaged, with the class, the writing process, and even with each other: students were sharing links, materials, and sharing ideas in co-constructive practices. Student reflections and evaluations revealed the course to be a success: 100% of surveyed students found that the process made them think more about how they’re designing, reaching out to, and communicating with their audience, and that by the end of the course, they saw themselves as Critical Makers. See McGregor’s blog for examples of these activities here: [http://Eng101maker.wordpress.com]

Finally, Rachael Lussos and Steve Holmes presented their thoughts on a question they were working on together: how a writer might create “Twitter Bots” in order to interject in or subvert the many normalizing or repressive conversations that bounce around the Twittersphere. A Twitter Bot is a program that stitches together words or phrases from certain sets of data and then “tweets” them out to the public in programmable intervals. Lussos offered that creating a Twitter Bot could serve as valuable compositional practice for several reasons: it involves students in the important processes of analyzing, researching, and intervening in real societal conversations; it teaches students digital literacies such as basic programming skills; and finally, the anonymity of Twitter and of Bots mitigate the risk of taking strong stances in volatile conversations. Lussos outlined an example Bot that was designed to subvert common knee-jerk, judgmental assumptions about hair. By playing with the phrase “<adjective> hair <don’t/DO> care,” this Twitter Bot managed to poke fun at this normative trope and offer new ideas about acceptance. These ideas were actually responded to through likes, retweets, and friend requests. Lussos used Zach Walen’s resource for making Twitter Bots using only a Google Spreadsheet. Check it out here.

Holmes expanded on the Twitter Bot as a practice of critical making in composition. “Rhetoric is a collection of machines generating and interpreting arguments,” he offered; a “protest bot,” then, involved direct interaction in the processes of “deliberative rhetoric.” In order for a Bot to work in this way, though, Holmes outlined five points: a Protest Bot must be topical, that is, speak to a specific topic; must be data-driven, drawing on scrapings and parsings of dynamic conversations; must be “cumulative and persistent” through repeated tweetings; must be oppositional and challenge the status quo; and must “reveal the uncanny,” to create new ideas and reveal opinions that certain groups would seek to ignore.

Holmes and Lussos worked together to create a Bot that explored the “Gamergate movement,” a conversation that is generally dominated by white males who resent critical inquiry and expression in their video-games. Their Bot, which uses the “Gamergate” hashtag but retweets challenging or critical ideas, was designed to subvert those conversations. Unfortunately, at the time of presentation, this “Ethicsgate” bot has generally been liked and retweeted by Gamegate crowds—they aren’t seeing that it’s subversive, yet. There’s still work to be done here, but this is part of the writing process; critical making in a constant process of communication, feedback, and revision.

The concept of “Critical Making” strikes me as essential to writing instruction on two fronts: one, as a teacher I strive to push my students into critical awareness. I realize that “writing” well cannot be separated from thinking, problematizing, analyzing, and participating in the complex and multi-layered conversations in our society. Secondly, I realize that “writing” is a constructive process, best facilitated with multi-modal practices. I try, as constantly as possible, to immerse my students in the process of “making.” The ideas explored here embody the best parts of both of these pedagogical positions. As critical makers themselves, each panel member brings to the table a set of works in progress. All of these projects, be they papers, classes, or Bots, demand further inquiry, further experimentation, further study. This, here, is the writing process, and these writer-maker-teachers are leading us down critically important roads.

About Author

Daniel Frank

Dan Frank is a PhD candidate at Clemson University. His research is in digital literacies, constructionist composition, and games studies.

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