MLA Session 485: Liminality and the Digital Turn


Presenters: Beth Kramer and Rick Cole (Boston University), Naomi Silver (University of Michigan, Ann Arbor), and Eric Rawson (University of Southern California)

In examining the liminal spaces surrounding the “digital turn” in writing pedagogy, presenters in this session interrogate the tensions between pre- and post-turn pedagogies, between traditional and multimodal forms of composing. In particular, panelists share strategies for integrating multimodal composition in writing classrooms, with a focus on podcasts, embodied composing, and sound objects.

Beth Kramer and Rick Cole, “Pedagogy with Podcasts: Navigating the Digital and Textual in College Composition Classes”

As Beth Kramer and Rick Cole express in their presentation, podcasts are “an increasingly useful vehicle to approach the liminal space between digital and ‘pre-turn’ writing pedagogies.” Kramer and Cole posit that “students occupy a liminal space” between analog and digital media, reflecting the “tension of teaching both written and digital expression.” Acknowledging that students often multitask on digital devices, Kramer and Cole describe a pedagogy that can “harness students’ addictions” in order to support students’ writing. Citing scholarship on the affordances of the podcast form in augmenting students’ critical thinking (Godsey, 2016), listening comprehension (Hogan, 2014), visualization of narrative (Rodero, 2010), as well as the particular benefits for ELL students (Flanagan, 2015), the presenters further argue that the podcast form encourages students to retain information and to read more.

In a two-semester composition course at Boston University in which podcasts are integrated as central texts, students examine NPR’s Serial podcast, then choose their own moral issues to consider in a class debate; topics include Islamophobia and the reliability of memory for witnesses. This approach especially accommodates the ELL students in the course, as it is often easier to present ideas orally, then turn the presentation into a paper. In narrating an argument, students can “envision the paper as a conversation,” as their writing becomes fluid and clear. Kramer and Cole emphasize that the oral strategy can be applied to the written product, as students learn to write for real audiences and to “envision the connection between oration and rhetorical invention.”

During the second semester of the course, students travel to London to engage in experiential learning, where they produce a paper and podcast on a London neighborhood using interviews, observations, and additional research methods. Immersed in this “multidimensional,” “sensory experience,” students become engaged, “globally aware citizen-scholars” within the digital revolution as they express their own voices. Kramer and Cole describe the approach as an “audio game-changer.” In the post-turn possibilities of podcast production, the pedagogy “transforms students into producers and consumers,” as “liminal tension explodes into excitement.”

Naomi Silver, “Turning Back to the Body”

Following the presentation on podcasts, Naomi Silver explores the question “How has the digital turn paradoxically made us more aware of the physical body as it engages in composing practices?” Hearkening to anthropological scholarship on rituals in which material forms are transformed into spiritual states, Silver conveys the liminality of the digital “turn” as one of “being in transition, possibly in translation,” in which “bodies are being turned, translated, transposed as we turn to the digital.” For Silver, the notion of liminality likewise gestures toward threshold concepts, as students who have not yet crossed a threshold of rhetorical awareness may “occupy a transitional state” in beginning to perceive digital, multimodal composition as a form of writing and communication.

Citing Shipka (2011), Silver conjectures that multimodal composition that combines digital and material elements can be seen “as a liminal state or practice” comprising “multiple modal elements that have not been transformed or transmuted into a simple, or singular, compositional form.” In this turning back to the body, the “complex shapes of multimodal compositions” may not be fully transformed into the digital, instead inhabiting the liminal spaces between the material and the digital. Channeling Shipka, in these hybrid spaces of translation and transition, the “sounds, smells, and sights” embedded in composing processes reemerge as the material residue of digital forms and processes.

In translating between theory and practice, Silver describes co-teaching a course at the University of Michigan entitled “Writing in Motion: Composing with Bodies, Words, and Other Media,” which integrates movement as a composing process. Engaging students in embodied, narrative storytelling, Silver encourages students to consider questions such as “What is the story of my body?” One assignment asks students to compose a written response, then transform the essay into an embodied performance. In one student’s composition on the “Autobiography of My Body,” she changes an initial descriptive phrase “trapped in my body” to “trapped by my body” as movement embodies the exhilaration of travel as well as the feelings of anxiety and entrapment. As the student turns the words into movement and alters the words to describe the movements, Silver articulates that this mediation between words and movement “inflects both modes,” becoming a “mutually constitutive process.” In the interplay of the digital and the material, the body remains “a site of/for composition,” even as the digital is “being haunted by the material.”

Eric Rawson, “Sound Objects, Ambient Rhetoric, and the Composition Classroom”

Following Silver’s interrogation of embodied composing, Eric Rawson returns to sound as an object of analysis. Rawson contends that beyond the associations with visual and musical elements, “non-musical, non-lexical sound objects can… expand our understanding of rhetoric in the digital age and… provide creative opportunities for student writing in multiple forms.” Rawson defines a “sonic event” as “continual, intermittent, or singular,” comprising “institutional soundscapes, retail spaces, sports and entertainment venues, video games, historical recordings, audio advertising, and our many noisy electronic devices.” Citing Rickert’s (2013) notion of “ambient rhetoric,” Rawson poses the question of what happens to rhetorical agency when “the individual agent or rhetor is deemphasized” and when agency is subsumed by a “dehumanized rhetorical system.” In these ambient states, the surrounding material and digital environment comes to the fore.

Traversing the sonic and verbal, the human and nonhuman, Rawson incorporates an interrogation into sound objects while teaching first-year composition at the University of Southern California. In the class, students record sounds using their phones, then “reconfigure” these sounds based on their own rhetorical choices. Students analyze the purposes and choices emanating from public and private spaces and academic institutions. As one illustration, students visit the USC Doheny Memorial Library, where they listen to the “reverberation” of the marble, imbibing the “hushed and oppressive” quality of the library’s “sonic architecture.” In examining the rhetorical dimensions of sounds, students turn away from the lexical or semantic to the “social space,” the “incidental sounds… used intentionally or unintentionally in making rhetorical appeals.” For Rawson, such a process is one that “demands…  self-referential commentary.”


Intersecting with one another in a liminal fashion, each presentation navigates the tensions between the material and the digital, the sonic and the linguistic, the spatial and the conceptual, the human and the machine. Even in our post-digital turn moment, material and digital realms exist in a state of flux, as one does not entirely subsume the other. Instead, material residues of the body, environment, sound, and voice (re)merge in the gaps and fissures of digital technologies. In particular, the sessions illuminate the significance of modes including sound and movement in giving voice and enabling expression, in inviting new possibilities of composition. Engaging with multiple forms of expression can lead to a liberation from the limitations of a single mode, as students have varying levels of comfort with written and oral communication, with stillness and movement.

In the liminal spaces of the digital turn, several questions arise: Who or what transforms and becomes transformed? What does it mean to translate among forms? What materializes or dematerializes in the translation from one mode to another? In what ways might our composing practices inhabit material and digital environments infused with tensions and contradictions, as our compositions comprise complex, hybrid forms and afterlives? What and where is the role of the individual agent — the student and instructor; the writer and citizen — in navigating fluid materialities and digitalities within global communities?

As each presentation illustrates, inspiration often lies at the interstices of experience, in the surrounding landscapes and soundscapes that are often erased or forgotten in the fragmentary passage of time and space. In the emergence and dissipation of modes, experience becomes fractured, then re-integrated in new or revelatory ways. Rather than preserving statis, the spaces in between states of being invite continual transformation. In a sense, the ‘turn’ can be thought of not only as an occurrence — a turn to the digital – but also as an action, a turning inward or outward, backward or forward, in the processes of navigating spaces and negotiating meanings. Ultimately, composing can be conceived as an embodied, relational experience that treads the boundaries of forms, that inhabits and expresses the self and the world.

Works Cited

Flanagan, L. (2015).” What teens are learning from ‘Serial’ and other podcasts.” KQED.

Godsey, M. (2016). “The value of using podcasts in class.” The Atlantic. 

Hogan, T., S. M. Adloff, & C. N. Alonzo (2014). “On the importance of listening comprehension.” International Journal of Speech-Language Pathology, 16(3), 199–207.

Rickert, T. (2013). Ambient Rhetoric: The Attunements of Rhetorical Being. U of Pittsburgh P.

Rodero, E. (2010). “See it on a radio story.” Communication Research, 39(4), 458–479.

Shipka, J. (2011).  Toward a Composition Made Whole. U of Pittsburgh P.

About Author

Ruth Li

Ruth Li is a Ph.D. student in the Joint Program in English and Education at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. Her research focuses on college students' writing development, composition pedagogy, and digital literacies and rhetorics.

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