Session E.33: Composing Realities in Digital Environments


Speakers: Brenta Blevins (University of Mary Washington), Nicholas Hoffman (University of Buffalo, SUNY), and Francis Macarthy (Illinois State University, Normal)

Chair: Sara Wilder (University of Maryland)


Writing is a dynamic endeavor, as the CCCC 2019 theme of “performance” makes clear; it is a negotiation between the writer’s lived experiences and the public(s) she is trying to reach, in which the writer draws on a range of resources to make her work stick.

Increasingly, one of these resources is digital media, and on the cutting edge of that media is augmented and virtual reality, and chat applications. Brenta Blevins, Nicholas Hoffman, and Francis Macarthy described the ways that such media make space for dynamic, performative writing, especially in the context of first-year writing. Importantly, their panel also called attention to the interactions between compelling writing and the geographic space(s) where that writing happens, and in so doing, tackled timely questions of equity, access, and marginalization in digital, place-based discourse.

Brenta Blevins, “Authoring Resistance Through Augmented and Mixed Reality Composing”

Brenta Blevins argued for the value of augmented reality (AR) in making public epideictic rhetoric equitable and in enabling students to practice a place-based composition that recognizes diverse contributors to that place.

Defining AR as a virtual screen laid over material realities, Blevins noted AR’s increasing use in digital activism: in particular, virtual monuments and statues that recognize the civic contributions of women and people of color. For example, the Black Monuments Project uses Snap filters to virtually replace statues of white civic leaders with black men and women influential in their communities; The Whole Story adds virtual statues of women alongside physical statues of men, to celebrate women’s (too often unrecognized) contributions to a particular community.

Blevins then describes her use of these projects as a model for her students’ own AR composing. Using tools such as HP Reveal, Blevins invites students to create projects that similarly recognize the contributions of women and people of color to the campus spaces that students inhabit; on the University of North Carolina Greensboro campus, for instance, students may use AR statuary to celebrate figures such as Dr. Anna Gove, a longtime resident physician at the school. AR is, of course, limited by the transitory nature of emergent media and a perception of AR as digital graffiti, yet Blevins insists on its value in composing. In using AR to acknowledge hidden figures, students learn how their writing is shaped by geographic spaces, and they practice a civic rhetoric that, resisting racist or sexist narratives, more accurately and equitably acknowledges the diverse contributors to the flourishing of those civic spaces.

Nicholas Hoffman, “First-Year Composition on Discord”

Nicholas Hoffman shared his ongoing research on the way that Discord servers associated with the University of Buffalo and the University of Maryland provide a digital, collaborative space where users discursively construct a student identity.

A chat application similar to reddit, Discord is characterized as an “affinity space.” Theorized (as Hoffman describes) by James Gee, affinity spaces are defined by users’ efforts “to meet some challenge as a group.” Affinity spaces are anonymous and non-hierarchical; knowledge is dispersed and constructed through discourse(s) in that space. While Discord has ongoing trouble with disruptive far-right and/or trolling discourses, Discord is an ideal place for students to talk about campus-based experiences in a way that performs a student identity outside official campus structures.

Hoffman shared three screenshots (usernames blurred) of interactions on Discord:

  • Students deploy the word “yeet” to express their feelings about recent test results; Hoffman points out that the meaning of “yeet” may be determined from context.
  • Students share class schedules via screenshot, ribbing each other about whose schedule is the most difficult.
  • Students use screenshots to debate the merits of living near to campus in a low-quality apartment or living further from campus in a nicer apartment.

In each case, both what students talk about (choosing an apartment, taking tests) and how they talk about it (lexical choices, good-natured ribbing) are channels through which Discord users collaborate in performing a student identity, one that is linked to, and yet remains outside of, their campus-based activities.

Hoffman briefly discussed the role that Discord plays in teaching first-year writing. Analyzing these threads, students could learn to derive vocabulary meanings from context or to collaborate on common problems. Ultimately, Hoffman suggested that by participating in Discord conversations, students learn to set guidelines for a range of discursive situations, including outside the university.

Francis Macarthy, “Digitizing Material Bodies”

Francis Macarthy uses technofeminism to explore questions of embodiment and access via virtual reality (VR), pointing out especially the limits of VR in enabling users to fully understand or experience material realities different than their own. (Macarthy’s Prezi slideshow)

Macarthy observes that VR “blends” virtual and material realities, allowing users to briefly inhabit another’s bodily realities. Macarthy shares as an example his own use of VR to “exchange bodies” with his partner, who identifies as a “transnational and linguistically diverse female;” by setting up the VR equipment carefully, they were able to virtually body swap for a few minutes.

Yet Macarthy is careful to observe that this experience amounts to “tourism,” since it is not possible to inhabit another’s body for longer than a moment or two. Drawing on technofeminism, Macarthy points out that the body may be understood as a process, rather than a static thing; in digital rhetoric, body-as-process means that while VR and AR enable users to step into another material reality for a few minutes, actually remaining in that reality and dealing with the constraints of the Other’s race, gender, or sexuality, is impossible; and so it is impossible to really know what it is like to live as the Other. This limit is exacerbated by the fact that VR and AR are “not designed with all bodies in mind” and in fact implicitly forward structural inequities. Given these limits, Macarthy ends by stressing the importance of verbally acknowledging the intersectionality and material realities of other people’s diverse embodied experiences.


The attention this panel gave to digital composing as a place-based practice draws important attention to the ways that spatial realities shape our composing practices, and in turn, the important ways that composing reshapes spatial realities in ways that (hopefully) make those realities more equitable for those who inhabit them.

One thread running through the panel was the focus on unofficial and/or marginalized discourses, whether student Discord chats or epideictic rhetoric about women and people of color. Augmented reality and digital composing gives writing by and about marginalized individuals a new way to elbow its way into discursive spaces and challenge the dominant stories there. Digital composing, as Blevins and Hoffman describe it, is thus a kind of transgressive discourse (Scollon & Scollon, 2003), existing on the margins of a space and disrupting the hegemonic narratives at the center of that space. The power of transgressive discourses is that while they rise out of particular spatial realities, such as a university’s unwritten histories, they also overwrite those spatial realities with new, more complete narratives that acknowledge the diverse people who inhabit and contribute to those spaces.

Importantly, the transgressive nature of digital composing may embolden writers, especially marginalized writers, to speak persuasively from the standpoints they inhabit. Ethos is a “way of claiming and taking responsibility for our positions in the world, for the ways we see, [and]for the places from which we speak” (Jarrett & Reynolds, 1994, p. 52); because, as Blevins and Hoffman describe, augmented reality and digital composing invite users to tell their stories about the places they inhabit. They make it possible for writers to claim an embodied ethos that turns their position within those spaces into a rhetorical strength. Whether the writers are students operating outside university structures, or women, people of color, and other marginalized individuals using augmented realities to share their narratives, the fact that digital composing practices emerge from a particular standpoint makes such writing more compelling, not less.

Yet as Macarthy notes, for some users of virtual and augmented realities, the positions they inhabit are nearer the center of hegemonic discourses than the margins. In this case, Macarthy’s work underscores the ethical imperative to acknowledge that positionality and write from within it; this in turn opens space for Other narratives which complement or complicate (or both!) dominant rhetorics. In this way, Macarthy’s work on recognizing the limits built into virtual and augmented reality composing echoes the original charge in the Asao Inoue’s keynote: the call to “interrogate the paradox[es]of judgement[s]” we make about writing, and to respect the limits of what (virtual reality) writing is in fact able to do. In this way, Macarthy’s panel calls us not only to tell but also to listen, in humility and with an open mind, to the stories shared about and within a particular space.

Works Cited

Inoue, Asao B. “How Can We Language so that People Stop Killing Each Other, or What Do We Do About White Language Supremacy?” College Composition and Communication Annual Convention, 14 March 2019, Pittsburgh PA. Keynote Address.

Jarrett, Susan C. and Nedra Reynolds. “The Splitting Image: Contemporary Feminisms and the Ethics of ethos.” In Ethos: New Essays in Rhetorical and Critical Theory, edited by James S. Baumlin and Tita French Baumlin, Southern Methodist UP, 1994, pp. 37-64.

Scollon, Ron, and Suzie Wong Scollon. “Place Semiotics: Discourses in Time and Space.” In Discourses in Place: Language in the Material World, Routledge, 2003, pp. 166-196.

About Author

Megan Von Bergen

Megan Von Bergen is currently working towards her PhD in Rhetoric, Writing, and Linguistics at the University of Tennessee-Knoxville. Her research focuses on religious rhetorics, digital rhetorics, first-year writing--and whenever possible, all three together.

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