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Session Details

Disciplinary Adventures: Data, Making, and Risk at the Intersections of Composing and the Digital Humanities

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Session Code: J.18
Area Cluster: 8-Innovation and Taking Risks
Type of Session: Concurrent
Level: All
Abstract: An expansive model of composing accommodates multimodal and computational rhetoric bridging writing studies and digital humanities
Description: In College Composition and Communication, Doug Hesse and Cindy Selfe debate the merits of naming the work done by teachers and scholars of rhetoric as either “writing” or “composing.” The urge to situate our work under the more expansive (risky?) rubric of composing accommodates modalities that include motion, sound, and images. In a 2011 article for The Chronicle of Higher Education, Kathleen Fitzpatrick notes the pressure for digital scholars to pursue traditional approaches that meet the expectations of the academy. Fitzpatrick urges those who work in the digital humanities (DH) to “Do the risky thing,” arguing that pushing digital work toward conformity is “counterproductive” and that riskier approaches promise to be more transformative, creating new knowledge from the ground “up, rather than down.” Adapting Fitzpatrick’s advice for teachers and scholars of rhetoric, we propose an expansion of the notion of composing that extends beyond the activities of an author communicating with an audience--in whatever mode. A more expansive composing includes the machinic rhetorical productions of software and algorithms and accounts for the systems, materialities, mediations, and flows of agency central to contemporary rhetorical ecologies. In short, a full, risky consideration of composing leads us to a rich understanding of communication in multiple modalities, accommodates both human and nonhuman agencies, and enables us to interrogate the institutions and ontologies at play in these multimodal, posthuman conceptions. Finally, this risky approach to understanding composing can ameliorate some of the negative effects of the ongoing disciplining of our field, enabling rhetoric and composition to reap the rewards currently enjoyed by the adventurous entities participating in the wave of enthusiasm and support for DH. The presentation itself will be an adventure in risk and experimentation; we will deliver digital performances featuring screen capture, interaction with digital archives, live demonstrations, and maker activities using data-based and computational modes of composing.

Speaker 1 will offer a case study demonstrating how writing studies scholars can use DH methods to explore questions and theories of interest to composition and rhetoric. Demonstrating large scale data analysis tools--such as text mining, topic modeling, and data visualization--used to examine student writing in online spaces, speaker 1 and the audience will engage with data extracted from over 3000 course sites populated with student writing from across the disciplines. Speaker 1 will detail how these methods open new modes of research and interpretation, applying these approaches to eportfolio pedagogy and composing processes. The digital methods illuminate aspects of composition studies related to process and transfer theory, such as the use of low stakes writing, evidence of audience awareness, collaboration, and the focus of long-tail (“real world”) skills development. The presentation will push composition to experiment with ways we can learn from the data our students produce to improve our pedagogy.

Speaker 2 explores sites of collaboration between DH and composition studies, suggesting that DH represents the coming-to-awareness of a multimodal, ecological understanding of composition within traditional humanistic models of criticism. Marilyn Cooper’s study of ecocriticism (1986) inaugurated a view of composing as an embedded activity within an ecology of reading, writing, modalities, subject positions, and media forms. Speaker 2 argues that DH scholarship, with varying levels of awareness, is deeply committed to this understanding of composition and is actively transforming the scholar from a critical reader to something more akin to Alan Turing’s concept of the Universal Turing Machine (UTM). The UTM, an idealized version of the digital computer, provides a metaphor for the composer: equally and simultaneously engaged in the processes of reading and writing. This computational model aligns traditional fields of interpretive humanistic studies (literature, history, etc.) with the multimodal, critical composition already practiced within digital writing studies. In the face of the ongoing fracturing of literature and writing studies, understanding DH as composition points to disciplinary parallels and fertile territory for cross-pollination between these two fields.

Speaker 3 activates an expansive composing to construct archives as spaces made possible by the traces of amateur digital composers. The presentation discusses and performs an experiment in posthumous digital traces that collects status updates, texts, images, and videos of people who have been murdered or are (allegedly) murderers and re-imagines these figures as composers and collaborators in a project called, The Murder Archive, which re-thinks risk, responsibility, and blame. Speaking back to dominant values of preservation and representation, Speaker 3 offers reflections on composing with these posthumous traces. From the murder’s digital remnants, different knowledge can be made and alternative stories can be told. Raising questions about storage, appropriation, rhetoric, and agency in digital composing contexts, this speaker composes a different relationship to the murders and a different digital historiography. Finally, pairing digital humanities’ quickly evolving notions of digital historiography with compositions’ practice of making and assembling, this speaker applies the composer relationship to DH methods of historiography, asking: when is the act of record making more important than the record made?

Speaker 4 will explore how conceptions of DH are themselves compositions. As Matthew Kirschenbaum argues, DH is primarily “a discursive construct,” a fluid marker that reveals less a concrete field or set of methods and more the agencies and entities associated with the digital. Speaker 4 will demonstrate tropes within this construct that have risen to the level of commonplace, particularly calls for risky approaches and for developing knowledge through making. Similarly, rhetoric and composition can be viewed as a discursive formation, with its own commonplace assumptions. The presentation will situate these constructs within institutional and ontological contexts. By composing itself primarily around notions of risk and making, the digital humanities can be seen as reaping a number of institutional and intellectual rewards, particularly over the last decade. At the same time, rhetoric and composition has composed itself around the project of gaining institutional recognition, disciplining its scholarship, and developing curricula around pragmatic ends. The presentation will drive toward and explore the question: Are digital humanities reaping rewards because rhetoric and composition--despite its similarities with digital philosophies--remains risk averse?



  • Friday 3/20 2:00 PM - 3:15 PM in Marriott, Marriott, Meeting Room 1, Level Two

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