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Session Details

The Risks and Rewards of Improvisation in the Writing Classroom

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Session Code: D.23
Area Cluster: 8-Innovation and Taking Risks
Type of Session: Concurrent
Level: All
Abstract: Drawing from a variety of disciplines, this panel explores the risks and rewards of improvisation as a mode of composing.
Description: Panel Description: In English Composition as a Happening, Geoffrey Sirc notes that Happenings “fracture our field’s genres open for possibilities, risks, and material exploration, leading to a Composition in which faith and naiveté replace knowingness and expertise.” In accord with Sirc’s articulation of the Happening, this panel seeks to articulate and illustrate improvisation as risk-laden, and potentially rewarding, aspect of composition. By adapting into composition and rhetoric articulations and practices of improvisation from new media, experimental art, and music, this panel explores the risks and rewards of improvisation in the composition classroom.

Speaker 1: “Improvised Compositions . . . For Now.”
Philosopher Gary Peters, in Philosophy of Improvisation, decouples improvisation from the humanist associations that link improvising to the voluntarist “being in the moment” of a self-present subject. Instead, he locates a different cluster of relations that precede the choice one makes, and, meanwhile, opens up the “moment” itself for inquiry. Taking Peters’s insights to composition and rhetoric, and taking them a step further toward posthumanist thinking, I will analyze—in line with Latour’s inclusion of nonhuman actors in his theory of “compositionism,” and new materialist turns toward “thing-power”—how new media compositions are improvisatory events, moments, “nows,” that assemble and break apart in ways that don’t only reduce to the agential work of human action. As Dobrin, Rice, and Vastola argue in Beyond Postprocess, one theoretical shift that needs take place is “a reconfiguration of writing theory away from subjectivity, away from the idea that autonomous agents produce and circulate writing.”. What is at risk in rethinking the improvisatory work of rhetoric and composition in materialist, thing-centered, posthumanist terms? What are the possible rewards? One key insight of Peters’s work, is that what improvisation invents emerges from the improvisatory moment; it cannot be sought independent of improvising itself. What are scholars and teachers of composition risking, though, in accepting that possibility?
Take the ongoing “Studio Algorhythmics” project, by Shintaro Miyazaki. The studio’s name is a portmanteau of algorithm and rhythm, combining the code most characteristic of digital culture with the temporality of movement and music. Studio Algorhytmics hacks into, repurposes, and builds different technical devices, hand-held computers, cell phones, and the like to simultaneously reveal and compose the various nonhuman rhythms and codes interpenetrating and composing the world. Describing one of their projects, “Detektors,” they argue that we are “surrounded by digitally coded electromagnetic infospheres,” which Detektors improvises interventions into, by being at once a “cartography of user-generated geolocational sound recordings, logs and walks, which reveal these hidden electromagnetic geographies, spaces and topologies of our urban areas,” and a “database and catalog of sonic studies of electromagnetic emissions produced by our everyday electronic devices.” Exploring the work of Studio Algorhythmics as a practice of improvised composing irreducible to human agency alone, I will map some of the risks and rewards in reimagining, improvising, our composition classrooms on such models.

Speaker 2: Post-Remix Authorship: Collaborative Improvisation after the Collapse of Genius
Prevailing conceptions of authorship have long been rooted in anthropocentric and individualistic philosophy. Bennett notes that the sense of authorship inaugurated during the Romantic period cemented “the idea of the author as originator and genius, as fully intentional, fully sentient source of the literary text, as authority for a limitation on the ‘proliferating’ meanings of the text.” Likewise, from Barthes to Foucault to remix theory, writing is understood only in terms of cultural exchange. Yet many have challenged the ways we have excluded and ignored the impact and agency of nonhumans in composition. Brooke proposes an ecological model of authorship based on networked relations rather than isolated, information-generating authors. Rickert suggests an ambient rhetoric, “the emergent result of many complexly interacting agents dynamically attuned to one another.” Reid’s object-oriented rhetoric also acknowledges the agency of nonhuman agents, and Hawk positions nonhuman agents as significant, primary audiences.
 In this presentation, I continue the work of complicating anthropocentric authorship by bridging disciplinary gaps with the visual and sonic arts, drawing especially on Q. Reed Ghazala, the pioneer of “circuit-bending,” the process of creative short-circuiting electronic devices to create new instruments. Ghazala understands the circuit-bent instrument not as distinct instrument-object to be mastered, but as part of a “BEAsape…[a] Bio-Electronic Audiosapian,” a hybrid instrument comprising of both human and nonhuman. Ghazala’s work illustrates the ways that composition is not only post-Romantic and non-Modern, but also post-Remix. I argue that composition exceeds cultural exchange and tool mastery; it involves improvisational collaboration among a range of human and nonhuman agents. I then explore the risks of abandoning anthropocentric authorship models as well as the interdisciplinary opportunities that lie beyond Modernist authorship.

Speaker 3: The Ontology of Error: Improvising Failure in Writing Instruction
In the often anthologized essay, "The Phenomenology of Error,” Joseph Williams's notes that writing instructors "isolate error as a frozen, instantiated object.” This presentation aims to elaborate on Williams's charge by following two lines of inquiry: First, how might composition scholars work to productively objectify error in order to use it heuristically? And, second, what improvisational capacities might working with disinherited error actually open for composition? Building on Judith Halberstam’s notion that a willingness to risk failure “allows us to escape the punishing norms that discipline behavior and manage human development,” this discussion argues that error--when viewed from the perspective of readily, and perhaps counterintuitively, accepting failure as an inevitability--can be pedagogically rewarding.
In an interview from 1963, jazz musician Ornette Coleman observed that, "It was when I realized I could make mistakes that I decided I was really on to something." Similarly, this presentation articulates the rewards of such deviations in the teaching of writing. To do so, speaker 3 reaches outside of writing studies to observe how improvisational and inventive potentials of error have been used in other modes of composition. Citing largely from theories of improvisational music, this presentation argues for a pedagogical reorientation towards error in order to intensify improvisation.



  • Thursday 3/19 3:15 PM - 4:30 PM in Marriott, Marriott, Meeting Room 2, Level Two

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