Archive for November, 2012

Writing ≠ Papers

This semester I’ve been kept busy not just with the different projects I’m managing at DiSC but with a completely redesigned first-year writing course. In keeping with the other 75% of my work, the class has explored the intersections of literature and technology. We’ve considered the past visions of the future while reading William Gibson’s Neuromancer; the representations of factories in 19th- and 20th-century American fiction and film; and the role intersection of photography and poetry in the amazing Bellocq’s Ophelia by the new US Poet Laureate, Natasha Trethewey.

For the last section of the class we are reading Mary Shelley’s classic Frankenstein. And then we’re reading it again, exploring Dave Morris’s interesting adaptation and highly visual retelling of the novel as an iOS app. As we read, we’ll only ask ourselves what it means to retell a story about technology on a completely different device than that for which the story was originally designed. Juxtaposing the two experiences will hopefully help us see how the assumptions of print pervade the world of Victor Frankenstein and how our reading is shaped by the physical nature of the written word.

So often, the work of the writing classroom is similarly constrained by the physical nature of the written word. Students are asked to produce papers of a certain number of pages or of a certain number of words. The university requires that the students in these classes produce a total number of pages of writing over the course of a semester. It’s a quantitative approach that treats writing as countable, with arguments subjugated to the realm of the numerical.

Not that there’s anything wrong with that, per se. I firmly believe that practicing writing is the best way to get better at it. And practicing per force requires writing frequently and in volume. But it’s also become increasingly important for me to realize that most of my students will never be English majors and that even if they should be, they most likely will not regularly produce essays about literature. I have spent most of the semester teaching them the ropes of college writing, preparing them for the next three and half years (or—to be honest—five years). But now it’s time for them to practice a different form of literacy.

For the final assignment in my class, the students will storyboard an interactive experience for Trethewey’s book of poems (click through to see the entire assignment). Working in groups, they will describe how they would combine her poems with the photographs that inspired them, couple them with music, and create a navigation structure. Or how they will refuse to do any of those things. The end result will be for them to again confront the relationship between literature and technology but in this case, they will act as a different sort of author. Still critically engaged, still making an argument, they will nonetheless think about how these acts need not happen in discrete pages or words. That’s the hope, at least. And it suggests a different function of writing or criticism at the present time than either Matthew Arnold or the majority of our teaching has yet to recognize.

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