Hot Metal Bridge

Current Issue : Number Twenty-Five

Composition and the Digital: Anne Frances Wysocki on Making, Teaching, Text


Anne Frances Wysocki, associate professor in the English department at the University of Wisconsin—Milwaukee, visited Pitt this spring to talk ethics and aesthetics in the age of digitality. Her past work centers around questions of new media in pedagogical and cultural contexts. We asked Anne to share her projections and reflections for the field, the classroom, and the world at the intersection of composition and the digital.

Hot Metal Bridge: How would you characterize the field of composition and rhetoric for our current moment? What institutional changes might increased attention to new media, digital theory, and multiple literacies inaugurate? Does the digital reconstellate our work in the humanities? What changes do you see and foresee?

Anne Wysocki: Current structures we’ve given to digital technologies can encourage us to see or forget, to push against or ignore (either option potentially having similar results), some disciplinary boundaries that have been more technologically driven than we might like to think — such as the boundaries between the print/alphabetic dependency of English programs and the pictorial dependency of Arts programs. In addition, as writers like Benkler, Lessig, or Jenkins point out, our current digital technologies have also made “popular” cultural production easier, so that there’s a lot of self-motivated compositional learning (and then publication and circulation of the composed objects) going on outside of schools and programs.

The boundary-oozing productive pleasures implied by the above conditions — pleasures of small-scale exploration in designing interesting little texts of all kinds, texts whose production and circulation can provide the aesthetic and thus humane satisfactions so central to Marx — are (I believe) real. The sense of self-that-can-act-in-communities that can arise from such work also seems to me to be what we hope will arise from what we already hope to do in composition classes.

If my first paragraph’s implied wish for everyone to be able to build a productive life from self-motivated boundary-ignoring outside-of-school learning runs up against the preceding sentence’s hopes for composition classes, it’s because of the grammatical hesitancies you probably picked up in my response. Lessig’s writing, and that of Wendy Chun, for example, remind us that we cannot go on as we would like making stuff and building connections with others while ignoring calls to regulate or otherwise change the technological structures that “we” have built to support us in this work — similar to how John Trimbur, Bruce Horner, and so many others have argued that we cannot ignore other institutional structures that partake in our understanding of being literate. Ignore those structures and they can be shifted so that you can no longer make and circulate the little objects that matter.

Given all that, I’d like to see changes in composition classes, tied to keeping boundaries fluid in the humanities, in support of small scale production of all kinds of text objects that matter to the people in a class, but production tied to an understanding of circulation and consumption — so that we do see and experience production, circulation, and consumption as inseparable from cultural, political, and technological structures and institutions. The production part people can get outside of school, although so many don’t, given how gate-keeping about taste and proper textual presentation scares so many into thinking they need to hide under the bed anything they’ve made themselves. So: use this moment of digital technology making it easier than it has been to make and to circulate as a moment for making and circulating (digital and non) and for bringing into discussion (and so into making and circulating) the structures and institutions that develop taste and infrastructure.

HMB: What role can digital media play in uniting pedagogical theory and practice? How do you use technology in the classroom? To what end?

AW: The answer to Q1 gets at a lot of the first part of Q2, I think. As for concrete uses of digital technology in classrooms, I hope that the way I set up classes helps people become comfortable and confident learners of software; delighted makers of formed texts for each other; and alert to relations among the technologies we use, how we tend to think and remember, and therefore where we have openings to move in order to keep what matters or to encourage changes. The strategies I choose for trying to make this happen involve reading a range of expected and unexpected texts, teaching software not in isolation (“Follow this tutorial”) but in context of making stuff (“Animate a poem” or “Create budget recommendations” or “Find a new form for…”), and figuring out together how we respond generously to each other’s productions while we also encourage each other to think through the materials.

HMB: For the humanities, digital studies seems to offer a way to bring materiality and the body back into a conversation that has often been dominated by a phenomenological emphasis on language and the subject. What new pedagogies might come of this alternate configuration? What happens in the classroom—and more broadly, in culture—when the focus shifts to media and bodies?

AW: Being made (at first glance) of nothing but light makes digitality an odd culprit for bringing embodiment back to our attention. And yet the (still) newness of digitality, and the explorations of kinds of texts and relations among text-producers its current forms encourage, give us perspective for considering how we have tended not to see the material articulations of print; new digital practices can therefore alert us to the meandering materialities of textual practices no matter their technology. And, second, the differing kinds of texts we can produce digitally (or make out of other materials as digitality refocuses on materiality) can call attention to the constructedness of our senses and hence of bodily boundaries, as Mark Hansen and Anna Munster describe and as is described in studies of visual culture (such as those by Jonathan Crary) that trace the sensuous constructions of other times and places.

Assignments that ask people in classes to compose texts that, along the way to other purposes (such as those asked by standard first-year composition writing), emphasize touch or smell instead or in addition to sight and that emphasize generosity or a slowed-down sense of time in responding to others’ texts, as well as collaborative writing assignments (both on- and offline) and assignments where students are asked to imagine texts that address more than one person at a time or that address readers as not ending at the boundaries of their skin, can bring more of this awareness to classroom practices.

As I work with such assignments, however, I also try to keep in the air discussions about particular bodies, social justice, and self-construction through the still-most-often representational sense we make of most texts. How, too, do we stay alert to the materiality of digitality itself so that digitality does not sink into being as apparently natural as print?

HMB: Your recent work has centered upon questions of ethics and aesthetics. In conversation with other critics—Mark Hansen and Anna Munster, for instance—you’ve advocated a careful treatment of art in the digital age. Briefly, what is at stake in these debates? What, for you, are the key problems that emerge in this context?

AW: Ethics — how we live together — is at stake if we take aesthetics as the philosophical turning that asks after our sensuous engagements with the world and each other. Traditionally, aesthetics has been about form as a mediating category between the human and the natural: we put our form into matter so that we can see ourselves in matter and so not feel divided from nature — and so that we can (for some philosophers) rein in the excessive tendencies of both reason and our emotions/senses/bodies. With digital art, and the ways artists can use digitality to construct sensuous engagements other than what we have come to take as natural, we can learn how our bodies can enjoy other senses than we have learned to experience; we can experience — not just imaginatively but viscerally — touch as hearing or as sight. This can help us understand other sensuous hierarchies of other cultures but can also perhaps encourage a little more humility for any epistemological claims we wish to make.

But perhaps the textobjects we make ourselves are the most important for me, ethically and aesthetically. Objects we make that circulate among others show back to us our embedded belonging in the humanatural world, show us our abilities to participate, show us how our senses are always entwined with there being sensible stuff, show us how our senses exist because there is sensible stuff. We should all be artists with the matter of our texts, in other words, and reflectively so, to try our senses continually and so to experiment with what we understand our relations with ourselves and each other to be, on the way to developing most just relations.

Can you recommend any online projects HMB readers could access that speak to the aesthetic orientation you advocate?

AW: Etsy.

HMB: The term “digital divide” has gained cultural currency as shorthand for the fact that, across an increasingly networked, digitized globe, some have access to technology and some don’t. Does this problem enter into your thinking, epistemologically or pedagogically? If so, how?

AW: Ever since I got involved with teaching with and about digital technologies in South Central Los Angeles some years back, the question of access has been underneath much of my work such that pedagogy and epistemology can’t be separated. The matter for me hasn’t been access to computers alone but rather access to digital practices and processes that encourage and allow people both to participate outside of expected areas and to represent themselves. In South Central, I helped restructure a computer lab that had been locked down so that people couldn’t save anything on the machines and so couldn’t make much of anything; instead of the lock down, we aimed for people to be able to explore what was on the machines and to make it their own — which also meant that we put onto the machines *not* the drill-and-kill software some had pushed for but rather Word and graphics applications and HyperCard (the latter dates when I was doing this work). I also started producing software and learning materials that were more about playing with the machines and thinking of them as providing creative and intellectual possibilities, possibilities for self-representation, for writing explorations, for thinking of ideas as material to be manipulated and shaped to one’s ends. You can see, then, pedagogical beliefs at work here about access and how education contributes to class building or tries to work against it, as well as then a belief that how one comes to know anything — and so what one knows — cannot be separated from the attitudes one develops (or is encouraged to develop) toward one’s labors.

HMB: What are you working on now? Any upcoming projects?

AW: Several interactive digital pieces languish on my machine, and I have a “book” I want to write on aesthetics, production, and our self-sensed edges of skin. They all await some construction of time.