In 2014, I taught a Creative Nonfiction course—WRT422. I designed an activity that explores the practice of composing as a form of Graphic Hypersensitivity. A draft of the lesson is included below. As with the other work I do on this site, I’ll revise it as I think about it some more, but I wanted to share it with colleagues who found it interesting when I tweeted about it.
Students were assigned to work in pairs with an original 19th century text—The Illustrated London News (1888) and Scientific American (1859)—that I purchased on eBay from sellers in the UK and Canada. I decided to use these particular texts to (i) introduce a medium that would evoke either reverence or irreverence; (ii) defamiliarize the composing process, specifically, in terms of language usage, layout, and cultural reference.
Aside from the potential for a kind of biblioclastic shock—having students write on/with original 19th century materials, in ink!—there were a number of interrelated considerations that, for me, outweighed the very reasonable hesitation to facilitate or engage in this activity. Some obvious considerations included:
What counts as knowledge, literacy, language, culture?
Who counts as their makers?
Who gets to write what, in what way, and to what end?
Whose “ends” are represented in the writing process?
What are the inherent politics of misrepresentation at work here, for which subversion, transgression, and resistance are the most appropriate strategies?
How does the writer actively and consciously engage in craft as both a literal and literary process?
That is, how can the act of writing enable the crafting of a meaningful material representation?
And so on. And so forth.
There’s no denying that these questions, and others like them, hold value for those of us who are involved in this kind of work. But I also wanted to do something that would be interesting and difficult, something that would involve their direct physical interaction with print, something that would challenge them and invigorate me, or vice versa. Out of their frustration—with reading, composing, and interacting with the medium—an augmented archive emerged, one that would never have existed in these particular combinations had they not literally put pen to paper.
The initial result, I don’t mind saying, was “a pretty kind of alchemy” that rests at the heart of pedagogical experimentation and student writing alike.
Yes, the writer is an alchemist.
Here is an example of that alchemy:
What follows is its unpacking.
Along with telling the story, or finding a story to tell, comes the struggle to make the telling matter. We understand that vulnerability is one of the risks: personal investment is accompanied by emotional expenditure that can leave the writer wanting. The writing can also suffer. These are facts that no teacher can successfully deflect, nor its effects ameliorate. However, if we’re attempting to have students reflect on the multidimensionality of their writing, it makes sense to have them actively engage in the practice of that multidimensionality as it occurs in the very specific context of the composing act—literally, in the act of writing.
Reflecting on these factors can’t occur in a vacuum (just as writing, whether we think of it as good or otherwise, will not simply appear). It is a doing. In a very basic sense, the act of writing becomes a point of praxis. We may theorize as we wish, but we must keep in mind that students learn to write by writing. The point of this exercise, therefore, is to get students thinking, talking, and writing about (i) the interplay of language, medium, and meaning-making; and (ii) how these factors and their derivatives combine in different ways, at different levels, to help the writer navigate a given rhetorical situation. In the case of this class, the rhetorical situation is the production of original work that demonstrates not only a degree of rhetorical acuity, but also emphasizes the writer’s vulnerability and concomitant ability to negotiate it in writing. Needless to say, this requires a great deal of reflection on the part of students. But although we know reflection helps to quell some of the anxiety that comes with the awareness of risk, the truth is that it comes at a premium. Meeting times are short (two 75-minute sessions per week), and students have already begun to shuffle their priorities for midterm. You hope your class is at the top of their list, but that’s just not the case.
Not for me, anyway.
For my purposes, I’ll refer to each version as an AA text (AA1: Augmented Archive, First Version) subsequent versions will be AA2, AA3, AA4, etc. Instructors are invited to refer to each as they see fit.
Phase I (first class session-75 minutes)
- Read both sides of the sheet.
Make note of words, phrases, terms, etc..
- Collaborate on composing a single piece of writing (prose, poetry, hybrids) that relies directly on the language gleaned from the reading.
- Revise and refine for fluency, clarity, and coherence.
To create a situation where students would be obliged to conduct an informal (though not altogether unconscious) rhetorical analysis of the text by commenting in terms of its overall content (specific language, style, topic, tone, etc.), rather than how it stands up as an exemplary work of creative nonfiction.
Phase II (second class session-75 minutes)
Students were provided with pens (black Micron 0.5mm, red and blue Pilot V5 0.5mm), Stickies (mini and medium), index cards (5″x7″), and clear tape.
- Transcribe the story onto the newspapers, using the margins and whatever spaces deemed necessary, relevant, or serve to enhance (or complicate) the reader’s experience of it.
- Exchange sheets with another pair of readers. Readers will use (i) the original text as a framing mechanism (context) for the story and (ii) provide preliminary responses to the transcribed story.
- Exchange again. This time, students are encouraged to highlight, interrogate, and make recommendations for revisions based on (i) the context, (ii) the transcribed story, and (iii) the first round of responses.
- To disrupt the composing process in terms of how the writer makes decisions to utilize space.
- To disrupt the tendency to read, write, and respond in a linear fashion.
- To encourage the writer/reviewer to pay direct attention to the implicit relationship between the text and context (the latter of which is now represented by the original).
- This version will be the AA2.
Phase III (Time TBD)
Texts: AA3, AA4, AA5
Having collected AA2 texts (from Phase I & II), I began thinking of ways I could temporarily store and display them, retaining their integrity as they move from stage to stage of incompleteness in the course of student revision and submission. The folder idea was a bit premature—it may be better later on, after final submission, where they could possibly be stored if not on display. As an alternative, I decided to use the laminating sheets.
- Place 1 sheet of laminate (bottom) and film (top), which will serve as the base for the AA2.
- Place the AA2 centrally on the base layer.
Add a layer of laminate. Align.
- Additional revisions can be made on this layer.
- This version will be the AA3.
- Place typed draft, with revisions (marginal, in-text, etc.).
I recommend that it be placed a bit off-center.
- This version becomes AA4, which will be subject to additional revisions as the writer and instructor see fit.
Add rice paper (the film that comes with the laminate sheets).
- Add final draft.
- Add laminate. All together, this version will constitute AA5.
- This process allows for the consideration of composition as a practice of discursive, textual, textural, and intellectual layering. It also enables the visualization of that layering as a form of rhetorical awareness.
- This has two immediate functions that serve the overall rationale of the activity:
- In terms of basic practicality, it enables additional texts to be added without completely erasing the context (represented by the original Scientific American or Illustrated London News sheets), even when the second rice paper film is added.
- It helps to emphasize the point that visualization needn’t be relegated to the abstract—rather, it can be seen, touched, turned, realized, problematized, (mis)understood, etc.
- Thus, by making the product serve as a self-conscious record[ing] of the process, the implicit relationship between augmenting an archive, earning awareness, making meaning, and student work becomes explicit.
There are a number of phases of this activity, which can be modified as the instructor sees fit. I would like to see it employed as a long-term project in archive augmentation (revising, editing, etc.), but I also think its use in the context of a few class meetings can yield very positive results, as well.
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