May 11, 2016
What’s the difference between writing and composition? Writing, we think we know what that is: it’s maybe typing out letters on a computer screen, or maybe it’s holding a pen above a legal pad. But what if writing is bigger than that? What if it’s also the prewriting that takes place in your brain, as you drive around town or play racquetball or stare into space? And how about composition? What does that mean? It’s not just writing so could it be arranging speech, or images or even moving bodies? Is dance part of composition? Jody Shipka’s landmark text, Towards a Composition Made Whole, expands our understanding of what we mean when we say “writing and composition.” Today on Mere Rhetoric.
Welcome to Mere Rhetoric, a podcast for beginners and insiders about the ideas, people and movements who have shaped rhetorical history. I’m Mary Hedengren and I’d like to give a shout out to our sponsors at the Univesity of Texas Humanities Media Project for their support, but today’s topic is right up their alley too--what are the limits of humanities and media?
Shipka is sick and tired of the way that two words are deeply misused in the feild of rhetoric and composition. The first is the word composition itself. Composition, Shipka argues, does not have to be text-based media. Shipka is a proponent of teaching students to compose in a broad sense--using images, music, dance and motion alongside words and letters to create meaning. Drawing on Cheryl Ball Shipka sums up resistence to non-print composition in that “texts are often labeled experimental when (or simply because) audiences are not used to recognizing their meaning-making strategies” (133).
That leads to the other term that Shipka takes issue to--technology. If composition is often view in very conservative terms as something done with pen and paper or a computer, technology is perhaps too-hot. Technology, Shipka claims, does not equal digital. The ferver for “technology” can be just as bad as a prejudice towards newfangled technology. In her words, “I am concerned that emphasis placed on ‘new’ (meaning digital) technologies has led to a tendency to equate terms like multimodal, intertextual, multi-media, or still more broadly speaking, composition with the production and consumption of computer-based, digitalized, screen-mediated texts” (8) and “we have allowed ourselves to trade in one bundle of texts and techniques for another: pro-verbal for pro-digital” (11).
Technologies are only seen as technologies as long as they are difficult and electronic, she argues, while other methods of multimodal composition can be as or more effective while employing other means. The example that Shipka leads the book with concerns an essay written by a dance student on a pair of ballet slippers. The essay was researched, ‘composed’ and transcribed in a way that uses multiple approaches, but nothing that needs a cord. She quotes Wertsch that “all activity is mediated by tools, whether by psychological tools and/or by technical tools such as hammers, nails [etc]” (43). Elsewhere she writes “when our scholarship fails to consider, and when our practices do not ask students to consider, the complex and highly distributed processes associated with the production of texts (and lives and people), we run the risk of overlooking the fundamentally multimodal aspects of all communicative practice” (13). Okay, and one more quote just to really underline her position: “ “To label a text multimodal or nonmodal based on its final appearance alone discounts, or worse yet, renders invisible the contributions made by a much wider variety of resources, supports, and tools.” This understanding of how we mediate even when we use “analogue” technology lets us expand our concept of buzzwords like “multimedia” and “multimodal.”
These two terms lay the groundwork for what she suggests in her manifesto: a composition made whole, with all processes, projects and media enveloped in the process of composition. In her words “A composition made whole recognizes that whether or not a particular classroom or group of students are wired, students may still be afforded opportunities to consider how they are continually positioned in ways that require them to read, respond to, align with… a steaming interplay of words, images, sounds, scents, and movements” (21).
Something about Shipka’s work is extremely freeing, both in our research and in our pedagogy--we can expand our work to anything. But it’s also terrifying--what do I know about document design? about video production? about dance? This same free fall feeling comes when I read about the processes Shipka describes her composers taking. Here in A Composition Made Whole she talks about the process of writing in a big way, similar to how big her definition of composition is. This part reminds me of a chapter that she co-authored with Paul Prior in another place. What Prior and Shipka did was to give their participants a piece of paper and have them draw their writing spaces and their writing practices. What they found is that people’s writing practice goes far beyond the “prewriting, writing, rewriting” steps that we often inculcate our students with. Objects like cigarettes, cats and washing machines and activities like talking over beer, walking the dog and calling a friend become part of the writing process.
Shipka describes some of these writers’ processes in a a composition made whole. For instance, when a writer goes for a run to clear her mind, “what might otherwise look like nonwork--taking a break from the task at hand--functioning as an integral part of the composer’s overall process” (60).
This creates some messy borders of a process we simplify in our research and teaching. If taking a run is part of the compositing process, what else is part? What can be excluded? I found this a difficult question to ask when I began keeping track of my time while working on my dissertation. If was I reading a text or coding data, that was definitely just as much a part of writing my dissertation as putting words on the paper. Meeting with my advisor? Yes. Talking it out with my mom? yes… Thinking about it on a run? I think. Thinking about it when I’m driving?...maybe? It can hard to say for sure what 40 hours a week of academic work looks like because it’s so dispersed. If our students say they have to clean their apartment, or walk the dog or watch six episodes of Broadchurch in a row before they can write the paper, it’s hard to say whether this is part of their writing process or a procrastination effort.
Shipka makes composition as an object and composition as a process very messy or rather, she exposes its inherent messiness to us. If you have a messy writing process, you know what? I’d like to hear about it. You can send us an email at firstname.lastname@example.org or if you don’t want to send us text, you would send us a picture, a short video or even ballet slippers.