Twenty folded pages of paper. A spool of waxed thread. A rounded needle. Two cardboard covers. A ruler. These were the technologies I had for composing as part of a National Endowment for the Humanities summer institute I was invited to join, called The Book: Material Histories and Digital Futures. Along with a group of twenty other scholars from across the nation, we engaged in regular “making” workshops where we would pick up that thread and those papers to experiment with creating new book forms. And every single time we would begin, a wave of dread washed over me.
It’s not that I didn’t want to be there. Very much to the contrary, I had applied to attend this institute, was accepted out of a competitive applicant pool, and knew that the work of this institute would allow me to advance teaching and learning ideas critical to my work as an Academic Technology Specialist here at Stanford. My research for years has focused on understanding how the materials we use for reading and writing impact how and why we read and write. So, naturally, I was thrilled to immerse myself in conversations about books of all forms and the ways in which those books impact literacy practice. I knew when I started the institute too that there would be making involved, and I was excited for that as well, knowing that making in material forms can dramatically impact our understanding of content. Indeed, I was immensely grateful and thrilled for the chances to play, to do what I often say I will do as an ATS: develop the ability to compose multimodally.
Yet when it came down to it, I realized that I preferred talking to doing, that the acts of actually engaging in multimodal composition, especially when the materials were made of paper, freaked me out. I was ashamed that I felt that way, but I couldn’t ignore the fear of failure that gripped me every time I found myself with a needle in my hand.
That’s when it hit me: I was not paper tech-savvy. Paper, thread, scissors, all of these things, are technology, and I really did not understand how any of them worked. I mean, I knew how to use these technologies in a basic sense (I made it through my introduction to paper cutting in kindergarten somehow), but when it came to making a publication in a way that did not look elementary or pedestrian? I was adrift.
Once I realized that my functional literacy was the root of the problem, another thought hit me: this is what anyone who struggles with digital technology feels like. This hunch was affirmed when part of our “making” time in the lab included learning digital publishing platforms like Twine and Scalar, tools that could be more easily mastered with some basic HTML knowledge. I saw some of my colleagues look the same way I did when I was (angrily) punching holes into pieces of paper: red in the face and eyes vaguely glazed. I found myself leaning over other people’s computers, helping them with some basic commands just as some of my patient peers helped me properly tie string into the eye of a needle. As the comfort of familiarity in the digital space helped me restore my confidence in my technical competence, the larger lesson learned was that functional literacy is an essential component of composing, one that can be a terrible barrier to entry but one that can also open up unexplored avenues of expression.
But here’s the central question: as writers, it can feel like we have enough to do with the taxing intellectual labor of encapsulating a idea and expressing it. Why should we have to think of the technical details in making sure those ideas are clearly transmitted and distributed? Isn’t that someone else’s job? And as teachers of writing, shouldn’t we prioritize the art of crafting linear alphabetic text in a word processor since that’s what our students expect when they think of “writing” in the first place?
To be honest, I still sometimes struggle with the answers to these questions. I still think the primary job we have as writers is to do the tough working of thinking in a linear way and making sure those thoughts are well-organized and accessible. That’s a lot going on right there. But as I think to all of the means of persuasion available to us - between both the analog and the digital - I also wonder whether we are missing opportunities to help our students think about meaning-making in capacious terms.
At the NEH Institute, our conception of “book” broadened dramatically, as we considered how the transmission of texts and ideas could look like everything from a paperback to an audiobook to a scroll to a tiny clay tablet. In fact, we all created our own book forms at the end of the institute, the goal of which was to help us consider how we might convey our research ideas in a form that would represent our content beyond linear text. The results were incredible (you can see some of the book forms in a blog post from Salt Lake Community College where the institute was hosted). Seeing what my colleagues produced really showed me that, depending on your audience and particular rhetorical needs, developing the competencies to create and to make expanded the range of what we could communicate - and how.
Now that I’m looking back on these summer experiences from the perspective of fall quarter, I remain humbled by the challenges I experienced in making with materials that I had little technical competence or familiarity with using. The experience of working through a frustration, finding a work-around, and making something out of the failure is one I would recommend to any instructor, for it is a reminder of what it feels like to learn in a fundamental way.
Beyond that, as we think ahead to our teaching, we might think about engaging in exercises that ask our students to pay attention to what they’re composing on and how they are composing. Often, these processes - from typing on a keyboard to handwriting notes to using a whiteboard for brainstorming - can become totally invisible to us. In fact, during September Sessions, Russ, Cassie, and I developed a very short activity that invites instructors to have their students respond to the same prompt, but with using different sets of materials (e.g. some get to type, others use crayons and paper, others use the whiteboard, etc.). Even just a brief, five-minute intervention like this exercise could invite reflection about how the form of our writing can dramatically impact what’s possible in the composition of the content.
The application to research-based writing is simple: even though students will be composing their research in, inevitably, linear documents, they might consider how the differences that spacing choices, font choices, and even paragraphing choices can make in helping us understand the meaning of a document or what’s possible to communicate within that document. Indeed, these are the very basic concepts of document design that may not seem to have much impact but can, in fact, dramatically impact the communicative work that our students do.
Unless we explore what’s possible outside of our immediate resources for persuasion, we may never discover the avenues unexplored and the possibilities we may so often overlook. That might mean failing, and failing often. That might even mean, as instructors, interrogating work that is uncomfortable to us or work that doesn’t feel like it should be our own work. But in a moment when the material conditions for our labor become magnified by the digital nature of our research and communication practices, paying attention to the critical differences in our practices and how they impact what’s possible can, quite simply, be revelatory.