Blog Post

Picturing Writing

Recently via listserv a colleague asked me why I was hosting a photo contest for the National Day On Writing (NDOW) and not even requiring an essay to go with the pictures. I'm reposting my response (which I also put up on my personal site) because I'm interested in how HASTAC community members understand "writing" and "writing education" these days.

My short answer is that writing includes a great deal more than print forms and recorded strings of alphabetic language. Composing in various media (e.g., audio, photography, video) increasingly falls under the auspices of Composition or Writing Studies. Personally, I strongly believe in the importance, even the necessity of supporting what many scholars now refer to as "multiliteracies" (see New London Group), and with that in mind all UT Writes activities for NDOW recognize as well as encourage writing in all its various forms. From this point of view, a photo essay can stand alone just as videos can fulfill university WC requirements; there is no need to legitimate them by also assigning an essay.

The long answer: As you know, our FYC program emphasizes not only rhetoric and knowledge transfer, but also multiplicities. By "multiplicities" we mean more than encountering and writing about multiple mediums (ENG 101) and using multiple research methodologies (ENG 102). We also mean writing with a wide variety of genres, modes, and mediums. From this perspective, writing includes and is also more than strings of recorded alphabetic language arranged in conventional school genres and produced in one or another print form. As Marvin Diogens and Andrea Lunsford write:

Writing [is a] technology for creating conceptual frameworks and creating, sustaining, and performing lines of thought within those frameworks, drawing from and expanding on existing conventions and genres, utilizing signs and symbols, incorporating materials drawn from multiple sources, and taking advantage of the resources of a full range of media. ("Toward Delivering New Definitions of Writing")

When I teach this definition of writing, as I have been doing for several years in English 495, my students quickly recognize its extremely twenty-first-century perspective. Noting the emphasis Diogenes and Lunsford place on situated thinking, negotiation with (as opposed to adherence to) conventions, and both collaboration and remixing, they also correctly read it as a direct counter to received Romantic notions of writing that emphasize the inspired single-authored man of original genius, great feeling, and high culture eloquence. The latter is largely incompatible with the logics and practices of multiliteracies. The former, while clunky, attempts to capture a working sense of what writing is and what writers do both in and beyond the academy in the present day.

I offer this background because I think many readers of this listserv are trying very hard to deliver writing instruction that either is or at least approaches a genuine engagement with the kinds of literacies that today's students need not only (or necessarily) for school success but also (or mainly) to succeed in the lives they will lead after they earn their degrees. At the same time, ours is not a mutiliterate university, nor is it an institution ready for the kind of systemic shift to multiliteracies that Stuart Selber outlines in his book Multiliteracies for a Digital Age (see chapter 5).

NDOW was created not only to help communities celebrate writing but also to help different groups raise consciousness about writing. Both last year (working with Laurie Knox, Margaret Dean, Katy Chiles, and others) and this time around (working mainly with Michelle Brannen and colleagues in OIT and the University Libraries), I have chosen activities that I hope will help expand the UT community's definition of writing to include photos, graffiti, tattoos, and spoken word poetry alongside manuscripts and published books from Special Collections, representative library holdings from different academic areas of study, and much, much more.

Hopefully, this info helps put the TN12 contest into better context, and hopefully, too, it will help many of you decide whether and how you can support it within the classes you are teaching this semester.

Jenn/Dr. Fishman
2010/11 OIT Faculty Fellow

Asst. Professor of English
Rhetoric and Composition
UT-Knoxville 37996-0430
Personal website
CCC Online Performance CFP


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