¶ 2 Leave a comment on paragraph 2 1 In Empowering Education: Critical Teaching for Social Change, Ira Shor cuts to the heart of one of our education culture’s toughest issues when he says, “A good student answers questions but doesn’t question answers. Knowledge and authority are fixed and unilateral.” 2 This essay looks at a one-semester classroom research project that I undertook in an Introduction to English Studies class in which I tried to address that issue as it manifests in institutional assumptions about what good academic writing must be. Students used a wiki as a format for socially “annotating” an iconic guidebook to good writing: The Elements of Style by William J. Strunk and E.B. White. 3 “The Elements of Styl(in)” project was a casual testing of the boundaries of the book, and this book in particular, as a cultural object–an examination of the way such as text book authorizes standard academic discourse, an exploration of how our concept of text is changing with digital affordances, and a consideration of what could happen to text and to classroom power structures when “marginalia becomes demarginalized” 4 in digital spaces. Marginalia– “skirmishes against the author” 5 as poet Billy Collins once said are what we in the Humanities cherish as the reader’s act of individual empowerment in authorized spaces. In digital space these annotations can become a transformative public act as the text being annotated takes a backseat to the collective backchannel.
¶ 3 Leave a comment on paragraph 3 4 “The little book,” as Professor Strunk called TEOS, originated as a short set of rules put together in a pamphlet for his composition students at Cornell University in the early part of the twentieth century. After being edited and embellished by White, a former student of Strunk, TEOS was published in 1959 and widely promoted in the college textbook market by MacMillan Publishing Company. It has since come to represent, as a familiar and concise writing handbook wrapped in White’s emblematic prose voice, a kind of standard knowledge assigned in a variety of courses by hopeful and well-intentioned professors as the go-to resource for error control. A quick internet search of syllabi nationwide finds TEOS a required text for a range of courses, from Composition and Writing classes to Environmental Policy and Rap Music and Hip-Hop Culture. Some of these course syllabi communicate an awareness of the ideological nature of Strunk & White’s ideas of English language usage. A Michigan university’s “Writing, Style and Technology” course includes an assigned “remake” of TEOS. 6 However, requiring that all student work “follow the rules for English Composition found in Strunk,” 7 is also a typical directive.
¶ 4 Leave a comment on paragraph 4 2 As a composition teacher, I thought it might be valuable to create a critical awareness around Strunk & White’s book as a way to historicize one of academic writing’s more persistent texts, along with challenging the larger cultural norm of a neutral academic discourse in a college writing classroom. Articles published recently in the inaugural issue of Literacy In Composition Studies 8 resonated deeply with my experience of the split consciousness that attends the teaching of writing: the tension between a pluralized notion of literacies and persistent institutional and cultural expectations for a monolithic standard academic literacy. “Writing to pass,” as Kate Vieira points out in “On The Social Consequences Of Literacy,” 9 is a common experience of freshman writers, and standard discourse of the sort prescribed by The Elements of Style is a stubborn marker for success. Even when “other” literacies are valorized in classrooms, they maintain that categorization as other, or out of school, and what Brian Street has called “autonomous literacy” remains intact 10; students often remain accountable to it, and its ideology stays “unchallenged and un(der)theorized,” according to Carmen Kynard in “Literacy/Literacies And The Still-Dominant White Center.” 11 I wondered what kinds of questions would arise from having student writers engage rhetorically and ideologically with a writing text that has been widely regulatory, used as a quick reference, and mostly “unchallenged and un(der)theorized.”
¶ 5 Leave a comment on paragraph 5 4 As a relatively new venturer in digital technologies, and the field of digital humanities, I was curious to know how a public classroom engagement with annotating TEOS through a wiki might impact students’ critical approach to this canonical work. How would engaging in discussion in a multimodal public forum impact student agency with regard to an authoritative text? Part of my purpose in conducting this experiment was to understand more about how the wiki interface might facilitate annotation as a form of “student protest,” a component of Ira Shor’s “empowered” classroom model in which students are explicitly given the freedom to challenge the substance of the course curriculum, and to critically examine Strunk and White’s kind of “standard knowledge through which the status quo tries to promote and protect its position,” 12 as Shor says:
¶ 6 Leave a comment on paragraph 6 0 Because some groups in history have had the power to establish standard knowledge and standard usage, these canons need to be studied critically, not absorbed as a bogus common culture 13
¶ 7 Leave a comment on paragraph 7 2 Shor’s notion of protest seemed to be an answer to Horner’s call for a recognition of students’ ongoing acts of “interpretation–…reading the social environment and engaging and remaking that environment through communication.” 14 Social media form a well-recognized platform for this kind of culturally transformative communication, from the Arab Spring twitter revolution to Kickstarter crowd-funding. Bringing the guiding principal of transformation into student use of social annotation in the classroom seemed like a goal worth pursuing, one that many digital humanists feel needs foregrounding as the field develops. Jesse Stommel, Director of the online journal Hybrid Pedagogy warns of the danger of digital pedagogy replicating “vestigial structures of industrial era education” 15 and sees digital pedagogy as one and the same with critical pedagogy: “Digital pedagogy demands that we rethink power relations between students and teachers — demands we create more collaborative and less hierarchical institutions for learning -” 16
¶ 8 Leave a comment on paragraph 8 0 N. Katherine Hayles’ notes that the “feedback loop” between digital and traditional humanities creates a transformative synergy as imagination moves from linearity as a method to “large numbers of connections between two or more networks layered onto one another.” 17 Hayles cites the productive recursiveness between digital technology’s nonnarrative modes and traditional humanities’ narrative, historical and social ones. I propose that the same transformative potential exists in the feedback loop between traditional and digital ways of writing, leading to a more critical engagement with social, cultural and historical networks and their relationships to standard English as status quo. This networked way of seeing through technology allows students to fully and easily contextualize information they receive in an educational setting.
¶ 10 Leave a comment on paragraph 10 5 Students worked in groups of three to four, collaborating on their final wiki pages, and leading a class discussion based on their work and on the comments their classmates made on their wiki presentation. (See sample excerpts from my students on this wiki page, which represents the type of thinking and writing they shared with me and their classmates.) 18 Groups worked together on choosing excerpts from TEOS that they wished to speak back to. Annotations could be multimedia. A second form of annotation was created through the class comments on each group wiki presentation. What was supposed to be a ten-fifteen minute part of one class meeting per group turned out in most cases to take up half an eighty-minute class.
¶ 11 Leave a comment on paragraph 11 0 When the assignment was working best, Strunk and White’s text acted like a philosopher’s stone in the way its seeming neutrality concealed the power to release and reveal issues of class, race, gender and power embedded in student writers’ understanding of academic discourse and “correct” usage of the English language. 19 I found that the students’ social annotation experience in this classroom was a complex interaction between traditional text, digital text, public writing and public speaking, and felt that more time was necessary for allowing all those connections and feedback loops to surface and become productive. Many of the most provocative issues raised came about because of those feedback loops between image, text and commentary that the spatial field of the wiki enables.
¶ 14 Leave a comment on paragraph 14 0 In How We Think, Hayles points out that human and machine intelligence interact in ways that demand a new framework for practices like reading and responding to text. The multivalence brought about by digital affordances, even through a simple wiki, reconfigures the objects of our fields as humanities teachers:
¶ 15 Leave a comment on paragraph 15 0 . . . objects are seen not as static entities, that once created, remain the same throughout time but rather are understood as constantly changing assemblages in which inequalities and inefficiencies in their operations drive them toward breakdown, disruption, innovation and change. 20
¶ 16 Leave a comment on paragraph 16 1 I could see the parallel between Hayles’ description of digital space as a place of fluctuating “assemblages” and Steven Parks‘ description of literacy as a process in which “identities are a resting point in an endless negotiation of the current moment” 21 The identities of undergraduate writers are in constant negotiation with the ways they use language. Digital writing creates the context for realizing the places of disruption, innovation and “endless negotiation of the current moment” not just because of its inherent non-linearity, but also because of the way that digital practices and traditional practices create what Hayles would call a “feedback loop from materiality to mind” 22 creating new associations from that interaction and bringing changes to thinking and consequently to the environment.
¶ 17 Leave a comment on paragraph 17 0 In the following example, the knowledge created through the multimedia wiki impacted student engagement with two traditional texts (The Elements of Style and “Once More To The Lake,” by E.B. White) feeding back to a deeper critical engagement with the issues at hand in just such a transformational way.
¶ 19 Leave a comment on paragraph 19 2 This selection, “Rule 1” from TEOS 23 is one of forty-three numbered prescriptives in the book, and is taken from the section that White himself wrote, titled: “An Approach To Style (With A List Of Reminders).” It was annotated by Tracy, a White senior English major, and member of Group 4. 24 Tracy’s intuitive reference to a sales pitch contains the seeds of a multifaceted critique of Carmen Kynard’s “unquestioned and un(der)theorized dominant center” of academic discourse. 25 White affectionately endorsed the “sharp commands” of “Sergeant Strunk.” 26 In the first edition, he set out to respond to American education’s post GI Bill move away from the traditional rhetoric of his youth and toward a more inclusive mode of teaching writing to a newly diverse student population. In a discussion of White’s essay “Mr. Strunk,” Catherine Prendergast points to White’s curmudgeonly attitude toward this turn in 1950s literacy education : “ Strunk was to be White’s answer to the Anything Goes school of rhetoric ‘where right and wrong do not exist and there is no foundation all down the line.’” 27 By martialing the ghost of his old professor, White could “skirt the debates over language and meaning that characterized his age rather than engage them directly in his revision of Strunk’s book.” 28
¶ 20 Leave a comment on paragraph 20 0 Class discussion around Rule 1 and its accompanying annotation focused on Tracy’s reference to commodification and what might be for sale. What does standard English buy you? In exchange for what? What is at stake when a student learns to write in a particular way? The anonymity suggested by putting yourself in the background in order to gain access to the status quo hides some truths about class, race and culture that the students seemed reluctant or not prepared to examine, though Tracy, in her choice of image as discussed below brought some of those issues to the foreground. In the construction of White’s sentence the writer’s identity seems to be subordinate to the “solid and good” writing, and her identity “will be revealed” through “properly executed” writing. Students were vocal about the perceived necessities for this exchange: the English majors wanted acceptance into a professional discourse community. Good grades come from good writing. In a different kind of move toward acceptance, Lane, an African American ROTC student, went on to write his final paper about the ways Strunk & White help him to write clearly and forcefully for his future career as an Army officer. He talked about family members coming to him to do their important correspondence because of the way he has learned to use language.
¶ 21 Leave a comment on paragraph 21 1 We returned to my initial wiki introduction to the assignment, and a rhetorical analysis of White’s use of universalizing words. I asked: If your writing is not “good,” does that mean you are not “careful and honest”? Why do Strunk and White use this moralizing language associated with writing?
¶ 22 Leave a comment on paragraph 22 0 Once the class read White’s famous essay, “Once More To The Lake,” students started to get a clearer picture of the social and historical context that gave rise to such vocabulary: a culture of patriarchy, individualism and privilege, an orderly hierarchy of affluent and educated summer vacationers and poorer, less educated rural workers in the town. The stillness of the lake mirrored the stillness of language promoted in TEOS — nothing to break the sense of order. In this traditional group discussion about “Once More To The Lake,” one student insightfully remarked that the essay was a “this is how we do things” description. Another student noticed, coming back to White and TEOS : this way of writing, too, is how WE (Strunk, White and their sociocultural milieu) do things.
¶ 23 Leave a comment on paragraph 23 0 Tracy further developed her response to Rule 1 by including an illustration from the 1999 film version of Frank McCourt’s book Angela’s Ashes, a memoir written in unconventional, often ungrammatical and vernacular prose. In her annotation she pointed out that in the memoir the author’s “I” is fused to a foreground of “poverty and despair and hope and escape” 29 and the visual impact of two rain-soaked boys on an empty unpaved street makes a powerful and embodied counterimage to the slick car commercial leaving as its impression a song. Tracy’s response that Rule 1 reminds her of the advertiser’s disembodied soundtrack reflects that Strunk & White ask her literally to leave her body out of her writing, to separate from those deep ways of knowing and adopt deceptively neutral ones instead. Looping back and forth between the traditional text and the verbal abstract associations of “Once More To The Lake,” the digitally rendered cut and paste collage of the wiki showing White’s words juxtaposed with Tracy’s, the verbal and visual annotations, students formed a nuanced context in which to situate their discussion of standard English, and their own relationships to the ideologies that go with it. Thinking moved in the space of two class meetings; social and institutional environments have historically moved slowly. How will pedagogical uses of digital technologies affect those environments?
¶ 26 Leave a comment on paragraph 26 2 In the screenshot above, Group 4 responds to one of Strunk’s original rules: “Choose a suitable design and hold to it” 30 by disagreeing with the notion that “success” is attached to a writer’s clear sense of standard forms. The dialog between page and screen is literally illustrated by the image of the Gregson poem referencing older technologies of typewriter and paper straight out of Strunk & White’s era. Gregson’s poem points to many things. He seems to celebrate the agency of the writer by typing in defiance of the lines. Bending the traditional Romantic notion of individual expression, “hearts on . . . sleeves” changes to the transgressive “mine on yours instead.” This movement from communication as a linear progression — author to lover/reader — when contrasted with the layered image of the poet speaking through two subjectivities– is a startlingly accurate metaphor for the networks accessible in digital writing. It could be the description of a retweet, and references the “performance self” of today’s social media user. Group 4’s choice of this image represented a moment in the classroom where all these many subtle and important connections could be teased out in discussion, bringing to light students’ many modes of literacy, digital and text-based. This led to a crucial question for students to consider. TEOS is relatively unchanged from 1959, derived from a 1918 text. How does Gregson’s poem suggest to you ways writing has changed and why has TEOS changed so little over the years?
¶ 31 Leave a comment on paragraph 31 1 In his book Noise Channels: Glitch And Error In Digital Culture, Peter Krapp describes the embrace of glitch as an aesthetic that resists the “jitter-free” “tamper-resistant” aesthetic of digital sound production. 31 But he is really onto a much larger concern that resonated with me as a writing instructor who sometimes sees students suffering from Krapp’s “agency panic of the user” 32 when they are faced with the jitter-free, tamper-resistant ground of academic discourse and standard English. Glitch, and the relationship between “noise” and “signal” in terms of language, knowledge and power is more than an aesthetic. It is a guiding image for critical engagement with the status quo: digital writing pedagogy should be a pedagogy of the glitch, recuperating whenever possible moments of breakdown in standard discourse, creatively situated in digital networks. The affordances of web annotation platforms make tampering easy, and the concept of “glitch” as a digital or language byproduct “is a way of maintaining a space of playful exploration” 33 which allows for student agency.
¶ 32 Leave a comment on paragraph 32 2 A comment made to Group 1’s wiki annotation illustrates the productive resistance of glitch. Lorenz, a White sophomore Physics major, demonstrates the power of allowing other kinds of knowledge to change standard English, an important point I had hoped students would find their way into. Lorenz intuitively channeled James Joyce and the Modernist project of jamming the signals of traditional discourse as he commented on his classmates’ presentation. Pointing out the importance of “da VuRnAkULAR,” Lorenz aligns it with a closer engagement of community knowledge in language use. During the discussion period, Lorenz blurted out “I hate this book,” and described a scene in his dorm where he and his friends, a group of art majors, had gone through The Elements of Style and “laughed at it” together. This was exactly the kind of “protest” I had been curious to see evolve out of this project: the intact, neutral and autonomous writing handbook examined and protested through exposure to the experiences of the student community. Foregrounding a noisy discourse that alludes to Joyce and Irvine Welsh, and arguing for the benefits of non-standard language, Lorenz outlined that protest most eloquently when he reappropriated the whole concept of “Propa” language, and characterized “speeking/riting” as “evolving 1 minde at eh time.”
Leave a comment on paragraph 33 1
WikiThink And The Status Quo
Jesse Stommel’s hope that digital pedagogy will transform those remaining vestiges of efficiency-model education haunted the reflection process of this wiki project. I was frustrated with myself for capitulating to the complex pressures and institutional structures of assessment. I designed the assignment in a compartmentalized way, working against the full collaborative nature of a wiki by having each group create a discrete page that could be assessed. The additional dynamics of small group work complicated the potential for collaboration and open review that would exist if the wiki were opened to changes from the class as a whole. Non-group members’ interactions were marginalized at the bottom of each wiki page due to the constraints of pbworks’ format. Maintaining the wiki as an open project for an entire semester or at least for some extended period of time would enable students to continue to build on ideas, capitalizing on the transformative potential of Hayles’ “constantly changing assemblages.”
¶ 34 Leave a comment on paragraph 34 0 Another place for further research lies in the ways that students find agency as they publicly comment, and as they negotiate between an “authentic self” and the complex subjectivity of digital performance. In My Word! Plagiarism And College Culture, Susan Blum cites the anxious quality of a student’s “performance self” in the age of facebook and blogs:
¶ 35 Leave a comment on paragraph 35 1 . . . the performance self must constantly worry about the judgements of others, must constantly wonder if a given set of actions is the most effective, or is even appreciated, and what the consequences will be of her or his actions. 34
¶ 36 Leave a comment on paragraph 36 0 I think most teachers have observed the pressure of the performance self and its effects on the kinds of comments students make in online discussion forums. This “constantly groomed version” 35 of the self complicates critical engagement with issues and ideas that might involve staking claims and challenging group norms. In this way, social annotation poses challenges to critical pedagogy. Tracy and the students of Group 4 shared material and insights that exposed fascinating networks of knowledge needing to be brought to the surface through discussion, suggesting that digital pedagogy includes developing student reading of non-linear multimodal connections in sophisticated critical ways. Lorenz found a way to speak to authenticity while exploiting a digital public forum in a way that challenged and delighted the others in the class. Could the dorm community protest of TEOS have strengthened his sense of agency? I like to think that it did. Future research should involve expanding users of a class wiki.
¶ 37 Leave a comment on paragraph 37 1 The performance self of the teacher-centered classroom is a frustration that Ira Shor experienced as he realized the entrenched nature of teacher authority and the “risky Utopian leaps” 36 students are asked to take in an empowered classroom. I remember Lorenz’ nervous body language as he said to me: “I hate this book.” It is difficult to shift the power structure of a college classroom; students themselves do some of the toughest resisting. Pushing the wiki beyond the boundaries of the writing classroom and into spaces occupied by people from other disciplines, members of the larger community, or a global readership might be a way to get closer to unsettling traditional hierarchies. In the digital age, critical pedagogy might be configured as a wiki interface for the status quo.
¶ 38 Leave a comment on paragraph 38 0 About the author: Laura Lisabeth (@lauralhny) is a doctoral student at St. Johns University in Queens, NY. She currently teaches literature and composition at SUNY Old Westbury on Long Island.
- ¶ 40 Leave a comment on paragraph 40 0
- “Sample student excerpts from Group 1 Wiki, ENG 2200: Introduction to English Studies, St. Johns University, Queens, New York, Spring 2013, http://introtoenglishstudies.pbworks.com/w/page/68417145/Group%201%20Wiki%20Page. ↩
- Ira Shor, Empowering Education: Critical Teaching For Social Change, Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1992. ↩
- William J. Strunk and E.B. White, The Elements of Style (TEOS), illustrated by Maira Kalman, New York: Penguin Books, 2000. ↩
- “‘Amplified Marginalia’: Social Reading, Listening, and Writing,” http://www.hastac.org/forums/amplified-marginalia. ↩
- Billy Collins, poem, “Marginalia,” http://www.billy-collins.com/2005/06/marginalia.html. ↩
- Derek N. Mueller, PhD, Syllabus, ENGL 328 “Writing, Style and Technology,” Winter, 2012, http://www.derekmueller.net/rc/teaching/archive/engl328wi12/syllabus.html. ↩
- Richard Mook, PhD, Syllabus: MUS 362 “Rap Music and Hip Hop Culture,” Summer B2013, https://herbergeronline.asu.edu/hiphop/syllabus.pdf. ↩
- http://www.licsjournal.org. ↩
- Kate Vieira, “On the Social Consequences of Literacy,” Literacy in Composition Studies, 2013 Mar 1, Edition 1. ↩
- Bruce Horner, “Ideologies of Literacy, ‘Academic Literacies,’ and Composition Studies,” Literacy in Composition Studies, 2013 Feb 26, Edition 1, paragraph 2. ↩
- Carmen Kynard, “Literacy/Literacies Studies and the Still-Dominant White Center,” Literacy in Composition Studies. 2013 Feb 21, Edition 1, paragraph 5. ↩
- Shor, 34-35. ↩
- ibid. ↩
- Mission Statement, Literacy in Composition Studies, March, 2013, Edition 1, paragraph 2. ↩
- Jesse Stommel, “Decoding Digital Pedagogy, Pt. 2: (Un)Mapping the Terrain,” Hybrid Pedagogy, A Digital Journal of Learning, Teaching, and Technology, March 05, 2013, paragraph 3, http://www.hybridpedagogy.com/Journal/files/Unmapping_the_Terrain_of_Digital_Pedagogy.html. ↩
- ibid. ↩
- N. Katherine Hayles, How We Think: Digital Media and Contemporary Technogenesis, Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2012, 32. ↩
- “Sample student excerpts from Group 1,” ENG 2200, Spring 2013, http://introtoenglishstudies.pbworks.com/w/page/68417145/Group 1 Wiki Page. ↩
- Laura Lisabeth, “The Elements of Styl(in) Group Project Assignment,” ENG 2200: Introduction to English Studies, St. Johns University, Queens, New York, Spring 2013, https://docs.google.com/document/d/1TL6DU1c-UvkqbzYxV-ZwN6VDAOkRFg-mfQwfaz0bi9A/edit?usp=sharing. ↩
- Katherine Hayles, How We Think, 13. ↩
- Steven Parks, “Beginnings of a Polemic: Shaking the Borders of a Literate Education,” Literacy in Composition Studies, Feb 21, 2013, Edition 1. ↩
- N. Katherine Hayles, Writing Machines, Cambridge: The MIT Press, 2002, 75. ↩
- Strunk and White, 97. ↩
- “Sample student excerpts from Group 4 wiki,” ENG 2200, Spring 2013, http://introtoenglishstudies.pbworks.com/w/page/68678680/Group 4 Wiki Page. ↩
- Kyndard, Literacy/Literacies, para. 5. ↩
- Strunk and White, xiii. ↩
- Catherine Prendergast, “The Fighting Style: Reading the Unabomber’s Strunk and White,” College English, 72:1, 13. ↩
- Prendergast, 24. ↩
- Tracy, comment on Group 4 wiki presentation, April 1, 2013. ↩
- Strunk and White, 31. ↩
- Peter Krapp, Noise Channels: Glitch And Error In Digital Culture, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2011, xx ↩
- Krapp, 54. ↩
- ibid. ↩
- Susan D. Blum, My Word! Plagiarism And College Culture, Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2009, 64. ↩
- Blum, 70 ↩
- Joe Marshall Hardin, review of When Students Have Power by Ira Shor, http://jaconlinejournal.com/archives/vol17.3/hardin-when.pdf. ↩