Application and Challenge



David Bartholomae's essay “Inventing the University” (2003) speaks directly to the students' struggles to place themselves in the literacy and rhetoric of the university. Bartholomae discusses the various discourses in the academic community and how instructors and professors ask students to participate in those communities often without a proper introduction to them. He says that those discourses are often mysterious and sometimes not even understood by those who are supposed to have mastered them. Often, the words of the academic community “come through the writer and not from the writer” because the student-author is not literate in the community; he fakes it in order to achieve a sense of power or even just adequacy (Bartholomae, 2003, p. 627). In this scenario, teachers risk the danger of writing becoming “an act of aggression disguised as an act of charity” (p. 629). We present an introduction to academic discourse to them as a help : in essence we say, “In order to be successful in college, you must learn to write this way. And don't you want to be successful in college?” Yet, we often are really forcing them to speak in the discourse community with which we are familiar. We must delineate between, for example, being a student of history and “learning to write as an historian” and the power dynamics that that difference suggests (p. 633). I suggest that by introducing students to the idea of their own literacies and how their material environments shape those literacies, we can make an introduction to academic discourse less aggressive and more helpful, not only in composition classes but throughout their academic careers.

I firmly believe that by introducing these three culturally different, yet similarly reflective, texts that students may gain an understanding of how material conditions truly affect communication between one individual and another. Yet, students in the Twenty-First Century probably do not quilt, and their material needs probably differ greatly from Wendell Berry's —particularly on the college campus. Their everyday material condition is ubiquitous with technology and constant visual and aural stimulation. As a teacher of first year composition at The University of Georgia, I have seen in my classroom the laptop of almost all my students and cell phones with not only calling capabilities, but text messaging, video, and camera abilities. I have seen the video iPod of one very proud student and the iPod shuffles and nanos of many. My students and I have watched YouTube videos on a large screen, shown MySpace pages to one another, and watched movies. Further and very importantly, at UGA all first-year composition students are required to turn in an electronic portfolio that must count for at least 30% of their final grade. Technology does not live in design or business departments: it is an integral part of composition and my everyday life as an instructor.

In “The Challenge of the Multimedia Essay,” Lester Faigley (2003) foresees that “student work will be increasingly in multimedia forms. Employers, administrators, and even accrediting agencies want more technology-intensive courses, not to mention the growing percentage of students who believe that their ability to communicate using new media will be critical to their futures” (p. 179). While I do not advocate a strictly needs-based pedagogy in the composition classroom by any means, I use this quote to emphasize that work with new media texts is something that our students want and will be doing with or without us; I suggest they do it with us, and us with them.

Therefore, I further send out Wysocki's challenge for the creation of new media, particularly in context of the material literacies that I have laid out because “to be alert to such materiality also matters because it helps us use our various composing technologies as justly and thoughtfully as possible” (2004, p. 7). Faigley says, “for most people and especially for younger people, the exclusion of readily available images from a text seems unnatural. . . . furthermore, many students now routinely publish animations, audio, and video clips along with images on Web sites” (2003, p. 177-178). Yet, “ new media texts do not have to be digital ”; and, “people in our classrooms ought to be producing texts using a wide and alertly chosen range of materials” (Wysocki, 2004, p. 5, 20, emphasis hers). Giving students the option to choose the media with which they present themselves allows them to choose their relationships between themselves and others. We set the stage for them to become Wendell Berrys, Richard Rodriguezes, and Gee's Bend quilters. Wysocki explains that “when someone makes an object that is both separate from her but that shows how she can use the tools and materials and techniques of her time, then she can see a possible self—a self positioned and working with the wide material conditions of her world, even shaping that world—in that object” (p. 21).

I use these examples to show students examples of the relationship between the material world and our communication with others in it; this relationship inevitably leaves its marks, then, on our social interactions, like ours with our students. In his essay “Multicultural Literacy for Faculty,” Harvey S. Wiener (1985) says that a “neglected dimension” of literacy in our classrooms is “what teachers should know about the culture of their students” (p. 101). By giving students assignments that let them express their own literacies, we can attempt to fill that gap. Further, by exploring this understanding, I suggest that students will then be able to create texts that more adequately meet both their needs as authors and their readers' needs as readers, allowing them to say what they are going to say with more full comprehension of its creation: “this material functioning occurs when we produce any text as well, and needs to be supplemented with the broader understanding of materiality” (Wysocki, 2004, p. 7). I was going to say at the end of that last sentence that students could compose without the restriction of words, but words do not necessarily restrict. For many, including myself, the written word is literacy; it is the form of communication with which I am most comfortable and, I believe, most literate. Yet, I know why that is. I am a Ph.D. student in rhetoric and composition. I often read and write more than I speak to others or express myself in a visual way, and that is a choice I have consciously made. I want to give my students the chance to mediate their own choices, for, as Wysocki (2004) says, "writing teachers are already practiced with helping others understand how writing —as a print-based practice—is embedded among the relations of agency and extensive material practices and structures that are our lives. Writing teachers help others consider how the choices we make in producing a text necessarily situate us (or can try to avoid situating us)in the midst of ongoing, concrete, and continually up-for-grabs decisions about the shapes of our lives" (p. 7).

I agree with Lester Faigley (2003) who says that “We have no justification aside from disciplinary baggage to restrict our conception of rhetoric to words alone” (p. 187). We should not assume to know exactly what literacies students have and want to express, just as we cannot assume to understand their various cultures. Hopefully, these discussions on rhetoric and literacy should make the choice theirs, not ours.


About the Author