CCR 611: Multimodality, Tinkering, and the Craft/Comp Border

When I was younger, I built things. Rolling out an industrial-sized roll of thick, white paper onto the cold floor of my parent’s glassed-in back porch, I drew grassy fields, rivers, mountains, and beaches that gave way to scribbled-on seas. But that was just the first step. Soon I took out slender wooden train tracks and blocks, building a set of towns and rail networks across my paper countryside.

In the summer, my neighbor and I made paper planes, folding for hours on my grandfathers weather-grayed table in the backyard. We also drew designs in notebooks: go carts, forts, a zip line to deliver notes between houses. My basement table was covered with LEGO models, K’Nex, Tinker-Tots–whatever sets I could find.

As we got older, we built robots, using a kit to construct and program them.  Inspired by the show Robot Wars, we mostly had them fight, filming them on my parent’s VHS camera. But they had other uses, like taking care of my rabbit or trying to go up and down a particularly difficult hill.

These days, I don’t build much. Except with my nephews. But even they often prefer videogames, kickball, and playing with their instruments.

So, considering multimodal composition–through both digital architecture and tactile 3-D printing–brought back a spirit of play and tinkering. The pieces also brought some helpful elements to draw from for concrete teaching moments and larger teaching philosophies.

One of my initial questions was of boundary: namely, where does the composition classroom end and the craft class begin? Jason Palmeri hits at this pretty directly by arguing that (writing) composition has much in common with other modes of composition and creative process, like painting. With that in mind, we should draw on the scholarship, experiences, and expertise of other fields.

Reflecting this, Palmeri writes, “In seeking to develop common vocabularies for understanding visual and alphabetic composing, it could be useful for us to take up Emig, Flower, and Hayes’s suggestion that we collaborate with scholars in ‘allied arts’ fields in studying the creative process.” This notion of a “creative process” beyond isolated practices in a given context seems to resonate with transfer. And though Palmeri concedes that domain-specific knowledge likely exists, compositions should likely consider the composition process in more expansive ways, and other “allied arts” may have insights to add to this.

Drawing further from the process movement, Palmeri also asserts that writing is always multimodal, as thinking is often multimodal. For example, one may think of an image and “translate” that image into prose. In more multimodal and multimedia spaces for composition, this multimodal thinking may create particularly rich creations if left to explore.

This leads me to the discussion of prototyping and 3-D printing in Sayers’ “Prototyping the Past.” Here, Sayers’ focus on the historical elements of objects as well as the prototype-driven process of producing constructs a model that deeply aligns the material with the social. It also brings the historical into the composition classroom, while writing can often feel somewhat ahistorical. Last, the prototyping process, with its speculative, yet active nature seems to offer a set of skills–research, analysis, planning, producing, reflecting, revising, collaborating–that would not only connect with writing, but would connect to potentially broader goals.

Thus, if one wants a composition classroom concerned with these “higher-order” elements, constructing objects in the way Sayers outlines presents a powerful pedagogy that aligns with composition.

But in particular, I found Sayers’ “Tinker-Centered Pedagogy” most relevant for translating these aspects directly into the classroom. I think his treatment of coding offered a concrete way to engage with coding in introductory, yet critical ways. Again, it involved a speculative approach mingled with hands-on attempts, which seems to employ reflective, thoughtful thinking with more intuitive, heuristic thinking. This also seems to connect with many composition goals, but in a new modality. Moreover, with the increased role of technology, looking at script in terms of language–as something that drives Internet architecture–helps prevent it from getting swept behind a “black box” interface, a concern I increasingly have.

I also think the mixed paragraphs activity provides a way to engage with ideas of “flow,” structure, and organization more concretely. While students, consultants, and instructors often talk about these qualities, I feel like it is hard to experience or explain. Tinkering with structure might offer the sort of heuristics–or deliberate choices–that could clarify these notions. It also sounds fun.

I guess, then, my main takeaway is looking at how these alternative approaches may infuse the risk of play, reflection/analysis, and hands-on tasks with classes and assignments. In this way, to return to my craft/composition question, I don’t think a border needs to exist between the two–or at the very least, I think permeability and blur are healthy.

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