Religion, Remediated: Engaging Religious Literacies with the DALN
ERIN KATHLEEN BAHL
In this chapter, I theorize an assignment sequence that uses the Digital Archive of Literacy Narratives (DALN) to engage religious dimensions of literacy in the composition classroom, based on the New London Group’s (2000) two-part approach to multiliteracies. I then perform this sequence through case studies featuring the four narratives introduced above, as possible examples for students and instructors interested in implementing this sequence. I close with suggestions for how a vernacular approach to religion might intersect fruitfully with approaches to literacy that take into account both multiple cultural contexts and multiple media forms. Ultimately, my goal is to offer a multiliteracies-based framework that opens up space for addressing religious dimensions of literacy in composition classroom settings in order to open up space for a richly diverse array of voices, which have much to offer us as scholars and teachers of literate communication.
I was on Ohio State’s main campus working on this chapter when the university went into lockdown. After a flurry of conjecture, hearsay, and terrified uncertainty, we learned that an OSU student had driven a car into a crowd and attacked passersby with a knife, barely a block away from where I was writing. Later still, we learned that the student was a Somali refugee angered by Muslim persecution (Grinberg, Prokupecz, & Yan, 2016; Smith, Pérez-Peña, & Goldman, 2016; Stankiewicz 2016b; Stankiewicz & Panandiker, 2016). At the end of November 28, 2016, though, all we knew was that the attacker was dead, that eleven victims were hospitalized, and that the OSU community was in shock.
What haunts me especially in the aftermath are the words of the student who committed the attacks, shared in an interview with the OSU student newspaper The Lantern several months before: “I mean, I’m new here. This is my first day. This place is huge, and I don’t even know where to pray. I wanted to pray in the open, but I was kind of scared with everything going on in the media” (Stankiewicz, 2016a). His fear in no way excuses his actions, or the violence he inflicted in turn on his university and community members, including fear of backlash among the Columbus Somali community (Ferenchik & Rouan, 2016). Even so, I take his words as a call to reach out to other students who might be afraid to discuss their religious beliefs and practices. Had I been his instructor, how might I have built an atmosphere in which he felt comfortable asking to find a space to pray? What can I do to build a classroom where all individuals, religious or otherwise, feel welcomed—where their knowledge, practices, and beliefs are valued as resources for discussion rather than sources of shame or fear?
One possible response, illustrated in this chapter, is to bring and develop students’ multiliteracies in engagement with religiously inflected literacy narratives. The assignment sequence outlined here is meant to situate religion amidst a range of lived literacy practices for classroom discussion (rather than seeing religion as something off-limits in classroom spaces or an institutionalized, yes-no matter of debate about belief) and to help students and instructors alike enter more comfortably into conversation with individuals about their religious practices as part of their total multiliteracies.
This chapter focuses in particular on developing “religious multiliteracies,” a phrase I use to emphasize the way that religious literacies are situated amidst a constellation of communication and meaning-making practices, including writing, reading, and speaking. This, I suggest, is an area that concerns composition instructors in particular: not with “religion” as abstract category or with a complete understanding of world religions and their histories, but rather and most especially with the religious dimensions of literacy, communication, and writing that are part of many of our students’ (and our own) lived practices and identities. How do we open up space or develop comfort levels (for both our students and ourselves) to address religion as a dimension of literate practice in classroom contexts? How do we develop religious multiliteracies to help all students critically and respectfully engage religious beliefs, knowledge, and practices in meaningful ways?
In this chapter, I theorize an assignment sequence that uses the Digital Archive of Literacy Narratives (DALN) to engage religious dimensions of literacy in the composition classroom, based on the New London Group’s (2000) two-part approach to muliliteracies. I then perform this sequence through case studies featuring the four narratives introduced above, as possible examples for students and instructors interested in implementing this sequence. I close with suggestions for how a vernacular approach to religion might intersect fruitfully with approaches to literacy that take into account both multiple cultural contexts and multiple media forms. Ultimately, my goal is to offer a multiliteracies-based framework that opens up space for addressing religious dimensions of literacy in composition classroom settings in order to open up space for a richly diverse array of voices, which have much to offer us as scholars and teachers of literate communication.
|Religion||ritual meaning-making practices, often institutionalized, that reflect a set of beliefs about the sacred dimensions of reality (see Nongbri, 2015 for a discussion of the debates and development around “religion” as term and cultural category)|
|Vernacular religion||religion as it is lived, practiced, and experienced by individuals in everyday life (Bowman & Valk, 2012; George & Salvatori, 2008; Primiano, 1995)|
|Remediation||in a narrative context, transferring a story across media in a way that reflects the structure or “blueprint” of the source narrative (Ryan & Thon, 2014, p. 3; see also Ryan, 2004)|
|Literacy||the ability to read, write, compose, or otherwise communicate in a meaningful way (Digital Archive of Literacy Narratives; Prior & Shipka, 2003; Selfe & the DALN Consortium, 2013)|
|Multiliteracy||the ability to be literate across multiple cultural contexts and multiple modes of communication (New London Group, 2000)|
|Religious literacy||knowledge about a religious tradition’s beliefs and practices, which may be distinct from or complementary to identification with that tradition (Prothero, 2008)|
|Religious multiliteracy||the ability to communicate across a range of cultural contexts and media environments in a way that is inflected by or engages religious beliefs, practices, or identity|
2. Religious Literacies
Addressing Religious Literacies in Composition Classrooms
Scholars in rhetoric, composition, and literacy have taken a range of stances on how (or even whether) to address religion1 in composition classrooms. Some have noted discipline-wide tendencies to avoid addressing religious rhetoric or belief in the composition classroom (Dively, 1997; Timmerman, 2013). Others have embraced spirituality in the writing process only insofar as it is kept separate from religion, claiming that the two can “easily be disconnected” (Foehr & Schiller, 1997, p. 42). A number of scholars, however, have acknowledged both religion and spirituality as important dimensions of writers’ lived experiences and have worked toward nuanced ways of explicitly addressing these dimensions in writing instruction contexts (Barron, Grimm, & Gruber, 2006; Bizzell, 2005; Berthoff, Daniell, Campbell, Swearingen, & Moffett, 1994; Ringer, 2013; Vander Lei & kyburz, 2005).
Furthermore, literacy studies has long recognized that the teaching, learning, and deployment of literate practices are never ideologically neutral processes (Brandt, 2001; Delpit, 2009; Graff, 1991; Street, 1995). Students and teachers alike enter the composition classroom with deeply held beliefs (religious or otherwise) that often significantly shape both their identities and their processes of inquiry (Ringer, 2013). Attention to writers’ lived experiences of religion acknowledges the complex material networks out of which their literate knowledge and practices emerge (Hawk, 2007; Prior & Shipka, 2003), which can potentially be obscured by attempts to disconnect religion from spirituality. If, as Duffy (2014) argues, questions of ethics and the moral life are at the heart of teaching writing, it is important to build space in writing classrooms for acknowledging and taking seriously the different meaning-making resources (religious, spiritual, and secular alike) that participants use to answer these questions.
The assignment sequence posed in this chapter is founded on the argument that, even in light of the challenges that accompany negotiating such a highly charged topic, religious dimensions of literacy2 are important to address in the composition classroom. The U.S. is among the world’s most religiously diverse countries (Eck, 2006), meaning greater opportunities for engagement (both positive and negative) with individuals of different religious traditions. In the wake of a deeply divisive election in which religious concerns played significant roles on both sides, and in light of executive orders banning travel from six Muslim-majority countries (Chow, 2016; Trump, 2015, 2017; Parlapiano & Singhvi, 2017; “Trump travel ban,” 2017), I argue that explicitly addressing both spiritual and religious dimensions of literacy in classroom contexts is extremely important for fostering dialogue among diverse voices and perspectives.
What I especially want to emphasize by using “remediation,” rather than an associated term such as “remix,” is the common narrative or underlying structure between the source narrative and the response; the goal of the assignment is to stay close to the narrative structure so that the source narrator could recognize an accurate reflection of his or her own story in some way. Through remediation, students are challenged to understand the narrative structure at a deep level and then adapt that structure or some part of it to a new media form to demonstrate that understanding. Remix suggests that the composer uses a source text in whole or in part to perform “transformative work” that makes a new argument (Edwards, 2016). While there are elements of remix in the assignment, I use “remediation” to emphasize the goal of adapting as faithfully as possible selected elements of the source narrator’s “blueprint” (Ryan & Thon, 2014, p. 3), or underlying narrative logic. In other words, the remediation should attempt to be a complementary media translation and rephrasing to be understood in conversation with the source narrative, rather than a standalone artifact.
Additionally, the goal of engaging religious literacy narratives through remediation is an attempt to approach them from a different mode of thinking—to get out of the “scripts” (Spellmeyer, 1993) and commonplaces and ruts that often surround religion as a sensitive topic of debate and to work instead towards an embodied engagement that focuses on religion as practices situated in everyday life rather than arguments about orthodoxy of belief. Remediation invites a different approach to the narratives, one that seeks to engage closely with the details of the individuals’ lives and stories as a kind of “strategic contemplation” (Royster & Kirsch, 2012) before moving to analysis or interpretation.3
Why the DALN?
The Digital Archive of Literacy Narratives provides a unique opportunity to engage religious dimensions of literacy amidst a constellation of literacy practices, making such narratives particularly well suited for developing religious multiliteracies in composition contexts. Through the narratives in the DALN, which are focused primarily on learning how to read, write, and communicate in significant ways, students can come to see how religious multiliteracies are intricately intertwined with the narrators’ collection of literacy experiences and practices—how these religious literacies inform and are informed by these total literacy practices in ways that are impossible to fully separate. Through the voices of students, teachers, and community members, these archived stories help to move abstract discussions of “religion” from grand, overarching narratives into a focus on the concrete, embodied lives and experiences of religious individuals.
A key advantage of using the DALN as a way of engaging religious literacy narratives is the opportunity to work with concrete, personal narratives whose narrators have already given permission to share their stories by uploading them to the archive. This move invites religious literacies and voices into the classroom with an emphasis on one person’s everyday, lived experience of religion, rather than putting orthodoxy of belief or religious institutions at the forefront of the discussion. With these stories, students and instructors alike can investigate religious literacies on a personal, embodied level without requiring any individuals to disclose their own stories or beliefs (though also opening up space for them to do so if they wish). These narratives additionally give students an opportunity to listen closely and carefully to a personalized religious literacy narrative with time to reflect rather than feeling pressure to respond, in order to develop habits of mind and rhetorical practices that will serve as resources for critically and thoughtfully engaging religious literacies in live conversation.4
Working with Others’ Stories
Any assignment that seeks to use and represent other individuals’ deeply personal stories likewise demands a careful consideration of the ethics of such use and representation.5 I echo Amy Shuman’s (2010) acknowledgement that telling others’ stories is something we as human beings already do, along with her call for critical attention in order to keep such storytelling “a process of negotiating, rather than defending, meaning” (p. 5) in conversation with the stories’ first narrators.
One of the challenges in setting up an assignment where students retell others’ stories is the danger of a “narcissistic reading,” in which the remediators “[seek] to capture the stories of others as, at heart, stories about themselves” (Schneider, 2009, p. 924), thus completely missing engagement with the particular nuances of the storytellers’ unique materially situated contexts and conditions.6 This is perhaps particularly a danger in the case of working with the literacy narratives of marginalized voices (religious or otherwise), as Schneider notes in her classroom use of literacy narratives to engage ethnic and racial identities. Along with Schneide (2009), though, I argue that it is important to enter into critically discerning examinations of others’ stories in the hopes of seeking common ground upon which to build genuine conversation.7 The process of remediating the source narratives thus becomes a challenge of active rhetorical listening (Ratcliffe, 1999) that “[allows] the reader to hear the other both as the other and as a companion… encourag[ing] an empathy that identifies and differentiates, affiliates with others and respects their separateness” (Schneider, 2009, p. 928). By creating these remediations, with the understanding that they represent the remediator’s reading and do not replace the source narrator’s voice, the response can then be examined and critiqued in the reflection stage.
Furthermore, an approach to invention through critically reflective imagination constitutes an important knowledge-making mode in its own right. Royster and Kirsch (2012) name both “strategic contemplation” and “critical imagination” as important feminist strategies for engaging with otherwise marginalized voices in our research (and by extension our teaching as well). Critical imagination seeks to fill in gaps by raising possibilities of “what if,” while recognizing that some gaps will and can never be filled (p. 20; see also Anderson, 2016); strategic contemplation slows down analytical approaches to make space to be with a source in all its complexity without rushing to closure (Royster & Kirsh, 2012, p. 22). In a recent essay from Composition Forum’s special issue on emotion, Leake (2016) likewise frames empathy as simultaneously affective and cognitive, a movement of both the heart and the imagination that recognizes both overlap and distinction in self-other relationships. This assignment sequence, in responding to religiously inflected literacy narratives, uses the process of remediation to slow down and make space for these affective-imaginative responses to develop and take shape. I note, too, both Leake (2016) and Shuman’s (2010) call for a critical empathy that does not just simply benefit the empathizer, who is often in a position of power. Thus, this assignment sequence does not end with the “Reflection” stage, which leaves the remediator focused on their own views of and approaches to the narrative. Rather, students are encouraged to take one step further and close with the “Response” stage, which opens up space to continue the conversation (at least theoretically) and shifts the power to speak back to the source narrator’s side.
From a literacy pedagogy standpoint, this project emulates the New London Group’s (2000) “pedagogy of multiliteracies” approach in attempting to both 1.) “account for the context of our culturally and linguistically diverse and increasingly globalized societies” and 2.) “account for the burgeoning variety of text forms associated with information and multimedia technologies” (p. 9). The assignment sequence instructs students to engage a religious perspective other than their own and choose a new media form for remediating the narrative in order to deliberately encourage them to develop, enact, and appreciate multiple approaches to literate practice.
Multiple Cultural Contexts
The first dimension of a multiliteracies pedagogical framework embraces multiple cultural perspectives and contexts. Literacy studies has provided a rich array of sources for investigating diverse literacies and voices both inside and outside the classroom (Brandt, 2001; Cintron, 1998; Gee, 2003; Gere, 1994; Heath, 1983; Kinloch, 2010; Moss, 2002; Peck, Flower & Higgins, 1995; Selfe & Hawisher, 2004; Smitherman, 1996; Street, 1995; Trimbur, 2001). Scholars in this area have especially provided models for using stories to encounter diverse voices and marked identities (Miller, 2009) in pedagogical contexts: to engage students on multiple cognitive and affective levels (Schneider, 2009); to foreground real people’s stories in ways that challenge preconceived beliefs (Delpit, 2009); to identify gaps in and add nuance to the narratives of powerful discourses (Webb-Sunderhaus, 2009); and to “unmask truth” through deceptively simple narrative forms (Royster, 2009, p. 1122). As Selfe and the DALN Consortium (2013) note, stories are not only “powerful ways of telling our literate selves into being” but also “a potent means of conveying information about the historical and cultural contexts of literate activities and values”—and thus potentially key tools for examining a culturally situated phenomenon such as religion through the lens of one individual’s literate experiences.
In examining the materially situated, culturally contextualized facets of religion (Vasquez, 2010) this assignment sequence draws on a “vernacular religion” approach to literacy. Such a frame is strongly inspired by Primiano’s (1995) approach to “vernacular religion” as a methodology within folklore studies, which places the emphasis strongly on individual creativity and agency in responding to and deploying the resources of a religious tradition in their everyday practice (Primiano, 1995, 2012). I seek to draw attention to the source narrators’ diverse, self-defined experiences, understandings, and practices of religion as part of their everyday literate practices, rather than necessarily to questions of institutional orthodoxy or held beliefs.8 George and Salvatori (2008) have already implemented a vernacular religion approach within literacy studies in order to explore religious visual literacies (via holy cards) in extracurricular contexts; I hope this current project will serve as a way of adapting “vernacular religion” as a useful framework for addressing religion in pedagogical contexts such as the composition classroom.
Multiple Media Forms
The second dimension of a multiliteracies pedagogy calls for attention to multiple media forms. This project finds roots in a robust theoretically informed pedagogical tradition of multimodal composing and critical consideration of digital literacies (George, 2002; Lutkewitte, 2013; McCorkle, 2012; Palmeri, 2012; Rhodes & Alexander, 2014, Selfe, 2007; Shipka, 2011; Wysocki, Johnson-Eilola, Selfe, & Sirc, 2004). This field has provided rich models for both theorizing and performing digital composing in pedagogical contexts (Delagrange, 2009a; Journet, Ball, & Trauman, 2012), as well as reflecting on and narrating experiences of digital literacy practices (Delagrange, 2009b; Rhodes & Alexander, 2015)—values at the heart of the DALN’s creation (Selfe et al., 2013). In particular, the goals of this assignment align closely with Alexander, Ringer, and DePalma’s (2016) adaptive remediation framework, “a multidimensional approach that helps students transfer knowledge across media” (p. 33). Although the four stages in this project do not map directly onto the four approaches of adaptive remediation, the four critical moves Alexander et al. (2016) describe connect to the literate activities students must enact in order to complete the assignment sequence:
- charting: “examining a text to determine its rhetorical moves” (p. 34); students must examine how the source narrators structure their narratives, and how they draw from their religious traditions in order to describe their experiences of literacy.
- inventorying: “tak[ing] stock of the range of semiotic resources at [one’s] disposal in various modes and media” (p. 35); students must consider the material resources they have available for remediating the source narrative (including time).
- coordinating: “analyz[ing] the rhetorical situation of remediated texts, consider[ing] how a text might be remediated, and examin[ing] rhetorical strategies, inventional possibilities, and additional literacies or resources… to draw on” (p. 35); students must consider what form of target media best suits the narrative to be adapted and additionally conduct research into the source narrators’ religious traditions and perspectives.
- literacy linking: “construct[ing] connections among domains of literacy [in order] to integrate… multiple literacies in meaningful ways” (p. 35); students must reflect on and articulate their rhetorical decisions behind choosing to remediate the selected literacy narrative in a particular way, and must additionally generate questions that further the conversation in ways that demonstrate their learning.
With an adaptive remediation framework, the resulting projects are thus not replacements for the source narrative, but rather become additional laminations in the layers of literate activities connecting remediator and source narrator (Prior & Shipka, 2003). The rhetorically reflective, semiotically attentive nature of an adaptive remediation pedagogical framework connects well to the kind of media-rich, materially situated critical reflection9 that this assignment sequence is designed to foster for addressing religious dimensions of literacy in composition classroom contexts.10
|Research||Students will select a literacy narrative from the DALN whose narrator identifies with a religious tradition other than their own (whether of a particular faith, general spirituality, or none). They will then research that tradition and compile a bibliography of at least five sources.||In keeping with a multiliteracies pedagogy, this step encourages students to deliberately engage diverse voices other than their own and to learn more about the traditions and discussions which contextualize these stories. They do not need to know everything about the tradition of the selected narrative, but they should learn at least some of the key beliefs and practices to move beyond stereotypes, understand the narrator’s perspective more clearly, and inform the design of their remediations.|
|Remediate||Students will remediate all or part of the source literacy narrative in such a way that the narrator would recognize an accurate representation of their own perspective and story. This remediation will take a media form other than that of the source narrative (for example, a video narrative must be remediated as an image, alphabetic text, or any form other than video).||As noted above, remediation encourages students to get out of stereotypes or verbal scripts by paying closer attention to the underlying logical structures of the narratives. By composing with modes and channels other than those used by the source narrator, they are encourages to think of embodied resources beyond language, and to explore other kinds of knowledge-making resources that might get at facets of the narrative language alone cannot address.|
|Reflect||Students will write an alphabetic reflection accounting for their goals and choices in remediating the source narrative: How did they choose their particular media form? What part of the narrative did they decide to focus on, and why? What was left out, and why might that be significant? How did their research influence their decisions in the remediation process? How did their own thoughts, beliefs, and perspectives influence their remediation decisions?||The reflection guides students to articulate the reasons
behind their decisions in order to generate conversation about
religious dimensions of literacy. In particular, it is crucial
for them to think about the consequences of their decisions in
representation and the implications of these choices both for
rhetorical learning purposes and for conscientious ethical
|Respond||After reviewing the source literacy narrative in relation to their remediation, students will close with three critical questions they would ask the source narrator in order to continue a conversation about the religious dimensions of their literacy narrative. These questions should be clearly connected to the students’ work in the three previous stages of the assignment.||The goal of this assignment is to lead towards dialogue and conversation about religion in literacy-based contexts. The students most likely cannot respond directly to the person in the video. However, brainstorming how they might respond based on their engagement work can help them to prepare for future conversations and engaged listening about religious multiliteracies.|
4. Case Studies
In presenting this assignment sequence through self-generated case study examples, this project embodies a value of “making as knowing.” This design was partly determined by necessity; due to institutional constraints, I was unable to include examples of student work in my research. However, like Delagrange (2009a), I am deeply “convinced of the importance of making as an epistemological act, the importance of visual and other kinds of evidence as necessary to a full and fruitful epistemic space, and the necessity of embodiment as an ethical condition of the making and the made,” and that it is important for teachers and scholars writing about composing in multiple media channels to perform such work themselves. Furthermore, I agree with Smart (2005) that as instructors “we need to interrogate the beliefs we espouse in both the real and rhetorical situations we share with our students” (p. 22). In working to engage religious literacies in the classroom, we too are part of the “process of ‘keeping company’ with [our students] in the pursuit of an unforeseen but common truth” (Spellmeyer, 1993, p. 266); in serving as mentors and models for this process, we too risk “the dangers of [a] conversation” as “a drama of change and discovery, an event of language” that is “intimate, precarious, and unsophisticated” (p. 266-267). These examples serve as potential models for using stories from the DALN to engage religious literacies in classroom contexts.
To create these examples, I focused on four narratives not of my tradition (Roman Catholic Christian) that lend themselves to remediation well across differing media formats (so as to show a range of examples for students): one Kriyaban, one Muslim, one Jewish, one spiritual—one poem, one audio file, one image, one video. I used a keyword search to find all the literacy narratives specifically tagged “religion.” Another keyword would have yielded different results, such as “spirituality” or “faith” or “belief” or “sacred”; I chose “religion” in order to work with a “vernacular religion” framework based on how the narrators understand the term, and also in order to facilitate an emphasis on concrete material traditions rooted in historical practice and symbol systems, rather than abstract belief.11 My selection methods cannot represent the entirety of the religious literacy narratives available in the DALN (much less the entirety of the DALN). However, they represent one approach to navigating this large archive that might be useful for helping students find a few useful sources with which to engage, without becoming completely lost or overwhelmed.
The following examples include both the original literacy narrative file and my remediation, along with a brief reflection; the research sources are included in the collection’s Appendix section. I encourage readers to engage the source narrative in its entirety first, followed by the remediation, the reflection, and the response, just as the assignment sequence encourages students to listen carefully and critically to the source narrator’s story before crafting their response.
Several literate practices figure significantly in Anonymous’s (audio) vernacular religious literacy narrative. She speaks several times of experiencing spiritual guidance through reading; it was through the autobiography of her spiritual teacher (Paramahansa Yogananda) that she discovered his story and teachings, and at the end she expresses her hope that her relatives will likewise find their own spiritual paths based on the reading that inspires them. Reading aloud (poetry, chants, and prayers) also plays an important role in her daily spiritual practice, she notes, and she closes her narrative by reciting one of Yogananda’s poems. Her fundamental experience of communication is “on very many levels: not just through writing or the reading, but also through the spirit,” which provides the foundation for “the bond between guru and disciple” she experiences with Yogananda despite having never met him in person. In response to these practices, I wanted to explore a remediation of Anonymous’s literacy narrative as an alphabetic poem that used her words in conversation with those of her teacher (though via a different channel than her audio recording, based on the terms of the assignment).
I considered making an erasure poem with the transcript of her narrative—erasing all but a few key words in order to “unearth” a new poem—but I worried about the risks of decontextualizing her words and “writing” my own voice. Instead, I selected substantial phrases that traced the arc of her narrative from beginning to end and put them in a dialogic arrangement with the text of Yogananda’s “Prayer at Dawn,” one of the poems she mentioned in her narrative as significant to her spiritual literacies and growth. I aligned Anonymous’s text at the right and Yogananda’s poem at the left to signify that though she speaks first in this source narrative, her voice and thoughts respond to the historically earlier historical voice of her teacher. Her voice speaks first, though, because this is her story and interpretation of her teacher’s texts. At the end are the lines she used to close her narrative, “Polestar of My Life,” centered on the page in order to visually indicate the voices of teacher and student coming together as she recites his words—a representation of the many layers (reading, writing, and spirit) surrounding her literacy practices.
- You shared several poems in your story. Do you write any poetry of your own as part of your spiritual practice, or do you prefer to read/pray with the poems of spiritual teachers such as Yogananda?
- You mentioned several dialogue partners in your story, such as Yogananda, the psychic, and classes through the Kriya center. What role do you find that conversation has played in your spiritual growth, and if you’re willing, can you give some examples of other conversations/conversation partners that have been especially formative for you?
- Your spiritual literacy narrative has brought together several different sources of religious tradition and practices: Kriya, psychics/mediums, and Christianity. In your experience, how do you see these sources in conflict, and how do you see them in conversation?
Lauren’s literacy narrative incorporates many different themes: coming to an understanding of and asserting her Jewish identity, especially in the face of opposition; acknowledging the spiritual and intellectual mentorship at the heart of her new relationship to organized religion and the Jewish community in Omaha; trying to wrestle with the idea of what comes before nothing, especially in connection to the internet; and using scriptural imagery to frame her experience of new media creation. Since I’d already explored themes of spiritual mentorship in working with Anonymous’s narrative, I chose to focus on Lauren’s reflections on new media creation as religious experience and wrestling with the internet as a metaphor for existence. Focusing on her theme of digital composing as a sort of “Old Testament” notion of “creation and destruction,” I considered creation stories from Genesis. In researching these stories, I encountered images of spheres rigidly organized into neatly separated segments, depicting “reconstruction[s] of ancient Hebrew cosmology” (Boadt, Clifford, & Harrington, 2012, p. 92). I decided to map segments of Lauren’s narrative onto a sequence of relatively iconographic images representing the Genesis creation story.
To keep some of the elements of destruction, though, I framed the creation images with wedges pulling away at the stability of the squares, in the same way that Lauren frames her narrative with questions of “what comes before nothing.” These corner images pull the squares towards a larger sphere in the background filled with the HTML source code from Lauren’s DALN webpage—which, for me as distant audience, is the mediating base through which her story exists. In the illustration, the source code provides a semi-transparent background that questions the opaque stability suggested by the brightly colored creation images. At the same time, these framing corner images bear the same colors and diagonal arrangement as the middle creation image, pulling back towards the center in what hopefully becomes a dialectic between stability and ephemerality, between creation and destruction, similar to the religiously inflected experiences of digital composing that Lauren describes in her narrative.
- I was interested to hear your examples of digital literacy media composing in terms of Old Testament ideas of creation and destruction—could you use that metaphor to talk about your experiences with composing a particular digital project?
- You talk about a communal experience of digital composing, especially in terms of creating and sharing texts—can you talk more about how your experience with the Jewish community has influenced your understanding of literacy communities?
- Does your work as (digital) creator help you wrestle with the question of what comes before nothing, or before/after the internet? If so, why or how? If not, in what ways is the metaphor inadequate?
Charissa’s literacy narrative was one of the longest I chose to work with, and as a result it unfortunately probably had the most cut out in order to create a brief, focused remediation. For the purposes of this remediation, the two themes I especially wanted to highlight were the role that both Islam and Christianity have played in shaping her spiritual literacies and the importance of listening to her spiritual literacy practices. Charissa identifies herself as Muslim, but she sees both the Quran and the Bible as very important and emphasizes points of connection between the two texts. She also talks about the importance of listening in her life; not only does she listen to the Bible on tape, but she also listens to Islamic lectures on CD as she goes about her daily activities. Based on her self-identification as a “listener,” and her emphasis on listening as an important spiritual literacy practice, I wanted to create a remediation that drew remediator and audience alike into that same embodied practice of listening.
Though the end result sounds deceptively simple, this audio remediation was actually one of the most challenging case studies to create.12 I tried interspersing her words with chanted recordings of the first surah of the Quran, since this surah is an important component of Muslim daily prayer (and she mentioned that she recites her prayers in Arabic with the help of a CD). However, this arrangement didn’t aurally reflect the dialogue between Islam and Christianity that she describes in the featured section of her narrative. I tried adding a Gregorian chant recording of the Benedictus, an important component of Christian daily prayer. However, the differences in audio quality tended to draw focal attention to the chanting voices from each tradition (which were both male). I thought about getting rid of all accompanying audio tracks entirely and just focusing on Charissa’s voice, to really highlight the importance of words and attentive listening. At the same time, though, I wanted the remediation to represent a sort of conversation between the two of us, in a way that foregrounded her voice but still indicated my engagement with it. Eventually I found a gentle piano piece that opened up a listening, reflective space to accompany Charissa’s narrative voice. I especially like that the main theme alternates back and forth between two notes, in the same way that Charissa describes her complementary experience of reading the Quran and the Bible. At the end of the track, I was especially pleased that the song’s unedited timing happened to fade out as Charissa spoke about the power of words—highlighting the fact that that in this remediation, her own words take center stage.
- You described “listening” as very important to your practice of spiritual literacies. Do you find a similar emphasis on listening in your experience of Islamic tradition, or is this something that is more unique to your own experience and practice?
- You highlight many instances in which the Quran and the Bible connect to one another closely. How do you engage/respond/make sense of the places in which the two texts might be in conflict?
- In your own life, does listening offer/invite a different kind of spiritual experience than reading? If so, how and why?
Elizabeth describes her own uncertainty with whether to use the term “spiritual but not religious,” noting that some have given her that label but not claiming it herself. Initially I debated whether to include her story among the case studies; ultimately I chose to include her narrative because it came up with the keyword search for “religion,” and the narrators typically have the option to choose their own keywords, which suggested it was okay to loosely use that label for her while still trying to attend to the unique nuances of her experience. Her narrative is also interesting in that she lists it as a poem remixing a print narrative—so in some ways, through the remediation I’m entering into collaboration with her in her own act of remixing her narrative. She focuses especially on embodied experience as spiritual experience: swimming, playing music, feeling emotion, gathering with others. Her emphasis on the dynamic bodies made me especially curious to explore her narrative as a video focusing on bodies in action.
I chose to foreground one segment of her narrative that she describes as her “most transcendent” experience, being on a snowboard. To aim for a brief, tightly crafted video segment, I used a “Concept in 60” format that aims to present a video idea in 60 seconds by combining non-matching audio and video (DeWitt, Harmon, Lackey, & LaVecchia, 2015). Using Creative Commons-licensed YouTube videos of snowboarders, I tried to balance a transcendent atmosphere of majestic mountain scenes and twinkly snowflake-like music with first-person shots that put the viewer on the board with the snowboarder. I especially liked a clip in which the snowboarder digs into the snow in a tight curve and the recording device picks up a deep, vibrating growl, which contrasts with some of the more ethereal shots of smooth gliding or aerial maneuvers. The pacing, too, aims to give some time for Elizabeth’s beautifully crafted words to sink in by contemplatively spreading out the space between each line. The final shot is an image of snow that shows the tracks of the body’s passing, even as the body itself is no longer present, evoking dynamic between embodied presence and absence that Elizabeth explores in her narrative. The video very deliberately doesn’t incorporate any traditional religious imagery, just as Elizabeth avoids such imagery overall in narrating her own spiritual experiences of literacy. Instead, I tried to use the images and ideas that Elizabeth herself describes as spiritually significant in order to create a remediation that invites the viewer to consider the ways in which embodied literacies themselves can be a form of spiritual experience.
- Of all the embodied literacies and experiences you mentioned, why did snowboarding in particular stick out as your most transcendent moment?
- What drew your attention to embodiment as a sort of spiritual experience, especially in a cultural context that tends to draw a binary between body and spirit/mind?
- Along with the body, what other images or symbols do you find most meaningful to your unique spiritual experience?
This theorized assignment sequence is in many ways a suggestion, and I would encourage those interested in trying it to adapt it based on their own institutional context, community context, and comfort level. I especially encourage instructors to begin with developing a set of ground rules for discussing religion in classroom contexts, preferably built in conversation with the students themselves and easily accessible for referral as needed in discussions.
Though not a direct match to a composition classroom, Harvard’s Pluralism Project can provide a successful model for student engagement with religious individuals, narratives, and spaces in their local communities; their “Research Guidelines” may be a useful pedagogical resource for structuring discussions around researching religious literacies in localized context. For example, instructors might examine the religious diversity present in their area through resources such as the Pluralism Project website, which documents religious centers in cities across the US and highlight narratives that reflect the religious diversity of local community. This assignment might be adapted around discussions of religious groups in current events, as a way of putting individual narratives in dialogue with broader narratives in order to complicate them, or it might focus on religious groups and their literacies who tend to be overlooked or underrepresented in popular media contexts.
An additional opportunity might be to encourage research that bridges the classroom and the local community: inviting classmates or family members to share and record their narratives; visiting local religious or interfaith centers to learn more about their literacies; inviting speakers from the community into the classroom—in other words, inviting immersion in numerous kinds of media for research and remediation that broadens students’ multiliteracies in action. In particular, a project focused on collecting stories could work well with the infrastructural resources already offered by the DALN and modeled through other pedagogical examples, such as Selfe and Ulman’s “Literacy Narratives of Black Columbus” class (see their chapter in this collection).
I want to note as well that this theorized assignment is proposed for composing classrooms in general, not necessarily digital composing classrooms. Though digital technologies provide excellent resources for multimodal composing, the remediations do not need to be digital in order to encourage thoughtful consideration of a range of modes and media’s communicative affordances (Shipka, 2011). As Palmeri (2012) illustrates, composition pedagogy has always been multimodal, and the goals of this assignment sequence could be easily met with virtually any form of target remediation media, digital or otherwise. My hope is that while students and instructors alike will consider every available resource at their disposal, access to particular kinds of composing technologies will not be a determining factor for engaging narrated religious dimensions of literacy in all their material richness.
In lieu of a conclusion, I end with suggestions for how a “vernacular religion” approach to religious dimensions of literacy might intersect with explorations of multiliteracies on the levels of both multiple cultures and media forms. Deans (2014) has illustrated an approach to using institutional religious narratives as source material for learning about literacy, and I hope to make a similar move with vernacular literacy narratives as well. I suggest that vernacular religious literacy narratives such as those in the DALN have much to offer scholars and teachers looking to incorporate religious voices into the classroom, not as obstacles but rather as allies working toward a common cause of communication and making.
Through these literacy narratives, we can learn about the ways these individuals employ religion as “technology” (Plate, 2015), about religion as a source of creative artistry and making (Primiano, 2012), and about religious experience as deeply grounded in the body (Vasquez, 2010). In terms of the New London Group’s (2000) multiliteracy design cycle (available designs, designing, redesigned), “vernacular religion” might investigate how narrators draw on religious experiences as one set of available designs for making sense of their literacy practices and lived experiences.13 From Anonymous we learn how she understands “the spirit” as an additional communication medium layered with written and spoken texts. From Lauren’s connection of digital media composing with Old Testament notions of creation and destruction, we learn how can these and other creation stories (especially perhaps those that emphasize creation as a speech act) offer interesting frames for thinking about the creative/destructive elements of our own digital composing work. From Charissa we see how one individual negotiates common ground between two religious traditions often seen as at odds, as well as how she chooses a particular embodied literacy experience that fuses religious learning with her daily life and activities. From Elizabeth, whose literacy narrative directly challenges rigid binaries between body and spirit, we find a frame for viewing the two as absolutely inseparable to her ways of experiencing the world. These vernacular religious ways of knowing, making, and communicating offer scholars and instructors insights about individual experiences of literacy through diverse, religiously inflected voices and ways of making knowledge.
Though religion has received less attention than other identity categories such as race, class, disability, gender, and sexual orientation (Deans, 2014), I hope that the vernacular approach to religious literacy outlined here—one that highlights religion as a lived, creative, embodied phenomenon—opens up new possibilities for exploring religious identity as part of a web of complex material factors (Hawk, 2007; Prior & Shipka, 2003) influencing literate practices. If religion (as a dimension of literacy) is viewed as a creative process of meaning-making that draws on a set of available design resources, remediation of a literacy narrative in classroom spaces can be one way to connect with the source narrator’s active, embodied practices of religion as “technology” without immediately moving to questions of belief—a way of engaging religiously inflected voices that prioritizes critical empathy through conversational making. This chapter offers one suggestion towards making space for these voices in composing classroom spaces, not only to honor our students in their diverse totality and complex ways of knowing, but also to learn what insights they have to offer about lived experiences of multiliterate practice.
7. Final Thoughts
Over the days and weeks following the attack on Ohio State’s campus, the university community came together to grieve and to heal. For me, some of the most powerful responses came through writing, through public displays and messages that made the community’s support visible. I stepped across brightly colored chalk scrawled along the greenway sidewalks, scanned the post-it notes clinging to the wall by the department elevator, stood silently in front of the bulletin boards set up in the student union entryway—covered in permanent marker from end to end. These mediated messages were rhetorical moves toward redefining our campus as a space of peace, even as we struggled to make sense of the violence enacted by and upon members of our own community.
I am as helpless as anyone to change the past and the lives that have been shattered through religiously motivated violence and fear. But what I can do as a teacher is try to create a space in my classroom where religious literacies are welcomed into open discussion; where words of support for a diverse community are actively offered rather than reactions to crisis; and where mediated expressions of connection take on deeper nuance through critical examination. Thinking back to the message boards set up on campus following the attacks, I want to move from a heartfelt invitation to “Share your thoughts and feelings” (as one board’s title reads) toward what Nash (2001) envisions as “a designated space for robust and respectful religious dialogue”—a space for “open, challenging, spiritually, and educationally revitalizing conversations about genuine religious difference” (emphasis in original, p. 4). The assignment sequence explored in this chapter serves as one attempt to build such a space.
- For a discussion on the historical development of “religion” as a term and cultural category, see Nongbri, 2015.↵
- I distinguish between Prothero’s (2008) definition of “religious literacy” and the way literate practices are discussed in this project. Prothero defines religious literacy as “the ability to understand and use in one’s day-to-day life the basic building blocks of religious traditions—their key terms, symbols, doctrines, practices, sayings, characteristics, metaphors, and narratives” (2008, p. 11-12). This project examines religious dimensions of literacy, or how narrators make sense of their experiences of literate practices (such as reading, writing, digital composing, and other forms of communication) in religious terms.↵
- This approach is inspired in part by the “notice and focus” exercise outlined in the composition textbook Writing Analytically (Rosenwasser & Stephen, 2011), which encourages students to observe closely and name the details they encounter in a text. ↵
- This is not to say that the DALN is a perfect resource, however; a search for the “religion” tag pulls up predominately literacy narratives from white Christian individuals. This project thus also serves as a call and an invitation for more diverse religious literacy narratives in the hopes of building up a more broadly representative collection for the archive. ↵
- For an exploration of narrative representation through digital remediation see Provocations: Reconstructing the Archive (Berry, Hawisher, & Selfe, 2016). In this webtext, four featured authors remix and remediate others’ stories (whether family members, intellectual idols, or strangers) as part of a larger work of creative scholarship. Kirsch’s closing reflection in particular explores the ethical questions that accompany these authors’ reuse and representation of others’ stories.↵
- Schneider (2009) describes her experiences using literacy narratives to engage diverse voices in one of her own courses. This chapter seeks to respond to her call for building empathy through active rhetorical listening, discernment, attention to detail, and critical affective response.↵
- See also Spellmeyer (1993), particularly his account of the debate between Peter Elbow and David Bartholomae at CCCC 1989 in Chapter 9 of Common Ground.↵
- A similar approach to religion is taken by Nash (2001) in his work to expand religious pluralism in academic settings: “Religion is a highly personal narrative that the believer creates in order to evoke, and to answer, the most confounding existential questions, the ones that defy easy scientific, political, or technological answers” (p. 60). Though I do not claim that this is the only way to understand religion, I do suggest that Nash’s definition can be one potentially useful approach for engaging religious literacies in pluralistic spaces such as the composition classroom.↵
- See also Shipka’s (2011) discussion of “statements of goals and choices.”↵
- Recently the featured authors in the aforementioned Provocations: Reconstructing the Archive (Berry et al., 2016) have raised interesting questions regarding narrative remediation and digital representation in creative scholarship; I hope that this project will open up space for exploring similar work and approaches in pedagogical contexts.↵
- Although I cannot definitively claim that all the narrators selected this keyword to describe their narrative, the DALN does offer an option for including a subject keyword during the “submission” process, which makes it likely that this is a term the narrators are using to characterize their own narratives.↵
- One of the greatest challenges came with the poor audio quality of the source narrative. These remediation serves as a good reminder of one of the challenges of working with an open source archive like the DALN, that the narratives are primarily not professionally recorded—which opens up both the benefits and challenges of meeting the narrators precisely where they’re at technologically.↵
- See also George and Salvatori, 2008.↵
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