Shooting the “Gifts” of the Archives: A Convoluted Pedagogy




Using Walter Benjamin’s The Arcades Project, this chapter articulates a convoluted method for teaching archival work using the Digital Archive of Literacy Narratives. Further, this chapter details an assignment taught using this method in an advanced composition course for upper-level undergraduates at Coastal Carolina University in the spring of 2016. In that course, students were asked to compose a videotext using narratives accessed through the DALN. Both scholarly and personal, this assignment enabled students to reflect on and critique the literacy narrative as a genre and to use the inventive potentials of the DALN in critical and creative ways.



A world of secret affinities opens up within: palm tree and feather duster, hairdryer and Venus de Milo, prostheses and letter-writing manuals. —Walter Benjamin

I. Introduction

Literacy narratives have a problem. For years, I assigned them in my classes with the belief that they allow student-composers an opportunity to analyze their lifelong literate practices and perhaps even enable them, in the best examples, to contextualize those individual practices into larger social movements. What I have discovered, however, was that far too often such assignments do little more than give students a chance to compose a very particular kind of story. A story that unfortunately tells us little about the significance of the student’s individual literate experiences and even less about the social conditions from which those experiences emerge. Rather, students almost inevitably rely on larger cultural and archetypal narratives to give shape and meaning to their own memories—and who could blame them? On some level, this is just how memory works. The process of granting significance to certain memories over others and generating meaning from those remembered moments is largely informed by stories available to us already simply through our participation in culture. While this alone is not a problem, I can’t help but wonder: what am I really after when assigning literacy narratives? What are these narratives supposed to do for the student and for us as teacher-researchers? And, would resisting the conventional memorative elements of literacy narratives be productive? If so, how?

While these questions gave me more than enough to think about, they have been complicated by my use of the Digital Archive of Literacy Narratives (DALN) to teach students archival research methods and qualitative research in writing studies. Typically, in an upper-level advanced writing course, I assign a literacy narrative prior to conducting research through the DALN in order for students to become familiar with the genre first. But might I use the genre and the archive simultaneously, perhaps towards the end of the course, to push against students’ tendencies to appropriate cultural tropes in their own narratives? Similarly, could students productively research these tropes by identifying their use in the narratives of others in the DALN? And, if so, could these narratives be used for more experimental assignments—perhaps through remix and collage techniques?

Questions like these, and the possibilities they open for teaching, make the DALN an important resource for undergraduate research pedagogy; it grants students access to a preexistent archive, but what constitutes that archive falls under a broad spectrum of generic possibility, further inviting students to add to, take from, remix, and finally reconstitute what an archive can be. Much like Comer and Harker (2015) note in “The Pedagogy of the Digital Archive of Literacy Narratives: A Survey,” the “experimental nature of the DALN spills into classrooms, inviting teachers and students to play with the possibilities, whether that means developing creative narration strategies or examining the complexities of coding multimodal data” (p. 81). The creative potential of the DALN allows students opportunities not only to think about their own relationships with literacy, memory, and culture, but to manipulate its contents in order to create pieces that demonstrate those relationships in intellectually and aesthetically challenging ways. This chapter will highlight one such demonstration by student-composers in an upper-level advanced writing course.

Students in that course composed digitally remixed “narratives” using narratives from the DALN as well as their own voices, stories, and experiences to create a kind of literacy collage, or, following Walter Benjamin, a convolute. Much like Benjamin’s (2002) history-as-archive, The Arcades Project, these convolute assignments were meant to highlight the problem of narrative linearity when reconstructing significance from the past—the very thing conventional literacy narrative assignments often ask students to do. In this way, archival research projects could be reframed for my students into what Jamie Skye Bianco has called a creative-critical composition; one that works on affective and aesthetic registers as well as teaching digital archive methodologies and research techniques. The promise of the convolute coupled with the use of the DALN and availability of digital editing, I argue, invite students to take ownership over the archive they are researching and, further, to productively confuse the differences between their own memory-narratives and those archived by thousands of others. In this way, students could reflect on the relationship between memory, narrative, and culture, and how these relationships inform archival research at every turn.

II. Course and Assignment Description

For most of the Spring 2016 semester, the fourteen students enrolled in my section of advanced composition had read scholarship focused on major conversations in the field of rhetoric and composition. Save for a couple students majoring in middle-level education, the class consisted of upper-level English majors, with many preparing graduate school applications in English studies and at least one hoping to pursue a Ph.D. in rhetoric and composition. While the course served as a general introduction to rhetoric and composition as a discipline, this particular section focused on changing literacy practices and articulating the differences between print and digital literacies. The course began by staking out the ethical and social stakes of literacy through Deborah Brandt’s (1998) work on literacy sponsorship, James Paul Gee’s (1998) work on the relationship between literacy and power, and Victor Villanueva’s (1993) own narrative emphasizing much of the above.

Having laid that theoretical groundwork, we moved onto questions of digital literacy and the role of new media in contemporary literate practices. Through Gregory Ulmer’s (2002) articulation of electracy, we were able to frame much of this change in ways of conducive to their final projects—the convolute assignment. Particularly useful in this regard was Ulmer’s emphasis on the aesthetic dimensions of play and the role of entertainment as an evaluative criterion in electracy. Because this course took a “Writing about Writing” approach and much of the semester was spent situating the convolute project within specific disciplinary questions, I believe, student resistance was softened. Potential confusion was also alleviated by assuring students that they were already familiar with the associative logics employed by the convolutes by simply consuming contemporary media and many of the editing styles in popular use today. Having assigned videotexts and podcasts in the past, I anticipated the learning curve for many students regarding audio and video editing software and—as is often the case—after an initial class concerning the basics and general techniques, most specific questions could be handled on a one-on-one basis during individual conferences.

Each convolute project was to be a remixed videotext using three basic elements: literacy narratives found on the DALN, the student-composer’s own recorded narrative, and audio-video sources discovered through the Prelinger Archive, Jamendo, or other public domain. Elements from the above could be edited and digitally manipulated in any way that they saw fit depending on the overall focus of their project. Simply for the sake of time and in-class viewing, students were encouraged to keep assignments around five minutes in length. I encouraged students to spend some time reading Benjamin’s Convolute D (“Boredom, Eternal Return”) from The Arcades Project as a model, not for mastery of content, but to discover the logic of the document and the ways in which the convolute-as-genre generates meaningful possibilities by placing seemingly disparate texts beside one another. Similarly, to see how this kind of association might work through a digital text, I assigned Bianco’s (2013) “#dogwalking in cemetery woods.” Bianco’s work here both argues for creative-critical composition as a method and performs that argument through its multimedia text. I wanted students to note how Bianco’s piece works on these performative and affective registers by juxtaposing the media included in the experience of the piece. As Bianco notes in the introduction:

These are bits…
…of affection
…from several data sets
Inventories of captured things
Protocols for performance

Such “data sets” include images of refuse found in the Allegheny National Cemetery (a bit of wire cable, a torn rag, the “walking topographies of human silt”); the audio and video recordings of her dog, Bear, walking through the cemetery; scholarly quotes from Henri Bergson and Gilles Deleuze flashing on screen; and, finally, the rhythm of Bianco’s own recorded reflections. Bianco works to present a flat ontology in which the corroded handle of a toy gun is given as much significance as a quoted passage from Alphonso Lingis. While I didn’t expect students to necessarily produce anything resembling Bianco’s piece, I did aim for them to note the ways in which the aesthetic dimensions of her work are rhetorical and to be mindful of this when composing their own digital videotexts. Similarly, I wanted students to think about the ways in which audio and video narratives from the DALN could be used affectively to persuade when remixed in their own work just as Bianco had used images, sounds, and scholarly quotation together.

That spring, students spent a lot of time discussing the relationship between linear reason and printculture. Many agreed with Ulmer that this relationship has recently changed, largely due to the emerging roles of sound and image and the mobility of computing, and further, that the narrative form in many conventional print-based literacy narrative assignments encourages the appropriation of cultural archetypes in ways discussed by Bronwyn Williams (2004), Kara Poe Alexander (2011), and others. Alexander’s “Successes, Victims, Prodigies: ‘Master’ and ‘Little’ Cultural Narratives in the Literacy Narrative Genre” helped students think about the tendencies to retell such cultural forms and discover how they were being used by the narratives in the DALN. Alexander’s article examines the phenomenon of trope appropriation, noting that a version of the “literary success story” will be the primary narratives instructors see by an overwhelming margin—not only because such narratives circulate culturally and, therefore, help students make their relationship with literacy meaningful in a way that is easily narrativized and communicated, but also because students think that this fulfills the instructor’s expectations. For Alexander, the prevelance of the literacy success story emphasizes the need for instructors to “be deliberate and intentional as we design our literacy narrative assignments, for it is our role to ensure that the process of composing a literacy narrative teaches students about their literate lives and also helps them claim agency for themselves” (2011, p. 629). Here and elsewhere in the piece, Alexander makes compelling claims regarding the need for such deliberation and the promises of literacy narratives assignments for our students, but I struggle with questions of whether this assignment—or, more broadly, the genre of the literacy narrative itself—can fulfill these promises for most student-writers. Unless much of the agency Alexander refers to is the agency that emerges from a recognition of the appropriated tropes in narrative writing and the kinds of rhetorical processes of negotiation that take place when students write, I would argue the answer is a resounding “no.” In other words, we should aim to design assignments that allow students to recognize the extent to which they aren’t simply “telling their story,” but are engaged in a process of retelling culture’s stories regarding literacy. With this in mind, I designed the convolute assignment to highlight three primary modes, or rhetorical gestures, that students would consciously take up and use: critique, assemblage, and craft.


The first mode would intensify and make explicit the relationship between language and experience—or memory and imitation—as it plays out in the appropriation of cultural tropes. In this way, instructors can use the literacy narrative as a way to foster meta-linguistic understandings of cultural discourse and develop a sense of Gee’s powerful literacy. According to Gee (1998), powerful literacy is a meta-discourse that can be used to navigate and be in control of other forms of secondary literacy. That is, the becoming literate to literacy itself and developing modes and methods to critique it. As Gee notes, “control of a secondary use of language used in a secondary discourse that can serve as a meta-discourse to critique the primary discourse or other secondary discourses, including dominant discourses” (1998, p. 56). This is the mode advocated, most notably, by Bronwyn Williams (2004) in “Heroes, Rebels, and Victims: Student Identities in Literacy Narratives,” when he argues, “If we begin to make students aware of the kinds of identities they adopt when writing these narratives and how they might be able to change them in print as well as their lives, we offer several important opportunities for student writers” (p. 344). In many ways, the critical mode here is the most conventional in terms of what writing instructors and those that teach archival research are trained to do. Less conventional, particularly with regards to student learning outcomes and assessment, is the second mode: assemblage.


Much like Benjamin’s convolutes, a second option would be to break with the linear narrative and foreclose the possibility of narrative similitude altogether—to foreclose the potential of trope appropriation by having students invent through collage, juxtaposing texts and being open to multiple interpretations and associations. Such “narratives” could still invite recursivity and agency in the way Alexander (2011) and Williams (2004) discuss, but through alternative orientations, based more on making meaning across multiple texts in ways advocated by Geoff Sirc’s (2014) “box logics” or Jeff Rice’s (2006) ka-knowledge. Such assignments would highlight how seemingly unconnected texts, once collected together, make meaning simply through proximity. For the purposes of my advanced writing course and the teaching of archival research methods, this mode of assemblage would require students to think about archival research in ways they were perhaps not used to. Rather than using the DALN as a storehouse of content to be quantified and analyzed, narratives archived in the DALN would become assets to be placed alongside other assets to emphasize productive liminal meanings. In much the same way as Sirc discusses Joseph Cornell’s boxes or Marcel Duchamp’s Large Glass, such material assemblages develop through a “deeply idiosyncratic associational logic” rather the constrained linearity of conventional narrative or propositional thought (2014, p. 117).


Finally, a third option would be a return to a mode of craft invited by the original, unproblematized assignment of writing a literacy narrative, but with a crucial difference: the incommensurability between language and experience, or narrative and memory, is taken as a given. Incommensurability, here, is the foundation, the starting point for narrative. In much the same way that saying anything unequivocally “true” with regards to history is not the point of postmodern historiography, the relative fidelity to truthful narrative becomes subordinate to both the craft and novelty of the text and the experience of writing itself as an ontological practice. In this way, the temporal relationship between past and present in this option is collapsed in the experience of composition itself.

For the purposes of that advanced composition class in the spring of 2016, in which our reading list and use of the DALN focused on changing literacy practices and the Ulmerian possibilities of sound and image to make affective—even play-based—arguments, I based the convolute assignment primarily on the mode of assemblage. Because of this, students read Geoffrey Sirc’s (2004) piece on box-logics and Peter Elbow’s (1998) work on “collage writing” in order to place some kind of disciplinary frame around their work. Further, I encouraged students to make connections between archival work and these unconventional genres through Susan Wells’s (2002) use of Benjamin in her work on the three gifts of the archive. For the remainder of this chapter, I will also use Wells’s three gifts to frame a discussion of how students came to use the DALN and demonstrate the value of the convolute assignment for engaging archival work that can highlight the aesthetic and creative potential of such research.

III. Benjamin and the Gifts of the Archive

Coming into the semester, I wanted students to recognize the open-endedness of archival work and the necessity for nuanced research questions for guidance. Particularly while they researched literacy practices using the DALN, much of what students were able to argue in any definitive way was tethered to their ability to not only articulate a generative question but also note the ways the archive resists providing a definitive answer to such questions. In “‘Gifts’ of the Archives: A Pedagogy for Undergraduate Research,” Wendy Hayden (2015) notes that archival work offers undergraduate students opportunities to develop research skills as they learn through the inevitable trial-and-error process such work entails. According to Hayden, instructors are obligated to “encourage students to stay open-minded and even see failure to find an answer as a good outcome of research” (p. 421). Further, failure experienced in the larger context of the “often improvisational nature of research” (2015, p. 414), specifically archival research, can work to highlight how the archive itself is a site that invites experimentation and resistance to closure. Susan Wells first identified such resistance in her influential article, “Claiming the Archive for Rhetoric and Composition” (2002). Drawing from Wells, Hayden uses resistance to closure as well as the other two gifts of the archive—loosening of resentment and reconfiguring the discipline—as a way to frame her own arguments concerning undergraduate research.

When developing the convolute project, the gifts were of particular interest as they gave students a helpful framework to approach the Digital Archive of Literacy Narratives. While I anticipated this, I did not expect how the gifts could later be used as a way to think through the literacy narrative itself—as a genre. While narrativizing the kinds of information found in archives is necessary to any archival research project, it was helpful to “think in reverse” and design assignments that also helped students think about their own narrative as an archive. Using Benjamin’s convolutes as a model, the assignment aimed to provide a better understanding of the relationships between literacy and narrative as concepts taking place, in our case, through the DALN. In much the same way as an “exploded view” in technical writing presents various interrelated parts of a complex object in proximity to one another, the convolute can be used as a genre for associative mapping when attempting to make sense of complex social practices like literacy.

The thirty-six sections, or convolutes, that make up The Arcades Projects were attempts to collect a material history of the nineteenth-century and represent this history in ways that were appropriate to the twentieth-century milieu. Curated by Benjamin, these convolutes were collections of quotations, random facts, and overheard phrases interspersed with his own commentary and interpretation of the above. Like the Parisian passageways the work uses as a theme, the reading experience was meant to mimic the flâneur walking leisurely from shop to shop and having their attention serially drawn in many potential directions. Much like the iron-and-glass construction of the arcade networked the many arenas of commerce in nineteenth-century Paris, the seemingly disparate topics of the convolutes were brought together under the material logic of the codex itself. Focused on distinct topics like boredom, literary history, photography, Marx, collecting as a hobby, dreams, lithography, lighting technique, epistemology, and theories of progress, the convolutes presented a varied text when taken as a whole. According to German editor of The Arcades Project Rolf Tiedemann (YEAR), “Benjamin’s intention was to bring together theory and materials, quotations and interpretation, in a new constellation compared to contemporary methods of representation” (p. 931). Similarly, in perhaps the best explication of why Benjamin developed the collage techniques of the convolute, The Dialectics of Seeing: Walter Benjamin and The Arcades Project (1989), Susan Buck-Morss notes:

In the Passagen-Werk, each of these “small, particular moments” was to be identified as an ur-form of the present. Benjamin’s commentary, in which those facts were embedded, provided the rivets that allowed the fragments to cohere as the philosophical representation of history as a “total event”… In fragmentary images the essences appear concretely, but it is the philosophical construction that, even if invisible, gives support and coherence to the whole. When Benjamin praised montage as progressive because it “interrupts the context into which it is inserted,” he was referring to its destructive, critical dimension… (p. 77)

A phantasmagoria of commentary, then, the convolutes were meant to detail novel ways of representing the previous century as a totality that allowed for revolutionary potentials in the present. Similarly, when discussing the convolutes in Benjamin’s Arcades Project, Susan Wells (2002) notes:

Each Convolute is a confected archive, a way of forcing intimacy between the legitimate, the hegemonic, and the everyday and subversive. In the Convolute on Boredom, for example, lists of dusty streets adjoin historical quotations and literary references to dust. (p. 58)

Indeed, Benjamin’s highly stylized confected archives were, for Wells, indicative of the kinds of associative thinking necessary for archival work more generally. Wells explains the kinds of thinking necessary for archival work in the context of her own feminist historical research with the documents from Women’s Medical College of Pennsylvania, now Medical College of Pennsylvania. Through archival research, Wells was able to demonstrate “that women had been productive and original scientific writers” (2002, p. 58), but not without the archive itself resisting the ways in which her original demonstration depended. The archive, it seems, resists the kinds of closure researchers often want to confer onto it. This resistance to closure, Wells argues, is written into Benjamin’s convolutes as a principle of composition.

IV. Gift One: Resistance to Closure

Video 1. “Gift One Convolute,” Victoria Green [Transcript | Caption file]

As an archive, the Digital Archive of Literacy Narratives invites such resistance to closure through its policy regarding the remixing of its contents and the ability to download its contents for repurposing. For this reason, I found the DALN useful to begin class discussions on citationality, remixing practices, and the broader ethical questions surrounding the act of remixing the work of others. Students were encouraged to think about what narratives to choose from the archives and how to appropriate those sources in thoughtful, careful ways. In “Archival Literacy: Reading the Rhetoric of Digital Archives in the Undergraduate Classroom,” Jessica Enoch and Pamela VanHaitsma (2015) note that a “primary way archives garner rhetorical power is through the process of selection,” because those who build and maintain archives are responsible for choosing the objects included and, similarly, researchers working with these archives choose which objects are significant and in what ways. Both make “implicit arguments about historiographic significance” (p. 220).

In other words, the very act of choosing means there is a unifying principle at work—an archonic principle that works to remove dissociation and heterogeneity between objects, most famously discussed by Jacques Derrida (1996) in Archive Fever. As Derrida notes, in the archive, there should not be any secrets that can partition in “an absolute manner” because the archive, as an object is a “gathering together” (p. 3). For Derrida, the simultaneous movement of drawing together and resistance to a final closure produces the tension necessary for an identifiable archive. The gathering principle of selection and choice looks towards the past, asking: What should be archived? What is important? It also looks towards the future asking, How will we be able to interpret this? How can this be significant? Derrida (1996) discusses these temporal relations at the center of the archive in the aptly named “Forward” to Archive Fever:

How can we think about this fatal repetition, about repetition in general in its relationship to memory and the archive? It is easy to perceive, if not to interpret, the necessity of such a relationship, at least if one associates the archive, as naturally one is always tempted to do, with repetition, and repetition with the past. But it is the future that is at issue here, and the archive as an irreducible experience of the future. (p. 68)

The future orientation of the archive-to-come is embedded in the originary choices of those that initiated the archive and the current choices researchers make when taking up its contents. How researchers will experience, choose between, and remix artifacts cannot be accounted for. Likewise, the interplay between the archive’s objects in relation can never be fully accounted for either. The research of archival work relies on such repeated encounters, and in the context of undergraduate pedagogy, instructors are obligated to map out this conceptual terrain and the ethical stakes involved in rendering the past for the sake of the future. Recent concepts circulating in rhetoric and composition go a long way to help us map this terrain. Most notably, perhaps, Krista Ratcliffe’s (2006) notion of rhetorical listening is useful here as it provides a way to attend to the past while opening the possibility for a more ethical future.

As Hayden notes when discussing her own undergraduate pedagogy of archival research, “archival research forces students to adopt an approach different from their usual research process, where they may often have a predetermined stance and then find sources to fit that stance” (2015, p. 411). And Wells (2002) herself reminds us of as much:

The archive resists knowledge in a number of ways. It refuses closure; often, it simply refuses any answer at all… That resistance to closure, inscribed in Benjamin’s text as a principle of composition, is fruitful. It forbids totalization. It prompts us, as contending scholars, to resist early resolution of questions that should not be too quickly answered. (58)

An assignment that asks students to juxtapose multiple audio and visual texts in a manner that forecloses the possibility of a clear propositional argument attempts to mimic those same attributes at play in the archive—and not without some discomfort. In my experience, students who were already comfortable composing with an aesthetic sense of playfulness and or had a background in visual arts were more at ease with the openness of the assignment; many students, however, were uncomfortable with this approach in the ways Hayden (2015) mentions above. Archival research highlights the role of invention over discovery as it emphasizes the creative elements of rhetoric. In this sense, the convolute assignment attempted to intensify that first by asking students to work with an archive, but then also by encouraging them to resist forming propositional arguments in the way they were used to when composing academic papers. Or, as student Torey Green so aptly put it: “It wasn’t about fitting things into boxes, it was about finding things that complement each other.” As Green’s analogy suggests, a “box” in the form of a self-contained academic argument has a definitive end, but chains of associational complements resist closure as they are open to remix and further use.

In her convolute reflection, Green notes the importance of care in choosing what to include in her assignment, but also how the assignment was co-composed with the DALN when the archive resisted the narrative she had originally constructed. Green wanted closure, but the archive had other plans. In the end, her project speaks to the limitations of coming to an archived with preconceived ideas of what you want it to do. Further, that care in this regard is an ethical relation with the archival objects, predicated upon listening and letting them speak on their own grounds. Her convolute,“Dreaming & Rhetoric: What is Real,” demonstrates this careful curation, using narratives from Luke Pawlowski and Josh Mehler to highlight the largely unconscious processes of literacy and the dream-like quality of reading and writing. Such qualities are integrated through Green’s choices of visuals accompanying the three narratives: W.W. Young’s famously ethereal depiction of Alice in Wonderland from 1915, a Little Audry cartoon, “The Lost Dream,” from 1949, and finally Rene Laloux’s post-psychedelic classic, Fantastic Planet from 1973. Much like the interpretive qualities of dreams, there is an epistemic dimension to the way archives resist closure and the finality of knowing that Green gestures towards in her assignment.


My theme was dreams and the unconscious. I found so many things that worked with that theme, including a couple older cartoons, a silent film, and an advertisement for a car. I really enjoyed cutting and editing the videos to make them fit in with my narration and music. It was almost like a collage, I found myself cutting and pasting things with great care. Each video placement mattered.

The biggest challenge of the project was finding DALN narration that fit my theme. It was very hard to find literacy narratives on dreams or the unconscious. I tried several keywords before I found two that really worked for me. If I were to do this again, I’d kill my darling and switch from dreams (a topic I was really interested in) and pick something with more results. It was difficult for me to find two that matched what I needed, and that was frustrating at times.

As an English major, I think the idea of making an argument mostly out of visual effects is a bit daunting. We’re not often told that we can construct a solid argument without several pages worth of research planted in a paper. However, I found that this project proved that idea wrong. I still had to do a hefty amount of research, but it all went into the audio/visual aspect of my piece. I didn’t have to write a twelve page paper to have a thesis—I could create one in a five minute video. In a way, that was very liberating. I couldn’t have known all of the possibilities of the digital realm of composition and rhetoric without the push of this project.

I learned that rhetoric is in everything. A commercial for a car is rhetorical, just as a political propaganda commercial is rhetorical. Both are relying on an argument—some sort of persuasion. Both have an audience to impress. Of course, that’s not to say that rhetoric can be boiled down to merely a vehicle for persuasion. Rhetoric is timing. Rhetoric is art. Rhetoric is practically indescribable, but we just spent an entire semester trying to describe it.

This project was a great close to an interesting class. Creating the movie was a great way to tie together our studies of rhetoric along with our studies of digital media as grounds for rhetoric. Curating the resources of my video really made me critically think about the argument I was making. It wasn’t about fitting things into boxes, it was about finding things that complement each other.

V. Gift Two: Loosening of Resentment

Video 2. “Gift Two Convolute,” Christian Smith [Transcript | Caption file]

Throughout this chapter, I have been interested in questions of narrative and how those questions are complicated through archives of narrative like the DALN. This interest is first pedagogical—as a writing teacher who regularly assigns narrative essays—but also theoretical, as a way to ask: how does narrative embody knowledge in particularly ways? What kinds of knowledge are enabled by narrative? How does narrative accomplish this? And, why narrative, in particular? This is an interest that began years ago when I was asked to record my own literacy narrative for the DALN and found it difficult to to generate something meaningful to say about literacy from my own memories. It is sustained by a number of contemporary writers who push the bounds of what it means to write a narrative and what it can do. I am thinking here of writers like David Shields, Maggie Nelson, Ander Monson, Sarah Manguso, and Ben Lerner—who, while perhaps much too different to be gathered together under a single heading, are certainly in agreement that new narrative models need to be created to write about contemporary life.

Shields’s (2012) Reality Hunger: A Manifesto is perhaps the most poignant theoretical statement concerning the values that are shaping this “new narrative”:

An artistic movement, albeit an organic and-as-yet unstated one, is forming. What are its key components? A deliberate unartiness: “raw” material, seemingly unprocessed, unfiltered, uncensored, and unprofessional… Randomness, openness to accident and serendipity, spontaneity; artistic risk, emotional urgency and intensity, reader/viewer participation; an overly literal tone, as if a reporter were viewing a strange culture; plasticity of form, pointillism; criticism as autobiography; self-reflexivity, self-ethnography, anthropological autobiography; a blurring (to the point of invisibility) of any distinction between fiction and nonfiction: the lure and blur of the real. ( p. 5)

Far from being simply aesthetic questions, for Shields there is a necessity to develop such techniques and methods if narrative is to remain a viable form in the years to come. Shields’s work informs my own teaching practices as it productively complicates the ways I now assign narrative work to my students. Thinking about Shields’s challenge to older modes of narrative through composition studies, I see many resonances here with what some have identified as the “ontological turn” in composition, particularly how this turn is expressed in the work of Robert Yagelski.

In Writing as a Way of Being, Robert Yagelski (2011) questions English education’s continued emphasis on the writing produced by students rather than the having written: that is, on the experience of writing itself and not the text produced for the purposes of assessment. For Yagelski, it is the experience of writing as an ontological act of meaning making that en-acts the “larger, ongoing process of making meaning of our experience of ourselves in the world… [that is] the deeper relationship between our consciousness and the world around us” (2011, p. 115). Because the writer, in the moment of writing, experiences his or herself through language, writing “goes beyond the intensity of focus” associated with other activities one can get lost in like surfing, sewing, painting, or playing music. For Yagelski, there is an additional ontological quality in the act of writing that these other activities lack because writing is a symbolically bound attempt at making sense on the page that reflects the ever-present and more general need to make sense in one’s life.

Throughout Writing as a Way of Being, Yagelski repeatedly attempts to describe the ontological experience of writing in writing after conceding—at every turn—that language and experience are incommensurable. For instance, Yagelski asks:

If truth is extra-linguistic…and not a function of discourse—and thus not the exclusive realm of rhetoric—but rather resides in experience that can never be fully captured in language, what role does writing play in truth-seeking? What role can it play in our efforts to know ourselves in the world? (2011, p. 88)

These are questions we should all be asking as writing teachers and students of writing ourselves. One possible answer, for Yagelski, is in the articulation of a nondualistic orientation to writing that privileges the experience of writing over the text produced; the writing itself, as an ontological act, becomes the purpose of the task. In the passages where he tries to capture what this looks like in narrative form, what we are left with is not an accurate representation—a reality captured—but the signs of a struggle, traces of perplexity. As Yagelski notes:

[As I write] I am at this moment thoroughly engrossed in this task of writing such that it becomes almost synonymous with my consciousness at this moment and profoundly shapes my awareness of myself as my self, a self existing both separate from and part of what is around me, both physically and metaphorically. (2011, p. 103)

From Yagelski’s description, it is clear that writing, as an nondualistic ontological practice, is not limited to a mental perception of self or the construction of an “I” experiencing, but rather gives an account for writing that is, as Paul Prior (1998) and others have noted, an embodied activity—including an infinite number of tangential, seemingly unrelated things that are integral to the experience of writing.

In an extended discussion of a student’s attempt to write a personal narrative concerning her parents’ divorce, Yagelski (2011) observes how an ontological orientation toward writing helped center the student in the experience of writing—the fact that the student’s draft was better becomes a subordinate, a secondary by-product, to the centrality of the experience of writing itself. Yagelski’s discussion, I would argue, points us towards how we can take up narrative assignments—specifically, literacy narratives—as occasions for such literate practices in productive ways. The initial draft of the student’s narrative, as you might imagine if you’ve ever assigned narrative essays, largely drew from ready-made tropes concerning divorce already circulating in culture. In this case, tropes emphasize the possibility of reinvention in middle age, newly found post-divorce individuality, and the taking up of new interests unforeseen in married life—all of which are much too cheerful and optimistic to reflect the emotional complexity of situation, both for the student and her parents. Faced with the question of how to revise such drafts, Yagelski notes, students (and teachers, too often) would set out “improving” the essay by making fulfill the pre-existent values of the genre and their expectations of this narrative form. Revision, in this limited sense, clearly forecloses the potentials for writing—the act of writing itself—to “honor” both the “importance of the experience” and the “capacity of writing to help [the student] explore the experience” (Yagelski, 2010, p. 153). Similarly, as students work to identify the tropes present in narratives in the DALN, each narrative becomes, in a sense, a new object with new relational possibilities. In the context of this new relation, revision becomes not a matter of fulfilling narrative expectations, but a critique of the relative “truthfulness” or parity between experience and language.

Yagelski’s turn towards the ontological highlights Wells’s (2002) second gift of the archive, loosening resentment, in that loosening resentment looks toward the past through archival work, but is oriented towards open futures available in the present moment of composing. For Wells, the second gift of the archive is tethered to particular disciplinary and institutional resentments rhetoric and composition scholars have expressed due to a perceived lack of legitimacy, history, or field of study. The archive can, and does, lend itself to the loosening of that resentment by demonstrating the above. But, more broadly, I would argue that the second gift defines how we find value in the ontological moment of such research itself—beyond narrow disciplinary strictures—and the rewarding risks involved. As Wells explains:

Archival study of other kinds of texts also broadens our own sense of how difficult it is to write in new and untried ways… we can understand the stakes of a the broad struggle to define terms of literacy with which we have associated ourselves. It is really nobody’s work but our own to recover these texts; through our reconstruction and reading, their production of literacy speaks more loudly than the arrogance that neglects it. (2002, p. 60)

Yagelski’s student set out to compose a narrative of divorce by imitating the pre-existing narratives she was familiar with and assumed the instructor expected, only to realize that it was nobody’s work but her own to compose. In the end, as Yagelski mentions, “Her experience was available to her as writer but not to her readers, for the text did not—and could not—capture and convey that experience fully” (2010, p. 154). What’s important was that this student took the risk to compose in unfamiliar ways and experience the ontological dimensions of writing.

In her convolute project, Marissa Bachrach discusses the importance of defamiliarization in the composing process as a necessary part of literacy. What is interesting to me here, and makes this project successful, is the anxiety she expressed during conferences when asked to compose using digital assets, i.e. the video and audio narratives from the DALN together with other copyright-free archives. For Bachrach, composition meant well-supported print-based texts arranged to make solid propositional arguments, but the convolute asked her to make associational assemblages open to interpretation and remix. During the course of composing her project, the risk necessary for her to step away from those comfortable ideas about writing and attempt something new evolved into her project’s primary focus. Not only did the project perform its primary argument, but, closer to Yagelski’s ontology of writing above, the experience of composing her project became more broadly significant than the project itself.

In Bachrach’s project, change and its relationship to risk become fundamental to literacy itself. Or, said another way, the experience of a frustrated discomfort is the beginning of literacy. Through narratives of Anis Bawarshi, who discusses moving from Beirut, Lebanon, to the United States in the fifth grade and being confronted with the new genres associated with this new culture, to Ryan Bosley’s discussion of the necessity of internal motivation and the risks of higher education, Bachrach’s convolute assignment performs the shifts and risks of literacy it argues for.


I chose the term “change” as being one of the most influential aspects of literacy within my life. When configuring a definition of change, in regards to promoting literacy, the following appeared to do the term justice: “A change in scenery, in environment, in the people around you. This change may bring about uncomfortableness, but with change comes incredible growth. When one can stay confined to the mundane, it’s best to take a chance, instead. Overstep your individual boundaries and limitations and have the courage to seek change.”

In the beginning of my video, I incorporated a reggae styled twist to Obama’s inauguration speech. Throughout his campaign, he utilized the term “change” through various forms of literacy to gain the public’s vote. Obviously, Obama’s successful election cannot be fully attributed to this focus on “change”, however, I believe he gained great traction through the ways in which he portrayed change in literacy. Through the verbal literacy of speech he assured the American people that he wanted what was best for the United States and it’s citizens and this would be done through changing what we had traditionally done. Many were moved, because change brings about new opportunities.

Next, I incorporated a literacy narrative of a man who was originally from Lebanon. He spoke of the cultural changes he experienced through literacy when he moved to the United States. Through literacy he gained a greater understanding of America and the people who reside here, as well as, where he came from. From reading and writing and gaining an understanding of the context of the works, literacy enabled him to blend in and shed feelings of being an outsider.

Additionally, I tied in my own experiences of traveling to a different country and experiencing a tremendous change in culture as being extremely influential to my literacy. From being in Israel, I became much more aware of literacy through media. I realized that it is important to never rely on one source and become a greater informed reader. Traveling to the Middle East influenced my own creative pieces to capture individuals who possess qualities much different from my own, and I am much more interested in sharing what I have created knowing that many women in the Middle East do not have the same freedoms that I have and take for granted on a daily basis.

Lastly, another literacy narrative is shared of a young man who experienced great difficulty in passing his English classes within High School. It finally took a teacher to doubt his abilities, and belittle his efforts for him to feel motivated enough to seek change. Through experiencing issues with this teacher, he chose to attend summer school and focus greatly on his reading and writing skills. Fortunately, from changing his mindset on school and becoming more interested in doing well, he completely changed his work ethic and grades. At the end of the video he shares that he even wrote a speech for the first time entitled: “How Can We Change”. I believe that it captures his journey through literacy exceedingly well, and further demonstrates how influential change in one’s life can be to their literacy.

VI. Gift Three: Reconfiguring the Discipline

Video 3. “Gift Three Convolute,” Ashley Canter [Transcript | Caption file]

The third gift, reconfiguring the discipline, demonstrates that archives always hold the potential to change scholarship and its role in our disciplinary identities. According to Wells, archival work can “help us to rethink our political and institutional situation, to find ways of teaching that are neither narrowly belletristic nor baldly vocational” (2002, p. 60). Similarly, the convolute assignment I assigned attempted to walk delicate lines between the belletristic and the vocational—containing elements of both while not fully characterized by either. While the undergraduate research methodologies and technical skills involved in audio and video editing may gesture towards the vocational, the aesthetic dimensions of the assignment itself and the genre models used in the course ensured a belletristic emphasis on play, design, and invention. Further, teaching archival research with this third gift in mind changes the way students situate themselves in relation to the archive, particularly when students are working with the narratives of others to comment upon and co-create their own “narrative.” As Hayden (2015) notes concerning the ability of archives to reconfigure the discipline,

[This gift] applies not only to the material found in the archives, but also to the pedagogy of undergraduate archival research projects and how our students perceive their work. In the context of our current conversations on archival research as well as recent work on undergraduate research, asking students to undertake the difficult task of archival research invites them into the scholarly community, where they have much to contribute. (p. 418)

Framing assignments in a “Writing about Writing” course while using the DALN as the course’s primary archive allows students to contextualize their projects in specific ways, and also to be made aware of the kinds of disciplinary exigencies that exist and what their roles could be in the field. Following the previous two gifts, however, it is important for students to situate this awareness not in terms of individual agency alone, but only in relation to and distributed through the archive itself as an actor. Towards this, in “Writing and Rhetoric and/as Posthuman Practice,” Casey Boyle (2016) observes,

If writing and writers are codependent with things and all sorts of others, then metacognition and reflective practice (both entrenched in humanist notion of a literate self) have the potential to become bad habits, since each reflective exercise persuades a writer to separate herself from all those things with which she is codependent. (p. 533)

In many ways Wells’s third gift can be productively read alongside Boyle’s notion of our discipline’s over-reliance and entrenchment in reflective critique as the primary mode of rhetorical education, what Boyle (2016) calls current-critical rhetoric, in that the possibilities of a reconfigured discipline, which the archive promises, can only be made available by composing with the archive as historico-technical object—resulting, in the best scenarios, in an ethical remaking of our related disciplines. Similarly, Jared Colton’s (2016) notion of a heuristic of vulnerability can help us, as instructors, to become aware of the ethical stakes of archival work and also help students attend to those stakes with care.

As I discovered, what I needed most when discussing these ideas with students was a vocabulary to explain the ethical stakes of remixing and the inevitable appropriation of subjects archived in the DALN. While not discussing the ethics of archival work explicitly, Colton’s (2016) “Revisiting Digital Sampling Rhetorics with an Ethics of Care” provides a way to articulate these concerns in the classroom. Drawing from a feminist ethics of care, specifically Adriana Cavarero’s work, Colton argues that an ethical heuristic is needed for the digital sampling and remixing practices. For Colton, Cavarero’s Horrorism: Naming Contemporary Violence gives us a starting point for such ethical considerations as Cavarero attempts to articulate vulnerability as an ontological category because, as she argues, “the singular body is irremediably open to… wounding and caring” (qtd. in Colton, 2016, p. 24). Using the poles of wounding and caring, Colton provides students with writing prompts and bulleted lists as opportunities to reflect on the effects of their composing choices.This heuristic acts “more of a lens to generate ethical questions of relationality” as it “prompts multimodal writers to justify or at least to account for their acts of sampling and remixing in terms of wounding or caring for the people and communities who took part in the history and creation of the sampled-from compositions” (2016, p. 20).

While I did not assign Colton’s piece or ask students to think in these terms precisely when assigning digital convolutes, I did ask students to reflect on just how they were listening to their sources from the DALN—how they were assembling identities from what they heard and what narratives they were highlighting when composing their own remixed project. Colton’s and Cavarero’s use of vulnerability is an indication that the potential harm of narrative construction and the ethics of archival research always necessarily exist on a two way street; the composer, in this case, is open to the possibility of the same harm that their subjects are. What is needed, then, is a careful attunement to just how narratives and archives are embodied in the physical body. As Kristie Fleckenstein reminds us, “In sacrificing bodies to some illusion of either transcendent truth or culturally constituted textuality, we cut ourselves adrift from any organic anchoring in the material reality of flesh” (1999, p. 281). Such an anchoring affords us opportunities to reconfigure the discipline in more ethical ways. As the student example below makes clear, not doing so is a wounding act of violence—rhetorical and otherwise.

Ashley Canter’s convolute project is a meditation on the relationship between rhetoric and the body. Working with the Ulmerian refrain of “body/play/body/play/body/play,” Canter urges the viewer to collapse these distinctions in their experience of the piece. Displaying photographed images of literal bodies as texts, Canter remarks on the ways in which the body itself is a signifying social force. Using Phil Bratta’s narrative, “Being Literate About My Background, My Body, and My Subjectivity,” among others, Canter emphasizes the relationship between one’s signifying body and literacy and that relationship’s effects on how one interprets and is interpreted by larger social bodies. As such, her project is a step towards an ethical reconfiguration of the discipline.


My convolute project surrounds itself on the idea of the rhetorical body. More specifically, I included images, voice-overs, and videos that depict the speaking, listening, and written on body. The speaking body refers to the way in which we express ourselves through our body and associated materialities. This includes expression through clothing, tattooing, and dance. The listening body refers not to when we speak through our bodies, but when we listen to our body speaking to us. This includes things like yoga and meditation. The written body, then, is when the rhetorical agency of our bodies is stolen from us and narratives not our own are forced on our bodies. This includes policing of the body through law, judgments made about us based on our bodies, and other violations. My hope in intermingling the images that symbolize the speaking, listening, and written on body, as opposed to separating them, was to illustrate how our bodies are always in a dialectic rhetorical situation because they receive and produce social and cultural information simultaneously. As Debra Hawhee puts it, rhetoric is a body art: “an art learned, practiced, and performed by and with the body as well as the mind.”

In regards to the composition of my project, it was difficult to find DALN narratives that coincided with my ideas. However, once I found the narrative from a student and a dance teacher and choreographer talking about the literacy of their bodies, I was able to compose them against videos of dance or music nicely. I used the search term “body” to find these entries. I decided on the first narrative by Phil Bratta because I thought it would be useful to provide the perspective of someone who was thinking about their own body in relation to other bodies and spaces. Contrastingly, I include the narrative from the choreographer to provide the perspective of someone who listens to or, as she puts it, “reads” other bodies through movement. After compiling the images with the DALN narratives, I recorded voice over of my own thoughts. I included my thoughts that I felt would address what the media already included in the project didn’t or thoughts that could be played over media for an intensified effect.

I am happy with the way I arrange the media that I include and the general aesthetic that the video exudes. If I could add anything to the project, it would be the passage from Phaedrus, as I couldn’t find a place in the video this time that it fits. I would also draw out Ulmer’s points about electracy’s playground being the body. I would illustrate how new media allows for us to have control over the presentation of our bodies, while still being an embodied space, through things like photo editing, SnapChat filters, and emojis. In general, I genuinely enjoyed creating this project and I am proud of the final draft. This was a learning experience for me in video editing and I enjoyed the challenge of creating a convolute video that is as composed as a paper. That is, it was fun for me to translate the writing process wholly into a new media platform and through digital artifacts.

VII. Resisting Conclusions

The convolute assignment was inspired by my frustration with the literacy narratives students turned in for years in my courses. As Williams (2004) and Alexander (2011) have discussed, the overwhelming majority of student narratives will draw from a very small pool of available cultural tropes. Validating their arguments, I found myself reading essentially the same narrative many times over in any given semester. I realized that this was a failure on my part as a teacher for not designing assignments that either worked against this tendency or worked to have students realize and negotiate these tendencies in their own composing processes. In the convolute project, I had wanted to simply develop an assignment that shut down the possibility of linear narrative altogether through various collage techniques, but I ended up with something more—something that told me as much about archives and archival research as it did about the way narrative functions in our lives and the ethical considerations involved.

While this chapter is an attempt to give both the theoretical framing behind the assignment and demonstrate a small sample of student’s experiences, I realize that such assignments have limitations. For instance, because of a very specific “Writing about Writing” approach this advanced writing course used to frame the convolute assignment, I’m not sure how successful such experiments would be in other pedagogical contexts. I have yet to try anything like this in First-Year English, for example, because I would lack the necessary disciplinary framework used here. In a first- or second-semester writing course, how would I work to locate this assignment without discussing Sirc’s (2004) box-logics or Ulmer’s (2002) emphasis on aesthetics, entertainment, and play in electracy? How could something like this assignment, which was a videotext, be implemented as a print-based collage in circumstances where there is a lack of access to the necessary tools? While such questions are indeed worth considering, the exigence of the convolute as a genre—from Benjamin’s manuscripts to this attempt—is found in the specific shortcomings of linear narrative and propositional argument to represent our contemporary milieu. The convolute is concerned with experimentation and trial and error, with highlighting the processes of composition itself. And, in this way, the convolute is applicable to wide variety of contexts and pedagogies.


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