The New Work of Composing

The New Work of the Book in Composition Studies: An Introduction

Debra Journet, Cheryl E. Ball, and Ryan Trauman


Themes: Four Central Concerns in Digital Composition Scholarship

The New Work of Composing contains 12 chapters that are organized around four themes related to digital composition: Authors and Authority, Composing and Production, Scholarly Genres, and Spaces and Ecologies. Each chapter contributes to multiple themes, as indicated in the descriptions below, and each thematic cluster includes a response by a relevant scholar.

New Authors and Authority

As new media have created new communicative possibilities—mass creation as well as mass consumption—we have, concomitantly, changed our understanding of what it means to be an author. In particular, the Internet and the genres it engendered—including blogs, websites, and YouTube videos—mean new definitions of writers as well as readers and texts. Several chapters in this cluster examine the political implications of authorship in these new, potentially egalitarian genres. Kinloch, for example, analyzes the literacy narratives written by young people in response to community gentrification and the kind of agency these narratives enable, and uses audio or video clips to bring the voices and images of these new authors directly into the text. The chapter by The Normal Group, composed by Cheryl Ball and 12 of her students, centers on videos the students produced as they “spoke back” to teachers about the representations of students in composition scholarship; in this piece, students are co-authors with the faculty member, rather than subjects of the research. Ralston looks at how new media, new media journalism, social networks, and review sites create a kind of “hyperlocal” content that leads to a sense of community often missing in contemporary mobile society. DeVoss explores how women intervene in intellectual property issues and in consequence construct a robust new media landscape. And as Gresham and Aftanas argue, new interactive technologies allow readers and viewers to co-construct the meaning of a text, extending the concept of “author” even farther, an argument exemplified in many of the book’s chapters (e.g., Murray, Rhodes and Alexander, Garrett et al.). Andrea Lunsford responds.

New Strategies for Composing and Production

Digital media offer a variety of semiotic affordances and thus suggest new strategies for analysis and composition/production. In particular, new media mandate a need to revaluate print-centric theories of composing and of textuality—an objective pursued throughout The New Work of Composing. This expanded understanding of composing as more than print-based can start, as Garrett, Landrum-Geyer, and Palmeri suggest, at the level of invention. In particular, they argue, while theories of invention often emphasize invention’s nonlinear or recursive nature, scholarship on invention nevertheless continues to be written in conventional print forms that devalue the power of nonlinearity, juxtaposition or embodied performance as ways of making meaning. Their chapter thus uses the affordances of new media to illustrate a wider, more robust notion of embodied invention. (See also Murray and Rhodes and Alexander for examples and considerations of how multiple modalities promote possibilities for embodied discourse.) In a similar fashion, O’Keeffe explores how the addition of multiple modalities changed his composing practices as he constructed a digital version of a personal narrative. Trimble and Grotz both consider and enact the collaborative processes of transforming creative writing into multimedia. These new strategies of composing and production are apparent not just as the text is initiated and do not end when it is offered to readers. Bono, Hisayasu, Sayers, and Wilson show how a text’s composition extends through the use of metadata, from marginalia to markup, arguing that metadata offer offers new possibilities for understanding composing practices such as revision and collaboration. Diana George, Tim Lockridge, and Dan Lawson respond.

New Scholarly Genres

As the digital book evolves, it will also change the kinds of intellectual work the genre of the scholarly book can accomplish. We believe that, as an early example of a born digital book, The New Work of Composing illustrates some of these new genre possibilities. Indeed, the project as a whole is conceived of as a way not only to consider but also to enact scholarship that exploits the range of meaning-making processes afforded by multiple modalities. New digital possibilities for academic projects, we believe, include transformations of traditional genres such as empirical research (Kinloch), personal narrative (O’Keeffe) or textual critique and production (Garrett et al., Purdy and Walker, Trimble and Grotz). And they include new genres that are born outside the academy such as multimedia installations (Rhodes and Alexander) and webtexts (Ralston, Garrett et al., Gresham and Kirkwood). Thus, all of the chapters draw in some way upon visual or aural as well as alphabetic modes of making and communicating knowledge. However, the advantages of expanding print-centric theories and pedagogies of composing are also explicitly addressed in a cluster of chapters. Purdy and Walker, for example, examine published scholarship from digital and print venues in order to substantiate their claim that digital media can provide flexible and powerful ways of constructing and articulating certain kinds of complex ideas that cannot be fully enacted in print publications. (That we highlight this chapter as the only one linked from this section is indicative of its use in contextualizing much of the scholarship in this book.) Trimble and Grotz make a similar claim about how new media can transform our notion of “the literary,” particularly the “avant-garde.” Gresham and Kirkwood use feminist theory to argue that we should evaluate digital scholarship on its own terms, not just as an adjunct to traditional research. And The Normal Group and Ralston argue, both explicitly and by example, that academic scholarship should be expanded to include vernacular genres such as Myspace pages and blogs. Paul Prior responds.

New Spaces and Ecologies

New conceptions of author, process, and genre—especially as they enact or exploit the multimodal—invite us to reconceptualize the role of space, place, and bodies in digital (and sometimes real) compositional ecologies. These changes comprise, most fundamentally, the space of the page in which composition is situated—a claim illustrated by all the chapters of this book. But they also include the places in which composing is enacted. The connection between the space of composition and the place of composing is a central concern in current composition research. Inherent in this work is the belief that writing is a way of forming and enacting identity—and that identity is narrated in relation to space as well as time. However, as a cluster of chapters suggests, our relations to space and to compositional ecologies are transformed in digital environments, and these transformations affect the kind of work we do, and the pleasures we achieve, as writers and readers. As Ralston argues, technology allows us not only to be in various physical places but also to be simultaneously in various online spaces. How then do we understand notions of community or local or “hyperlocal”? How also, Kinloch asks, do we use technology to help writers become more critically aware of the political, geographical, and cultural dimensions of their own learning spaces? Perhaps the most basic space we inhabit when we write, Rhodes and Alexander suggest, is the body. When we write, they further ask, where are our bodies? What do they do (and not do)? What do they feel (and not feel)? How are they positioned, provoked, suppressed? (See also Garrett et al., DeVoss). These new conceptualizations and representations of space, place, and the body are made possible by the affordances of digital media. Concomitantly, new understandings of the body as a site of composing and as situated in spaces lead to new ways to frame and design digital texts. In particular, as Murray suggests, because spatial rhetoric depends as much on sensory as discursive appeals, visually based texts often confront us with experiences we must struggle to translate into words. Marilyn Cooper responds to this theme.

The Reflective Nature of Digital Scholarship

All chapters consider and enact concepts in digital composition. The New Work of Composing thus addresses definitions of digital scholarship both explicitly (in the arguments chapters posit and develop) and implicitly (in their design and structure). Most of the chapters reflect on how their design engages with, interrogates, or pushes back on the conventions of established print research genres. Such meta-reflection is, we believe, a function of the novelty of this project and a hallmark of digital media scholarship. As participants in one of the earliest examples of a born-digital scholarly book, many of the authors are consciously considering how scholarship is both transferred in the context of a new genre of the digital chapter.

We highlight here the kinds of substantive decisions we made as we considered how the chapters (another concept we inherit from print books) contribute to the scholarly work rhetoric and composition values. As a discipline, we have developed tacit and explicit criteria by which we evaluate what “counts” as scholarship in our field, criteria we will need to consider and perhaps revise as we move towards new forms of the scholarly book. These gate-keeping issues have arisen for us as this book has been conceived, proposed, written, reviewed, and now as it is being read and responded to. Its chapters, we believe, form a scholarly collection for a number of reasons. Even though they employ semiotic resources other than alphabetic text, they nonetheless perform the kind of intellectual work we value in the academy: addressing questions that are relevant to our field; using theoretical frameworks and research methodologies that are familiar to disciplinary readers; and pursuing relations among complex ideas in ways that connect to existing scholarship while advancing new possibilities.

Some of the new possibilities we proposed in the book's prospectus did not make it into this final version, but the thinking behind them is still present in other forms and features we offer. For instance, we were incredibly ambitious with our plans for the book's index, which we had proposed to offer as a search engine that would create individually remixable versions of the Table of Contents and each chapters' media elements for every reader. This index was to be accompanied by an Afterword reflecting on this feature as a new form of digital scholarship. (You'll still see this idea mentioned in the Introduction video and in the Tables of Contents' Paratexts. We decided to leave these references as artifacts of our thought process.) For a multitude of political-economic reasons, in the end we were able to offer a prototype that would allow readers to search at the level of the media element, across chapters, and instead of a remix engine, readers can download the entire contents of each chapter (all under Creative Commons licenses) for remixing on their own. In addition, we also wanted to offer downloadable metadata for each chapter, based on a metadata mining project that Kairos conducted in 2011, which produced a plethora of data about the history of scholarly web design in digital writing studies. We hope that by providing similar metadata to these chapters, The New Work of Composing will continue that history and be useful to researchers of digital media scholarship well into the future. These features are just a few nods to how scholars might consider the new work of composing, and we hope you both critique to build upon and enjoy.