Path 5. Visualizing Inventive Play
Working with visuals can be generative, inventive, and even playful for writing teachers and administrators. Chapters in this path showcase the different insights and strategies that image work can reveal to students, to ourselves as WPAs, and to audiences within and beyond our programs.
- 02. "Silhouette of DFWI: Census Pictographs as Social Justice Heuristic," by Derek Mueller
- 04. "WPA Responsive Genre Change: Using Holographic Thinking to Unflatten a Celebration of Student Writing," by Kate Pantelides, Jacie Castle, and Katherine Thach Musick
- 08. "An Ecological Heuristic for Programmatic Curricular Revision and Transformation," by Natalie Szymanski
- 11. "Maps, Stamps, and Plans: Using Visual Interactive Course Documents to Promote Student Autonomy and Engagement," by Andrew Lucchesi
- 12. "Graphic Re-Imaginings: Curricular Revision with/in/through Programmatic Representations," by Logan Bearden
De-Composing the Available Designs of WPA Work
In the over eight years I spent serving as coordinator of Digital Writing and then as director of Composition at Miami University, I played a key role (in collaboration with faculty and graduate student colleagues) in infusing a playful, reflective approach to multimodal composing into our first-year writing curriculum. So, in some ways, it would seem I would be well positioned to respond to this path on "visualizing inventive play" in WPA work, and yet when I look back on my years as a WPA, I realize how little inventive use I made of visual modalities in my everyday administrative composing. While I did occasionally insert an amusing cat meme in my emails, most of my official administrative communications followed rather traditional, alphabetic-centric, genre conventions. For example, although our course outcomes emphasized teaching “digital and multimodal rhetoric,” these outcomes were expressed solely as a bulleted list of words (admittedly recirculated in a range of print and digital formats).
At this point, I am tempted to simply declare myself a failure as a multimodal WPA, and to close this response essay abruptly by urging you to engage the more innovative multimodal WPA work of the authors of this collection. Yet, as I continue to believe that failure can be generative for learning and social transformation (Carr, 2013; Halberstam, 2011; Caswell & West-Puckett, 2019), I will carry on and consider ways that some of the essays in the visualizing inventive play path might help me resee my own failures as a WPA and reimagine different futures for WPA work. I first discuss the inventive wonder of Logan Bearden’s spiral curriculum graphic and next consider the generative insights of Natalie Szymanski’s visual ecological heuristic. In both cases, my interpretations of their visualizations are deliberately idiosyncratic and intentionally playful. My goal in sharing my personal, quirky responses is not at all to elucidate a settled meaning for the visualizations I discuss, but rather to demonstrate how WPAs can use these visuals to generate new questions and pursue new designs that they might not otherwise have considered.
Spiraling Out of Control (Bearden)
In his essay for this collection, Logan Bearden builds on the work of the New London Group (1996) to explore ways that writing program visualizations are both enabled and constrained by the “available designs” that WPAs draw upon and remix when composing programmatic texts. Bearden’s work helps me understand how my own failure to creatively visualize our writing program outcomes was a failure produced largely by my feeling too constrained by the “available designs” at hand. After all, our program’s outcomes had initially been inspired by the national Council of Writing Program Administrators’ outcomes, which were and still are conveyed in bulleted alphabetic text; our university’s required mechanisms for reporting outcomes also privilege alphabetic text above other modalities. So, given the institutional power of the Available Designs for outcomes that were foremost in my mind (on both a local and a disciplinary level), it’s not surprising that I just never seriously considered that our outcomes could be recomposed in any other way.
When I reflect critically on my time as WPA, I realize how often I unwittingly employed outcomes as tools of mastery, control, and supposedly linear progress. Every semester, my WPA team would conduct syllabi review to make sure all our instructor’s courses aligned with the outcomes (including checking to make sure they included our bulleted outcomes list in the syllabus itself). At several points, we also programmatically assessed student portfolios with a common rubric aligned to our outcomes so that we could demonstrate that students had made “progress” in meeting them. And yet, as Bearden argues in this volume, the reductively linear notion of curricular progress encouraged by many approaches to representing outcomes ultimately fails to reflect what our field knows about writing and learning processes as “reiterative, recursive, messy, and oftentimes involving moments of failure.” Furthermore, Bearden insightfully demonstrates how the appearance of multimodality as a single outcome on a bulleted list can further the erroneous belief that it is a special add-on to be dealt with a single multimodal assignment rather than a powerful way of knowing to be recursively engaged throughout the course.
Seeking to better illustrate the recursive messiness of writing, learning, and multimodal composing, Bearden presents a compelling spiral graphic of curricular outcomes that demonstrates how students in EMU’s writing program recursively loop through experiences with engaging rhetoric, reflection, multimodality, research, and conventions throughout the course:
Figure 1. Focal image from Logan Bearden’s chapter in this collection of a spiral curriculum using first-year writing outcomes at Eastern Michigan University.
When I first saw this graphic, I exclaimed that this was the kind of persuasive image that I needed for my first-day presentation in our summer pedagogy seminar for new TAs. Although I always emphasized in that presentation that multimodal composing and rhetorical reflection should be integrated throughout the class (and modeled how to do so in interactive activities in the rest of the seminar), my opening presentation took the form of a linear slideshow of bulleted outcomes and assignment descriptions that problematically conveyed a message at odds with what I (and the field) know about how multimodal, reflective learning works best.
As I look and look again at Bearden’s spirals, I love how messy and open this graphic appears. I love that the spirals end with an arrow pointing off into an uncertain future rather than with a clear sense of destination or (dare I say it?) outcome. I love too that the spirals are all the same size and all positioned on the same plane—there is no sense of visual hierarchy imposed that would suggest that they each build on each other in a linear predictable way. I love too that the graphic does not specify and delimit what exactly each distinct spiral is meant to represent. They might represent distinct assignments in the curriculum; they might represent individual class sessions; or, they might represent idiosyncratically personal moments of deep learning. In this way, what I find most valuable about Bearden’s graphic is that it provides teachers not with a narrow road map to follow but rather with a spiraling series of questions to spur further dialogue.
De-Composing Writing Program Soil (Szymanski)
While Bearden’s spiral graphic certainly can inspire playful reinvention, its gray-scale arrows and text labels somewhat dampen its playful spirit by evoking the businesslike or science-y seriousness of Available Designs such as the flowchart or process diagram. In contrast, Natalie Szymanski’s visual ecological heuristic in this volume draws on the Available Design of the children’s picture book in ways that more vividly evoke a spirit of creative play and joyful wonder. And, like any good children’s illustration, Szymanski’s heuristic image at first appears to be quite simple but (upon reflection) turns out to be at least as complex (if not more so) than the most “serious” or “adult” of texts:
Figure 2. Focal image from Natalie Szymanski's chapter in this collection of an ecological heuristic of writing program administration work.
In many ways, Szymanski’s visual ecological heuristic works to complicate and extend a burgeoning movement in the field to reconceptualize writing programs as complex, shifting ecologies (Reiff et al, 2015; DeVoss, McKee & Selfe, 2009; Inoue, 2015). Indeed, in my own time as a WPA, I often made reference to the language of ecology when discussing our program—and yet my references to ecology always remained stuck in the abstractness of metaphor. I never once thought of soil and animals and plants and sun and water when I talked of our writing program ecology, and I know my understanding of our writing program’s relationships would have been deeply enriched if I had. I found myself wishing that I had seen Szymanksi’s visualization when I first took on the WPA role—it would have been so incredibly useful to think with as I struggled and often failed to make sense of the complex contexts and kairotic moments in which I was enmeshed.
As I ponder Szymanski’s visualization (now from the positionality as a former WPA), I find myself most drawn to the image of the soil as the outcomes from which all the animal and plant life in the program grows. I especially liked how the visualization highlighted the ways in which the soil is constantly enriched and remade through the decomposition of all the other elements in the program via ongoing assessment. I was especially tickled by the idea of program assessment as decomposition—a kind of messy, smelly collective process from which new life can nonetheless sprout. And, I was truly inspired by this vision of program outcomes as not as a static, top-down imposition but rather as organically decomposing and regenerating soil that requires conscious cultivation and collective labor to sustain.
I was also drawn to the images of soil and decomposition in the image for a completely idiosyncratic reason. In the same week that I first encountered Szymanski’s visualization, I for the first time in my life began to participate in composting. (The garbage disposal in my condo broke and, instead of fixing it, I decided to join our building’s communal compost group.) I started putting all my coffee grounds, egg shells, and veggie scraps in a counter bin daily and then taking my refuse down to the communal outside bin once a week. Each time I visited the communal bin, I would marvel at how my scraps were mingling with my neighbors’ refuse to create new soil for a local community garden—to breathe new life into our neighborhood. And, all this was happening through a somewhat anarchic and voluntary process of collaboration with a wide range of human and nonhuman agents each doing their own part. As I contemplated my new daily composting habit, I began to think that in some ways urban composting might be an even better visualization for the ways in which collaborative program assessment can regenerate outcomes over time.
Figures 3 and 4. Individual and collective urban composting bins.
Urban composting is not a task that can be done just once a year and it can’t be delegated to just one person. A successful composting co-op requires a diverse mix of organic materials contributed and turned on a regular basis by numerous people. Importantly, the unique materials placed in the compost bin cannot easily be picked out and assessed individually—rather we can only know if our composting is successful if all our materials blend over time to create life-giving soil. Some of the materials may be beautiful, some ugly, some sweet, some rancid but they all have a role to play. In this way, we might say that a compostable assessment is one that seeks neither standardization nor rigor but rather a generative smelly mess that draws energy from diverse life-giving materials contributed by as wide a variety of people and other living things as possible. A compostable assessment is one that helps us find the life-giving joy in even the “crappiest” of student projects—an assessment that asks not how could this student project better meet our predetermined outcomes but rather how could our generous dialogue with it help us work together to breathe new life into our curriculum.
As I look and look again at Szymanski’s visual heuristic, I find myself pondering deeply what it would mean to reimagine writing program administration as the careful cultivation and regeneration of soil. As writing program administrators (or as community gardeners), we must defend our soil from corporate products that might kill it—vigilantly fishing out the plastics, pesticides, surveillance technologies, automated scoring systems, one-size-fits-all rubrics and all the other kinds of late capitalist detritus that might find their way in. We must likewise resist corporate-industrial models of outcomes that would insist that all our classes grow the same tasteless corn in favor of cultivating vibrant generative soil that can give rise to diverse plots of green zebra tomatoes, collard greens, garlic scapes, watermelon turnips, golden beets, blue potatoes (and so much more). And, we must remember too that the tastiest produce often appears imperfect at first glance. Just as we can learn to savor the gustatory delights of the blemished tomato, the misshapen carrot, and the hole-riddled kale, so too can we cultivate a sensibility of seeking out the most delicious elements in student writing that might otherwise appear imperfect or irregular.
As I ponder this vision of writing program assessment as composting, I find myself thinking back to Robert McRuer’s queer, crip call for the field to adopt a process of “de-composition—that is, a process that provides an ongoing critique of both the corporate processes into which we, as students and teachers of composition, are interpellated and the concomitant disciplinary compulsion to produce only disembodied, efficient writers” (McRuer, 2004, p. 50). By visualizing writing program assessment as a process of relational decomposing rather than a process of top-down judging, we might be able to make more space for the diverse composing practices and knowledges of all the people who interact within our programs.
As I critically reflect on the idea of composting as a metaphor for queer, crip writing assessment, I also am reminded of Kim Q. Hall’s articulation of a queer, crip, feminist “metaphysics of compost.” In her work, Hall importantly critiques the “metaphysics of purity” that leads many alternative food advocates to reify binaries of pure vs impure food in ways that often unwittingly reinforce interlocking structures of ableism, heterosexism, classism, and racism. Seeking to challenge the “metaphysics of purity” that emphasizes delineating good versus bad food choices in normative ways, Hall proposes instead a “metaphysics of compost” that suggests a process of becoming that is simultaneously a coming into being (building good soil, for instance) and decomposition or loss. Compost is all these at once—never pure, never fixed. As I understand it, compost is less a composite of multiple sites of relationship than it is a Deleuzian assemblage that is constantly being transformed by these relationships. In this sense, a metaphysics of compost has the potential for thinking of food [or writing programs!] as a network of relationships, not all of which can be repaired through “good” choices and not all of which can be known or assumed in advance (Hall, 2014, p. 190).
Reimagining composting (and writing assessment) through Hall’s queer, crip lens, then, we can recognize that the goal of a compostable writing assessment need not be simply the development of “good” soil from which “solid” outcomes can grow. Rather, a compostable writing program assessment might allow us to design outcomes that are so messy and unstable and interconnected that they simply cannot be straightened out into bulleted lists. A compostable assessment might also embolden us to make some deliberately and deliciously “bad” choices that resist the dictates of the neoliberal university. And in so doing, a compostable assessment might, just might, help us visualize and cultivate writing program ecologies that are more nourishing and sustaining for all the living beings who inhabit them.
Playing in the Dirt
In my extended digression about queer, crip composting, I realize I may have wandered pretty far afield from the initially intended goals and messages of Szymanski’s and Bearden’s visualizations. My attraction to decomposition as metaphor certainly reveals a lot about my queer love of McRuer’s and Hall’s work, about my recent embrace of composting, and even perhaps about my own nervous system that is slowly and intermittently being decomposed by multiple sclerosis. And, my reluctance to interpret these visualizations in more practical terms certainly reflects my current position as a tenured former WPA looking back critically on my past and trying hard to imagine an alternative future. At a different point and time in my journey in the field and in life, I likely would have arrived at very different interpretations of both graphics. And, I expect all readers of this volume will each generate their own unique interpretations of the visualizations herein in ways that are wholly unpredictable.
Ultimately, I would argue that this ability of creative visualizations to generate multivalent, complex, and perhaps even contradictory meanings is precisely what makes them so useful for WPA work. As Szymanski powerfully asserts, creative visualizations can help WPAs “defamiliarize their ecologies in order to (re)enter them in new and innovative ways”—and I can attest that her generative visual heuristic most certainly enabled me to resee WPA work in ways I never had before. Likewise, Bearden argues that “visual representations of curricula can function generatively, as Available Designs for curricular re-imaginings within our own programs”—and I can attest that I find myself seeing spirals upon spirals in all my pedagogical work now in ways I hadn’t in the past. In the end, when we move away from alphabetic-centric Available Designs to engage more deeply with other visual and spatial forms of meaning making, we have an opportunity to reimagine and remake what writing program administration is and what it could be. And as we play with creative forms of visual-spatial composing, let’s not be afraid to get our hands dirty—to play transgressively with a much wider and weirder variety of Available Designs that no “good WPA” would dare touch.