Home Words: City Writing

I'm finally winding this CCCC blogging thing up, getting around to Jeff Rice, Jenny Edbauer, and Geoffrey Sirc's panel. I know several of you who couldn't make it to the session have been waiting to read my notes, and I hope I don't disappoint. If I misunderstood anything the presenters said, I'm sure they'll leave comments here to correct me. :-) Jeff started out with his paper, titled "Writing Detroit." He made several intriguing connections, the first one being the rhetoric of the city's parallel with the rhetoric of digital culture. Both are fragmented (and composition studies dismisses "fragment" as error). City writing embraces fragments, the fragment as place, without resorting to representation, problematizing representation. Writing in digital culture usually means taking snippets of sound, images, text, etc. and remixing them to form something new. He brought in Nigel Thrift's concept of "everyday urbanism," remarking that few cities are as "urban" as Detroit. Jeff defined "pedagogy" as he was talking about it as "generalized teaching," not limited to classroom instruction in particular. He called for the discovery of place as rhetoric: writing the city, writing myth. When we write the city, we're writing our own ideologies, not mimicking or re-presenting the city. Jeff then went into a sustained example using the history of Detroit, especially Henry Ford and Eminem, which was really interesting. I couldn't possibly do justice to it here, but maybe Jeff will post something about it. Anyway, he pointed out that when students are asked to invent the university, they are also being asked to segregate themselves from the city. In city writing, rhetors are like flâneurs, and appropriation is the guiding principle. The assembly line, to use a Detroit metaphor, is like composition: the combination and juxtaposition of elements. Making appropriation the guiding principle encourages ambiguity, a "mood-based grammar," attitude and bravado in writing, a pose of boasting, like one Eminem or Henry Ford might assume. (Let me be careful here. I got the impression that Jeff was saying this kind of writing fosters confidence in students and discourages passivity and timidity in student writing, not that he was making some kind of claim for braggart-as-ideal-rhetor.) He closed by saying that in city writing, you articulate positions, not arguments; you re-invent, rather than re-present. Geography inscribes difference, and difference becomes reinscribed in geography. (I had that last sentence in my notes, but I forgot what the connection between it and the previous sentence was...)

Next was Jenny's presentation, "Writing on the Drag: Documentary as Street (Re)Search." I found hers to be the most resonant and influential to my thinking. I also found it to be the most accessible, as I recognized ideas she'd been working through for some time. Jenny started out by addressing the problem of online paper mills. We could bemoan plagiarism, she said, and blame the lack of creative assignments given in writing classes that lead to plagiarism. But what might be more productive, she argued, is to look at the essays on online paper mills in terms of their equivalency (read those posts I linked to above; she really lays out her definition of equivalency well there). By equivalency, she refers to writing as a disembodied act which results in "anytime, anywhere texts." These texts overlook time, place, and the circumstances of the writer herself. Jenny used a rhetorical analysis of a New York Times op-ed piece as an example of one such assignment that would result in an "anytime, anywhere text." She had a couple of examples of student writing -- blog posts -- and said that between a (personal, specific) student blog post and a text from an online paper mill, there lies a range of tensions. She noted the term "genre" as a focus in university writing and its tendency to produce writing that is generic. Taking into account a student's sense of place and everydayness is an engaged approach to access. We should teach in terms of that kind of engagement: work pedagogically between Auditorium Shores and the next university assignment. If our goal as teachers of writing and rhetoric is for our students to engage with the world, Jenny said (adding that she hopes it is the goal, and if it's not, she's in the wrong field), we should have students actually engage with the world. Jenny then told us about how she applied these ideas in a class she taught. In the course, students blogged and created documentaries, with generative research as the aim. Their research process, Jenny quipped, was "pure trash," inspired by Found Magazine's "keep your eyes open" ethos. This method of engagement, she said, became very productive. Their blogs followed this "found" logic. She instructed students to blog their actual finds (notes, marginalia in used books, photographs, drawings, etc.) or their observational finds (local, governmental, etc.). If you have some kind of a-ha! moment, treat it as a find. Students then created storyboards from their finds and put them together for documentaries. Jenny's conclusion was particularly strong. She said that the work using this theory and method is not always great, but it is never exchangeable as an anytime, anywhere text. Wow. Jenny's presentation was eye-opening and inspiring. It's part of why a couple of people in the audience were actually moved to tears by hearing about this kind of teaching. In the question-and-answer period, Jenny mentioned bumping up against typical administrative questions such as the length requirement for writing courses (how will you ensure that they produce at least n pages of polished writing?). It's a little disheartening to think about experimental writing and pedagogy that sometimes gets curtailed by the administration, but I'm glad Jenny was able to teach this course.

I didn't take very good notes on Geoffrey Sirc's presentation, "Minneapolis/Combray," so I'm not going to post them here. I guess I require a slow pace in order to understand what's going on, because while I'm sure everyone else in the audience seemed to be able to catch what Sirc was saying, for much of the presentation I was thinking:


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Stupid UndergroundsOh, dang. I just noticed my icon in my iCat, Shiva. How cool is that? Anyway, thanks for the great notes on our panel, not to mention the kind words.

Stupid UndergroundsEr. . . my

Stupid UndergroundsEr. . . my icon IS my iCat. Well, you know what I mean. iShiva!


Yellow Dog

Thanks for the kind words Clancy. I do, though, like the "claim for braggart-as-ideal-rhetor"....the Henry Ford/hip hop boasting model...

good to see you at Cs.


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