Mining the Archollection, Writing the “Stuff of Life”

In his chapter on remix, Adam Banks draws from the work of Catherine Latterell because of her attraction to the concept of remix as something that “allows students ways of juxtaposing texts and ideas from academic and popular culture as well as other forms of public discourse and encourages students to create a wide range of print, oral, and digital texts” (88). Although Banks is clearly interested in these pedagogical values of remix, he advocates that our definition of what remixes, mixtapes, and samples are and do should also emphasize how they enact a “synchronizing of generational commonalities and tensions that allows, even demands, innovation while remaining linked with histories and traditions” (90-1).

So, even if we aren’t explicitly utilizing African American rhetoric within our first-year composition courses, how can we get our students “to remix history in order to point a new way forward” (100)? Furthermore, how can we get them to recognize composition as one giant “digital humanities project, as a thorough linking of texts, techne, and technologies” (155)?

I’m especially interested in how Banks calls for a “linking of texts” that preserves their “histories and traditions” because it feels (at least to me) like he is proposing a New Historicist approach to composition, which could have numerous exciting possibilities. And I very much agree with his assertions that we, as teachers, cannot “create any syllabus or teach anything without the explicit and implicit borrowing and reuse that DJs have celebrated and mastered,” and that “[e]very course we teach is a mixtape” (138).

But what are some examples of texts that we can introduce into our first-year composition classrooms that carry with them historic import?

Well, I’d like to think that material culture (or Material Culture?) is a fine place to start.

In my past two years of teaching E110 here at UD, I’ve thoroughly enjoyed watching my students’ reactions when I introduce their final writing assignment of the semester: a material culture multimedia project that asks each of them to examine a significant object from their own lives. They first write a personal narrative detailing how that object has helped them understand who they are as individuals but also as members of various communities (family, school, hometown, teams, etc.). They must then transform that narrative generically for a class presentation.

Initially, they view material culture as just a bunch of “stuff,” not as a series of “texts” that can offer valuable insight into their personal histories.  Sort of like this guy:

Because I like to make their lives “miserable,” obvi.

But their final projects almost always rise to the challenge:

ImageAnd what I’ve received are narratives centered around extremely evocative objects: a childhood home, a bracelet commemorating a loved one, a tchotchke from their birth country, or even a video game that has helped them through major life transitions like divorce or changing school systems.

So, why material culture then? Well, for Banks, part of what is at stake in using African American rhetoric in composition is to show black students how to interact with their backgrounds/origins, and their capabilities in a multimodal world. Material culture, as I’ve shown in the project I have my students complete, achieves a similar end. Likewise, Banks wants us to educate our students on how “to critically examine the technologies they often use without careful consideration” (88). To that end, it would behoove us to conceptualize material culture not just as “stuff” but as an archollection (archive & collection) of critical life technologies, ones that we may take for granted through everyday use but nonetheless tell us a great deal about who we are, where we came from, and what we can do both inside and outside of the composition classroom.

9 thoughts on “Mining the Archollection, Writing the “Stuff of Life””

  1. Chris–

    As I mentioned to you earlier this week, I really love the idea of getting students to think outside the box in terms of writing about an object, and treating it with the same rigor and seriousness as any other “text.” This approach seems so obvious to us as acolytes of The World is a Text, but I can well imagine that your students are thrown by this, as mine sometimes are by the idea that they can write about something they perceive as un-“academic.” I will often have my students read Gerald Graff’s essay “Hidden Intellectualism” ( ) near the beginning of the semester in order to get them used to the idea that it’s not what you are writing about, its HOW.

    Yet, your question, “what are some examples of texts that we can introduce into our first-year composition classrooms that carry with them historic import?” might still be one that is difficult to tackle. I wonder if there is ever going to be one single text of general “historical import” that we can get all of our students on board with, or if it is more important (and plausible) to foster them in finding a text that has personal/historical import to them.

    1. An addendum: there is another, perhaps more approachable, version of “Hidden Intellectualism” that I’ve alternatively assigned from Graff and Cathy Birkenstein’s 2007 edition of “They Say / I Say”: The Moves that Matter in Persuasive Writing (pg. 142-148). You can preview parts of it on Google Books:, but I also have the PDF if anyone is interested and would like me to forward it.

  2. Chris,

    What a terrific assignment! Would you consider sharing copies of your prompt and some responses to it?

    Also, if I understand you correctly, you end up suggesting that thinking in terms of “what texts can we [as teachers]introduce into our classrooms that carry with them historical import” mis-phrases the question. What we need to ask is: How do we get students to identify texts/objects in their lives that have historical import?”—which is a way of getting at what Petra, following Graff, defines as their “hidden intellectualism.” And your assignment works toward that goal.

    Great stuff! I’d love to see you elaborate on this in a longer piece.


    1. Joe,

      I would be more than happy to share my prompt and some responses! Just let me know how/when to enact the sharing.

      And I actually really agree with and enjoy your revision of my question re: texts and historical import. As much as I try, sometimes I feel like my students still struggle to understand what “historical import” even is, let alone where to find it (in terms of texts). In some ways, I wish my material culture project could be longer to better address this concern, but since it’s the last unit of the semester, it gets truncated a bit =(

  3. Chris,

    I’ve always loved this assignment, and I’m going to brag on your assignment here (because you didn’t) and tell everyone that your students respond amazingly well to this assignment. They connect to objects and know how to create a narrative that encompasses both their objects and themselves. I know that I keep saying that I’ll use this in my own class, but then I keep forgetting to make it a part of the course plan.

    And this is such a tricky way to get students thinking about diversity and individuality.

  4. I love this, and this assignment, and I love your passion for this assignment because I know it’s part of why your students respond so well.

    If I remember your prompt correctly, part of the assignment isn’t just narrativizing the object itself and their personal connection to it, but also the cultural and social history and conversation surrounding the object. I love it. This assignment asks students to take something presumably close-to-home, an object with emotional relevance, and locate it in its much larger cultural context. This is the same movement we make when we ask students to think about their assumptions and values, taking something so familiar and comfortable and making it strange and new for them.

    1. Callie,

      Absolutely! I always emphasize how, with this project, students should envision their narratives as a series of concentric circles, beginning with the object, then their personal history with it, and moving outward to how it connects them to some kind of larger cultural/social history. That’s where the “historic import” comes into play, in that I want them to recognize these objects and themselves as individuals as part of SOME kind of community.

      But your comment also reminded me that I should revise my prompt a bit to make sure that final thrust is as apparent as possible!

  5. Chris
    When I worked as an English teacher, sometimes in upper-basic classes I asked one student to bring one of her favorite objects to class.Then I asked other students to hypothesize about that object’s background history. Finally the owner was asked to share her own story with us. This activity was fun and motivated students to speak about themselves and their desires with a basic focus on one object. I saw it as a language skill practice, a kind of brainstorming for vocab and grammar.
    I am surprised to find the possibility of developing a similar activity to a serious writing assignment, thanks to your post.
    Do you think we can use movies or songs, which might have deeply influenced or even changed a student’s life,for this assignment instead of objects? I think a VHS or a DVD could be a material culture, right? What about an online movie? It cannot be a material culture any more because its not materialistic? Couldn’t we include a digital file of music, or a digital photo, in a material culture study? I think my questions are totally ignoring the world material!

    1. Naghmeh,

      You’re absolutely right: I’ve had multiple students craft narratives around movies, almost always Disney ones like *The Lion King* and *The Little Mermaid.* I think it’s great to take a multimedia approach to the the kinds of objects we value, which is already evident in how many of my students have written about video games!

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