All posts by Kiley Dhatt

Final Draft: Remix as “Concept, Material and Method” in FYC

Overview:
My digital essay project asks what we stand to lose–as scholars, teachers, and students of writing–by insisting that multimodal composition and traditional academic writing participate in fundamentally different modes of making meaning. Though many other scholars have productively registered the dissonances between these two kinds of composition, in my essay I consider what we might stand to gain by listening for the resonances. Ultimately I suggest that the lens of “remix” can help us, and our first year writing students, to see academic and multimodal composition as founded on a set of shared intellectual practices– and so doing, help us to find new ways to bridge past and future, academic and public discourse, alphabetic and non-alphabetic writing.

If that didn’t convince you to check it out, in my essay I do close readings of the two texts below, and argue that they participate in very similar intellectual practices of making meaning. Don’t you want to see me try to make that move?

Todorov

Development:
This essay really developed out of a blog post I wrote for this seminar in response to Lawrence Lessig’s Remix: Making Art and Commerce Thrive in the Hybrid Economy. Though I was completely on board with his enthusiasm for possibilities of free, open, remix culture, I was troubled that he felt it necessary to argue that multimodal/digital remix is somehow more complex than alphabetic/academic writing. As I thought about it more and dove into the scholarly literature, I realized that Lessig made two assumptions that were widespread in discourse on multimodal comp: 1) that these are two completely different practices of producing meaning, and 2) that alphabetic (and academic) writing is our past and multimodal comp is our future. These realizations led to the first two parts of my digital essay: “The Same Refrain” and “History/Futurity.” The next two sections, “Textual Layers” and “Resonance and Dissonance” developed out of my attempt to define what I saw as the real similarities between the two seemingly disparate types of texts.

Affordances & Constraints
In my essay, the most obvious affordance I took advantage of was the ability to embed video, which allowed me to isolate and showcase pieces of the music I was close reading. (Close listening?) But I also tried to make strong use of links throughout my essay, which I found to be a much more elegant and rich form of citation than clunky scholarly citation styles. Also, although there are few images in my project, I tried to use them suggestively rather than literally, to correspond to the kind of theoretical/conceptual work I was trying to do. It’s something that seems to work in this medium, but would probably look ridiculous in print. Lastly, no other medium would allow me to extend this project over time in public as a website permits me to do. I’m really looking forward to sharing my remix-focused teaching materials and blogging about my teaching experiences in the fall!

The biggest constraint was trying to manipulate the architecture of my website. WordPress themes are incredible, on the one hand, because with very little effort, they make your work look polished. On the other hand, they are unreasonably difficult to alter or customize in any way. It reminded me how badly I want to become proficient at writing code (I took a couple of intro-level courses on Python and Java, and absolutely loved it). This makes me think that to get serious about digital academic work and making best use of its affordances, we’re going to have to get a lot more technologically proficient.

X-Ray Vision and Distant Reading

I used to be stubbornly resistant to the idea of reading books on screen, for all of the obvious (though perhaps frivolous) reasons: I like the feel of a book in my hands—solid, material; I treat my books roughly and like how their physical shape reflects my reading experience; I like the satisfaction of actually feeling how many pages I’ve read and how many I have to go; I even usually like the smell of a book. But after just one semester of grad school, dragging my various and numerous books to, from and across campus, it became clear to me that I might actually find e-books more useful in an academic context for their sheer convenience (weight, transportability, storage, etc.).

So about five months ago, I got an iPad mini and hopped on board the Kindle train—and I really haven’t looked back. In addition to my initial reasons, I have found new causes to love e-books: their organized and searchable system for storing highlighting and annotations; the searchability of the text itself; the easy, deft movement between text and endnotes; the built-in dictionary and even Google/Wikipedia searches. I found my reading experiences to be fundamentally altered by these conveniences, but rather than flattening them out (as I might once have argued they would), I found that these affordances of the e-book make my reading experiences much, much richer than they would have otherwise been. The likelihood of my looking up a word of whose meaning I was unsure, of looking up a geographical location or historical event—I’m somewhat ashamed to say it was much slimmer when I had a print book in my hands and my computer was across the room. While you might expect these quick movements within an e-book (between internal and external text) to be distracting, I find them much less disruptive than hauling out my computer to look something up every time I want more information.

For these reasons, I’ve come to trust and rely on my Kindle app. That is, until this weekend, when I was reading my Kindle version of Tana French’s brilliant 2007 Irish murder mystery In the Woods for Dr. Siobhan Carroll’s course on the Transatlantic Gothic. I was only about a quarter of the way through the book when I discovered, quite by accident, a Kindle feature I’d never encountered before called “X-Ray.” For some reason or another, I had accidentally highlighted a character’s name—and what popped up looked something like this:

XRay Kindle Screenshot

Notice the blue and white bar at the bottom—which, it became immediately clear, represents the frequency and distribution of the character’s name in the book. Here’s the kicker: to avoid spoilers for others in Transatlantic Gothic (and anyone else who might want to read French’s excellent novel!), I used the main character’s name in the screenshot example above. But what I actually highlighted at that moment was a very minor character’s name. I instantly saw (and subsequently couldn’t un-see) the plot of the novel through that blue and white bar, because the very minor character’s name drops out of the book for almost the entire middle section, and then suddenly reappears in full force about ¾ of the way through the novel. This novel is a whodunnit for god’s sake! Fortunately, it’s also quite a bit more than just a whodunnit, or I suppose the rest wouldn’t have been worth reading. But I utterly loathe having plots ruined for me.

It turns out that X-Ray “lets you explore the ‘bones of a book’” by defining and mapping out not only character names, but various terms as well (such as locations, historical figures, and just about anything else you can find in an encyclopedia). From what I can tell, X-Ray operates through a data-collecting and –analyzing robot, but also through Amazon’s Shelfari, which describes itself as “a community-powered encyclopedia for book lovers.”

What this immediately made me think of was Franco Moretti’s fascinating, brilliant and also (I find) rather disturbing manifesto for “distant reading.” While the original manifesto itself was written in 2000, doesn’t explicitly mention computers or the internet, and was positioned ostensibly as a solution for making meaning of the vast, non-canonical quantities of world literature, it had prescient resonances for what it means to read in a digital age. “Distant reading” is almost precisely the opposite of “close reading”—it assumes that “distance… is a condition of knowledge: it allows you to focus on units that are much smaller or much larger than the text: devices, themes, tropes—or genres and systems” (Moretti, “Conjectures on World Literature”). In other words, Moretti deals in data. As he put it in his 1998 Atlas of the European Novel, his methodology is straightforward, if not simple: ““you select a textual feature… find the data, put them on paper – and then you look at the map” (13). The shapes and patterns that result from such data, which often cut across multiple texts and authors, become the new text subject to analysis. Here’s an example of what such work might look like, from his 2005 Graphs, Maps, Trees:

Moretti - Protagonists of Parisian novels

Of course, in the digital age these patterns no longer need to be “put on paper,” nor are we limited to analyzing only the data we painstakingly mine for ourselves. In the fourteen years since the publication of his “distant reading” manifesto, Moretti has since been avidly pursuing this unorthodox strain of literary studies, “importing,” as Wikipedia puts it, “not without controversy, quantitative methods from the social sciences into domains that have traditionally belonged to the humanities.” His work at the Stanford Literary Lab reflects his inevitable plunge into the digital, toward a new field they call “computational criticism.” We now have an array of technological tools that can amass data from texts, and even perform pretty sophisticated analyses. Because of the internet we can rely on the collective labor of many individuals to produce this information, as digital spaces like Shelfari demonstrate. The emergence of such spaces makes almost eerily prophetic Moretti’s 2000 claim that “literary history will quickly become very different from what it is now: it will become ‘second hand’: a patchwork of other people’s research, without a single direct textual reading” (“Conjectures”). The data and patterns emerging from collective work on texts between humans and computers—like the bar-maps and definitions I accidentally encountered on X-Ray, much to my chagrin—bear a strong resemblance to Moretti’s practice of “distant reading.” (Though it is interesting to note the somewhat contradictory controlling metaphors of each: zooming out vs. x-ray vision.)

Altogether, I’m not entirely sure how to feel about this digital-age movement toward data in reading and writing. Of course the sense of loss, on one level, is profound. Moretti is fairly indifferent toward such loss, observing that

If we want to understand the system in its entirety, we must accept losing something. We always pay a price for theoretical knowledge: reality is infinitely rich; concepts are abstract, are poor. But it’s precisely this ‘poverty’ that makes it possible to handle them, and therefore to know. This is why less is actually more. (“Conjectures”)

I’m not so indifferent. Like most of us, I suspect, I place a deep value on the individual process of reading a single text. To some extent, the linked external data can enhance that reading experience. But when it moves toward displacing the reading experience, as it very nearly did in my initial encounter with X-Ray, I profoundly resent it. Moretti has done some really cool, interesting work with his methods. But I wonder how far we really want to take distant reading as a real practice. And why, after all, do programs like X-Ray exist? What do we stand to gain, as individual readers and collectively, from such information?

Remix and FYC: 1st Draft

Okay gophers, I can’t lie. This thing is a hot mess: http://remixandfyc.wordpress.com/

Summary: I argue that there are some problems with the way scholarship in rhet/comp is thinking divisively about multimodal writing vs. alphabetic writing in the composition classroom, and ultimately suggest that the concept of remix can help us to highlight the similarities in the kinds of intellectual practices we want students to take on inside the academy– within and across modalities. Though I haven’t yet been able to get the posts in the right order on the website, here is how I’ve broken this essay down:
1) Key Terms: I try to define what I mean by “alphabetic writing” “traditional academic writing,” “multimodal composition,” “digital composition” and “remix”– and the relationships between them.
2) The Same Refrain: I argue that the way we’ve come to differentiate sharply between the ways that alphabetic texts and multimodal texts produce meaning is problematic.
3) History/Futurity: Some Discursive and Conceptual Snags: I try to show that one problem with the scholarly discourse around alphabetic and multimodal writing is the assumption that alphabetic writing is an almost-extinct practice of the past, and multimodal writing is the future.
4) Textual Layers: I haven’t written this section yet, but I will argue that we can conceptualize traditional academic writing as a practice of selecting and layering pieces of other texts to produce meaning in the same way that multimodal composing does. This intellectual mode of making meaning is the practice of remix. I plan to work through two specific examples: one piece of alphabetic academic writing, and one piece of multimodal remix (probably a musical remix).
5) Resonance and Dissonance: Again, not yet written, but I will argue that a key feature of the practice of good remix, in alphabetic and multimodal forms, is the ability to recognize and control the resonances and dissonances produced by the rubbing together of these layers/pieces of other texts. I intend to continue working with the same examples from the section above to show how this intellectual practice works on both alphabetic and aural levels.

Gaps/problems: Oh so many. You can see from the above that I’m really only halfway done. I also need to work in a bibliographic page in addition to linking out within the posts. I need to figure out how to rearrange my posts so that they show up in the right order on the home page. [Update: Figured out how to get them in the right order. Pro tip: It’s a total pain.] I’d love to figure out how I can group the posts under different tabs, so that the current ones all go under “Theory”; and so that I can add posts this summer under “Materials” (putting syllabus and lesson plans for an E110 course centered around remix) and in the fall under “Practice” (updates and reflections how how it works in practice). I also have an incredible amount of material in note form responding to different scholarly texts on multimodal vs. alphabetic composing, but very little of it has made its way into my essay yet 😦

Feedback: I’d love to get some feedback on the general shape and organization of my argument as I’ve laid it out above, and on the actual prose as it is emerging in my first few posts. Are there gaping holes you see already? Can you follow my argument? Is it too obvious, repetitive, dull? Aside from needing to get the posts in the right order, what do you think of this format for my essay? I was originally going to do a video, and that increasing felt wrong for the content. Do you have any suggestions for aethetics/format/style? Visuals/images/audio/video?

I really appreciate any feedback you’re able to offer at this stage. I’m sorry I don’t have a more complete draft to share!

With gratitude,
Kiley

Thinking through Banks’s Terms

From our work in class 4/18: Some ways we tried to define and capture the essence of each of the terms that Banks uses in Digital Griots.

Scratch

  • “interruption” (1)
  • hey! / bridge

Groove

  • Junction / “looping” (7)
  • “layering and repetition” (7)
  • Burkean parlor

Shoutout

  • “Who you wit!?” – Bernie Mac (111)
  • “relationships, allegiances and influences” (26)
  • “calling the roll” (26)
  • citation/reference
  • authorizing/promoting

Mix

  • Bringing together
  • Facilitative/collaborative
  • Griot’s role = “create conditions where a community can create its own collaborative text”

Remix

  • Builds from mix but more self-aware
  • Historicity in action creates generative story
  • Calls attention to its own fissures and stitches
  • “back in the day” narrative (87)
  • draws attention to its own “not-newness”

Mixtape

  • Artifact, collection
  • “compilation of others’ texts and ideas…” (138)
  • personal and public

Whoever “The People” Are

In Adam Banks’s smart and energizing Digital Griots, he argues that as teachers and scholars of the academy, and as public intellectuals, we must “teach, politic, build, act, plan, in the idiom of the people—whoever ‘the people’ are in the settings in which we hope to work. And one must teach the idiom—not just the language practices but the ways of seeing the world, the ways of being in the world, the values, attitudes, knowledge, needs, hopes, joys, and contributions of a people as expressed through their language” (49). My experiences as a new teacher of FYC this spring have, in some ways, led me to similar conclusions. I want to work harder to meet my students on common ground, and then build roads together to travel elsewhere. I want my students to feel like the work they do in my course has actual value, purpose and function in their lives away from the classroom. And I don’t ever want to dismiss my students’ everyday cultural and literacy practices as meaningless or lesser than those of the academy, falling into the trap of the “‘back in the day’ narrative” as Banks aptly terms it (87). (Indeed, I’m often surprised at the extent to which my students seem to have already bought into this narrative about themselves—I suppose it’s hard not to internalize the stories that others tell about you over and over again.)

And yet, at the same time, Banks implicitly calls attention through his language to the fundamental challenge of this position: “whoever ‘the people’ are in the settings in which we hope to work” (49). Whoever indeed. Because who are my students, really, and is there really one “idiom” through which I can hope to reach them all? What are these common “ways of seeing the world” and “ways of being in the world” (49)?

Hey, students: who are you?

These questions are obviously especially complicated in the face of a diverse student body. And yet it seems to me that they are not really any easier to answer on a much less diverse campus like UD, for a number of reasons.

Like others in this class who are thinking through Banks via teaching, I want to put some pressure on the idea of “teaching in the idiom of the people” in the context of a very white and relatively affluent student population. One reason Banks rightfully sees it as so important to teach African American students/community members “in the idiom of the people” is that black home/community discourses have historically, in the school system (and elsewhere), been marked by difference, oppressed and repressed, abused and devalued. Banks’s stance is a response to institutionalized racism, to a system of power that simply refuses to hear certain voices.

But when we’re talking about affluent white students with college-educated parents, their home “idiom” likely is the privileged discursive mode of the academy (and elsewhere). It seems to me that such students (and I absolutely include myself as one of them) need, more than reinforcing this discourse, to experience its disruptions. To listen to voices that are not ours, and seek understanding on someone else’s terms. To recognize that to feel only mildly uncomfortable speaking the language of the academy is already to speak the language of power.

As a white person teaching mostly white people, I’m not at all sure how to facilitate this. I know I need to get more comfortable being uncomfortable in the classroom. I want to work on it, but so far that’s about all I’ve got.

Remix as “Concept, Material and Method” in FYC

I’d like to use my digital essay project as a way to explore a possible solution to a set of challenges I’ve continually bumped up against in teaching first year composition (FYC) for the first time this spring. These particular challenges have originated, at least to my mind, from a lack of “content” in my FYC course; while I’ve continually brought in ‘outside material’ other than the Arak Anthology and the Allyn & Bacon Guide to Writing, my students have not been tackling a related set of writings that ‘speak to’ one another in some way. I’m finding this particularly regrettable as they set off on their research projects. It’s not surprising, when I reflect on it, that many of them had difficulty coming up with an interesting question to pursue. They’re almost all freshmen, so few of them have a sense of ‘conversations’ they might like to enter in their disciplines, and they haven’t engaged in any sustained way with a set of related ideas and texts throughout the semester, so they aren’t coming into any new ‘conversations’ in an authentic way.

The possible solution I’m interested in exploring “the use of remix as concept, material and method” for FYC, to steal a phrase from Kathleen Blake Yancey (who was using it to describe the process of redesigning the comp/rhet graduate education program at FSU). There are clearly many different possibilities for the ‘material’ of a FYC class, but I am particularly intrigued by the conceptual and methodological possibilities of remix as an entry point for FYC students into intellectual thinking and composing. I’d like to further pursue a line of thought I picked up in my x5 blog post, about the potentially fruitful parallels between multimodal remix and academic writing. I’m interested in what might be gained by seeing intellectual writing as already a (mostly monomodal) form of remix, and seeing other kinds of remix as participating in a similar kind of intellectual discourse. If we can reimagine the discourse of the academy and the discourse of remix as practices of layering and arranging other texts to produce something new, then perhaps we can help FYC students start to break down the walls they often sense between the academic and public types of composing and reading they tend to do (as well as the walls between the different modes in which these compositions can be accomplished—‘text’ vs. ‘media’).

I’m conceiving of my project, then, as divided into two parts: theory and practice. In the theory section, I intend to engage composition theory and other scholarship about remix, to explore and potentially make the case for remix as a particularly apt “concept, material and method” for FYC. In the practice section, I intend to come up with a set of materials for teaching an FYC course centered on remix—at the minimum, readings and a set of major assignments, with commentary for other teachers who might potentially be interested in teaching an FYC course with remix as its theme. Though it’s unlikely I’ll get to it before the semester ends, I’ll also design a full syllabus and series of lesson plans over the summer, as I’d like to test drive this course in the fall.

As such, the platform I select for the project needs to be flexible enough that I can add to it later. I really enjoyed creating the Concept in 60 video and would like to find a way to make use of video in my essay—I may actually try to put the “theory essay” in video format, because I think it would be one way to make that material more engaging. For the platform itself, I’m actually kind of a fan of Prezi. It allows the viewer to move through the material at his/her own pace, and it offers a giant canvas for presenting related ideas in a dynamic way. Plus you can embed video as well as text, so it seems flexible enough to accommodate the range of modes I’m hoping to use. Although my essay would likely contain more alphabetic text than this Prezi digital essay, I think the graphics, layout and incorporation of video are something to aspire to.

In terms of texts to work with, I think I’m more in danger of having too many than not enough. I suspect this is actually going to be my biggest challenge, since “remix” has become a bit of a buzzword in comp studies in the past 10 years; finding something new to say, or at least something usefully synthesizes others’ ideas, may be difficult, though I don’t believe it is impossible. Since Lessig was my initial starting point for this line of thought, I will likely work with him. But as I mentioned earlier, I’d like to engage some composition scholarship: Kathleen Blake Yancey had done interesting work on multimodal composing/remix; Eduardo Navas’s e-book Remix Theory: The Aesthetics of Sampling looks promising; and Johndan Johnson-Eilola, Stuart Selber and our own Joe Harris have done really interesting work on the relationship between plagiarism and remix in composition. Since I’m interested in the connection between alphabetic compositions and new media compositions, I’m also exploring Walter Ong’s concept of “secondary orality” in Orality and Literacy. In terms of teaching material, Catherine Latterell’s student textbook Remix: Reading and Composing Culture may provide both a source of inspiration and something to critique, since at least in my skimming through it, it seems rather distant from what I initially had in mind for my remix FYC class. I also found this video miniseries that might be a nice introduction for students to some of the main lines of thought around remix:

Some have started to push back against remix, too: a recent piece in Computers and Composition by Brian Ray argues for “genre uptake” as a more useful concept than remix for students composing in new media, which is already testing my thinking on remix in potentially generative ways. And I’m sure there’s a bunch more stuff out there—I’ve only started to scratch the surface.

Questions for you folk: do you have any immediate responses to my line of inquiry that might help me narrow my thinking and research? Because the idea of remix is so popular in composition right now, I am slightly worried about my scope and about finding something new to say. What do you think about Prezi as a format? Would a WordPress site be more practical? Any materials you’re aware of that might be useful?

Thanks in advance for taking the time to read and respond to this. I just realized this post is over 1,000 words. FML. Concision: I’m still working on it.

Walking (Coding?) the Talk: MediaCommons

The digital peer-to-peer publishing and reviewing system that Kathleen Fitzpatrick describes in Planned Obsolescence sounds pretty incredible: she carefully considers all aspects of the system for their potential strengths and limitations (with particular regard to helpfulness— a value that, as Fitzpatrick shrewdly notes, is often dismissed in the academic world) and, moreover, she addresses the potential pitfalls in a refreshingly candid and useful way. When I read, particularly when I read about something I find engaging, I am usually a pretty prolific annotator. But as I read Fitzpatrick, I found myself without much at all to say. I realized eventually it was because it’s a little hard to imagine what these digital environments might actually look like, and how such a good idea might actually translate into a (digital) reality.

Fortunately for all of us, Fitzpatrick isn’t just talk—she is actively testing out these theories and trying to build something collaboratively that really works. Have you guys actually checked out MediaCommons? I have to just start by saying: it is, quantitatively and objectively speaking, pretty damn cool. I only explored two subsets of it in any depth: In Media Res and MediaCommons Press, and I was pleasantly surprised in both cases.

In Media Res is a project that has different scholars “curate” (i.e., find and repost) a short video clip, and they write a short (300-350 word) “impressionistic response” text to accompany it. Each posting is then opened up to comments/response from anyone in the community. It actually rather reminds me of the kind of blog post/commenting work we’re doing in 685dw. While I certainly value the development of ideas over a period of time, I think forums like In Media Res and the 685 blog offer a completely different and complementary type of intellectual exercise. The “impressionistic response” format seems to encourage an idea of writing that is not to have the definitive last word, but to write suggestively in ways that open up new possibilities for others to take up. It is concise, engaged, and timely work, and I think we need more venues for these short, lively bursts of intellectual exchange.

The MediaCommons Press is a very basic model of the peer-to-peer review system Fitzpatrick describes in her book, in that it is simply a venue for scholars to get feedback on their texts. It does not yet include any kind of “review of the reviewers” (38) as Fitzpatrick theorizes in her book, but it sounds like something along those lines is in development.

A couple of thoughts on this “press” system. First, I think that what’s great about this is the super easy, intuitive interface for commenting on specific portions of the text. And it seems that people are indeed making use of it, albeit perhaps less than in an ideal world. But you can really see the potential for allowing others’ thoughts to actually impact your work, to shape and change your thinking, and (of course) to change the product itself.

With that said, within MediaCommons Press, I’m not totally sure I understand where the line is on when such documents are “published.” Fitzpatrick might say this is a good thing, that the new motto in the digital age needs to be “publish-then-filter” (38). But I guess what’s not clear to me is how or whether the original authors are changing their text in response to the feedback they receive. As it stands, there doesn’t seem to be a place for making note of such work in MediaCommons Press. To feel like the labor of commenting is valuable, it seems to me that there needs to be some way of communicating these changes.

Something else occurred to me as I was browsing through some of the documents that have been opened to peer feedback. As the system is currently used, there don’t seem to be more than 10 comments per paragraph of any given text. But even this is quite a lot of feedback to take into account. And what if the system really catches on an draws the users it hopes for? Sometimes as a writer, getting too much feedback can be a really bad thing. I’m thinking of students who have come to the writing center over and over again with the same piece of writing, seeking out feedback from as many different tutors as they can. I completely admire the drive and vulnerability that this requires, but these students almost inevitably seem to drive themselves crazy, since no tutor is ever simply going to say, “It’s perfect. Go with what you’ve got.” With writing, there’s always more we can do, more we can revise. But at some point, we have to decide when to let projects go. Getting too much feedback can be a real hindrance to getting work done. So in that respect, I wonder if the MediaCommons Press model is really scalable.

With regard to the full-blown version of this publication system as described by Fitzpatrick: I’m not entirely sure why, but some part of me wondered if maybe we need to resist the urge, in constructing these digital environments, to try to control and account for everything. I think Fitzpatrick is smart in her analysis of why other online academic publishing sites (like Philica) have failed, and that she makes a strong case for the need to provide some mechanisms for “reviewing the reviewers.” But I found myself a little skeptical about what she calls “pay to play” systems, such as points as internal currency, or changing your “karma” through your own contributions/publications, as Slashdot does. I guess I’m a little wary of over-engineering the system.

Some part of me wants to believe that if people find a site useful, they’ll use it—that if we need to contrive an artificial internal economy, it may be an indication that we’re compensating for real value in some way. But it’s also very possible “some part of me” is just being naïve about the need to create buy-in and reward before these digital academic communities can really function as we’d like them to. Another theory/practice gap here—it will be really interesting to see how MediaCommons decides to handle this problem (or if they decide that it doesn’t need to be ‘handled’ at all).

 

The False “Text” vs. “Media” Dichotomy: Academic Culture as Remix Culture

In this week’s round of responses, others have (rightly) called attention to the false dichotomy Lessig sets up between RO and RW culture. But as I was reading Remix, another opposition struck me as particularly bizarre: the binary Lessig attempts to construct between text and digital media. He boldly claims that

Text is today’s Latin. It is through text that we elites communicate (look at you, reading this book). For the masses, however, most information is gathered through other forms of media: TV, film, music, and music video. These forms of “writing” are the vernacular of today. (Lessig 67)

Wait—really? Even if we narrow Lessig’s definition of “text” to “alphabetic text,” which I believe is what he means, I have a difficult time believing that “the masses” are “gathering information” about the world exclusively through these non-alphabetic media. There’s a crucial distinction to be made here: the non-Latin-speaking ‘commoners’ of the European Middle Ages did not have the literacy necessary to make use of Latin as a medium of communication; the ‘masses’ who consume other kinds of media today are generally  literate in alphabetic texts. Yes, people are watching “New Girl” on TV and streaming movies on Netflix and watching/listening to Britney Spears on iTunes/YouTube/whatever. But they are also reading alphabetic text, even if they are doing so in different ways, in different environments, and surrounded by other media. To find evidence of this, we need only look at Facebook and Twitter, the two most widely used social media programs on the web: these are absolutely alphabetic text-saturated and -reading dependent environments.

No alphabetic text or reading going on here at all, no siree!
No alphabetic text or reading going on here at all, no siree!

The statistics Lessig cites in the same paragraph to claim “falling numbers for text” (67) make it especially apparent that he is falsely distinguishing print alphabetic reading practices from digital alphabetic reading practices. These statistics pit the act of “reading” against “playing games or using a computer for leisure” (67). But is it really not possible that we might read alphabetic texts (both in extended and fragmented forms) while we use our computers for leisure?

What I find particularly problematic about this false dichotomy between “text” and “other media” is that it allows Lessig to then claim that digital media remixes are somehow more convoluted, entangled, or even more creative than textual remixes. Lessig asserts that the ‘quotes’ used in digital remixes “happen at different layers. Unlike text, where the quotes follow in a single line—such as here, where the sentence explains, ‘and then a quote gets added’—remixed media may quote sounds over images, or video over text, or text over sounds. The quotes thus get mixed together. The mix produces the new creative work—the ‘remix’” (69).

As an academic(-in-training), I found myself more than a little irked at Lessig’s oversimplification here of the way that texts and ideas are circulated and remixed through alphabetic writing. In academic writing, we don’t just cite quotations—we cite ideas. Sometimes those ideas get represented through direct quotation, but often they do not: sometimes we paraphrase, sometimes we borrow someone else’s approach and apply it to a new text, and sometimes we do a little thing we like to call academic synthesis wherein we effectively “layer” others’ ideas to produce something new. To borrow some terms and ideas from Joe’s Rewriting, in each of these instances of putting others’ texts in service of our own writing projects, we are effectively rewriting them to say something new—an act I think we can justly call “creative work” and “remix.” Viewed through such a lens, textual remixes seem to me to be at least as complicated and difficult to disentangle as those composed using  digital media.

I highlight all of this in order to suggest that as much as academic culture may have to learn from digital culture (and I think it’s quite a lot!), there may be something digital culture can learn from academia as well. I suspect that the academy values intellectual property as much as the commercial sector, if not more—and yet, it has managed a system of attribution and citation wherein the use of others’ texts and ideas is not just free, but encouraged and expected as a means of contributing to a diverse body of texts and ways of knowing. Citation is more than an obligatory head-nod; it represents coveted influence within the culture. People want their work to be cited, to be rewritten, to be remixed. I am not arguing that academic culture is some utopian ideal, and I recognize that there are issues of compensation bound up in this discussion—issues we’ll no doubt attend to in next week’s discussion of Fitzpatrick’s Planned Obsolescence. But I still think there are values inherent to the remix culture of academia that are worth preserving, and worth trying to cultivate in the digital world.

Compatible Specialization or Productive Friction?: Forms of Difference in Collaboration

In Now You See It, Cathy N. Davidson demonstrates a real knack for taking 21st century concepts and terms that have received a great deal of bad press, like “crowdsourcing” and “hive mind,” and turning them on their heads to examine the possibilities they open up for productive learning and thinking. In the digital world, one big criticism of crowdsourcing is a sort of a variation on the “tragedy of the commons”: if no one feels responsible for the larger product, there’s a fear that the end results may be degraded in quality. In the world of composition studies, there is an additional fear of collaborative learning and writing: that it encourages consensus-building, which is often facilitated by glossing over dissent and difference. Marxist scholars like Greg Myers worry that collaborative learning, as it is commonly built into classroom pedagogy, simply reproduces harmful ideologies rather than calling attention to them. Davidson, however, insists that if difference and diversity are valued and emphasized, crowdsourcing has immense promise for its ability to innovate by combining the strengths of a number of individuals to find more creative, useful solutions than anyone could produce alone.

Davidson’s praise of crowdsourcing for “assum[ing] that no one of us individually is smarter than all of us collectively” (64) reminded me of a wildly popular TED Talk I watched several years ago, entitled “When Ideas Have Sex.” The speaker is Matt Ridley, a British journalist with a particular interest in the concept of collective intelligence as the primary engine of human progress. In the short video clip below, he explores the basic math of how different human skills can be pooled to create “combinatory” tools that both innovate new solutions and save us time. If you have the chance, watch the whole original video—it’s only a little over 15 minutes and, I think, well worth it.

There are certainly some strong connections between Ridley’s and Davidson’s arguments—connections that are particularly clear if you watch the longer version of Ridley’s talk. They are both convinced that differences in human ideas can interact and combine to create something much more powerful and interesting than can be produced by an individual.

But rewatching this video after reading Now You See It, I was reminded that simply emphasizing and celebrating difference does not guarantee the shift in our attention that Davidson so compelling argues is necessary for us to see new possibilities. Ridley’s (rather positive) take on the increasing specialization of human labor called my attention to the strangely fine line between difference as specialization that efficiently divides labor to maintain the status quo, and difference as a generator of productive friction that “distracts us” into seeing in new ways. That is, it seems to me that attention to difference is a double-edge sword: it can be employed in service of both complacency and innovation, depending on how it is mobilized. If we already account for difference in our thinking as specialization, our differences may be complementary and productive, technically speaking, but not innovative. Complementary division of labor for efficiency above all else is part of the industrial-age mindset that Davidson argues is now an outdated form of learning and creating. As she notes, ideally “crowdsourcing is suspicious of expertise, because the more expert we are, the more likely we are to be limited in what we even conceive to be the problem, let alone the answer” (64).

This fine line is something I am already struggling with in my classroom as a first-time writing teacher this semester. For Davidson, the usefulness of crowdsourcing/collaborative learning hinges on its ability to “jolt” us out of our normal patterns of seeing and doing by noticing the different ways that others see and do. Her discussion of classrooms that are using these attention-altering techniques extols the virtues of team-based learning. Partly due to their size, teams seem to provide an ideal environment for alternately building consensus (internally), highlighting difference (internally and externally, across groups), and forcing that sudden shift in attention toward new ways of seeing/doing (by seeing how others approach the same task).

Like many other teachers, I try to set up peer groups in my writing class to do just this. As students read and critique one another’s writing, I ask reviewers to try first understand what the writer is saying—to try to see through her eyes—before pushing back. Though before reading Davidson, I wouldn’t have put it this way, it’s my hope that this setup generates the most productive feedback for innovation by creating a two-way shift in attention: the reviewers are forced to see an idea through a new lens, and the author hears someone’s understanding of their ideas and then, perhaps, even some totally new ways of thinking about them.

What I haven’t done, however, is assign collaborative writing—and it is in large part due to my fear of falling into the old division-of-labor model of collaboration, where no one seems to learn anything from one another. But collaboration on a product seems to be central in all of the successful, innovative classrooms that Davidson discusses, and it is certainly a key feature of ‘real-life’ crowdsourcing in a digital environment. I’d love to hear from more experienced teachers about if and how you approach collaborative authorship in your own classrooms, and how you ensure that such collaboration really facilitates that elusive, radical shift in attention that opens minds and affords new possibilities.