17 January 2012

Remixing Freshman Comp

I'm teaching Writing 20 this semester, Duke's freshman composition course and the only course required of all Duke undergrads.

Enrollment for each course is capped firmly at 12, so dozens of sections are taught each semester by a mix of grad students (across many disciplines), post-docs (also across many disciplines) and Thompson Writing Program faculty. Each course is (kinda, sorta) a "content" course -- everything from food science and pirates to captivity narratives is on the docket this semester -- but of course writing must be a significant portion of each section's curriculum.

My section is "Cut/Copy/Paste: Remixing Words" (syllabus here). My students have a wide array of interests, from neuroscience and art history to engineering and computer programming. To make this class most useful to everyone (myself included), I've tried to develop a few strategies -- most pulled from creative writing courses -- for mixing up the freshman comp course.

  • Busting the content/criticism divide. No traditional lit-crit compositions; no five-page thesis-driven essays on a "major theme" in Hamlet, no close readings of Keats. This genre does a few things well (that clause was a struggle for me to write, and I'm not sure I believe it), but none of those things (whatever they may be) serve students planning on graduating in 2015. We inhabit a different textual ecology than the one that invented literary criticism; our toolbox of critical methods should reflect that.
  • In-class remix exercises. Toward that end, our critical inquiry begins by practicing the methods of the artists we'll be studying. We're reading Breton on automatism; then we're doing some automatic writing. We're reading Burroughs on cut-ups, then cutting up Burroughs. We're reading Goldsmith on uncreative writing, then reading him backwards. Fill in the blanks for hypertext, digital poetry generators, flarf, collaborative writing, and audio remix. While I hope this encourages students to take art seriously -- that is, to engage actively with these ideas, and encounter them in all their transformative potential -- I'm also hoping these exercises will give students a few very basic skills and literacies in media production that they can build upon in future studies. (And if they never learn anything else about digital media, at least the black box has been cracked open, just a bit.**) Most importantly, by scooting around the edges of more traditional writing practices, I'm hoping these methods take a sledgehammer to one of the scariest things about any freshman comp course: the blank white screen waiting to be filled with "interpretation." We'll fiddle around with words that we didn't produce first in order to learn the mechanisms of writing. Once we know how the machine works, the rest is dictionary roulette.
  • Lab report. That all being said, there is one assignment in a traditional genre: the lab report. Students will perform a writing "experiment" on the class -- something like a surrealist exquisite corpse exercise, but (I'm hoping) a little more involved. They write a hypothesis beforehand (what will this exercise teach us about writing?) and a lab report afterwards detailing their process and conclusions. In addition to helping us investigate what makes sense (and nonsense) in writing, this should prompt some reflection on the cross-fertilization between (experimental) literary criticism and (experimental) science.
  • Distributed readings. Several times throughout the semester, we all read something different for class. I did this mostly because I couldn't decide on just three digital poems to teach; but I'm hoping the experience of, for instance, browsing the Electronic Literature Directory will give everyone a taste of a wide range of works, and that choosing one to discuss in class will encourage inter-(rather than intra-)textual connections. Distributed experiences/encounters == greater collective knowledge. Plus, we all know writing is social -- right? Well, so is reading. In fact, when we all read something different, reading isn't that much different from writing, since the process of plugging your thoughts on your reading into a group conversation is similar to the process of communicating your relationship to ideas in text.
If you have any experience with these or similar exercises, I welcome your thoughts. I'm not sure how any of this -- particularly the in-class exercises -- will work yet, as I've not taught this course before and, in my graduate career, have only taken one course that attempts similar methods. (It was a course on digital writing at MIT, taught by Nick Montfort; and while Nick attempted to have us do some surrealist exercises in class, we were a small, lumpy group, and I'm not sure his enthusiasm really took root in our phyllosilicate-heavy soil. Sorry, Nick.) But even a small remix of the usual freshman comp should yield results worth replicating.

** It is also entirely possible -- probable, even -- that, when it comes to media production, I will learn more from them than they will from me. Which would be awesome.


Mark O. said...

Looks amazing, Whitney! How has it been going?

Whitney said...

Pretty well! I wish I had more time to spend on a few things -- but what else is new...