By Tim Lockridge, Assistant Professor, Miami University
Digital Writing and Rhetoric is a course designed to introduce Professional Writing majors and Interactive Media Studies majors to foundational concepts in digital rhetoric and composition. In the Spring 2018 iteration of the course, I asked students to select a focal topic, research it, and to communicate their findings first through print design (via a white paper) and next through sound design (via an audio essay). Alex Borowitz’s “Le Processus D’écriture” comes from the third and final assignment—a video process narrative. Specifically, this assignment asked students to reflect on their writing process and to use video and sound to communicate the lived, spatial, and embodied activity of writing. I wanted to draw students’ attention to the messy and mediated work of composing—the parts of a writing process that are often invisible or erased. The assignment was very much informed by two scholarly sources, which are worth briefly mentioning here.
The first, Prior & Shipka’s (2003) “Chronotopic Lamination: Tracing the Contours of Literate Activity,” introduces the concept of ESSPs, or Environment Selecting and Structuring Practices. In developing this concept, Prior & Shipka ask writers to draw pictures of and talk through their processes for a particular writing task. Some of these writers draw pictures of the spatial arrangement of a living room or office; others create complex flow-charts or comics-like panels. All of these ESSPs “involve not only setting up a context, but also the ways that the writer inhabits and acts in the space” (p. 222), and the ESSPs involve “externalizations meant to regulate thought and affect, to channel attention and action” (p. 228). I wanted to design an assignment that drew on these practices and asked students to use video to foreground the importance of space, affect, embodiment, and motion in writing processes. As a possible model of this, we read Alvarez et al.’s (2017) “On Multimodal Composing,” in which the authors respond to a question of “What does composing look like in and across digital, networked spaces and the physical spaces our bodies inhabit as we compose?” (n.p.). Through a series of narratives and videos, “On Multimodal Composing” traces writing processes across spaces, software, artifacts, and interactions, and I hoped students could find motivation in its breadth of stories about writing.
Alex’s “Le Processus D’écriture” echoes some of the work in “On Multimodal Composing,” but it moves in a decidedly different direction. The video opens with moments from the embodied everyday (waking, grooming, putting on a nice shirt, brewing coffee, arranging the desk) that are punctuated by strummed string instruments and long visual pauses. As the video moves into moments of composing, we are shuttled between scenes as the tempo accelerates: the disbelief of the nearing deadline, hands to keyboard, hands to brow, the coffee cup, the eyes wide, the mashing of the backspace key. It’s a scene, I think, that feels familiar to many writers.
And then, as the deadline looms and the writer signals frustration, Alex takes us to the outdoors. This interlude is striking in its contrasts, as the music slows and the camera shots widen. Where computer-based composing was depicted with tight close ups, the outdoors is shown expansively: there’s a brick pathway lined with arborvitae, a single bench set within a retaining wall, an expanse of shrubs, and a fountain churning within a pond. There is no one here but the writer, who is shown from head to toe for the first time. This could be read as a tale of the romantic writer returning to nature, but I instead see what Marilyn Cooper called an ecology of writing, whose metaphor “is that of a web, in which anything that affects one strand of the web vibrates throughout the whole” (p. 370). The outdoor scenes show us a biological ecology, yes, but they also point to the writer working within spaces—asking how a person interacts with objects, moves through environments, and draws meaning from both.
After the outdoor scenes we see the writer return with a spiral bound notebook (a new tool within this video) and the hierarchical technology of the outline. We see a fervor of checklists and flow, which looks a bit like the accelerated composing of the earlier scenes, but also feels more focused—the eyes are fixed on the screen, the fingers are mashing the backspace key just a bit less. The writer finishes two minutes before deadline. We feel a sense of success and relief as the music stops and the video cuts sharply to black. A text was produced, and its readers might only see that final artifact, but we can scrub backwards and consider the long mess of activity that helped it arrive.
I would be remiss to not specifically praise the vision and style here: The video is wonderfully filmed and edited. The nod to silent movies does much connotative work, and both the black-and-white shots and the musically-driven pace help me to see anew a familiar story of writing. There’s complexity in the familiar here, and it draws our attention to technologies, spaces, rhythms, and routines—asking us to consider how a writer maneuvers within them. I’ve thought about this while writing the reflection you’re reading: I’ve wandered up and down the stairs of my house, poured cups of coffee, walked my dog through tall grass only to hurry back home and mash the delete key just a bit less. In all of these movements, much like Alex’s video, the web of embodied and mediated activity helps me to see old problems in new and exciting ways.
Alvarez, Sara P., Baumann, Michael, Day, Michelle, Echols, Khirsten L., Gordon, Layne M. P., Kumari, Ashanka, Matravers, Laura Sceniak, Newman, Jessica, Nichols, Amy McCleese, Ray, Caitlin E., Udelson, Jon, Wysocki, Rick, & DeVoss, Dànielle Nicole. (2017). On multimodal composing. Kairos: A Journal of Rhetoric, Technology, and Pedagogy 21(2). Retrieved from http://kairos.technorhetoric.net/21.2/praxis/devoss-et-al/index.html
Cooper, Marilyn M. (1986). The Ecology of Writing. College English, 48(4), 364–375.
Prior, Paul, & Shipka, Jody. (2003). Chronotopic lamination: Tracing the contours of literate activity. In Writing Selves/Writing Societies, edited by Charles Bazerman and David Russell, 180–238. Fort Collins, CO: The WAC Clearinghouse and Mind, Culture, and Activity.