Borrowman, _On the Blunt Edge_

Borrowman, Shane (Ed). On the Blunt Edge: Technology in Composition’s History and Pedagogy. Parlor Press, 2011. (178 pages)

Shane Borrowman, Introduction: Process and Place, Technology in a Glass

 In the introduction to On the Blunt Edge, Borrowman offers a narrative about the locations or places that he attaches to particular pieces he has written: from this narrative, he argues that the places may change, but the writer does not. He then offers a brief narrative that places the technologies of writing at the center of his work. From this narrative, he sets the stage for the book: to explore the ways the technologies of writing reflect the changes in writing and of writing processes.

 

Richard Leo Enos, Writing Without Paper: A Study in Function Rhetoric in Ancient Athens 

Enos offers an alternative historical perspective on the literacy activity in ancient Athens, often considered the first “literate community” (4). Through the everyday documents of ancient Athenians, unearthed by The American School of Classical Studies at Athens, Enos offers a taxonomical classification of these people’s everyday literate activity: educational practices, civic literacy, commercial transactions, and expressive writing. Enos describes these everyday documents as “fragmentary evidence of commonplace, functional rhetoric” that, when taken together, describe habits of mind and practice.

 

Daniel R. Fredrick, Adsum Magister: The Technology of Transportation in Rhetoric Education

Fredrick argues, “unquestionably, the history of the literate mind—the history of rhetorical education—is caught up inextricably with the history of transportation (and all the equipment necessary for travel) whether it means getting the student to the teacher, the teacher to the student, or both to a common locality” (15). He then charts out a few key technologies that were indicative or reflect paradigmatic shifts in rhetorical education. For example, the transition from schooling in the home to schooling outside the home marked a movement away from domestic education to molding “capable statesmen” (16). Fredrick also mentions the shoe, the student procession, walking sticks, donkeys, and roads as technologies that both accommodated student travel and allowed the convergence of students, teachers, and facilities of education. Gesturing toward networked education/classroom, Fredrick concludes by questioning whether such convergence may be integral to education (27).

 

Richard W. Rawnsley, Motivations for the Development of Writing Technology

Rawnsley summarizes his argument at the start: “Writing technology did not develop as a result of benevolent and philanthropic purposes, but was the result of market conditions that stimulated creative minds to develop ever more productive ways to write and reproduce written material for profit” (30). His focus is primarily on writing machines, defined by easy text manipulation and the arrangement of unlimited characters of text. As he argues, “an innovation in technology is only useful when it is exploited. No persistent technology is ever attained for altruistic reasons” (34). Instead, Rawnsley argues that while the uses of technology hovered around altruistic reasons, the motivation behind it was typically economic (36). He names two reasons for innovation to succeed: improvements in speed and convenience. In other words, must of the motivation behind moving toward technological improvements were typically rooted in technological expediency in those two terms. One of the more interesting examples involves the transition toward a QWERTY keyboard: “QWERTY keyboard was an innovation intended to overcome mechanical obstacles”, namely, the keys were rearranged to prevent jamming of keys that were closer together.

 

Shawn Fullmer, “The Next Takes the Machine”: Typewriter Technology and the Transformation of Teaching

Looking across educators’ inquiries into typewriter technologies in the early 20th century, Fullmer observes, “typewriter use in the classroom reinforced and recreated a form-alist pedagogy” (61). For these educators, the typewriter “provides a means of ‘standardized’ and ‘form-alized’ writing—writing that is easily scanned for surface errors and grammatical syntactical mistakes” (60). Fullmer positions typewriter technology at the fulcrum of a “continuing pattern in the inextricable and historical melding of ideology, technology, and pedagogy” (66). IN this way, referencing Andrew Freenberg (Critical Theory of Technology, 1991), “technology is subservient to values established in other social spheres”; Fullmer continues, “technology is a tool society uses in various ways to support existing cultural practices, and that technology influences and creates epistemological and ontological aspects of society” (69). In other words, the practices associated with technology reflect and also define culture. Fullmer also notes how educators thought the commercial availability of the typewriter—like the sewing machine—would encourage formalist ideologies in the home (60). As a caveat, Fullmer also references some qualifiers to his argument, but notes that despite some students’ creative uses of the typewriter, these efforts “seemed suppressed by the mechanical constraints of the typewriter and the form-alist pedagogy” (69).

 

Kathleen Blake Yancey, Handwriting, Literacy, and Technology

Yancey begins a historical inquiry into handwriting and handwriting practices as a pervasive writing technology that has shaped writers, cultures, and also testing. Noting the Palmer Method as a kind of technology to train handwriting, Yancey observes that such a method pitted handwriting against the perceived benefits of the typewriter: namely, handwriting “enabled one to compete with the typewriter [and] did so by instilling a discipline compatible with a process of socialization that, ironically, would assimilate at the same time it maintained class segregation” (74). But, as Yancey argues, handwriting’s ability to assimilate and maintain class structure is possible through handwriting perceived conflation with writing itself: “as the twentieth century opened, handwriting was writing, an equation whose implementation yoked one’ ability to form letters to one’s ability to compose. Much as in the case of grammar today—when grammar is identified as writing—writing itself had no status or conception apart from handwriting” (76). The training to do well in handwriting, then, equated with doing well with writing and thinking generally. Thus the oft-cited (and problematic) connection between handwriting and the self: teachers saw their students through their handwriting and students saw themselves through the same lens (77). This, then, was reinforced by early writing tests that often included handwriting as a parameter of assessment. Yancey concludes, “the force of handwriting, its power as a technology to shape us, typically invisibly, often distorting what is, leaves in its wake much more and often worse than a poor hand” (82).

 

Joseph Jones, “Making the Devil Useful”: Audio-Visual Aids and the Teaching of Writing

Jones looks at the historical exigence for including audio-visual learning aids in the classroom. As he writes, the inclusion of such aids/equipment was partly in reponse to the rapid expansion of English education at the secondary level; as jones notes, issues included “under-prepared and disengaged students, vocational mandates, and the mission to inculcate an appreciation for literature” (87). In some cases, the embrace of audio-visual equipment was a means to involve students in the activities of the classroom—“from recitation to student involvement” (90). However, as he notes throughout, such use of audio-visual equipment was used to teach taste in literature and cinema. And more, the appropriation of these audio-visual aids by teachers may have minimized the creative possibilities of these technologies “by using them primarily as additions to existing, conservative teaching practices and curricula” (92).

 

Jason Thompson and Theresa Enos, The Rhetoric of Obfuscation and Technologies of Hidden Writing: Poets and Palimpsests, Painters and Purpose

Using the metaphor of palimpsest—“an analog of all texts, which carry with them the traces of their past, their dialogue with past texts, with the history of language” (Henry, cited TE 153)—the authors discuss “the rhetoric of obfuscation”, a misdirection to readers that invites decoding or for readers to disambiguate or “perfect” meaning. This desire to disambiguate is derived from Plato’s concern with the ambiguity of words, namely, the law of noncontradiction whereby “any given thing must be only itself” (154). However, TE, using Da Vinci’s notebooks as example, seek to understand how we (students) can use invention in order to make connections among disparate items rather than decoding, perfecting, or dispelling ambiguity. TE offer different kinds of invention processes that might align better with a rhizomatic construction of the world, in particular, memory. For example, they value ingenium “that ability to make connections between things” (158). They also allude to Corder’s idea of generative ethos; which “shows us how we can uild public selves to make our private selves transparent. Thus palimpsest closely links to ethos: a layering of voices that can be decoded to reveal our persona, character, intentions” (160). In this process, unlike Plato’s law of noncontradition, “one thing can and must be more than only itself” (161). They summarize succinctly, “to hold the layers of text open is to feel the discomfiture of irresolution: to hold them open is to resist their perfected completion, and this artistic ability we must perform if we are to make connections, to practice the ingenium we have somehow forgotten” (161). They finally offer the idea of kairotic ethos, descrbed by the following components:

  1. The artistic and destabilizing ability to see texts, people, and places, as palimpsests, as continually redrawn figures overlapping earlier figures, faintly seen;
  2. A willingness to pause when confronted with a rhetoric of obfuscation;
  3. The capacity to recognize and value ambiguities within, between, and among palimpsests without resolving them;
  4. The patience to wait until ‘the right moment to speak or write’;
  5. The capability to practice ingenium, of forging new connections, by living in the interstitial world created by 1-4 (166).
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