Shipka, _Toward a Composition Made Whole_

Shipka, Jody. Toward a Composition Made Whole. Pittsburgh: U of Pittsburgh P, 2011. (151 pages)

Shipka’s introduction, in a way, turns us back to consider our assumptions about product and process. Early in her introduction, for example, she offers the example of ballet shoes with a student’s prose written on it. As she writes, she is positioned “in ways that allowed me to see, and so to understand, the final product in relation to the complex and highly rigorous decision-making processes the student employed while producing this text” (3).

She turns her attention, then, to motivations behind curricular changes. She points to two: one motivation involves the bridging between “the numerous and varied communicative practices in which students routinely engage outside of school versus the comparatively narrow repertoire of practices typically associated with the writing classroom” (5); the second motivation involves the “concern that the privileging of a linear, academic essayist prose style contributes to a limited conception of writing”(6). As she writes, despite students’ constant involvement and interaction with writing and technology, most of the same students conflate and equate writing with composing essays and grammatical correctness.

However, she also warns against conflating terms like “new media”, multimodal, intertextual, multimedia, composition with the production and consumption of “computer-based, digitized, screen mediated texts” (8). What’s overlooked in this conflation is the varied technologies students use “in order to create and sustain the conditions for engaging in these activities” (10): she refers to arrangement of desks, turning on lights, doing laundry, getting coffee, etc. Referencing Prior and Hengst, “people are never just talking, just reading, just writing” (19, cited in Shipka 10). This narrow understanding of technology does not account for the multimodal ways of making meaning with hybrid technologies—in other words, in freeing students from “the limits of the page”, we’ve instituted the limits of the screen as a replacement.

The argument of the book is thus: “when our scholarship fails to consider, and when our practices do not ask students to consider, the complex and highly distributed processes associated with the production of texts (and lives and people), we run the risk of overlooking the fundamentally multimodal aspects of all communicative practice” (13).


Rethinking Composition/Rethinking Process

She opens this chapter with issues that she cautions against in developing classroom and disciplinary boundaries of what writing is: a narrow understanding of technology that does not include non-computerized technologies (blackboards, podium, desks); and overlooking the historical role of the visual in any classroom experience (20). Classroom learning environments, then, must negotiate across various kinds of information including sights, sounds, scents, and movements. She notes two areas in literacy and learning that have the potential to attend more fully to “the material, multimodal aspects of all communicative practice” (21).

First, she looks to expand our understanding of “composition”, one that theorizes, researches, and teaches a more “integrated approach to composing”. Second, she looks toward the first-year composition classroom. She notes the differences between a traditional FYC class and a communications course. Specifically, the bifurcation of these two contents has left a dearth of attention to students “language environment” in the freshman course. “A communications approach to the first-year course would examine how writing relates to other modes and media of communication” (26). Instead, composition sees as its raison d’etre the study and teaching of written discourse, separating communication in other modes and media. Instead, Shipka returns to the consideration of the composing process, but with more attention to “tracing the processes by which texts are produced, circulated, received, responded to, used, misused, and transformed” whereby we interrogate the interplay of digital and analog, human and nonhuman, technologies old and new (30).

This return to a consideration of process positions the idea of composition made whole squarely in post-process. In the first wave of process scholarship, the proponents of process often established writing as individualizing and with expressivist tendencies, overlooking the interpersonal and social dimensions of writing process. The next generation of process scholars/researchers looked more closely to the social and material dimensions of literacy. “writers are not just meaning-makers but ‘makers of the means of producing meaning out of the available resources of representation” (35). There is also a greater attention to places and spaces of writing: students should be seen as travelers where the classroom is one of many spaces through which they move, learn, act, communicate, compose. “a thoroughgoing reconceptualization of composers at work requires that we attend to the integration of visual and verbal information and to the interanimation of linguistic and nonlinguistic sign systems” (37).


Partners in Action: On Mind, Materiality, and Mediation

As the previous chapter argued, the “theories of informing our scholarship, research, and teaching…must illumine the fundamentally multimodal aspects of all communicative practices” (39). She focuses her attention in this next chapter on the mediated means of action; the framework of focus, what she calls the mediated action framework/approach, allows for a re-examination of the final product as “in relation to the complex processes by which those products are produced, circulated consumed” (40).

Succinctly, the mediated action approach explores “the relationship between individuals and sociocultural settings, acknowledging that both are so thoroughly intertwined as to be mutually constitutive. Put otherwise, the assumption here is that one cannot locate, examine, or make sense of one without accounting for the other” (41). Pointing to similar understandings of composing (mediated action), these approaches share two theoretical principles: first, human behavior is social in origin and “mediated by complex networks of tools” and second, the boundaries are blurred between the mental and the material. In this particular framework offered by Shipka, her attention is drawn to the role that meditational means or cultural tools play in all human action, carried out either by groups or individuals. She discusses four characteristics of mediated action.

Multiple purposes: “mediated action cannot be adequately interpreated if we assume it is organized around a single, neatly identifiable goal. …[mediated action] typically serves multiple, oftentimes overlapping purposes or goals, some of which may be in conflict” (44). She draws attention to how some individual goals are in conflict with purposes of cultural tools.

The Agency of Mediated means: Mediated action is simultaneously enabled and constrained by the meditational means employed: “individuals work with, as well as against, the agency of meditational means” (46). Here, she draws attention to the ways that a cultural tool’s limitations (or agency) becomes more discernable in periods of its phasing in or out. The invisibility of a cultural tools’ constraints upon us may be supported by power or authorities that deliberately overlook or strategically downplay the limitations in order to keep dominant tools privileged: she cites, for example, the print, linear research essay.

Historical Context: cultural tools, to no ones surprise, have a particular past/history that is inextricable to its use. She emphasizes the need to be mindful about how actions always link back and project forward to times, places, tools, people, and opportunities of learning.

New Mediational means: “the introduction of new meditational means creates ‘a kind of imbalance in the systemic organization of mediated action,’ one that sets off changes in the agent and the mediated action more generally” (50).

She offers four other claims that further reinforce the necessity of such a framework: first, the label of the final product as multimodal obscures (or renders invisible) the contributions made by a much wider variety of resources, supports, and tools that were part of the process. Second, by opening up our gaze to the multiple means of mediation, we begin to notice the dataclouds in which our students compose. Third, it allows us to examine how “the bodies, minds, and institutions participate in the action, how they too provide shape for and subsequently take shape from the activities into which they are recruited. And finally, it provides us a way to work toward change.

As a final note, she confronts the often disappearing effect that some mediational means or cultural tools have: “technologies that have become deeply integrated into daily rituals and routine are far less likely to be seen or counted as technologies at all” (54). We place value on these technologies precisely because their limitations are obscured through routinized use.


Frameworks for Action: Mediating Process Research

Here, using some examples, she offers two frameworks for action. Environmental selecting and structuring practices: the use of external actors and aids as a way of shaping and directing consciousness in service of the task at hand” (59-60). These practices are sources of motivation and “as ways of managing the affective dimensions of work” (60). Here, what might seem like non-work may actually be functioning as an integral part of the composer’s process.

Semiotic remediation refers to the blended or multimodal aspects of meaning-making and communication. The semiotic means of creating meaning, then, is often represented and reused across modes, media, and chains of activity. Such a perspective draws attention to how students composing process extends to and are informed by many different settings: research should attend to the multiple external connections that students move between (77).

After retelling the composing of a dance routine by a student, Shipka draws attention to the student’s grounded use of writing. Specifically, the students written products were “employed here as a way to helping Muffie to fulfill some of her broader goals and objectives” (82). Shipka concludes, “our discipline needs to examine both kinds of writing. In addition to examining writing as ‘the thing,’ meaning final products that my be entirely or even partially comprised of alphabetic text, we need to investigate the various kinds of writing that occur around—and surround—writing-as-the-thing” (82).


Making Things Fit in (Any Number of) Ways

As the title of this title suggests, Shipka looks toward “not only provid[ing students] with opportunities to ‘make things fit in new ways’ (Zoetewey and Staggers 2003, 135), but to make things fit in any number of new ways. Students should be asked to reflect upon the array of mediational means “’to which people have access and the patterns of choice they manifest in selecting a particular means for a particular purpose’ especially when others are imaginable (Wertsch 4; in Shipka 85). In recognizing alternatives, the teaching of composition should involve the fostering of rhetorical flexibility and meta-communicative awareness. To reflect these two concepts, students should “assume responsibility for determining the purposes, potentials, and contexts of their work” (88).

After describing two examples of student work, she points to three claims that these two cases exemplify: “students can (1) demonstrate an enhanced awareness of the affordances provided by the variety of mediational means they employ in service of those goals; (2) successfully engineer ways of contextualizing, structuring, and realizing the production, representation, distribution, delivery, and reception of their work; and (3) become better equipped to negotiate the range of communicative context they find themselves encountering both in and outside of school (103-4). However, she also alludes to a few misconceptions.

First, students accustomed to traditional forms of writing see such writing frustrating and time-consuming; the shift from more prescriptive writing assignments to taking responsibility for their own goals can prove challenging. Second, such work will be labeled “creative”, “childlike”, or “artistic” thus considered less rigorous; however, such work is both rigorous and highly sociorhetorical. Finally, multimodal work does not always need or require new pedagogical approaches; rather, the goal of any writing course is to teach students effective, rhetorically based strategies for taking advantage of all available means of communicating effectively and productively, to multiple audiences, for different purposes and using range of genres’” (Takayoshi and Selfe in Shipka 208).


Negotiating Rhetorical Technological, and Methodological Differences

Here, Shipka specifically attends to the assessment of multimodal projects in her classroom. Unlike other perspectives on this kind of assessment, she is specifically looking toward the production and evaluation of dissimilar texts. As noted in the previous chapter, Shipka argues “for the importance of requiring that students assume responsibility for describing, evaluating, and sharing with others the purpose and potentials for their work” (112). Such responsibility is articulated in what she calls the “statement of goals and choices” (SOGC). “in these statements students detail how, why, and under what conditions they made their rhetorical, technological, and methodological choices” (113). Unlike process memos or reflective activities that occur after the final product has been produced, SOGC prompts students to account for “their goals and the rhetorical, technological, and methodological choices they make in service of those goals, students are provided with an incentive to consider how, why, when, and for whom their texts make any kind of meaning at all” (116). Such a process, then, prompts students to defamiliarize the familiar, “making more visible the social and historical dimensions of technologies and aspects of composing processes that have become visible, and so, seemingly natural over time” (127).


Conclusion: Realzing a Composition Made Whole

A composition made whole moves away from question of “what makes writing good?” or “is this written text written well?” and embraces questions of rhetorical choice, flexibility, and metacommunicative awareness: “what work does (or can) this accomplish?” “what difference does it make to accomplish that work in this way as opposed to any of the other ways one might imagine accomplishing that same or similar kind of work?” (132).

The move toward a composition made whole involves an internal movement within the discipline. Namely, “it is also important that we, as scholars and researchers, explore the potential of different representational systems in our own work” (135). Further, we must embrace a more capacious understanding of writing and, in turn, academic writing. By limiting our understanding of writing to very specific, recognizable forms and recognizable materials (8.5×11 paper), we are not embracing the multimodal, mediated action framework.




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