Digital Convergence (pun intended)

Rhetorical Gestures Mug

Despite our semesters apart this blog has remained my touchstone because in so many ways it is about the intersections of digital and material culture. I’ve decided to make it my home base for this month’s participation in a MOOC (a massively open online course) on e-learning and digital culture facilitated through the University of Edinburgh. Last I heard there were 32,000 people enrolled in this course, with a few dozen of us interacting on facebook and now quad-blogging together. I’ll get into all that later.

For now I just wanted to pause and mark my return.

In the past year I’ve done a lot of hands-on exploring–learning much more about the materiality of literacy by making books, paper, and other fiber arts in OKC and, most wonderfully, at the Penland School of Crafts; messing around with clay; experimenting with more digital storytelling tools (had a great experience at the Center for Digital Storytelling). I spent more time pounding the pavement and pondering the relationship between artifacts and public memory in Singapore, NYC, and OKC. 2012 was an interesting year. In 2013 I’d like to bring more of it into focus–for myself, for my students, and for anyone else who might make use of what we’re learning.

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Synthesis (more thoughts on writing as craft)

BH collage process-low res

My arts-immersion sabbatical concludes this weekend with a final digital photography workshop. Though my project continues I wanted to pause here to synthesize some of the important points I’ve discovered (or re-discovered) for framing an academic writing course as a course in wordcraft:

My Context
The principles I’m assembling are intended to be portable. Even though for now I’m approaching this work mainly as a way to enrich my own classroom experiences, I’m hoping to share what I’m learning with other teachers in the future. I realize that my teaching style tends to be much more hands-on and improvisational–an approach that has been supported by fairly privileged circumstances: most of my college teaching has been done at small, private universities where my administrators have been highly supportive of [responsible] experimentation, community-engagement, and arts-integration, and where my classes have been relatively small: 16 to 22 students.
I also periodically teach courses at an overseas institution with larger enrollments (now around 30 per class) and numerous restrictions (logistical and otherwise), but I’ve managed to retain my core approach there while also getting a “reality check” about how much of this stuff one can do as a normal, busy teacher with lots of writing students and not much time or help.
Right now I’m concentrating on incorporating this approach into a first-year composition course that meets in a conventional face-to-face classroom, supplemented by a web-based course site. But I’m also interested in adapting some of this work to my web-based teaching and as time goes by will discuss that in more detail.
Some Components of Craft
Here I should also mention that I’m deliberately culling these principles from sources outside the “craft of writing” genre. I have a stack of those books–some read long ago, others waiting for me to finish this stage of my work before cracking the covers. But I opted to ignore them temporarily in order to give myself as fresh a perspective as possible during my mostly-non-verbal sabbatical. In other words, I wanted to see what artisans in other fields had to say about learning their craft(s), ruminating on that to see where it would take me before reading likely-analogous observations by writers. This seemed especially important because as a word-person I’m so accustomed to turning everything into a metaphor for writing. It happens automatically. I needed to breathe in a different space.
So to the extent that I can isolate or sort of universalize the notion of craft, here’s what I found:
Craft has these components:
  1. Heritage
  2. Materials, Tools, and Instruments
  3. Rituals and Routines
  4. Techniques and Strategies
  5. A Community of Peers, Mentors, Apprenticeship, and Heroes
  6. A Making-Based Learning Structure
  7. Models, Counter-Models, and Radical Innovation
  8. Dispositions
  9. Habits of Mind
  10. Lots and lots of practice
Heritage
The craft has a history. Even though individuals may discover a particular craft on their own (ex: a child whittling a stick or banging a pot like a drum) the activity itself has a heritage, often one that crosses many cultures and regions. Over time, the fortunate craftsperson encounters more and more of the lore and traditions connecting her work to that of many generations. This background also helps her understand why others did the work–for what purposes and audiences, and with what consequences.
Materials, Tools, and Instruments
Customary materials, tools, or instruments are associated with the craft. The craftsperson may work with alternative materials, tools, or instruments as well, but her craft is built on or enriched by experience in and with the fundamentals (as when a laptop-habituated writer learns to use a notebook and pencil for anywhere, anytime writing).
Rituals and Routines
Whether self-taught or required by mentors, certain processes are essential to work done well. Most often these processes are related to the preparation of the craftsperson herself and her workspace, particularly when sharing a space, tools, or materials with others. Sometimes the materials and tools themselves necessitate the ritual or routine (as in the grinding of ink for oriental calligraphy or spinning yarn for knitting or weaving or the tuning of a guitar). The quality of these preparations is manifested in the completed work.
Techniques and Strategies
The craft has its “best practices”–tried and true ways of working with the materials. Here as elsewhere, the innovative and “original” craftsperson is likely to have mastered the customary approaches as well as and prior to developing her alternative techniques and strategies.
A Community of Peers, Mentors, Apprenticeship, and Heroes
At some point the fortunate craftsperson encounters colleagues–historically in the artisan-apprenticeship arrangement or by birth into a family of craftspeople, today also in school, local organizations, or on the Web. This group becomes the craftsperson’s first creative circle or network, expanding over time, and it contains fellow novices with varying degrees of expertise as well as masters who become mentors. Some form of mentorship or apprenticeship enables the novice to be guided as she develops her skills, knowledge, and identification with the craft and its culture. Through this experience the craftsperson gains exposure to exemplary people and/or their works.
A Making-Based Learning Structure
Learning by doing. That is the heart of craftsmanship, whether learned alone or as part of a community. In either case, experimentation, trial-and-error, are key to improvement and understanding. When learning is done as part of a community or mentorship, the basic structure is likely to follow this process: demonstration and/or explanation, hands-on work or practice, critique by mentors and peers. Work is visible to others, often simply because they are sharing the space. Casual observation and feedback as well as more formal critique are habitual experiences that enable the craftsperson to benefit from other perspectives before, during, and after the creation of each work.
Models, Counter-Models, and Radical Innovation
Often done by the Heroes (see above), particular works serve as sources of inspiration for craftspeople. Novices learn by replicating the originals and experimenting with alternatives. The most conventional and revolutionary ideas often become the basis for a dialogue or dialectic regarding the nature, contexts, and significance of the craft itself.
Dispositions
Within the craftperson herself are three basic dispositional categories important both in terms of what she brings to the work and in terms of what her mentors will attempt to cultivate. (I culled the following directly from the book Studio Thinking by Lois Hetland et al. and will post a more complete citation later. Their work concentrates on visual artists working within a studio environment but translates well to other craft scenarios.) (1) abilities (both in handling tools/materials and in handling the planning and decision-making components of the work); (2) the craftperson’s intrisinsic and extrinsic inclination to use her abilities; (3) her alertness to opportunities for employing these abilities.
Habits of Mind
This component involves the craftperson’s approach to learning in general and to the craft in particular. It’s a collection of ways of engaging the world. Like everything else on this page, the habits overlap with and are influenced by one another and with the other 10 components. The following list is a synthesis from a variety of sources–interestingly, many of these can be found as characteristics of active learning in K-12 education–but the sources most influential to my current version of the list are: Lincoln Center Institute’s “Capacities for Imaginative Learning,” Hetland et al’s Studio Thinking (which uses the term “Habits of Mind”), Donald Schon’s Educating the Reflective Practitioner, and Keri Smith’s How to Be an Explorer of the World.
(Note: This is a very rough draft. I’ll need to return and re-synthesize this list to reduce its length and perhaps to separate those that are specifically about craftsmanship vs about the creative learning in general.)

Identifying with your work: approaching each project as an experience in which you are intentionally developing a craft and your own craftmanship.

Noticing deeply: making it a practice to observe your surroundings closely, expecting to see things worth seeing and when choosing something to observe, devoting substantial time to the experience, and returning to the site or object repeatedly to observe it from different perspectives noting new details.

Using all your senses: being open to your embodied experience of any source of inspiration, both in terms of how it affects you (ex: a delightful fragrance, a painful emotion) and in terms of how you can use your body to experience it more fully (ex: representing your experience through movement or using senses other than your eyes to encounter additional dimensions of it.

Questioning and dialogue: continuously questioning what something is what else it might be, being attentive to the ways it responds to your questions as well as to other sources of potential questions and responses.

Persistence and resourcefulness

Identifying patterns and making connections

Experimenting / envisioning possibilities

Experiencing, using, and exhibiting empathy: Seeing your work as having consequences for someone other than yourself—as a representation of social conditions, as an object to be used and/or enjoyed, as a product dependent on shared resources, as a touchstone for dialogue, etc.—and composing your work in a way that is responsible, ethical, and compassionate.

Synthesizing / making meaning

Taking action / expressing your insights and experiences

Reflecting and self-assessing

Contextualizing: Working in a way that is mindful of how your exploration and creation connect to works done by others and to sources of inspiration kindred to those informing or inspiring your own work.

Lots and Lots of Practice
Malcolm Gladwell explains it best in Outliers, but you’ll find the same criterion in numerous other sources: the baseline for mastery of anything is 10,000 hours of practice (around 4 hours per day, 5 days a week, for 10 years). One semester of college coursework is a drop in the bucket, but it’s also potentially 300+ hours of practice.

Goats and New Media

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In the weaving studio yesterday I overheard someone discussing her next project, a rug she began some time ago with the spun wool of an angora goat that has since died. She has been searching her herd for just the right goat, whose donation of hue and texture will complement–but cannot duplicate–the existing yarn.

Dying the wool won’t make them match; each goat’s wool is distinctive.
I smiled as I heard all this. A palette of goats.
And I found myself pondering what other sorts of materials and resources exist that just haven’t been on my radar. And what might I do with them? How might they speak differently than other materials I’ve used. Their conventional symbolisms of course are part of their rhetoricity. A sentence woven into bamboo cloth (something I’ve just completed, actually) communicates contextually and visually and culturally differently than the same sentence squeezed through a label maker or typed onto a blog.
Nothing new there.
But there’s something exhilarating about recognizing the collaborative potential of livestock for the very first time.
Image source: Kris247

Dishcloths and Meaningful Living

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My short time at the loom is changing the way I experience much of the stuff of everyday living. After my first class it seemed only natural that I would begin to look more closely at textiles: cloth napkins, hand-knotted rugs. I became interested in the way bath towels are made, and found myself wondering who threads the looms in giant factories. Humans. Ultimately everywhere it’s still humans putting things in place before the buttons get pushed. Some things are still very much dependent on small hands. More than we might think.

But something else is happening to me: I’m asking myself how life might be different if ordinary objects were things I’d made myself. Would I toss my clothes on the floor if I’d hand-loomed the fabric and cut and sewn the garment myself?  Would I darn my socks?
One wall of my weaving classroom is hung with handmade dishcloths in different colors and patterns–model projects for beginners like me. After I complete my sampler I can proceed to design a simple object: a scarf, a purse, a bookmark, a dishcloth. The first time I saw the dishcloths I thought I could imagine nothing more boring and pointless than to devote hours and hours to the weaving of dishtowels. At best, my design would be something I could purchase more cheaply at a store and get a product I wouldn’t be worried about staining and laundering and eventually discarding. And, get real: who “designs” a dishcloth, anyway?
I had to ask myself, though: what might it mean to make something as well as I could, knowing that it would need to withstand a lot of wear and tear?  And what might it mean to use something that deserved to be treated well even as it did my dirty work?
So I will weave dishcloths and vow to use them because doing so will make me a better person. I wonder what else this will teach me.
Image source: luckywhitegirl

On Weaving & On Animating Metaphors

Weaving-flickr

One important dimension of this project is the exploration of rhetorical metaphors not as metaphors but as actions and experiences.
In other words, instead of discussing various ways critics and others have compared writing to, e.g., weaving I’m going to weave.
Why does this matter? Does it matter? Yes, I believe it does. In so many ways. For example, I’ve sometimes used the concept of “warp and weft” to describe the interlacing of ideas, the interdependency of communities, and so forth. But what do I really know about the relationship between warp and weft?
Diagram-weaving-principle
Not much.
So I’m spending the next two months at a local arts center working on a loom. So far I’ve learned that it will take me about as long (or longer) to set up the loom–getting the warp on–as it will to actually weave my first piece of sampler cloth. I’ve also learned that some textile artists intentionally make their warp strings or weft strings more prominent (til now I always viewed the two as equally balanced, visually and otherwise).
Does setting up a loom, putting warp strings and weft strings in place, getting things tangled and wrong and ultimately owning their configuration–does all this enable me to better appreciate the metaphor and the metaphor’s insights into writing (and other matters)? You betcha. But it accomplishes more than that. It gets me working in three dimensions, composing non-verbally or transverbally an altogether different kind of narrative.
Heh. Now I’m using metaphors of writing to explain weaving.
One last thing I discovered this week: people who actually understand the community-as-warp-and-weft metaphor and who are doing something real with that insight. Their organization is called Weave a Real Peace.