On the first day of class, I ask my students to play a game with me: Keep Talking and Nobody Explodes. In this game, student-players must face a ticking bomb and work together using digital, material, verbal, and visual means to dismantle it. One student is in a blind box and must communicate the physical characteristics of the bomb to the rest of the class, who must sift through a lengthy paper manual full of solutions to Morse code, wire cutting, and various graphical interface puzzles to teach the bomb diffuser how to solve each module. We play Keep Talking and Nobody Explodes three times together: first, to learn the rules; then, to learn each other; and finally, to win the game and save the world.
Whether I am in the writing classroom, the Makerspace, or beyond the four walls of the university, my pedagogy looks a lot like Keep Talking and Nobody Explodes: I believe that writing is a physical process that requires attention to material constraints. By situating writing as embodied, composers have the opportunity to draw from any and all meaning-making resources; writing is about whatever tools work in a given environment for a given purpose. What becomes central, then, are the stakes of writing: world-building, world-saving, and world-breaking.
The Materiality of Writing
Writing is material: it is not only a response to material situations, environments, constraints, and affordances but is itself a material, made of different components brought together to create something new. In my own research, I understand writing as something that is handled, grappled with, and tied to how actual bodies interact. Like a bench that one builds, writing is a collection of different materials arranged in such a way that some recipient might sit upon it and find use in it.
In practice, I ask students to embody the ways that writing is material. In my technical writing courses, students examine technical situations in terms of the material constraints and consequences of a problem. In one assignment, students are required to create a survival manual for a targeted community during an apocalyptic event. Their only guidance is the material constraints of their environment: climate, terrain, population demographics, infrastructure, and circumstances of the event. Students have developed podcast series for visually impaired communities, pharmacopoeias and plant identification manuals for communities without medical access, and an embroidered fabric manual that could stand up to rain, wind, and dirt. In following up their deliverables with Statements of Goals and Choices (Shipka), students consider how genres and modes fit their audience’s multifaceted needs, which include cultural logics, disabilities, access, and anxieties. In doing so, students develop a rhetorical sense of appropriateness – what matters is what works on both a material and cultural level.
In my first-year composition courses, students similarly reflect on the material processes of writing. They examine their own bodily processes while writing (rituals, food, postures, etc.) to understand the ways the material affects the discursive. They turn their drafts into built projects, cutting and pasting paragraphs back together in order to find new connections within their drafts, source texts, and analyses. Annotated bibliographies are archives, rhetorical analyses are stitched-together fabrics, and revisions are collages of old and new ideas. Students learn a sense of writing as a material undertaking: a bringing together of collected things, an arrangement and weaving of different components.
Writing By All Available Means
When writing becomes material, all material becomes available for writing. As a result, students learn to blur the lines between academic knowledge and home knowledge and consider the meaning-making that is possible when literacies show up in unexpected places. In my first-year composition courses, I ask students to consider a craft that they engage in outside of school and conduct a semester-long inquiry into that process. They draw from official archives in the library, considering not only how they might use its contents, but how they might add to it, change it, or re-interpret it from a different set of experiences. Students are also encouraged to use other, more ephemeral, less official archives like family photo albums, zine collections, and marginalia alongside the official record, engaging in a practice of critical imagination, drawing out the stories of women, people of color, and working class people that have gone unspoken (Royster and Kirsch). They work closely with the Makerspace and the Crafts Center on campus to develop built arguments about the meaning-making they uncover. At the end of the semester, students share their findings through a collective skillshare event, bringing materials and tools with them and sharing the knowledge of their diverse communities with one another. Students learn that the everyday making practices they have left at home are important subjects of study for academic writing and research, that the embodied knowledges of their communities and cultures don’t have to be left at the door, and in fact are useful things to be incorporated into a writing practice. Such a skillshare ethic permeates my classroom, demonstrating that students know more than just what they are taught at the university.
The Stakes of Writing
Through these material understandings of the writing process, students learn to view writing as a necessary part of the human experience, a process that allows us to solve problems, save lives, and help and heal communities. I approach teaching from a cultural rhetorics standpoint, where the material and discursive practices of communities not often recognized by rhetorical studies are seen as integral to our story (Powell et al.). By acknowledging this, students accept that meaning-making cannot be for its own sake: we may tinker, but our writing also must matter in the world. Though my technical writing students write for an imaginary apocalypse, they focus their deliverables on how real communities under real constraints will experience their writing. While my composition students spend a semester exploring their own literacies, they consider what these literacies mean to others across time and place, what social movements coincide with their own writing and making. My students’ audiences are not only me, their instructor, but those who are downstream of their documents, those who will be directly affected by what is written.
In reconfiguring writing as a material process which draws from any and all places that knowledge is produced, students learn that writing matters in the world, not only to their disciplines but the diverse communities in which they hold membership. Through writing, students develop a sense of responsibility for the material and cultural world, a practice of relational accountability (Wilson). As a teacher, my responsibility is to help my students come to this understanding, to show them that writing is a relational, material practice that allows us to create worlds in which meaning-making comes from all around.
Powell, Malea, et al. “Our Story Begins Here: Constellating Cultural Rhetorics Practices.” Enculturation, Oct. 2014, http://enculturation.net/our-story-begins-here.
Royster, Jacqueline Jones, and Gesa Kirsch. Feminist Rhetorical Practice: New Horizons in Composition and Literacy Studies. Southern Illinois University Press, 2012.
Shipka, Jody. Towards a Composition Made Whole. University of Pittsburgh Press, 2011.
Wilson, Shawn. Research Is Ceremony: Indigenous Research Methods. Fernwood Publishing, 2008.