I’m a Ph.D. student in English. I finished coursework in March, and I’m now prepping for my candidacy exams, which I hope to take the last week of September. My department requires a program of study from PhD students — a longish document in which we propose our field and focus areas for our exams, as well as our reading list. The POS also includes a description of the dissertation, plus some other description-like stuff (e.g., previous graduate work, teaching and professional experience, conference presentations, publications, projects, and the like).
I’m happy to say that my POS passed (!), and I’ve begun tackling my reading list. I’ve here posted the descriptions of my field, focus, and dissertation, if only because they deal with autism and rhetoric in a large way. Of course, things are subject to change, and my thinking will evolve, I’m sure. But nonetheless, this seems to be an accurate picture of where I’m at right now.
Field || Digital Media and Composition
During my tenure as a Master’s student, when I first began identifying as a compositionist, I was heavily under the influence of Richard Fulkerson’s “Composition at the Turn of the Twenty-First Century.” Fulkerson asserts that, in order to effectively teach a writing course, compositionists need to consider four major questions—questions of axiology, pedagogy, process of writing, and epistemology. In other words, when we, as teacher-scholars, consider and promote “good” writing, what/whose values do we promulgate? What do we assume about knowledge and meaning-making, and in what ways are our assumptions ideologically imbricated? I believe that recursively engaging Fulkerson’s questions leads to an even larger matter, one more thematically pertinent to my exam, to my ever-evolving sense of composition as a field: what does it mean to write or to compose in the twenty-first century (Selfe, Technology)?
It is with these questions that I find myself tethered to digital media studies, to the field of digital media and/or/as composition. Embedded in Fulkerson’s questions are questions of definition and being, questions of what writing itself is, of what texts are (Bolter). In what ways do we privilege alphabetic texts on a printed page—and how have these models of traditional writing been naturalized in the composition classroom? How does adherence to traditional, print-based composition diminish the importance of alternative forms of communication and meaning-making?
My own view of writing, as I approach my exam, is a multimodal one, one that considers multiple sensory channels in the making of meaning. In exploring multimodality and 21st-century writing, I look to the work of Kress and Van Leeuwen, who conceive of modes as semiotic channels through which we derive meaning—and media as the materials we use for producing multimodal texts (22). Traditional, alphabetic writing is itself a multimodal phenomenon, perhaps even a synaesthetic one, a phenomenon that might engage or mix writers’ senses of sound and/or sight (how does it sound? how does it look?), or their sense of touch (feeling the pen or the keyboard). Yet, in the academy, we privilege one medium (the printed page) for the transmission of a multimodal phenomenon, a medium that arguably excludes a large number of readers. What assumptions are made about audience when we privilege traditional texts and traditional ways of composing? And, as Fulkerson might ask, what composition processes are deemed as essential, as “right,” as “good”?
In addition to employing Fulkerson’s heuristic to composition theory, I believe we need to consider the affordances that digital media might bring to composition—the changes (or stasis) that digital mediation brings to academic genres, academic discourses, academic rhetorics, the distances bridged between composer and audience. Of course, in reconceiving traditional writing, I do not wish to naively forward multimodality and/or digital media as an accessibility savior. Yet, critical theories of media and modality, access, and audience, I would posit, undergird how we think about composition studies and digital media studies—both as distinct fields and as overlapping fields.
Although I recognize that composition studies is a broad, wide-ranging field with its own unique histories and theories1, my own interests lie in a particular subset, that which intersects with digital media studies. Similarly, digital media studies is a field in its own right, one that stretches across disciplines in the humanities and the computer sciences and includes theories of technology, philosophy, performance, and social communication (Knievel). I believe that my defined field—digital media and composition, itself a distinct discipline with a 30-year history—both shapes and is shaped by composition studies and digital media studies as separate fields.
Because of these overlaps, I have divided my field reading list into three sections: composition studies, digital media studies, and digital media and composition. Though this categorization is somewhat contrived, I do wish to consider digital media and composition as both integrated and separate entities. My list contains texts that consider history, theory, and practice in all three categories.
Focus || Disability Studies
Though I realize that there are many overlaps, I see two major points connecting my focus to my field—issues of axiology (or, questions of value) and issues of access (or, questions of in/exclusion). Within the past two decades, many compositionists have come to understand “good” writing as a social negotiation among community members, as rhetorically catering to one’s audience (Bartholomae; Devitt, et al.; Ede and Lunsford, Singular Texts). The problem with this current configuration, I would posit, is that, even as teacher-scholars, our conceptions of audience are largely “imagined” to be a non-disabled audience, an audience filled with what Rosemarie Garland-Thomson has coined normates (Ede and Lunsford). In addition to audience, we might also examine how the other ends of the rhetorical triangle, those of writer and message, have been normalized in composition studies. Teacher-scholars still, despite much debate in the field, revert to metaphors of diagnosis and detection, of blindness and deafness in their descriptions of student writers (for examples, see Flower, “Writer-Based Prose”; Gruber; Villanueva, “Blind”). Furthermore, in academia, the printed page is the primary vehicle for intellectual activity, and writers are construed as able, literate, and/or educated in accordance with their ability to encode or decode messages via this medium.
Persisting in composition studies is the ideological belief that traditional writing and intelligence are somehow inherently linked, that traditional literacy is central to defining one’s intellectual worth (Graff). This ideological understanding of composing masks the notion that writing is simply one among many systems of making and conveying meaning, that “writers” do not necessarily privilege “writing” as their primary form of communication, that among our “readers” are those who cannot always access the messages delivered within print-based texts. If we limit our definition of writing to alphabetic text on a printed page, we need only question what medium we privilege in order to grasp which audience members we privilege—and those whom we exclude (Davis, “Deafness”).
In academia, conversation has become trope—a metaphorical exchange occurring on printed pages rather than literal, interpersonal, face-to-face communication. Embedded in composition scholarship is an assumption that students best learn, think, and write by means of alphabetic text on a printed page (Bolter). I believe that studies in digital media and disability give us reason to think otherwise (for digital media, see Anson; Miles, et al.; for disability, see Wilson). Disability studies allows us to perceive the ways in which traditional writing—and composition studies’ investment in traditional writing—normalizes and has been normalized by our understanding of “the” rhetorical triangle (Dunn, Talking 150). In some sense, as evidenced by recent discussions on the Writing Program Administrator listserv, digital media technologies such as screen-readers or social networking web sites are commonly perceived as assistive technologies, as tools that help those with disabilities better approximate normate writing and normate discourse. Yet, if we revisit the Spring 2002 issue of Kairos (titled “Disability: Demonstrated By and Mediated Through Technology”), we can begin to recognize the differences between digital media as assistive versus digital media as accessible or inclusive: the former, depending on the context, can imply that the writer is somehow lacking and is in need of a technological tool to make up for this lack, whereas the latter moves toward recognizing digital media composing as a valid and valued form of intellectual communication and exchange (Duffelmeyer; Miles, et al.).
I would offer that digital media studies, in conjunction with accessibility concerns, can aid us in unmasking these naturalized assumptions about communication and meaning-making, can aid us in moving toward a 21st-century, synaesthetic, multimediated theory of writing. As scholars in digital media and composition have argued, traditional theories and practices of writing are (and should be) shifting, especially if we diversify audience in terms of disability, race, gender, nationality, class, sexuality, and other markers of difference (Anson; Wysocki). Who does digital writing allow us to reach, and how does it let us do so? In what ways can digital media render writing and writing pedagogy more accessible, more inclusive? (And, lest I sound too optimistic about digital media and the potential for access and universal design—who might digital media exclude (Banks; Selfe & Selfe)?)
Of course, disability studies is a rich, dynamic field that, despite its overlaps, finds its roots outside of studies in digital media and composition. Borne out of activism in the 1960s, disability studies, generally speaking, is concerned with a social model of disability, where societal barriers and discrimination are more disabling than any so-called disability or form of bodily difference (Linton; Robertson and Ne’eman). A humanities approach toward disability has much in common with cultural studies and other theories of diversity (Powell). For example, comparisons have been made between the civil rights movement and the activities of the Deaf community, and parallels have been drawn between gay pride and autistic self-advocacy movements (see Robertson and Ne’eman; Autism Hub).
Through this social model, individuals have reclaimed the word disability and have embraced their identities as (dis)abled, even referring to normate populations as being “temporarily able-bodied” (Heilker, “Autism and Rhetoric”). Memoirs and other personal, narrativistic forms of life-writing have functioned as one major lifesource for disability advocacy—and, perhaps most relevant to my areas of interest, the blogosphere has also served an important role in activist movements (Couser; Wilson). Because disability is an inherently personal and embodied identity, my disability studies reading list contains memoirs, novels, blogs, and narrative theory, in addition to scholarly texts that position disability studies within composition and/or digital media. I believe that these narrativistic texts are pertinent to the questions posed above concerning axiology and access—specifically, how (dis)ability affects our conceptions of audience and how it is we conceive of “text” and “writing.” Finally, as Paul Heilker has argued, the 1974 CCCC position statement on Students’ Right to Their Own Language has potential applications to the study of disability and composition because it invokes questions of value within the context of language and culture—and disability communities arguably occupy and form their own unique cultures (e.g., Deaf culture, autistic culture) and their own unique dialects and languages. Each of my reading lists contains texts by authors who grapple with the complexity of what writing and language are, and thus what it is that we as teacher-scholars value or privilege in/as writing and language.
My dissertation is directly tied to the themes touched upon in my field and focus descriptions. At this moment in time, I expect my dissertation will be divided into sections concerning 1) media and modality, 2) access, and 3) audience. Though these three topics relate to many key topics in disability studies, I plan to focus my research on autism specifically: I hope to explore certain key issues within popular autism discourse, namely, 1) representation of/for/by autistic individuals, 2) medical constructions of autism and autistics, and 3) common binaries/categories used to describe autistics (e.g., high-functioning vs. low-functioning). These issues shape our cultural conceptions of autism and autistics, which, in turn, shape our conceptions and our pedagogy in the composition classroom. Below, I briefly describe how consideration of media and modality, access, and audience might encourage different ways of talking about writing, teaching, learning, difference, and what have conventionally been considered disabilities.
Media and Modality. Digital media technologies—especially blogs and social networking sites—have enabled the autistic community to connect and to “speak back” to powerful, normate-run charities such as Autism Speaks without having to meet face-to-face, without having to worry about nonverbal nuance, without having to experience sensory overload, without having to worry about discourse conventions specific to traditional forms of writing (Clark and Van Ameron; Robertson and Ne’eman; Wilson). Many of these so-called autistic worries have been medicalized, with the sensory experiences and social communication of autistics being construed as neurological dysfunction in need of cure—an approach that many autistic individuals ardently resist (for examples, see the Autism Hub). If we as compositionists construct autistic writers as neurologically diverse rather than defective or diseased, how might we reconsider our axiological assumptions about writing and digital media?
Access. As G. Thomas Couser has commented, the affordances that digital media lend to those with disabilities are not widely available within the generic strictures of the publishing industry, which often call for “typical,” formulaic narratives—such as the triumph novel, or the sentimental/pity-me novel—when the topic involves disability. Accounts that disembark from these formulas are not as marketable—and, as a result, many autistics who advocate neurological diversity rather than cure find themselves relegated to the blogosphere while charities control popular and cultural discourses surrounding autism (Garland-Thomson). Of course, these examples of narrative perhaps lie within the realm of genre more than they do media. Yet, media are inextricably tied with our conceptions of genre, writing, and access. For instance, recent composition scholarship has painted autistic individuals as inherently, rhetorically clueless writers: acute attention to detail and lack of transition statements have been depicted as symptoms of autism in dire need of treatment (Jurecic, “Neurodiversity”; Yoder). How might we reconceive academic genres and acknowledge—or, I daresay value—autistic discourse conventions within traditional writing? How might we involve digital media as we strive to make writing more accessible?
Audience. A common medical construct in scholarship regarding autism involves empathy: autistic individuals supposedly lack what has been termed “theory of mind,” or the ability to imagine the mental states of others (Baron-Cohen). In terms of rhetoric and composition, teacher-scholars have connected this lack of empathy to lack of audience awareness, assuming that autistic writers are egocentric and self-centered because they cannot connect with a neurologically typical audience (Baron-Cohen; Jurecic, “Neurodiversity”). From a disability studies standpoint, however, I believe we need consider how the amorphous audience concept in composition studies has been normalized—that is, how audience has come to exclude those with disabilities, or, in this case, autistic individuals.
Methodology. Without prematurely committing myself to a data set, I anticipate analyzing discursive trends within the blogosphere, particularly blogs belonging to the Autism Hub, an online community that approaches autism from a positive and neurologically diverse perspective. Additionally, my research might also include interviewing a very small sample of autistic college writers who are active in these online advocacy movements. In sum, I hope to examine constructions of autistic writers both in and outside of the composition classroom, and I also wish to consider the communication affordances that digital media might offer autistic individuals. Finally, because I do not want to privilege the printed page as my sole medium of transmission, nor do I wish to assume that all of my readers are self-identified normates who prefer to read, think, and learn via traditional alphabetic text, I anticipate that my dissertation will include digitally mediated components.
1 Composition studies traces its immediate history to the development of writing-specific courses in the mid-1800s, with sustained study and graduate-level programs having emerged only within the past 40 years—a stark contrast to the emerging subfield of digital media and composition, which is even more nascent (Brereton; Miller, Textual Carnivals). Michael Kneivel and others have set the birth date of digital media and composition within the mid-1970s, and the first major journal within the field, Computers and Composition, came into being in 1983.