Rethinking What it Means to Compose…

With my new-found understanding of writing itself as a technology, I’ve been taking the time lately to really reflect on and really appreciate how easy it is for me to write. Last week, I tried to make a mental note of all the things I “wrote” in just one morning:

  1. Jotted down a note to myself on my bedroom mirror with a dry-erase marker.
  2. Sent texts to Craig from my phone’s touch-screen keyboard.
  3. Sent e-mails for work on my office computer.
  4. Wrote out the word “nowadays” for an ESL student on her assignment sheet with a pencil (she had been writing “now days” in her paper).
  5. Made up eight contracts for the Writing Project in pen.
  6. Scribbled reminders on sticky notes and left them on my work computer for next week’s tasks.

…I could go on…and on…and on…but I won’t.

With this week’s readings in my ENG516 class, I’m beginning to wonder what it even means to write or to compose. Are they the same thing? And based on some readings by Cynthia Selfe, Kathleen Yancey, and Jody Shipka, I’m beginning to rethink the definition of composition that I’ve grown to understand for as long as I’ve been writing. All three authors stress the importance of looking at composition beyond the finished product (the final draft of the paper, for example). Specifically, Selfe argues for a new definition to encompass aural modes of composition in writing classrooms. Yancey argues that we need to start looking at the factors that influence our writing as part of the composing process, including digital media. Shipka calls for further research on composing processes as a whole, noting faults in past research that has been done (it was too focused on the individual, then too focused on everything else).

So all of these authors are arguing for a broader, more encompassing definition, which I agree with. In going back to my list from last week, I notice that every instance of writing that I noted somehow involved putting actual words on the page (or screen). I think this is exactly what authors like Selfe would caution against. In determining that “words on page/screen” is the criteria for what I consider to be writing or composing, I’m privileging print over other modes of composition. Based on Selfe’s beliefs, wouldn’t every verbal conversation I had that day also deserve to be on the list?

This is something I’ve never thought about before. I think I agree with her and the other authors, but I wonder where can we reasonably draw the line? What doesn’t count as composition? And while I have no intentions to go into teaching anymore, I wonder how such a broad definition of composition could be feasibly incorporated into the classroom…especially in a first-year writing class. From what I understand, teachers already feel like they don’t have enough time to work with their students. So as Yancey argues, such a change would have to go beyond first-year composition; it would affect the entire field.

I think our FYWP has already been experimenting with teaching multimodal composition, though, so maybe we are starting to see a shift?



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