What “counts” as writing and learning?

At the Computers & Writing Conference last June, the issue of what “counts” as writing, or what “counts” as learning came up frequently, and I was particularly intrigued by this issue during a session with Mary Hocks and Jody Shipka.

Hocks (Georgia State) teaches an upper-division writing course that centers on audio technologies. She argues that sound, unlike other modalities, has a visceral quality—it literally vibrates. And so she asks her students to pay attention to the sounds that encapsulate their lives and pushes them to explore what is meant by “resonance.” In a process she calls “mindfulness training,” her students create audio “documentaries” or “soundscapes,” and then consider how sound is an inescapable and surprisingly influential feature in their environments. The goal is to help students become more aware of the influences around them, and of the fact that sound “counts” as an influence on and a feature of our thinking and writing processes.

Hocks also admitted that her course has caused some fellow English faculty to raise their eyebrows, and that many students are a bit shocked at what she is asking them to do. Some may ask, why isn’t the English teacher teaching essayist literacies? But Hocks responds that what she’s doing does contribute to essayist literacies; she just approaches it from a different angle.

Shipka similarly challenged what “counts,” but focused on academic research rather than student composition. She played a 20-minute video for us that felt more like art than scholarship, but also clearly retained the rigorous features of academic research. I found myself strangely resistant to the experience at first; it looked and felt like an artistic video, not an academic essay. But as I watched and listened more closely, I saw all of the traditional citation and argument construction moves that characterize academic research. I also found the aural presentation of the interview data to be more effective than written excerpts. Once I adjusted my expectations, I found that the video essay did not lack academic rigor, and was actually amplified by the visual and audio features.

In the subsequent Q&A session, Shipka commented that getting her colleagues to recognize her work as something that “counts” as academic research is a challenge. She can show them work that is covered in words, but they ask, “Where’s the writing?” They don’t “count” something as writing unless it is in Times New Roman on a Word Document. So it is her job to help them realize the ways in which her research is still research, it’s just taking on a different form.

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