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Composition Forum 18, Summer 2008

Davis, Robert L., and Mark F. Shadle. Teaching Multiwriting; Researching and Composing with Multiple Genres, Media, Disciplines, and Cultures. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University P, 2007. 272pp.

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Mary Linda DeWitt

The definition of multiwriting as coined by Shadle and Davis is the compositional practice “in which multiple genres, media, disciplines, and cultures are open to use.” One might think that this is a very broad, overarching definition at first, but Shadle and Davis consistently root their definition in very real ways, explaining how their coined term differs from another, that of multi-genre writing, in that it promotes a flexible, collaborative expansion of the act of composing that can have visual, aural, or architectural components, drawing on both the avant-garde and the traditional. Shadle and Davis, with prose that is energetic and richly intertextual as it is frenetically smart and down to earth, create a carnival of ideas. The volume is filled with examples of student work and transcultural and interdisciplinary voices. Most appreciated too is the way Shadle and Davis place student work in this gorgeous kaleidoscope of possibilities in a way that situates student experience at the epicenter of the book. They also provide example after example of student creativity at the end of each chapter and woven throughout, not in a didactic attempt at having teachers everywhere replicate what they have done, but instead to offer these models—classroom exercises and project seedlings—to use in the generous and egalitarian spirit of open source, urging us to joyfully recombine and create lessons and projects with our students that are situationally inspired.

In addition, Shadle and Davis expose the uninitiated into the world of multiwriting history with gusto. They provide examples of how multiwriting projects have manifested in numerous programs nationally, in diverse classrooms that range from first-year composition classes to graduate level courses in memoir writing, dispelling such notions that these kinds of modes must be reserved for the upper-level student. No, they argue: this kind of exploration is not one that should be necessarily earned as one succeeds in mastering one outmoded genre after another. Rather, they ask us to imagine that a blending of genres and a privileging of numerous rhetorical voices can be a mode for mastery, and not a jumbled, arbitrary cacophony. They ask—no, dare!—us to use what students know already as a basis for intellectual exploration so as to expand canons, vernaculars and the possibilities for reading and writing. Shadle and Davis also anticipate complex questions concerning the grading of such pieces—the how-the-bloody-heck-do-I-grade-this-project conundrum—by reminding us how writing that is often “easy” to mark is often uninspiring due to its formulaic approach. They urge us to promote interdisciplinary, transcultural writing projects that challenge our own culturally and temporally informed notions of successful writing: to be inclusive and above all, flexible.

Shadle and Davis's book has been so inspirational to me, I begin to wonder what this review might look like if written as a multiwriting project. Perhaps I should offer a response using Photoshop, PowerPoint or even maybe a kiln (for the first time since fourth grade), or have written this piece using crots and double voice, backed up with a soundtrack using downloaded software. I wonder what my piece might look like if written as an epistle or set of questions triple-taped to an old bicycle. (I become intensely self-conscious as I contemplate the history of the review and what expectations the genre demands.) By asking students to be adventurers and create projects like the ones Shadle and Davis highlight, as teachers (who are always students as well) our role becomes more complicated; we start to feel vulnerable and uncomfortable at receiving constructions and unusual research projects. In fact, the authors encourage us to adopt a more fluid relationship with our students: these "roles of ‘student’ and ‘teacher’ are reversible, mutable and, in some ways, temporary” (13). Ultimately their cri de coeur reminds us that the act of questioning, insistently and consistently, is what makes our classrooms vibrant places of imaginative inquiry.

By relying on carefully placed questions throughout all the chapters, most memorably in “The Loose Talk of Persuasion” and “The Essay as Cabinet of Wonder,” the authors offer up what they describe as “loose talk,” an ongoing collaborative dialogue sans clean cut culminations. “Loose talk” is a way to counter what the authors describe as a “rhetoric of certainty” that too often leads to discursive paralysis or overconfident prose. One particular suggestion among many they offer is the use of “tiny interventions” in the form of strategically placed Post-It notes that ask ontological questions on the existence of the divine, justice, and human nature. Such philosophical drop-lifting works to generate a spirit of sustained, playful inquisitiveness, a kind of informal dialogue that I think works well with students. One finds this in the questions the authors continually place before their students: “What in the world do you feel passionate about? What about the world troubles you? What work do you see yourself doing in the world? What have you already begun?" (51).

Throughout Teaching Mutiwriting the authors employ the use of blues as a way to highlighting a collective approach to composition making, schooling us in the value of exploring the genre for its rich rhetorical history. The authors refer to their vision of multiwriting as one that is definitively at a crossroads, and this oldest of blues metaphors complements nicely concepts like Gloria Anzaldua's borderlands and also Mary Louise Pratt's contact zones. One look at the abundant and varied bibliography is proof of the kind of nomadic intellectual idea gathering that Shadle and Davis promote. Throat singing, Wendell Berry, Afghani stone tablets, Chief Joseph, Czeslaw Milosz, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, Montaigne’s Italian vistas, the Lubian lukasa, Willliam Covino—one feels like a five year old Indiana Jones set free on the jungle gym of composition after reading this book.

There are of course issues and problems the authors choose not to address. I am unsure how assessment figures in here when departmental learning objectives likely fail to include to such modes of knowledge making. How exactly might one go about teaching such innovative projects in a program requiring textbook adoption? And some readers might argue that the book caters to the “We Heart Winston Weathers” fan club. Still, I don't think Shadle and Davis are simply preaching to an underground choir: the book asks us to revisit what we call composition. They challenge us to reconsider how we receive and value traditional forms, asking us to question the pedagogical validity of rote research activities. They highlight the degree to which "alternative" forms grow out of a rich historiography of invention.

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