Skip to content

Composition Forum 24, Fall 2011

A Responsibility for “Thinking More Capaciously” about Composition: An Interview with Jonathan Alexander

Bookmark and Share

Bre Garrett

Abstract: In this interview, Jonathan Alexander provides snapshots into his history and positionality as a Composition scholar. He contextualizes his published, professional work within behind-the-scenes details, influences, and personal scholastic commitments that have shaped his relationship with composition, how he defines writing, and how he theorizes and designs pedagogies.

Across almost two decades of work in the profession, Jonathan Alexander has contributed to vast conversations in the field of composition, and he has paved deliberate routes for cross-disciplinary studies that intersect sexuality, literacy, and technologies. Across a sea of publications directed toward diverse audiences, Jonathan has remained attentive to the relationship among bodies, poetic rhetorics, and platforms of public communication. In this interview, Jonathan provides readers with a forward-looking perspective about the possibilities and openness of composition as a complex research field, yet he also reflects on the challenges and constraints, some self-imposed, that composition now faces as an established discipline. Jonathan accounts for his inaugural moment as a researcher in composition, recalling how he discovered a methodological space where he could remain committed to his ongoing interest in sexuality studies, and integrate, what was at the time, his emerging interest in computerized pedagogies.Jonathan’s entrance in the profession coincided with critical cultural moments that adhered to his scholastic goals: Harriet Malinowitz’s 1995 publication of Textual Orientations, the visibility of computers and composition as a recognized research field, and a pedagogical orientation toward the “social turn.” As a teacher and administrator, Jonathan frequently questions and assesses—and must account for—composition’s objects of study. He asks that as a field we continue asking the very question of what constitutes writing, and he calls for researchers to re-examine histories of actual composing practices. In his published work, both print texts and conference presentations, he experiments with form and poetic style, and he designs, often collaboratively, textual spaces that make explicit the place and performance of bodies in literate acts, bodies in rhetorical motion.

Jonathan Alexander is a Chancellor”s Fellow and Professor of English at University of California, Irvine (UCI), where he currently serves as Campus Writing Coordinator. Jonathan is the author or editor of seven books, including Literacy, Sexuality, Pedagogy: Theory and Practice for Composition Studies (2008) and Digital Youth: Emerging Literacies on the World Wide Web (2005). With Deb Meem and Michelle Gibson, he authored Finding Out: An Introduction to LGBT Studies (2010). He has written articles in JAC, College Composition and Communication, Computers and Composition, Rhetoric Review, and WPA: Writing Program Administration, among many others, and he has served as the guest editor of special issues for Computers and Composition, Journal of Bisexuality, International Journal of Sexuality and Gender Studies, Reflections, and has edited a special cluster of JAC on Queer Theory. Jonathan co-authored with Jacqueline Rhodes two multimedia installation projects, “Multimediated [E]visceration” (2008), and “Viewmaster” (2009). In 2011, Jonathan was given the Charles Moran Award for Distinguished Contributions to the Field of Computers and Writing.

Jonathan and I conversed via Skype, and three video clips of Jonathan talking about his work are embedded below, as well as on a separate page which includes transcripts.

Bre Garrett (BG): I would like to start broadly and ask you if you would talk about how you found your way to Composition and Rhetoric, or to Writing Studies.

Jonathan Alexander (JA): That’s a great question, as my route into the field was circuitous but also informative of my central intellectual preoccupations and questions. I originally finished my PhD in 1993 in Comparative Literature, and I was at the time most interested in poetics and spent a lot of time looking at nineteenth-century European and Anglo-American poetry, such as the work of Arthur Rimbaud, Walt Whitman, and the English poet Gerard Manley Hopkins. I was especially interested in their construction of notions of the body in their poetry. I was working on my dissertation right as developments in queer theory were starting to come out too, so my dissertation in a way was sort of proto queer-theoretical in that I was very interested in how these poets, all of whom had some investiture in the homo-erotic, were trying to understand that homo-eroticism and its relationship to larger concerns, such as the body, or the body politic. For instance, Whitman was very concerned with the relationship of the body to ideas of democracy, and he was particularly interested in the idea of the “camerado,” a vaguely sexual friendship upon which his notion of democracy rested. Contemporary critics of course understand that as a proto-queer understanding of the body and its relationship to democracy. So, since I was dealing mostly with poetry, my primary interests were initially in what I took at the time to be literary study, but my interest was really in the use of poetry to think critically about relationships of bodies to socio-political projects. That was important for me and I feel in some ways I’ve never left that behind.

What allowed me a way to explore that thinking more robustly was composition—at least in terms of thinking about individuals writing and their relationship to larger publics through writing. I came to composition not formally in graduate school, although I had comp training, obviously, and I taught composition. But I really didn’t come to it as a discipline until I had my first job at Colorado State University at Pueblo. In my first job, I met Will Hochman, who is a wonderful compositionist and creative writer, and at that time, the spring of 1994, he asked if I would be interested in teaching in a “Mac lab.” At the time, such labs were quite new, very exciting, and the idea of actually teaching in a computerized space was quite intriguing to me. So I did it and fell in love with it, and the following year in 1995, when the World Wide Web was really catching on, we all of a sudden had access to all of these other platforms for research and for posting up student writing and publishing Web sites. I became absolutely entranced by the possibilities of using computer technologies to teach writing and even more entranced by the connectivity we increasingly had to allow students to work together, to write together.

We were experimenting at the time with DIWE, the Daedalus Integrated Writing Environment, which is an early program that allowed students to write together in the same document, so we were really starting to do some interesting experiments; they seemed very groundbreaking to us at the time. Of course, people like Cindy Selfe and Gail Hawisher had been publishing about these things for several years already, but we very much felt this was cutting edge. So, this initiated a whole new avenue of pedagogical excitement for me. I started to become acculturated into composition as a research discipline, and I started going to CCCC, and Computers and Writing.

At this point, the mid to late 90s, I started to think to myself that I have essentially developed two distinct research strands: I am very interested in computerized pedagogies, but I’m also still interested in these notions of bodies and poetic rhetorics. And by the mid to late 90s, as sexuality studies and queer theory were really taking hold, Harriet Malinowitz published her book Textual Orientations, and I began to see some real connections amongst the different strands of my intellectual inheritances. In 1997 I published an article in Computers and Composition on students exploring issues of homosexuality through computer software programs like DIWE. In my article, I explored how we can talk about rather sensitive subjects in ways that are rhetorically robust but also very critical, that engage a mode of critique – and this became my first real experiment to bring these two strands of my research interests together. Suffice it to say that I’ve never stopped. That was the inaugural moment for me, and so in my mind these things have always been linked for me: sexualities, textualities, pedagogies, and technologies—these have always been intermeshed.

BG: So, you made your way specifically to the discipline of composition through the classroom, through teaching?

JA: I did, without a doubt. It was the excitement of teaching, particularly teaching in computerized spaces, that really turned me on to composition as not just a practical field but as a research field, and I wanted to know more and theorize more about how we could use these spaces productively.

BG: Do you think, in your experience coming to field then, that composition, as a field within English studies, was more inviting of and open to different possibilities and transformations?

JA: Absolutely. It seemed like a field that was very open to thinking capaciously about both its objects of study and about different methodologies. There was still a number of people like me who were coming to the field from different points within English studies, so I think that that created some openness, but I also think that openness had to do with the ongoing influence of the social turn in composition studies. Once we understood the act of composing as not a universalizable cognitive process but rather as one densely shaped by socio-cultural experiences, then we were open to the idea of thinking about the diversity of those socio-cultural experiences in shaping literacy practices. We were also open to learning from other fields about social and cultural domains, and how we could study them with a variety of methodologies, such as ethnography. All of this was part of the mix at the time that made composition a very fertile field for thinking across disciplinary boundaries and for welcoming different methodologies.

BG: Do the intersections that you mention frequently in your work—sexuality studies, literacy studies, multimedia studies—do these intersections help you re-examine the field?

JA: I feel that my work has benefited from keeping the different strands of theoretical and methodological interests I have in conversation with one another. In this sense, I am not a Habermassian in that I do not think we need to come to some sort of rational consensus about our different methodological or theoretical investments. There need not be one final answer! [laughter] I’m unsure there can be given that our field’s object of study—writing—is itself undergoing a sea change, as it were. Let me explain.

Composition studies has always faced the problem of trying to figure out how to educate a wide variety of students coming from a multitude of backgrounds, who have very different career trajectories and educational trajectories. How do you educate them and provide them with the academic and professional literacies that will simultaneously enable them to enter into productive careers but also provide them critical epistemologies for thinking about discourse and literate participation in the public sphere? That’s a huge set of tasks, and they often seem at odds with one another. Preparing students for professional lives, to write for certain kinds of tasks, is one thing. Teaching them the kinds of critical, interventive skills that Jim Berlin, for instance, extols is a very different sort of task, and they’re not necessarily the same.

I think there’s always been this sense in composition: we have different impulses, as well as different sorts of pressures to train students in different literate modalities. I think what’s happening right now, at this particular moment, is that those pressures have in some ways exponentially doubled because the whole notion of what counts as “writing” is under scrutiny. We have so many different ways in which people can compose, either individually or collaboratively, in which they can disseminate their thinking, in which they can engage multiple modalities—that the whole notion of composing discreet texts is itself having to be re-examined. Now, that’s not to say that I think composing discreet essays is not important, but all of a sudden, we’re not just thinking about what goes into that essay, such as is that essay a part of job preparation, or is it critical analysis, or is it preparation for further academic work, or is it a critical intervention into consumerist culture. All of a sudden, we are asking, is it an essay at all? Could it be a website? Could it be a video essay? Could it be a multimedia experience? So, the very object of our scrutiny has multiplied. There are now multiple kinds of compositional objects out there that the field has to grapple with, and I think that that, more than anything, fundamentally challenges the kind of work that composition has to do.

If I look at something like Susan Miller’s The Norton Book of Composition Studies, I see in it the fundamental tension of our profession in that the book speaks almost not at all to issues of technology. There are a couple of essays in it, an essay by Cindy Selfe on paying attention to technology, Jackie Rhodes’ wonderful excerpt from her book thinking about second-wave feminism and composition studies, but not a lot that asks us to fundamentally question what “writing” is itself. That concerns me a bit because that seems to me to suggest that all of a sudden composition wants to have its discreet objects of study as opposed to thinking more capaciously and critically about the many different ways in which people are being called upon—and engaging in—different practices of “composing.”

BG: I hear you talking about the increasingly wider range of available materials and ways of composing that we must address, really, in order to remain relevant to our students, to their and our own everyday rhetorical situations and the number of ways through which one is in turn able to respond. I am reminded here too about something I’ve heard you and Jackie Rhodes talk about in relation to your recent collaborative, multimedia installation projects, and that’s your effort to bring into your methodologies and to bring into the teaching of composition an explicit focus on specific writing technologies and their histories so that we don’t have different technologies and modes of writing, a video essay or a website, for example, doing the work of a discreet, composed essay. Do you think this sort of historical inquiry may help us, as a field, to rhetorically negotiate the ever-present and continual shifts and alterations of “writing”—perhaps push forward, productively, some of the tensions?

JA: I think that’s precisely the kind of question we as a field need to be asking—both about our supposed “objects of study” and our pedagogies.

BG: Well, it’s a different approach to historical research than what we might think of as composition history, the story of our field’s emergence.

JA: I agree with that, and I think one of the things that might reinvigorate our discussions about what passes as “writing” and “composing” might come from really re-examining histories of actual composing practices. In many ways, adjacent fields are already doing this work, and we can see some exciting work in new media studies, in the field of informatics, and even in fields such as anthropology and sociology—all work done by scholars who take seriously the impact of communication technologies on groups and societies. This work is increasingly understanding the importance of historicizing the emergence of communication technologies and their impact on what it means to be literate and to participate in large-scale public spheres, so I think it behooves us to pay attention to this kind of work. I think it’s all too easy and comforting to focus our attention just on the narration and re-narration of our own history as a discipline, as a field. My concern is that we might be over-fetishizing our own disciplinarity and in the process ignoring very exciting work that’s being done in adjacent fields. Lisa Gitelman, for instance, is doing some very exciting work with understanding histories of communication technologies, and some scholars in our field are really starting to pay attention to the work she is doing, but I think we need more of that sort of cross-disciplinary conversation.

BG: Why?

JA: When we look at the histories of technologies and their impact on communicative and literate practice, we begin to see more clearly that what constitutes a literacy act, what actually constitutes “writing,” shifts dramatically over time. That sort of re-historicized understanding allows us to better understand some of the changes that we’re encountering and that we’re undergoing right now, but it requires that we look and see what people are doing as opposed to just staying within our hermetically sealed discipline. When I entered composition as a field, I clearly sensed that its fundamental interdisciplinarity was highly valued, and my hope for composition is that we remain fundamentally interdisciplinary as a field, and that we don’t fall too much in love with our own disciplinary success, if that makes sense.

BG: Indeed.

JA: It’s challenging because we are right at that moment at which, in some powerful ways, Comp/Rhet has earned a significant share of the job market, and a significant command even of important ideas in the larger field of English Studies. I would rather us continue to reinvigorate ourselves by speaking across disciplinary lines as opposed to becoming a little too entrenched in our love affair with disciplinarity.

BG: This might mean, too, attending conferences and joining conversations other than those held at the CCCC…

JA: It might. I regularly try to attend a conference every year outside of the field, just because my own thinking is highly invigorated by seeing what people do and by paying attention to things outside composition studies. And I think that’s not just my quirk [laughter]. I think that’s probably a good idea for any number of scholars, particularly for those coming up on the job market right now. I think we forget that, while there are some free-standing writing programs that do wonderful work, most people going into the field still wind up in English departments, and English departments can be very capacious enterprises. My English department at UC-Irvine has professional writers, literary journalists, creative writers, and we have a whole host of literary theorists who do work in a variety of methodologies, many of whom are increasingly interested in media studies. And, of course, we have some of us who also do work in composition and rhetorical studies, as well as increasingly people who do work in other fields such as religious studies, African-American studies, Asian-American studies, Latino and Latina studies. So it’s this huge mix of people who are invested in what language does and how it does it. I think that multiplicity of methodology can be really invigorating. So, it’s good for people coming up on the job market in Comp/Rhet to understand that they will most likely be departments where those mixes exist, and they should be able to speak to people who have methodological and theoretical investments which aren’t necessarily their own, that are more capacious than just one discipline’s theoretical and methodological investments.

BG: I want to ask you about literacy studies. It seems almost overtly obvious to me that literacy would be a commonplace in Composition, in English Studies, yet again, this term can be a site of contestation and tension. “Literacy” is in the title of two of your most notable books, both centrally and securely situated in Composition Studies: Literacy, Sexuality, Pedagogy: Theory and Practice for Composition Studies, published in 2008, and Digital Youth: Emerging Literacies on the World Wide Web, published three years earlier. In listening to you talk about your inaugural moments in Composition, and your deep investment in methodological pluralism, in intersectionality, it is clear that literacy studies, alongside and in conversation with sexuality and queer studies, and with media studies, shapes and informs your work as a Composition scholar and a writing pedagogue.

JA: Literacy is a curious word [laughter]. It is a free-floating signifier that I think some people would like to pin down a little bit, and I can understand that. People in our field have rightly critiqued uses of the word literacy to describe different modalities of communication that are beyond the alpha-numeric. For instance, there is a way in which, say, talking about visual “literacy” maybe doesn’t quite make sense. I am particularly appalled by “video literacy.” My temptation is to say that video has a set of grammars [laughter] that are also rhetorically very different than textual literacies. So, part of the problem is that we use literacy to metaphorize our understanding of different modes of communication. We use literacy, I think, metaphorically to understand these other kinds of modalities and communication—and that potentially betrays our own disciplinary investment and commitment to the textual. So, as we start thinking about these other modalities—the visual, the video, the multimedia—our tendency is to talk about them in terms of the literate practices that we know about, and I think that’s fine as an initial attempt. But we should be open to the kinds of languages that people, who were primarily in those fields, used to describe their work because that will re-invigorate our own discussion and understanding of working with visuals, working with video, etcetera. In my own work, literacy is a term that I have used broadly to describe a variety of different kinds of communicative practice, but I also recognize it has its limitations, and that it has limits. Like any metaphor, it only gives you so much insight into the other object of study.

BG: I am interested in how this all translates/transfers in/to your position as Campus Writing Coordinator—another location of composition work, namely the administrative, that seems highly varied, with a capacious mix of different stakeholders. How do you negotiate these things as someone who works with teachers, as someone who works across curricula, including perhaps first-year writing, but also writing in the disciplines beyond first-year comp, beyond English? Is your administrative positioning as Coordinator something that encompasses writing across curricula and working with teachers/scholars from significantly different areas?

JA: Indeed, I do a lot of work in writing-across-the-curriculum and writing-in-the-disciplines right now. I spend a great deal of time working with colleagues in numerous disciplines, helping them to think about the teaching of writing in those disciplines.

One of the exciting things about WAC and WID work is that it inevitably shows you that what writing means varies so much across the disciplines. There are certainly some common traits—people value critical thinking, source integration, research, and good organization. I hear a lot about the ubiquitous concept of “flow” and what flow might mean! [laughter] But when I work with scientists in particular, they’re often thinking about writing projects that really are very different from what we do in the humanities. During our writing assessments this summer, we worked with a physicist and read senior thesis Physics projects, and we were blown away when the physicist said, “Look, if this paper works, I should be able to read the abstract, read the captions for all of the diagrams and charts throughout the paper in order, and completely understand the paper. That’s really the most important part. The abstracts, the diagrams, and the captions underneath the diagrams. If that makes sense, in order, then I understand what this paper is doing. I shouldn’t have to read anything else.” [laughter] That is a hugely different way of understanding engagement with a text than we have in the humanities.

Working across the curricula and working within different disciplines has really re-invigorated my understanding of the capaciousness of “textual” production, even just within the scholarly realm. I mean, we’re still just talking about scholarly work here, academic work, and the diversity of what counts as “texts” within it. I just sat on a search committee for our School of Biological Sciences, which is hiring a writing specialist to work with Biology majors, and this is very exciting—it is always exciting when an entire school, a science school, devotes resources to hire a full-time, tenurable person to work just on science writing. I’m very proud to be a part of that project, but again, it’s very, very illuminating to see that even within the biological sciences, what counts as good writing has some qualities and characteristics that extend far beyond the basic research paper that we teach in our lower-division writing course. That’s not to say that that research paper is irrelevant, but it is to say that it’s just a step in the student’s ongoing development of, in this case, a scientific literacy. When a student is moving into her upper-division courses, she’s going to have to develop new skills, new ways of thinking about not only how a discipline creates knowledge but also how it communicates that knowledge, how it disseminates that knowledge.

My goal as the Campus Writing Coordinator has been to challenge faculty to continue to think about how learning how to write within a discipline—that is, understanding a discipline’s discursive moves and understanding how it shapes knowledge through writing and through the production of different kinds of text—is one of the best ways to teach students how to think within that discipline. As a student is learning, for instance, how to piece together a lab report, which has an introduction that situates an experiment, a literature review, a section on methods and materials used in the experiment, a discussion of the actual experiment undertaken, a consideration of the results, and then yet a further discussion of the implications of those results—working through that very specific genre, the lab report, is actually teaching students about the scientific method. Learning how to write that lab report is amongst the most powerful ways to give a student a sense of how science does what it does. So, that’s been exciting—thinking about how different kinds of textualities are powerful modes of thought. So thinking about, and not just thinking about but actually composing in different ways, is actually learning to think in different ways. Working in new genres requires thinking in different ways.

For me, what I’ve learned in my work in WAC and WID seems to me fully relevant to the discussion we were having earlier about composition studies. That is, as we ask students to work with visuals, or to work with video, or to work with multimedia, we’re actually inviting them to think differently, to encounter communication in very profoundly different ways. Our mistake would be to reduce those different modalities to just another form of writing. They’re actually different ways to encounter and experience communication. Lev Manovich, in his book The Language of New Media, has some wonderful passages that I wish he had talked about in greater length. He just kind of entices us with these passages in which he essentially says the same thing—that as we encounter these new modalities of communication, we’re actually, potentially, opening up alternative ways to see the world, and that’s exciting to me. That’s what I hope we as a field will recognize and embrace and then investigate and theorize.

BG: May I ask you about your current projects? You have a forthcoming, collaborative textbook, Understanding Rhetoric, that’s in process or on its way out, right?

JA: That’s right. Bre, I may not talk a whole lot about that one except to say that I have been working closely with a former colleague, Elizabeth Losh, to essentially create a graphic guide to writing and rhetoric, and the book is slated to be published by Bedford/St. Martin’s and it will be a surprise…and we’ll leave it at that. [laughter]

BG: Sounds intriguing.

JA: At least I hope it’s a good surprise. [laughter]

BG: I am anticipating it to be a good surprise. I just think it’s interesting that, with the work you’ve done, to now compile some of your ideas into a textbook—a graphic textbook. I’m excited about that aspect of it.

JA: Yeah, it’s been very interesting to work outside of a purely textual medium, but that is what has always excited me about writing. I have in my own writing life striven to do different sorts of things, to write in different genres because that’s how I learn, how I learn about writing. I learn about my interaction with the world by experimenting with different genres, with varying degrees of success, but my sense is that the actual experimentation is what’s important. That’s what I value about composition—its possibility for giving us the chance to experiment with different kinds of writing, different genres, different modes, and hence different ways of thinking, potentially different ways of being.

BG: Based on that response, what would you say about your recent experimental, multimedia installation projects, such as “Multimediated [E]visceration: A Queer Critique”, presented at the 2007 Watson Conference on “The New Work of Composing,” and “Viewmaster,” presented at the 2009 Computers and Composition Conference, both with Jackie Rhodes? Have you become something of an installation artist? That type of work is highly experimental and absolutely textual but also very physical, quite embodied, beyond the text. What would you say with regards to that genre, the genre of the installation? What have you been able to learn and rethink about composition and about teaching?

JA: [laughter] Well, I don’t think of myself as an installation artist, although I appreciate that! I think that, for both me and Jackie, the installations have just been experiments in trying to provoke not only our colleagues but our own sense of what writing is, what composing actually is. They’ve been really interesting ways to re-encounter the body, textually, if that make sense. Not just textually, but we re-encounter the body within media, and so both Jackie and I have been writing a little bit about that. I think feminist compositionists have long been concerned with gendered-bodies and writing, but now we’re starting to pay a little bit more attention to materiality, to the soma: how does one not only understand the body, but where is the body in the composing process? How, rhetorically, does our communication work on the body—that might be the most simple way to say it—and what does the body contribute to rhetorical understanding?

These are old questions in some ways because ancient orators understood the body had a role in persuasion, and the ancients would write about this. You can look at different rhetorical treatises and even see as late as the nineteenth century, I believe, see discussions about how different gestures would supposedly work rhetorically on crowds. So part of the work of the installations, I think, is to recover a sense of the body in the work of rhetoric—how we experience textuality, visuality, videography, how we experience multimedia through our bodies. This is something that I think is going to become a commonplace for younger readers—the ties amongst the book, the film, the video, and other kinds of multimedia such as the video game. Indeed, the connectivity of these things is all but nearly taken for granted. I mean, you can read the Harry Potter book, you can see the Harry Potter film, you can play the Harry Potter video game, you can create your own Harry Potter fan-fic and post it up on the web. There’s this huge interconnectivity of all of these media, and while we might be still holding a text and reading it, we are also going to the movie, playing a game, writing on the Web. So you know the body is clearly implicated in all of these different sorts of acts, these communicative acts. I think that it behooves us to think really hard about where the body is and how our bodies are participating in these literacy events. This is not just the still, quiet body reading a book, periodically scratching itself. This is the body in motion in relation to multimedia, if that makes sense.

BG: It seems too that such questions would have implications for how we think about teaching writing.

JA: Absolutely, no doubt about it. I just finished this wonderful book called The Search for WondLa by Tony DiTerlizzi, for young teens, late childhood age readers. The protagonist is a girl, twelve years old. DiTerlizzi is the guy who wrote The Spiderwick Chronicles, and he’s been writing for children for a while. This is a very interesting book in that it invites you to go to its Website,, and download an application that allows you to evoke a “3D” map of the land in which the story takes place. Using a webcam, you hold the book up to the webcam at certain points in the book, lining up an icon in the book with your webcam, and you are actually able to activate a map of terrain through which the principle characters are traveling. By manipulating the book, by moving the book around in relation to the webcam, you actually traverse that terrain with the characters. To me it’s the most clever interaction between the textual and the multimedia, the technological and the textual, that I have seen. I think DiTerlizzi, like others, is recognizing that expectations for textual encounters are increasingly going to have a technological component. Younger people are going to expect textuality to be technologized to some extent.

Now, some people are going to say, “Look, this is removing interest from the wonder of the book and placing in it the computer, and people are eventually just going to leave behind the book.” Actually, what I think such interactivity might do is re-invigorate our understanding of the book. All of a sudden you manipulate the book in order to enable a technology. I think it’s a very clever way to kind of revision the materiality of the book itself as a way to activate a whole other way to experience the book. And I think increasingly as young people grow up with these kinds of experiences, this is how they’re going to expect to interact with multimedia. In other words, they’re going to expect their communicative acts to be multimediated. And, so I think understanding what that means now is probably not a half bad idea. Or at least trying to get a grip on it and trying to create rich, multimedia environments in which we have a better understanding of the materiality of those environments is increasingly important for composition studies.

BG: It points out, too, how much reading also reciprocates that shift. This new way of interacting, quite literally, with these texts is equally exciting for how we think about and enact reading.

JA: Absolutely. Bolter and Grusin might say that what’s happened in a book like DiTerlizzi’s is that it’s just been remediated, so that we now re-understand the book as a technological apparatus. But that’s profound because a book is a technology, and it’s important for us to understand a book as a technology and reading as a kind of technology as well. We forget, for instance, that the move from reading while moving your lips to reading silently was a kind of profound shift during the Middle Ages [laughter], and we have had to learn the increasing stationary way in which we read. There’s a trajectory there we have yet to re-encounter—reading as the stationary act that it has become. And it’s important to re-encounter this learning, to discover the body in various acts of reading, because bodies act rhetorically, and bodies experience rhetorically. Ultimately, I think we will have a better understanding of communicative practice in multimediated spheres the more we recover a sense of the body in these complex acts of communication.

Works Cited

Alexander, Jonathan. Literacy, Sexuality, Pedagogy: Theory and Practice for Composition Studies. Utah State University Press. 2008. Print.

———. Digital Youth: Emerging Literacies on the World Wide Web. Hampton: New York, 2005. Print.

Alexander, Jonathan, and Jacqueline Rhodes. “Experience, Embodiment, Excess: Multimedia[ted] [E]visceration and Installation Rhetoric.” Forthcoming in The New Work of Composing. Eds. Debra Journet, Cheryl E. Ball, and Ryan Trauman. Computers and Composition Digital Press/Utah State UP, 2012. Web.

———. “Multimedia[ted] [E]visceration.” Thomas R. Watson Conference. University of Louisville, Louisville, KY. 16-18 October 2008. Installation.

———. “Technologies of the Self in the Aftermath: Affect, Subjectivity, and Composition.” Rhetoric Review 29.2 (2010): 145-64. Print.

———. “Queer: An Impossible Subject for Composition.” JAC 31 (2011): 177-206. Print.

Bolter, Jay David, and Richard Grusin. Remediation: Understanding New Media. Cambridge, MIT: 2000. Print.

DiTerlizzi, Tony. The Search for WondLa. Simon and Schuster, 2010. Web 15 Jan. 2010. <>.

Gitelman, Lisa. Always Already New: Media, History and the Data of Culture. Cambridge, MIT: 2006. Print.

Malinowitz, Harriet. Textual Orientations: Lesbian and Gay Students and the Making of Discourse Communities. Portsmouth: Boynton/Cook, 1995. Print.

Manovich, Lev. The Language of New Media. Cambridge, MIT: 2001. Print.

Rhodes, Jacqueline, and Jonathan Alexander. ”Viewmaster.“ Computers and Writing Conference. University of California Davis, Davis, CA. 18-21 June 2009. Installation.

Bookmark and Share

Return to Composition Forum 24 table of contents.