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Composition Forum 35, Spring 2017

Proliferating Textual Possibilities: Toward Pedagogies of Critical-Creative Tinkering

Danielle Koupf

Abstract: Tinkering is a longstanding material practice that has gained popularity in recent years as a learning strategy at numerous schools, camps, and makerspaces. This article seeks to establish in composition pedagogy tinkering’s playful, exploratory ethos by introducing a practice called critical-creative tinkering. In critical-creative tinkering, a writer dwells inside a source text by reading and rewriting it, generating an alternative text. Building on the itinerant status of traditional tinkers, this article promotes critical-creative tinkering as a pedagogy that moves or travels across the curriculum. Toward that end, it presents tinkering assignments and student responses to them from two different writing-intensive courses: an introductory literature course and a professional writing course.

Tinkering originally described the work of an itinerant tinsmith, who patched together broken metal utensils, usually imperfectly (Tinker, n.). Though the term traditionally carried a negative connotation,{1} more recently it has been recovered in a positive light to describe material practices that involve modifying or repurposing heterogeneous parts toward both imaginative and practical ends (Balsamo n. pag.; Franz 23). In fact, tinkering has been called a twenty-first-century literacy (Balsamo n. pag.) and has been promoted by many schools, institutes, and makerspaces that advance a hands-on, experimental approach to learning and creativity.{2}

In this essay, I aim to establish in composition pedagogy the ethos that pervades makerspaces, one characterized by an emphasis on building and sharing, an invitation to explore and meander, and a commitment to working beyond conventional boundaries. I introduce the term critical-creative tinkering to describe rewriting activities that modify old texts and invent new ones through the manipulation of preexisting parts. In advancing such activities, I build on the momentum of recent remix studies{3} in rhetoric and composition that establish the intellectual value of selecting, cutting, and rearranging prior materials, yet I shift to language itself as the remix-able resource. In critical-creative tinkering, a writer dwells inside a source text by reading and rewriting it—rearranging or reformatting it, cutting some pieces here and adding others there. What results is an alternative version of the original—a new iteration. I argue that this practice can yield critical insight into the source text by prompting questions and possible interpretations. At the same time, it is a generative activity that produces writing and is therefore creative in a material sense.

The concept of tinkering is not entirely new to rhetoric and composition, but previous contributions have primarily focused on its relevance to digital media (Sayers; Vee). With his “tinker-centric pedagogy,” Jentery Sayers envisions tinkering as a tool for adapting English studies to the digital age. He demonstrates in a range of assignments how hallmarks of tinkering, such as experimentation and collaboration, can help introduce students to central concepts in digital media. One assignment, for instance, exposes students to the nonlinearity of web design, while another introduces them to coding through the trial-and-error modification of a website’s source code. Critical-creative tinkering, by contrast, is a general composition pedagogy that fosters facility with language through reading and rewriting preexisting texts. It offers students a consistent set of moves for manipulating and thus re-versioning nearly any text they encounter. While we both embrace tinkering’s exploratory ethos, Sayers and I differ in how we put this ethos into practice and toward what ends.

Critical-creative tinkering furthers a longstanding tradition of conceiving composition as a material process. Many scholars in rhetoric and composition have described language, writing, and revision with physical metaphors of mining, weaving, molding, sharpening, sculpting, and quilting, among others (Harris 38; Haar 14; Mirtz; Britton 150; Hartwell 125; Leary 98).{4} Such metaphors often emerge in treatments of style, as Winston Weathers demonstrates in an email interview with Wendy Bishop when he invokes construction work to explain how he became interested in style:

[I] [h]ave always thought of composition (whatever kind) as construction work. How do we put the bricks together? Can we find new building materials? What does the final product look like? I’ve always enjoyed taking a piece of writing apart (in the laboratory, that is) to see what makes it “tick,” “hold together.” I see “writings” much as I see “buildings.” What is the architecture? What is the style? (Bishop 4)

Weathers’ description can reveal options for composing (how to put the bricks together) by focusing one’s attention on features of style, form, and organization. As with physical objects, tinkering with texts can directly affect the text in one’s hands while also strengthening one’s grasp on writing and language more broadly.

To a materialist perspective on composition, critical-creative tinkering adds an emphasis on mobility. Tinkers are itinerants, lending the term tinkering a sense of impermanence and change.{5} Tinkers travel from place to place and project to project, always pursuing another iteration of what is at hand. I accentuate itineracy in theorizing critical-creative tinkering as a composition pedagogy that moves or travels—from text to text, from class to class. The student-as-tinker is resourceful and can inventively adapt to new contexts for writing. Itineracy emphasizes not only movement but meandering movement. Critical-creative tinkering favors non-linear exploration; it invites students to meander by pursuing rather than foreclosing unanticipated possibilities by trying things out and seeing what happens.

Recurring procedures underlie critical-creative tinkering and include rearrangement, substitution, addition, deletion, combination, and reformatting. But importantly, tinkering is not a predictable, rule-governed practice, nor is it only a reparative process. It is an open-ended mode of exploration. Writers can tinker to improve earlier drafts, but they can also tinker just to produce alternative versions of a text or to try out a new writing technique. As Kathleen Franz observes in her study of tinkering among early automobile owners, tinkering can be practical or imaginative (23), solving an immediate problem or just proposing a new possibility.

Given my emphasis on proliferating possibilities over improving texts for specific contexts, critical-creative tinkering may seem an arhetorical approach. I suggest, however, that it is a very rhetorical practice because it develops facility and flexibility with language and other rhetorical resources. Tinkering with diverse texts in multiple contexts gives students the sensitivity to language and form that prepares them for the unpredictability of future composing situations. This training is consistent with traditions in rhetorical education. In fact, Quintilian encapsulated the goal of flexibility in asserting, “[T]he all-important gift for an orator is a wise adaptability since he [or she] is called upon to meet the most varied emergencies” (qtd. in Kreiser 81). Additionally, in its generation of multiple possibilities, tinkering has strong ties to copia, a staple of rhetorical training that entails varying a text to strengthen vocabulary and syntax. Jeanne Fahnestock clarifies how this practice serves rhetorical ends: “first, with variants to choose from, the rhetor can select the best possible for a particular context; second, the rhetor can retain several of the variants, producing amplification through accumulating restatement” (395). Students ideally move from tinkering with other people’s texts to tinkering with their own, which underscores tinkering’s transferability as well as its rhetorical applications. After tinkering in playful classroom contexts, students can tinker to adjust their own writing when an exigency arises.

In what follows, I first clarify how critical-creative tinkering diverges from similar rewriting pedagogies and then detail my own classroom experiments in two different courses: first, in a writing-intensive introductory literature course and then in a professional writing course. Drawing on assignments and student responses, I advocate for using tinkering to decouple rewriting from improving and repairing. Critical-creative tinkering, I demonstrate, can contribute to an enhanced understanding of revision as re-versioning. For tinkers, rewriting can generate possibilities, discoveries, and surprises. To promote widespread critical-creative tinkering, I conclude the essay by outlining conditions that can facilitate its integration in various classes, returning to the makerspace models with which I began.

Rewriting Procedures in English Pedagogies

The presence alone of rewriting procedures does not equate with critical-creative tinkering, for such procedures underlie much writing and revision. A primary distinction is that tinkering is not rule-governed. It is characterized by reproducible manipulations, such as rearrangement and substitution, though these can be implemented in any sequence and can generate unpredictable results. Tinkering has method but not rules. Richard E. Young has clarified this distinction. He contrasts heuristics, or prompts to invention, with rule-governed procedures. Young asserts, “A rule-governed procedure specifies a finite series of steps that can be carried out consciously and mechanically without the aid of intuition or special ability and that if properly carried out always yields a correct result” (135). Since there is no “correct result” in tinkering and it is an open-ended, not finite activity, critical-creative tinkering accords more with Young’s definition of a heuristic procedure “provid[ing] a series of questions or operations whose results are provisional” (135). These heuristic operations include substitution, rearrangement, addition, deletion, combination, and reformatting—textual manipulations that can lead to inventive rewriting.

In offering an approach to inventive rewriting, critical-creative tinkering contributes to style and sentence pedagogies, which have gained renewed attention in rhetoric and composition over the last couple of decades. Following repeated calls for a return to these pedagogies (by, for instance, Connors, Myers, and MacDonald) have come new treatments of style and sentences in scholarly and instructional texts (see Butler; T. R. Johnson; T. R. Johnson and Pace; Kreuter; Duncan and Vanguri; Bacon; and Holcomb and Killingsworth). Experimentation, flexibility, play, and revision have been central to these texts. In fact, Nora Bacon echoes the emphasis I’ve placed on re-versioning in her definition of style work. She writes, “It’s possible to say the same thing in more than one way. If you adjust the wording of a sentence without altering its essential meaning, what you’re doing is playing with style” (7). Significantly, this definition does not necessitate improvement, as adjusting the wording of a sentence can just yield an alternative sentence.

Critical-creative tinkering thus accords with many style and sentence pedagogies, yet it is more open-ended than those that generate predictable or limited outcomes. Sentence-combining, for example, involves procedures of tinkering (deletion, substitution, combination, and addition) but traditionally leads to a particular outcome: one longer sentence is derived from two or more shorter sentences via coordination or subordination. Conversely, Richard Lanham’s “paramedic method” breaks down long sentences through deletion, substitution, and addition. Multiple possibilities can be generated, yet the unwavering goal is shorter, simpler sentences. Thus, this approach seems a way to fix flawed sentences rather than more openly explore language. Margaret Tomlinson Rustick’s “grammar games” appear more exploratory. In one game, Rustick writes several unrelated words on individual cards and then aligns them in an agrammatical sentence. Students rearrange the cards into as “as many ‘logical’ combinations as possible” and in the process, discover how meaning changes through rearrangement (51). In another game, students compete to erase as many words as possible from a long sentence while retaining its grammaticality (53). These activities share tinkering’s playful, material spirit and can produce several outcomes, as “there are no single correct answers,” according to Rustick (50). Yet ultimately they too generate limited results, as students must work with a given set of words.

More flexible, open-ended approaches to textual manipulation have appeared in literature pedagogy. With “deformative criticism,” “textual intervention,” and “textshop,” Jerome McGann, Rob Pope, and Gregory L. Ulmer have each advocated for critical reading strategies that involve systematically manipulating source texts for interpretive gain. These approaches each incorporate techniques such as rearrangement and substitution to aid students’ understanding of difficult literary texts. Similarly, in both Opening Texts: Using Writing to Teach Literature (Andrasick) and Text Book: Writing through Literature (Scholes, Comley, and Ulmer), the authors ask students to manipulate and imitate literary texts, thus softening the distinction between student writers and published authors and giving students more authority to respond to literature. Ultimately, however, these approaches emphasize reading over writing. Pope’s critical-creative interventions come closest to a broad sense of tinkering: he describes his method as “structured yet playful rewriting of any text [students] meet” and thus proposes an expansive technique (xiv; emphasis added). Yet he never suggests that students work on their writing by intervening in their own texts, which intimates his concern for critical reading over writing. Critical-creative tinkering, by contrast, recasts reading and writing as reciprocal practices of exploring and experimenting with texts: taking them apart, adjusting them, and observing what results in relation to the original.

As I have shown, pedagogies scattered throughout English studies feature similar rewriting procedures that characterize critical-creative tinkering, yet they differ from each other in significant ways. These related practices show that there is already wide support for pedagogies of rewriting, and they help promote a powerful model of invention that underlies tinkering, one that begins with language rather than ideas. This approach can reduce the pressure associated with beginning to write by giving students material constraints that direct the writing process. This model of invention appears in some treatments of creative writing, such as the textbook Metro: Journeys in Writing Creatively (Ostrom, Bishop, and Haake) and Hazel Smith’s instructional text The Writing Experiment, which invites writers to start writing by amplifying pre-formed kernel phrases. Tim Mayers also advocates for this model and describes using it himself. He reflects that as a poet, “most poems I write begin with fragments; usually, I don’t start with an idea, but with a phrase,” and he recommends “designing assignments which provide words, fragments, or phrases to start with, to fashion poems from” (87). Invention doesn’t occur on a blank page, but amidst preexisting materials—the tinker’s metals or the writer’s fragments.

The fact that rewriting procedures have gained traction in rhetoric and composition, literature, and creative writing paves the way for a broad application of critical-creative tinkering. As a flexible, itinerant practice without a single disciplinary home, it can travel from one text or context to another. Critical-creative tinkering has potential as a tool for transfer because it exercises students’ problem-solving and creativity and is an inherently itinerant practice. Yet it is not only a specifically transferable practice itself; it also promotes habits of mind consistent with successful transfer in general. As Michael-John DePalma notes, scholars have reconceptualized transfer as not only reusing but also reshaping and repurposing past knowledge and experience for new contexts (616). Critical-creative tinkering fosters experimentation and openness to change as it encourages students to approach texts with a restless enthusiasm for adjustment and readjustment. Nurturing this attitude could prepare students to reuse, reshape, and repurpose not only the texts around them but also their prior knowledge and experience.

Furthermore, the tinker’s inquisitive disposition has much in common with the “problem-exploring disposition” that Elizabeth Wardle associates with successful transfer. In distinguishing this disposition from the “answer-getting disposition,” Wardle invokes language reminiscent of tinkering, as the emphases below indicate:

Problem-exploring dispositions incline a person toward curiosity, reflection, consideration of multiple possibilities, a willingness to engage in a recursive process of trial and error, and toward a recognition that more than one solution can “work.” Answer-getting dispositions seek right answers quickly and are averse to open consideration of multiple possibilities. (n. pag.; emphasis added)

While positing that problem-exploring students are already more likely to engage in transfer, Wardle suggests that students’ dispositions are pliable. Extensive experience with problem-exploring education—perhaps supported by critical-creative tinkering—can help students adopt a problem-exploring disposition. Though any causal relationship between tinkering and a particular disposition is speculative, repeated practice with critical-creative tinkering could nudge students toward a resourcefulness that seems to align with effective transfer-ability. Recent research by Tara Lockhart and Mary Soliday supports this possibility. Their finding that students both transferred and transformed annotation practices from first-year composition to upper-division courses bolsters the notion that an integrated, interactive approach to reading and writing like critical-creative tinkering has applications in future literacy situations that students can recognize. As an itinerant practice, tinkering can move with students through the curriculum. I demonstrate this itineracy next by detailing how I have adapted critical-creative tinkering to both a literature class and a professional writing class.

Critical-Creative Tinkering with W. D. Snodgrass’s De/Compositions

I first experimented with critical-creative tinkering in the spring of 2013 while teaching a writing-intensive introductory literature class for non-English majors. Among my primary goals for the course were teaching methods for close reading and strengthening students’ writing skills, particularly through experimentation with style. I assigned De/Compositions by poet and critic W. D. Snodgrass to help me accomplish both of these goals. The 2001 book reprints 101 well-known poems alongside Snodgrass’s own versions of them, which degrade the originals by manipulating their language, structure, and tone. Snodgrass describes de/composition as a tool for understanding and appreciating the original poems; like McGann, Pope, and Ulmer, he emphasizes the critical payoff, while I recognize the creative potential too. De/composition is a writing practice through which students can generate alternative texts and along the way, gain insight into the original poem and into poetry more broadly. Students can then adapt this approach to other readings.{6}

In my use of de/composition as a critical, creative reading and writing practice, I adapted Snodgrass’s methods and examples to accord with my model of tinkering. As a class, we examined pairs of de/compositions to improve close reading skills: in noting the differences between two poems, students would turn their attention to details of language and form. Even while primarily reading, however, I encouraged students to consider de/composition as a writing practice, with questions like, “How would you describe what Snodgrass is doing as a writer?” I then asked them to write their own de/compositions, using poems not covered by Snodgrass. Students critically examined their chosen poems, typically foregrounding one interpretation in their de/compositions, as Snodgrass does. But they also performed creative work in generating new poems; many students commented that the exercise taught them something about writing poetry, including its difficulty.

This task fostered an exploratory mindset consistent with tinkering, as one student, Sasha, demonstrated in her reflection. She chose to de/compose Shel Silverstein’s poem “Mr. Grumpledump’s Song,” which voices a series of complaints in simple language and brief, repetitively structured lines. Sasha invokes the tinker’s playful, exploratory attitude in describing her approach:

The first component about “Mr. Grumpledump’s Song” that I noticed was its structure, and I figured that could be something to play with in the decomposition. Reading Silverstein’s poem is easy and fun because of the plain language that perhaps is aimed towards a child audience. In my decomposition, I decided to use more complicated language to see its affect [sic] on the poem ... (emphasis added)

Sasha has examined the poem for its dominant features and chosen which to manipulate through de/composition (structure and language). She models an exploratory stance in noting that she wished “to play with” these elements and observe the effects on the poem; although she has a strategy for de/composition, her approach is open-ended, as the results remain to be seen. Her poem ultimately removes the plain language and repetitive structure, transforming lines like “Everything’s wrong, / Days are too long, / Sunshine’s too hot” into “I am a cantankerous old man. / There is nothing to do all day long / As the sun makes me perspire.”

Through reflection, students like Sasha did more than rewrite their chosen poems. They tinkered and then assessed the effects of their manipulations, generating critical awareness in the process. Sasha reflects,

My word choices, like “cantankerous” versus “grumpy” completely change the feel of the poem—the decomposed version does not feel light-hearted like the original does. This light-heartedness, I believe, has a lot to do with Shel Silverstein’s voice because his poetry tends to be playful and funny. My decomposition with its structural changes and different vocabulary choices is less interesting.

Just as tinkering with a physical device involves testing how it responds to modifications, tinkering with texts involves testing through rereading and analysis. In noting how the device or text responds to changes, the tinker learns about the device or text itself. In this case, Sasha has gained critical insight into how language and structure contribute to the tone of Silverstein’s poem.

De/composition prompted another student, Kirsten, to explore the relationship between form and meaning and to practice generating alternative expressions. Kirsten chose to work with Rita Dove’s poem Vacation, which describes an array of people waiting to board a plane. In her rewriting Kirsten substituted one description for another, sometimes subtly and other times more inventively. Dove’s line “I love the hour before takeoff” becomes, for instance, “I enjoy the moments before departure” in a substitution that is nearly identical, yet required Kirsten to consider the original and produce an alternative. Here Kirsten employs the moves of patchwriting, defined as “copying from a source text and then deleting some words, altering grammatical structures, or plugging in one synonym for another” (Howard xvii). A distinction between patchwriting and critical-creative tinkering is that while the former concerns sentence-level manipulations only, the latter does not. A more significant difference is that patchwriting marks an intermediate stage for writers aspiring to paraphrase or summarize a source—in fact, it is often called “failed paraphrase” (Jamieson). In contrast, critical-creative tinkering prompts students to produce alternative possibilities. A more inventive moment in Kirsten’s de/composition demonstrates this distinction. Moving beyond simple synonymy, Kirsten generates an interesting new image to replace Dove’s: “[T]he gray vinyl seats linked like / unfolding paper dolls” becomes “dull, plastic adjoined seats, / almost like rooms in a house.” Here tinkering emerges as a productive practice that promotes creative work by exercising the student’s capacity to generate alternative expressions. Generating these alternatives has critical and creative potential as students compare their versions with the originals, detecting and evaluating both subtle and substantive ways in which the versions differ. Just completing the task of rewriting reinforces for students how the original poem works by requiring them to shuttle back and forth between the original and de/composed versions. This back-and-forth movement makes tinkering a promising aid for students reading other difficult texts, including nonliterary works.

Kirsten also manipulated the structure of her de/composition by creating stanzas out of Dove’s 27 lines of uninterrupted text. In this way, Kirsten redirects the poem by changing its format, line breaks, and white space. In her reflection on this exercise, she posits that her stanzas and added punctuation create a choppy rhythm that ultimately mimics “a ticking clock.” She writes, “In contrast with the original and the way the words flow, I made the de/composed version sound as if it were like a ticking clock. Each stanza represents a ‘tick’ or ‘tock’, further emphasizing the idea of time and patience.” Kirsten put into practice our class conversations about the relationship between form and meaning in poetry. Her de/composition and accompanying reflection translate critical insight and creative intervention into discrete lines and images.

Kirsten’s work reflects some personal decision-making, but it’s important to note that her source text contributed to that decision-making too. Tinkering is a collaborative practice: the de/compositions produced in this class resulted from collaboration among students, their chosen texts, and the class context. The material aspects of Dove’s original poem—its language and form—directed and constrained Kirsten’s de/composition. The poem contained mostly description and imagery, arranged in one long block of text. Kirsten could intervene by substituting some of the descriptions and imagery for alternatives because she was probably familiar with the content. Had the original poem been more abstract, Kirsten may have found it more difficult to make substitutions while mostly retaining the original meaning. Additionally, she could produce stanza breaks and thus intervene in the poem’s form because the original uninterrupted text invites that option. Had stanzas already been present, Kirsten may have intervened differently in the form—perhaps eliminating the breaks. Tinkers are constrained by the materials and contexts in which they work; these constraints can promote intervention by making some manipulations more readily available than others.

The moves of critical-creative tinkering are transferable to any composition, as any composition consists of parts that can be broken down and manipulated. However, some texts and contexts may be better suited to critical-creative tinkering than others. De/composition served as an ideal foray into tinkering in my literature class because students expected that as non-poets working with celebrated poems, they would not produce improvements, but alternatives. The invitation to mess around with a piece of writing, rather than refine and revise it, opened up exploratory channels—once students overcame their fears of defacing famous poetry. It can be more difficult to incorporate critical-creative tinkering into contexts less favorable to play and open-endedness, such as professional writing courses, where my students typically convey a desire to improve their clarity, concision, and persuasiveness.

I argue, however, that such courses are opportunities for students to gain greater language facility and thus that exercises in tinkering can have a prominent place in them. In linking the writing practices of a literature course with those of a professional writing course, I advance my claim that tinkering, as an itinerant practice, can bridge writing courses across the curriculum. Kathryn Rentz, Mary Beth Debs, and Lisa Meloncon have also identified connections between professional writing and literary studies. Such connections, they argue, can foster greater compatibility when professional writing programs are housed in English departments, as they usually are. However, they find common ground in subject matter rather than in a practice of writing like critical-creative tinkering, which I argue has greater promise because students can use it with texts they read across the curriculum, including their own writing. With critical-creative tinkering, I offer a new way of bridging writing instruction in disparate courses.

Critical-Creative Tinkering in a Professional Writing Class

The practical efficiency associated with professional writing can put it at odds with other types of writing instruction. As Candace Spigelman and Laurie Grobman have shown, tension can emerge in English departments when faculty seek to develop a new professional writing course or program. Faculty must often counter the perception that professional writing is too vocational for a liberal arts curriculum. Anne Surma, for instance, has theorized professional writing as an ethical, imaginative, and rhetorical praxis in order to combat a skills-based emphasis that she feels ignores social, economic, and ethical concerns. Kate Ronald has expressed similar anxieties in noting that teaching professional writing can forward a corporate model of effective, efficient writing. She worries that students may learn to write in professional styles without thinking critically about the issues they are examining or the professions they are entering. As Brent Henze, Wendy Sharer, and Janice Tovey have suggested, professional writing becomes vocational when it is taught as the uncritical adoption of skills (79).

In professional writing classes, tinkering promotes discussion of the critical, ethical questions that textual manipulation prompts while at the same time offering instructors a way to ensure that writing remains central to their teaching. Critical-creative tinkering can thus serve students’ practical goals of becoming more effective, efficient writers while fulfilling faculty desires for liberal arts instruction. As Henze, Sharer, and Tovey argue, professional writing classes can focus on practical genres without treating them vocationally (78). With tinkering, students gain practice with these genres by playing with them.

I made critical-creative tinkering central to a professional writing course in the summer of 2014. This course enrolled mainly upper-level students from engineering and the sciences and introduced them to rhetorical principles and common professional writing genres such as job search materials, correspondence, and visual aids. During most class periods, students completed exercises that involved rewriting sentences or paragraphs according to different constraints.{7} While students often shared their exercises with the class, initially I did not collect and evaluate them. Instead, at the end of the term, students chose several exercises to revise and submit for a grade, along with reflective paragraphs on each one. These reflections helped me determine what exactly students felt they had learned from the exercises. They provided insight into how students had come to understand rewriting through tinkering: as a way of just improving their writing or as a way of generating alternative possibilities.

Early in the semester, I distributed a sample of professional writing in the form of a letter from Subaru announcing an optional recall. I asked students to focus on the first few paragraphs of the letter, which introduced the recall and attempted to persuade readers of its importance and value. I instructed students to tinker with these paragraphs and see what kinds of alternatives resulted. I hoped to introduce them to strategies for textual manipulation that they could then use in future exercises. Here are the instructions I provided:

One of the examples of professional writing that you received today is a letter from Subaru. I’d like you to explore how different tones, effects, and emphases can be achieved by rewriting the same information in multiple ways. Please tinker with the first three short paragraphs . . . by condensing, expanding, rearranging, and/or substituting the language and sentences that you see. Be prepared to reflect on the different effects that you notice when you compare what you’ve written with the original text.

When reflecting on their responses to this exercise both in class and later in the semester, students tended to emphasize how their tinkering improved Subaru’s initial letter. Even though my instructions draw attention to “the different effects you notice,” not to improvements, the primary way students knew how to compare documents was to assess their effectiveness. One student’s end-of-semester commentary on this exercise exemplifies this approach. Asked to describe what the exercise taught him and why he included it in his final exercise journal, Ryan wrote:

I chose to include this exercise in my final journal because of how useful the ability to revise is in all forms of writing. I learned that even large companies, like Subaru, do not always have the best writing that they can. It is always good to get feedback on any piece of writing before you present it to your audience. You may think it looks good, but it can usually be better. Basic revision is a tool that will easily apply to any of my future writing situations.

Ryan’s reflection suggests that the point of rewriting something is to “revise” it—to improve it because “it can usually be better.” The tinker’s restless spirit—always chipping away at something—peeks through in his suggestion that revision never ends, that a document can always be sharpened. Yet Ryan misses out on the non-linear exploration essential to tinkering. For tinkers, rewriting is not just about improving but also about trying out other options and even having fun with them.

Approaching rewriting in this playful manner is worthwhile because it can develop flexibility, the writer’s sense of the options available to him or her. Chris Kreiser recently advocated for a writing pedagogy adapted from improvisational studies that likewise enhances students’ flexibility as writers, and thus ultimately, their ability to improvise in new rhetorical situations. Drawing on Quintilian’s notion of copia, Kreiser argues that copious practice in writing, reading, and imitating develops writers’ improvisational skills. Kreiser posits an enhanced class workshop, in which students focus not on what can be fixed in a classmate’s writing but rather on the divergent paths that that classmate might have pursued (94). Kreiser’s is a workshop of possibility, not necessarily improvement. And indeed, some students in my professional writing course began to see rewriting in such a way as they engaged in more tinkering. For instance, in another final journal, Genevieve reflected differently than Ryan on the exercise above:

This exercise had taught me the flexibility in writing a formal letter. In the past, I was taught to write formal letters in a one-size-fits-all format. In every formal letter, I was taught to praise the receiver first, then state my intention, and finally thank them. At times, I do not think that that format is 100% appropriate for all scenarios, but because it was something that was formally taught to me in school, I stuck with it. After this lesson, I know that there are various ways to write a letter. I find myself more comfortable in exploring various ways to write a more impactful letter ...

Genevieve acknowledges that there is more than one way to approach even fairly standardized writing and suggests that an exercise in rewriting can prompt students to explore possibilities. Of course any time a document is put on display in a writing classroom, it falls under scrutiny and students identify ways it might be improved. This is especially true in professional writing classes, where students learn that a document’s effectiveness can have real consequences for people and companies. However, a more exploratory approach to rewriting a sample document encourages students to seek alternatives, to make the kinds of discoveries that might get neglected when steadfastly pursuing a goal like clarity or refinement. Discovering these alternatives expands students’ rhetorical and linguistic awareness, giving them the resources to improve—or just play with—their writing in the future. In fact, one student, Will, encapsulated these dual outcomes in reflecting that the Subaru exercise “taught me that anything can be written in another and sometimes better way.”

To encourage more students to adopt the exploratory attitude that Genevieve articulates, professional writing classes can first incorporate further exercises in generating variety, since such exercises challenge students to reflect on the different versions they produce without relying on a “better”/“worse than” dichotomy. An exercise on commas achieved this goal particularly well in the same class. Students reviewed the conventions for comma use and then wrote two short paragraphs, each on the same topic. One paragraph would incorporate as many commas as students could imagine, and the other would avoid commas altogether while retaining the first paragraph’s content. Students were further constrained by the condition that each of them had to write about a topic supplied by a classmate.{8}

The constraints of this assignment typically resulted in two paragraphs that both seemed strange in some way—with too many commas or too few, sentences too elaborate and confusing or too blunt and choppy. Rather than compare the two as better and worse, students viewed them both as somehow not quite right and thus focused more on the issue of comma use in general. Here, for example, are the two paragraphs that Caren generated, the first with commas and the second without:

In my opinion, sharks are one of, it not the, most terrifying animals. Not only are they able to move swiftly through water, but they also have the luxury of being virtually invisible from the surface. Thus, sharks can easily sneak up on unsuspecting surface dwellers, such as humans and birds. I do not know the number of deaths caused by shark attacks each year, but I know I definitely do not want to be included in those statistics. I am fine if sharks reign as kings of the ocean, so long as they never grow legs and begin to walk on land.
Sharks are the most terrifying animals. They are able to move swiftly through water while remaining invisible from the surface. Sharks can easily sneak up on humans and birds whose feet are dangling in the water. I do not want to be included in the number of deaths caused by shark attacks each year. Sharks can remain kings of the ocean. I just sincerely hope they never grow legs and begin to walk on land.

Incorporating commas led Caren to produce qualifying phrases, transition words, and compound sentences while eliminating commas resulted in shorter, mostly simple sentences. For instance, paragraph 1 begins with a highly qualified sentence that hedges more than paragraph 2’s straightforward first sentence. This assignment exercised Caren’s resourcefulness: she had to identify the “slots” where commas can “fit,” the kinds of sentences that require or support them and the kinds that don’t, and compose accordingly. These paragraphs, though written on the fly about a random topic, highlight how tinkering functions as a practice of versioning: the constraint of adding and eliminating commas results in further additions and deletions, in the end making two distinct texts.

Completing the comma exercise requires both problem-solving and creativity. Students gain practice in generating different kinds of sentences and making decisions about appropriate comma use. Despite focusing on punctuation, this exercise allowed for innumerable possible outcomes that could not be predicted, giving students freedom amidst constraints. Adapting to the artificial, somewhat silly constraints of the assignment prepares students for the unpredictability of future real-world writing environments; writing for different professional contexts, companies, and organizations will require students to adapt to new constraints and conventions, some of which may initially appear as strange as avoiding commas.

Another assignment in tinkering that promotes exploration and discovery essential to career preparation is what I call the creative resume. As in de/composition, the creative resume produces an alternative version of a text and approaches writing as a performance. In de/composing a poem, Snodgrass performs his reading of it; the result is one interpretation of the original poem. In the creative resume, students highlight one or more of their skills or accomplishments in a form other than the standard one-page written resume; they show or perform those skills or accomplishments. Students in my summer course created slideshows and infographics to demonstrate design skills, websites and computer programs to showcase coding skills, and even physical objects to present accomplishments in engineering. This exercise gives students practice with additional modes of composition and prompts them to explore the different versions of themselves that their job search materials can project. It illustrates as well the many variations of tinkering: though it may resemble an editing technique, tinkering can operate at both lower and higher levels of discourse and can manipulate design and format as well as language. The creative resume is an open-ended assignment that can reveal to students the copious means of expression available to them. Yet composing it involved more than just playing with possibilities. Students paired their creative resumes with memos in which they assessed the rhetorical feasibility of submitting them in an actual job application. Tinkering thus became more than a classroom exercise as it gained real-world implications requiring students to consider audience, genre, and context.{9}

By focusing their attention first on others’ texts (the Subaru letter), then on their own (their resumes), critical-creative tinkering emerged as an effective way of helping students (re)adjust to writing. Exercises were not entirely self-contained, as they impacted students’ writing habits. Regarding the Subaru letter, Caren explained, “I thought it was very good practice for condensing paragraphs and sentences. I tend to be a long-winded writer, so the more practice I do with concision, the better. I think it is good to practice condensing other’s [sic] work first, then move onto your own work.” Caren’s commentary on a similar exercise reinforces how tinkering with someone else’s text generated insight into her own writing: “I was able to edit sentences that, to me, sounded how I would word my sentences. This allowed me to reflect upon my writing style.” Will wrote that the Subaru exercise helped him “[get] back into the habit of writing” after a long break from writing courses. His comment underscores that tinkering with other people’s texts can accomplish important transition work as students move from the texts around them to their own. The Subaru exercise may have taken some pressure off writing, as it didn’t require students to compose on a blank page or patch up a piece in which they had already invested time and energy. Moreover, the letter from Subaru appears less authoritative and more open to change because it lacks an author. The in-between-ness of this transition work speaks again to the itinerant, transient nature of tinkering. With tinkering comes a sense of meandering, the idea that this work will lead eventually to something else—in Will’s case, to gaining more experience with writing and in Caren’s case, to strengthening her skills of concision.

Conclusion: From the Workbench to the Classroom

To promote experimentation with language and develop students’ flexibility as writers, composition classrooms can adapt many of the conditions that make labs and makerspaces successful. Tinkers need plenty of materials to experiment with, so a primary condition for critical-creative tinkering is some open access to texts for students to explore and manipulate. Proliferating rather than regulating sources develops critical-creative tinkering as a broad, open-ended approach to reading and writing without right or wrong methods and tools. Encouraging students to think like tinkers, to adopt for the long term an interactive stance toward texts, requires not restricting where and how tinkering is permitted. As critical-creative tinkering shares with translingual pedagogies an openness to the possibilities of language, it can offer the opportunity for students to experiment with combining and shuttling between languages and language varieties, as Bruce Horner, Min-Zhan Lu, Jacqueline Jones Royster, and John Trimbur have advocated. Materials for tinkering need not be monolingual and should represent various genres, contexts, and modalities. In fact, when tinkering, even “discarded” materials have potential. Mundane odds and ends from the classroom, such as assignments, student writing, handouts, and instructor feedback, can be fodder for invention.

A hallmark of makerspaces is the availability of tools and technologies for tinkering. Critical-creative tinkering is often a low-tech practice completed with pen and paper in the classroom, as in the Subaru and comma exercises above. It is, however, a flexible pedagogy that can be adapted to more technology-rich settings, and in fact, incorporating digital media can enhance evaluation and promote collaboration. For instance, tinkering in any platform that automatically tracks and archives changes (such as Google Docs or a wiki) can supply a fuller picture of the tinker’s activity by recording his or her starts and stops, the alternatives that have been generated but perhaps abandoned along the way. This approach provides a record of experimentation, helping instructors to evaluate whether tinkering has occurred—that is, whether students have played with multiple possibilities. Both Google Docs and wikis also facilitate collaboration, as several students can simultaneously tinker with a document inside or outside the classroom. When students are playing with form, as in the creative resume, technologies other than word-processing programs, such as presentation tools and photo-editing software, can promote further experimentation. To advance a collaborative, exploratory makerspace atmosphere, instructors can use projectors to display materials and stimulate full-class critical-creative tinkering as well as reflection on the results. With projectors and in-class computers, some students can tinker while others watch what happens in real-time, exposing them to different strategies in action.

Opening texts to manipulation and avoiding restrictions on tinkering will foreground in any class issues of appropriate textual reuse and plagiarism. Students may feel uncomfortable altering published texts because they appear authoritative, closed systems. This feeling probably results from how literature gets valorized and plagiarism gets policed in many students’ previous English classes. To promote creative activity, instructors might relax their standards for accurately quoting and distinguishing one’s own words from someone else’s—at least when students are just messing around with texts in class. Discussing the ways in which these standards can change from one situation to another exposes the contextual nature of ownership and intellectual property, enhancing students’ rhetorical sensibility. In many workplace settings, for instance, collaborators may synthesize language from several documents into one whole without identifying who contributed exactly what. And popular reuse on the web varies in its attribution policies: different users share or remix prior material with and without citing sources. Exploring these scenarios with students and participating in reuse together can prompt rich dialogue about the ethical dimensions of creative production today. In professional writing courses especially, this kind of discussion can prepare students for entering various workplaces, which are usually more collaborative environments than most English classes (see Anson; Price; Logie; Ostrom; and J. Johnson).

In addition to a collaborative spirit, an unstructured, open-ended atmosphere pervades the tinker’s workspace. While rooted in some technical expertise, tinkering remains an uncertain, experimental pursuit whose end goal cannot be predicted. Tinkering proceeds by trial and error, making failure, or at least occasional setbacks, inevitable. Supporting tinkering requires lowering the stakes for assigned writing and introducing open-ended activities. In his contribution to the Carnegie Foundation’s symposium on tinkering, Jamie Cortez, an artist, performer, and teacher, recommends that educators shift the vocabulary of “failing and succeeding” to one of “research and development,” which better conveys that learning by tinkering is a process of trying, modifying, and trying again (Cortez).{10}

Frequent low-stakes exercises can furthermore help inculcate tinkering as a habit instead of a one-time diversion. They can demonstrate for students the wide appeal of tinkering: it is an everyday activity that they can regularly employ, a tool that can travel to other classes and textual activities. When students tinker in casual, perhaps collaborative, in-class settings, they grow more comfortable with the trial-and-error logic that disrupts their preoccupation with good grades. They can embrace it as a form of play without right and wrong, success and failure. It is an activity that merges play with work, exemplifying what Hans Ostrom has called “plerk,” the kind of writing that can yield usable results even when it feels like just messing around.

Acknowledgements: I would like to thank Mary Jo Reiff, Anis Bawarshi, and two anonymous reviewers for their generous and thoughtful feedback on this article. I am also extremely grateful to Heather Bastian, Jean Bessette, Trisha Campbell, and Dahliani Reynolds for their commentary on previous versions of this article.


  1. The Oxford English Dictionary identifies the verb to tinker as “[i]n all senses usually depreciative” and pairs the noun form with this unflattering explanatory note: “The low repute in which these, esp. the itinerant sort, were held in former times is shown by the expressions to swear like a tinker, a tinker’s curse or damn or as quarrelsome as a tinker, etc., and the use of ‘tinker’ as synonymous with ‘vagrant,’ ‘gipsy.’” (Return to text.)
  2. Examples include the Tinkering School in California; “Tinker. Hack. Invent. Saturdays” at the Henry Ford Museum in Detroit; Tinker Camp in Portland, Oregon; and a nationwide network of maker camps supported by the Nuts, Bolts, and Thingamajigs Foundation. Sylvia Libow Martinez and Gary S. Stager have historicized this recent growth in maker pedagogies by tracing them to progressive educators including Johann Pestalozzi, John Dewey, Jean Piaget, and Seymour Papert. (Return to text.)
  3. See, for example, Ray; Palmeri; Stedman; Brown; Dubisar and Palmeri; Davis, Webb, Lackey, and DeVoss; Yancey; and Leary. (Return to text.)
  4. See also Tomlinson, who finds in author interviews many additional material metaphors for writing and revising. (Return to text.)
  5. Tinker can refer to a contemporary ethnic group in Ireland and Scotland whose members are often nomadic, though the preferred term is usually traveler (Kearns; Helleiner; R. Smith). Robert Smith makes an intriguing case for viewing Scottish travelers as “nomadic entrepreneurs,” a label that foregrounds the resourcefulness of itineracy. (Return to text.)
  6. Mary Ann Cain engages creative writing students in a similar practice called “intertexting”: students retype an Ernest Hemingway passage and then reimagine it by inserting alternative language and perspectives. In both de/composition and intertexting, students inquire into a text by rewriting it. However, Cain’s purpose differs from mine, as she intends for students to rethink their relationship to Hemingway and ultimately, their understanding of influence among writers. (Return to text.)
  7. Leon Kenman and Lorelei A. Ortiz have each proposed using more sentence-level exercises to teach business communication. However, both authors emphasize error identification and correction over experimentation. (Return to text.)
  8. As this exercise doesn’t pertain to any professional writing genres or subject matter, it can be easily integrated into other writing classes. But I have found it especially useful in professional writing because when seeking employment, students tend to become concerned with sentence-level writing and often feel unsure about commas. (Return to text.)
  9. Students were divided about whether their creative resumes would ever be suitable for actual job applications, and Charlsye Smith Diaz has reported that employers do not like creative resumes. She defines these as “almost any resume that differs from a conventional structure: one with color, photos, images, graphs/charts, or with pictographic displays” (429). However, this preference varies by field: for marketing, design, and social media jobs, employers may look more favorably upon unconventional resumes that showcase an applicant’s design skills, as Jordan Fowler, Rachel Kaufman, and Hannah Morgan have each found. (Return to text.)
  10. Proponents of game-based learning have similarly argued for cultivating spaces that favor risk-taking and low-stakes exploration (Bisz). (Return to text.)

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