Response: (Re) Make it New
by James J. Brown, Jr.
1. On the companion website for his textbook Internet Invention, Gregory Ulmer briefly glosses the history of literacy in terms of the rhetorical canon of memory. In manuscript culture, students took closed book exams in order to prove that they could memorize “huge quantities of text” and “generate new speeches through selection, combination, and variation on the materials held in memory.” That is, students were asked to reflect on and participate in textual conversations through the act of memorization. As technological advances such as the printing press and the Web have made texts more widely available, such testing practices became less useful. But this has not stopped certain manuscript-based approaches from surviving to present day, and Ulmer asks whether texts are still in need of memorization. If they are not, what replaces the “exam” in our current cultural moment (a moment that Ulmer calls “electracy”)? Ulmer answers:
The best existing practice available…to fulfill this function is ‘improvisation,’ as manifested in jazz or theater ensembles. The TV show ‘Whose Line is it Anyway?’ is an entertainment example of the skill. The demonstration of competence does not involve reproduction of information. Instead, the student is given the information in question and asked to do something with it. This ‘doing something’ of course must be taught and learned. The difference between improvisation and examination is the difference between play and interrogation.1
2. Improvisation reframes the task of the humanities. Rather than testing the memory of students, Ulmer suggests that we provide them with information and then test their ability to make new things. This pedagogy of improvisation becomes much easier to implement when teachers and scholars place their students in a cultural commons, and this is the kind of pedagogy enacted by all of the contributors to the Spring 2008 issue of Currents in Electronic Literacy. By putting students in contact with a vast collection of available texts, the pedagogies described here provide students with the opportunity to remix and remake existing texts without the onus of memorization. As our electronic environment continues to invite more voices to a rapidly growing Burkean parlor, scholars like Johnson-Eilola, Selber, Liu, May, and Scholes provide paradigmatic examples of how we can equip students with the tools of improvisation. They provide educators in the humanities useful ways to envision the classroom as part of a digital commons without abandoning a long tradition of rhetorical and literary education. These examples of commons-pedagogy tap into students’ existing skills, reopen the traditional discussions of the humanities, produce student work that can stand up outside of the classroom, and take a healthy approach to intellectual property at a time when healthy approaches are all too rare.
3. The range of the projects explained in this issue of Currents shows how generalizable a pedagogy of improvisation can be. From Johnson-Eilola and Selber’s WikiHow assignment to Scholes’s attempts to recreate the cultural commons of modernism in the early 20th Century, we can see how scholars are bringing the commons to students and students to the commons. Such projects focus on providing students with the “stuff”—i.e. introducing them to a cultural commons ripe with/for conversation—and then asking them to demonstrate an ability to improvise. All of this is enabled by a growing network of texts that students are already dealing with on a daily basis. The contributors to this issue acknowledge that their students are not blank slates. However, they also avoid the trappings of a pedagogy that gives the tech-savvy student too much credit. Students enter the classroom with skills that instructors should tap into; however, they also enter the classroom with a collection of habits that can (and should) be re-examined. Yes, students are capable of creating a video, or a Facebook page, or a wiki entry, but they are not always aware of how those texts operate: What arguments do they make? What design issues should be considered? What is the existing conversation? What commonplaces are available? These are the questions that humanities scholars can pose to students already participating in a cultural commons. The goal is not to teach them how to create a Web page (in many cases, they are already doing this). Instead, the goal should be to ask them to improvise while also asking them to bring a new grammar to their online practices.
4. The most striking result of the projects and pedagogies on display here is their ability to help students create texts that stand on their own. Too often we hear complaints that student writing is “boring” and “banal.” Too often we hear teachers speak of “this generation” in disparaging terms. (Has there ever been a generation of students that isn’t called “lazy,” or “inept,” or “disinterested”?) Yet, we also hear of the “Web generation,” as techno-literate and light years ahead of their teachers. Certainly, the reality lies somewhere in the middle. Yet I encourage you to spend a few minutes watching the videos produced by May’s students or the interdisciplinary readings of literature by students in Liu’s “Literature+” course. You will find arguments that are anything but banal. A quick glance at the syllabuses on the Modernist Journals Project web page will have you envisioning student work that refigures the great modernist texts. And while Johnson-Eilola and Selber don’t provide examples of student work for their WikiHow project, we at least know that the students working on such projects are contributing to a virtual-textual community outside of the classroom. The projects described in this issue of Currents should convince many that banal student writing is often a product of banal assignments.
5. It might seem odd that a commons-pedagogy of improvisation would produce more interesting student work than pedagogies that encourage students to become the sole proprietor of their text. We have long been trained to understand writing as something that we own, something that comes from within our own skulls. However, the pieces published in this issue of Currents provide ample evidence that asking students to improvise demonstrates a more realistic approach to intellectual property. Rather than considering themselves to be the origin of their text, the students working in a commons classroom understand that their role is more complicated. They are not the sole authors or proprietors of their texts. Ulmer’s suggestion that we provide students with “stuff” and then ask for improvisation—a call answered by all of the contributors to this issue—is one way to combat a climate rife with intellectual property litigation. The classroom is not immune from this climate, as we see when considering instructor concerns about students purchasing essays from online paper mills. But it would be difficult to “plagiarize” a documentary on Madagascar or an adaptation of Romeo and Juliet via Facebook pages.
6. The projects described in this symposium offer a perfect opening to conversations about how intellectual property circulates in a cultural commons and how difficult it can be to define what is “mine” and what is “yours.” May says that his students had long discussions about “fair use” and citation, and one of their videos provides a full 3 minutes and 30 seconds of credits (a far more extensive treatment of citation than the traditional works-cited page). Students also had extensive discussions about which Creative Commons license they would choose when publishing their films. Johnson-Eilola and Selber’s assignment completely blurs the line between what the student has written and what that student is building upon. The expansion of the commons (and the continued push by the “old guard” of intellectual property to sue anyone and everyone) means that students and teachers need to stop and think about the intellectual property issues that cut across classrooms and texts. Further, the blurred boundaries of ownership will also have to lead to a change in how student work is evaluated. Evaluation of student writing becomes much more complicated in an expanding commons; however, a shift in our grading rubrics is probably long overdue. How does one grade a collaborative assignment in which the student is collaborating on a wiki page with writers who are not even in the class? What is the line between the student’s contribution and the existing texts? These are difficult and necessary questions, and they force us to rethink the processes and products of student writing.
7. Very few of the interesting questions raised by a commons-conscious pedagogy are actually new. In fact, such pedagogies gesture toward questions that have long interested the humanities. Scholes’ Modernist Journals Project serves as a perfect reminder of this since it recreates a previous historical moment in the cultural commons—a moment that is being used by contemporary scholars and students as they attempt to improvise. “Make it new” was Ezra Pound’s suggestion for the modernists. Fittingly, the phrase was a translation of Confucius, reminding us that every utterance is a citation and that the borders of the cultural commons are fuzzy at best. A glance at the introduction to Pound’s collection of essays entitled Make it New provides further evidence that the issues raised by this issue of Currents are not new:
My present publishers or at least one member of the firm suggested including my early reviews of authors of my own generation. I don’t see the use of it. This book ought to be printed to read, each page ought to convey at least a little to the reader. We are not here to pass a state examination. A board of auditors wanting to verify the accounts of past literary transactions can still find at least an adequate amount of the data in the British Museum, and there must be a few copies of out-of-print volumes of mine still unpurloined from the New York and Brooklyn public libraries. (10-11)2
8. Pound was not in the business of restating what had already been said. Even if his essays were drawing upon a long tradition of criticism from Aristotle to Eliot, Pound sought to make criticism new. In the interest of continually (re)making it new, we would do well to remember (and to remind our students) that “we are not here to pass a state examination.” (Well, we would at least hope that this isn’t the primary goal. Given the pervasiveness of testing brought about in part by the No Child Left Behind Act, we should remember that many teachers are often under the gaze of the state examination.) Rather than giving an exam, the members of this symposium are showing how the cultural commons provides fodder for pedagogies of improvisation. Given access to a rich archive of cultural artifacts, we are now able to teach writing that enters the commons and says something old in a new way.
1.Pound, Ezra. Make It New. London,: Faber and Faber limited, 1934.
2.Ulmer, Gregory L. "Electracy and Pedagogy". February 19 2007. <http://web.nwe.ufl.edu/~gulmer/longman/pedagogy/electracy.html>.
James Brown is a PhD candidate at the University of Texas at Austin. He is presently working on a dissertation that examines the ethical and rhetorical structures underlying Wikipedia and other electronic texts. He wishes to thank Mark Longaker, Jillian Sayre, Noël Radley, Justin Tremel for their help at various stages of this article's production.