LEAP/ENGL 15: Composing Across Media
[Note: this course was a part of Penn State’s LEAP program, in which a writing or speaking course is paired with another course, with the same cohort of students. This course was paired with a “Mass Media and Society” course.]
When we talk about writing in the classroom, we typically channel a very limited sense of what writing is, where and how it happens, and what it can do. Likewise, when op-eds in major national newspapers bemoan the erosion of literacy in the 21st century, they rely on a similarly restrictive sense of what literacy is, of what counts as reading and writing. Accordingly, the project of this course is to expand our sense of writing and composition beyond the limited ways we typically imagine it, to think about writing that doesn’t necessarily always look like the expository essay or the op-ed or the research paper but that might nonetheless accomplish some of the same intellectual tasks. Broadly speaking, we will follow this project along two main trajectories.
First, we will consider how the landscape of reading and writing has changed in recent decades with the development and expansion of a complex media ecosystem encompassing more than just the printed word. What we read and write, when we read and write, where we read and write, how we read and write —all of these have been significantly reshaped by shifts in technology and culture. The cliches about how no one writes letters or reads novels anymore are cliches, certainly, but they’re also to a large extent true. This class takes these shifts not as a grand tragedy, or as a triumph of technological efficiency, but as a set of phenomena with complex ramifications to be carefully thought through—to be read about, talked about, written about, in both “old” and “new” media. What does it mean to read and write in the shadow of a media society, or in the era of the supremacy of the internet? What do reading, writing, and literacy look like in the 21st century? How have television or radio or Twitter or photography or cell phones reshaped how we read and write? What communicative skills are you expected to have now that people in generations past weren’t expected to have? What skills have become less relevant? How have some older forms of literacy persisted where others have all but disappeared? How is the context of your reading and writing different from the context of your parents’ reading and writing, or your grandparents’? What will your kids’ literacy practices look like, or their kids’? You can bet they’ll laugh at least as much at Snapchat and Whatsapp as you do about whatever old-fashioned things your parents used to do (payphones? cell phones the size of toaster ovens? writing actual letters?).
Second, we will think about writing in relation to other kinds of communicative and expressive media. For instance: in an increasingly image-oriented world, what can writing learn from visual media like painting, film, or photography? How do composition and rhetoric, even in purely textual form, already depend on the phenomenon of the image? How does some writing conjure images in its audience’s heads, and how do those images embody or enable the act of persuasion? How might writing and sound, or writing and performance, be connected? When we talk about “voice” in writing, what do we mean by that, and how is it related to or dependent on the movement of our vocal cords to produce speech, song, and so on? Even within the textual register, what could the essay learn from the poem, or the story, or the screenplay?
This course will argue that writing does not exist—and never has existed—in a vacuum, that it is constantly influenced by (and influencing!) other modes of communication, expression, and thought in other genres, contexts, and media forms. By paying attention to the endlessly multiple places and contexts in which we write, the effects of those contexts on our writing, and the dizzying variety of purposes to which we put our writing, we will become better and more nimble writers in both academic and non-academic contexts.