Landscape as More than Setting: (re)Writing Technological Histories through Critical Land-based Inquiry

Session E6. Mattering: Resonating Materialities. Computers and Writing Conference, University of Wisconsin-Stout. May 29, 2015.

Click here to access a PDF file of my presentation slides.

You can also download a PDF version of the text of the presentation here.

Abstract 

Though conceptions of ecology have served to understand digital spaces as constellative, relational, and complex, Angela Haas has complicated the ecological metaphor that frames experiences of making. As these metaphors can work to construct narratives of exploration and exploitation that mark these spaces as colonizing, decolonial approaches to technology in composition classrooms are vital.

Land serves not only as a basis for all material, but also provides a landscape that holds deeply embedded histories, relationships, and stories. As physical land provides the very material ground for making, Speaker 1 suggests that land-based inquiry serves as a catalyst for enacting a decolonial approach to digital composing in a first year writing course designated for STEM majors. Speaker 1 reflects on a course project through which students will visit sites on the campus of a land-grant institution, consider their relationships to those environments, and pose questions about the history of that land and the stories embedded richly within it.

Students will then produce a classwide multimedia project that presents an alternative history of computing, technology, and innovation on the campus, showing how the land itself has been used as material for constructing both deterministic and colonizing narratives of technological progress. Through a critical-reflective story about the design, affordances, and limitations of this project, Speaker 1 discusses the need to foster critical, decolonial, and rhetorical making in an age of digital and technological transformation.


 

Outline

Outcomes —> Students will 1) engage with both digital and environmental ecologies: 2) investigate the concept of property as it relates to digital and environmental ecologies, 3) engage in land-based inquiry to explore environmental history, 4) collaborate to produce a multimedia artifact

  1. Establish problem —> Ecology metaphors
  1. Establish connection —> FYW as a space for critical perspectives of technologies
  1. Establishing ground —> FYW as a space for critiquing the question of land and property
  1. Critical pedagogy —> Step 1: Investigation (student analysis) of digital property, history, laws and practices
  1. Critical pedagogy —> Step 2: Investigation (student analysis) of land property, history laws and practices
  1. Critical pedagogy —> Step 3: Land-based inquiry of campus structures and use
  1. Critical pedagogy —> Step 4: Production of alternative histories using video, podcasts, or other multimedia artifact
  1. Critical pedagogy —> Step 5: Creating an alternative history experience for others by placing posters (with QR Codes) that link to multimedia content on campus locations
  1. Critical pedagogy —> Step 6: Reflection of connections between land and technology, connections between interaction with digital and land material

 

Introduction

This presentation is a reflective narrative of a project yet to be, it continues to be shaped through thinking, discussing, writing, and reading. It was my hope to present a reflective narrative of a completed project today, but instead, I’ll share some reflections of my processes of engaging with an idea that has become something, I think, would be of interest to any teacher hoping to encourage students to think critically about technological and ecological histories in a writing classroom. Sharing this in process will allow me to gain your feedback and shape this project further; it is my goal to make it as engaging, valuable, and impactful for students as possible. I’d like to thank my fellow presenter, everyone who took the time to join us today, and of course all those who have helped me shape this project thus far, especially my mentor Malea Powell, who has showed me everything I know about land-based methods and decoloniality.

This presentation is especially relevant at this year’s Computers and Writing Conference. Here, we gather on the campus of an institution with a strong sense of technological sensibility, a university that specializes in preparing students to be leaders in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics fields. It is constructed on the land of the Menonimee, near the confluence of the Red Cedar River and Wilson Creek. The history and ecology of these lands and waters are just as complex, beautiful, and violent as any on Turtle Island, North America. The pedagogy I present today is one, I hope, that can be adapted and shared with students in many different local contexts, much like this one and my own in Michigan.

The idea of this project is a simple one: to engage students in a critical, land-based history project on their campus. This is an admittedly decolonial project. It is one that encourages students to investigate history, ecology, and the concept of property. And it allows them to produce a digital project that presents a narrative – a history – that retells the story of their institution, its (technological) impact on the land, and its role in a larger, colonial economic system. Through this project, students engage in a process of critical inquiry based on land and property. This process involves the production of multimedia products that retell the histories presently told—and the digital products created, using tools that are inherently colonizing in their design and dissemination, allow them to tell another kind of history.

This pedagogical project is guided by several questions:

  • How can land-based methods serve as a process of inquiry for students to reveal local environmental histories?
  • What other methods can be used to engage students with the concept of technology and its impact on land and their processes as writers?
  • What are some ways to engage students in the concepts of property, both physical and digital, through this land-based project?
  • How can the concept of property give way to generative conversations about the material affects of composing?
  • What specific ways can this project allow students to see colonization as it is represented through the present, environmental and digital landscapes?

I’m interested in fostering an active classroom environment where students are critical of their institutions, the writing tools they use, and the role of their institutions in a larger, political-economic order. I wish for them to be conscious and ethical producers of multimedia work that is sustainable and shareable with others in our local community, where it can have the greatest impact.

 

Ecology Metaphors: Digital and Physical Landscapes

Marilyn Cooper (1986), in her “Ecology of Writing,” created a new space for understanding writing as a social activity. To Cooper (1986), “An ecologist explores how writers interact to form systems: all the characteristics of any individual writer or piece of writing both determine and are determined by the characteristics of all the other writers and writings in the systems” (368). The turn to considering writing as a social, systematic activity has been a profound one on the field. It is not my intent to survey that history here, but by looking at a few metaphors complicated by Hass (2014), we can understand its impact on digital humanities:

  • Exploration
  • Exploitation
  • Environmentalism
  • Frontier/Pioneerism
  • Digital Nativism

These metaphors complicate and are imposed on pedagogies, too. As composition instructors, we are situated to engage students in critical pedagogies that complicate these metaphors head-on. As these metaphors can work to construct narratives of exploration and exploitation that mark these spaces as colonizing, decolonial approaches to technology in composition classrooms are vital.

The ecological turn in composition studies is not an inclusive one. It encourages questions such as: whose ecology does this belong? How is this a new concept for composing and making when indigenous peoples have valued land and its interconnectedness with life since time immemorial? This pedagogy I outline here, I hope, enacts an ecological view of the systems students engage in everyday, the environment where they make, yet I hope for it to enrich student understanding of culture instead of reduce it to a systematicity at scholars’ arms length.

 

Intellectual and Physical Property

As students are increasingly asked to produce digital artifacts that are remediated and remixed from previous work, the concept of property is an obvious area for classroom discussion and pedagogy. Further, the concept of property is threaded throughout all land, materials, and knowledge in our postmodern, postindustrial, capitalist context. So as an instructor of writing, how and when to discuss intellectual property – and property more broadly – has always been a difficult challenge. But instead of feeling like I need to construct a unit or lecture on such a topic, I do my best to resist intellectually colonizing them. I allow them to conduct their own investigation of property and what it means for the multimodal products they produce. So in short, I have them form groups and tell them do to three things:

  • Investigate the history of intellectual property law
  • Investigate the history of property and land laws in the United States
  • Create a collaborative narrative that expands on how IP and land are connected and not

 

Mapping Writing Systems and Ecologies

“Increasingly, computers and composition and technical communication inquiry recognizes technologies not as transparent things but as cultural artifacts imbued with histories and values that shape the ways in which people see themselves and others in relation to technology.” Angela Hass, 2012, p. 288

Rhetorical approaches to technology, especially in writing classrooms, lead to fruitful and engaging dialogues. When students have opportunities to analyze the technologies that impact their literate lives, they become more critical of how technologies work to shape their environments. Further, they also become more aware of how design systematically operates to oppress and empower specific users and the environments in which those technologies are used. Students, when engaged in rhetorical analysis and critique of technologies, are better able to learn how to act upon technologies and how technologies act upon themselves. If writing, technology, and the environments of our campuses are to be understood as social, systematic actors and materials, students gain much from mapping and illustrating them.

As a common mini-assignment I ask my students to create, students are asked to name all the agents and materials that impact their process of composing in our classroom. They identify all the tools, environments, spaces, materials, resources, humans, and factors that impact their processes. Next, they illustrate that process – including all the materials – visually in the form of a sketch. This assignment leads to generative discussions about the composing processes of students, all the essential material conditions needed for successful composing, and how delicate and particular the writing process often is.

“Thus, technology is not just what does the work, it is the work—and that work relies on an ongoing relationship between bodies and things.” Hass, 291

Once mapped out visually, I tell students to try to draw connections between all the agents that are related and interdependent on each other. This allows students to think of their writing process as a system, ecology, and a network, one that continues to be shaped depending on their writing task and their writing environment. As a concluding activity, I ask students to reflect on their relationships with technology and writing in this system.

This informal assignment is informed by systems modeling and systems thinking that is often used by ecologists and environmental scientists. Systems modeling is often used to visually map all environmental factors that impact an issue or process, and the collaborative process of creating a model is more about building relationships than it is about creating a product/deliverable. Systems thinking and writing has much to offer many composition pedagogies, especially where instructors are seeking to scaffold and hit on the conception of writing as an ecological process that involves a range of actors, both human and non human, and their relationships. If used as a collaborative activity, students can work together to create one visual, deliberating on all the factors that impact their writing processes in their campus environment. As outcomes, building relationships with each other about writing ecology is one, and learning through the process of multimodal making is another.

 

Presenting Narratives of History, Property, & Ownership

According to Cronon, environmental historians claim a theoretical vocabulary that includes “plants, animals, soils, climates, and other nonhuman entities as cofactors and codeterminants of a history not just of people but of the earth itself” (1349). As Cronon mentions, all actors and materials work together as codeterminants to shape this history, this narrative, of the campus and the ecological system. I attempt to ask students how a history of the campus would look different if it was written by an Western-centric worldview that values economic progress, innovation, and technological development—but it is easy to find those histories almost everywhere.

Conceptually, scientific models can help approximate and simulate the environments we habitate. But as writing, and more specifically story, is the main interest in a composition class, narrative and narrative form is also a main way into discussions of technology and its impact on the campuses of our instruction. As an instructor of composition, to mainly students who will enter science, technology, and mathematics (STEM) disciplines, it’s my mission to scaffold and build on the idea of narrative. Narrative can be understood through not just histories of lands, technologies, and campuses. Narrative is a concept that is threaded throughout any scientific report, technical manuals, IMRD reports, scientific articles, conference proceedings, websites for research centers and exhibits, visual representations and data displays, and much, much more. Narrative and story help me — and my students — understand the suasive nature of choice, rhetorical moves, and the subjectivity of language.

As a final project, I hope to ask students to create a history of our campus from the perspective of the land. In essence, the concept of material and materiality can shift the entire perspective of authorship and audience. This process begins by going outside the classroom to the riverbank, a simple practice of inquiry that Dr. Powell has shown me. We simply ask:

  • What do you need to know about this land in order to study its history?
  • What do you need to know about property? Who has “owned” this land?
  • What do you need to know about its ecology?
  • What do you need to know about the indigenous people who call this land home, and what do you need to know about colonial history?
  • What do you need to know about technology and its impact on this land?

These questions come at the beginning of the project and allow students to engage in a form of inquiry, identify what kind of history they will tell (and they can’t tell everything), and go from there to figure out what they need to do next in order to continue in the project. Critical inquiry results in asking more questions than answering them, and I imagine this project to be no different. Their questions and responses to some, not all, of the questions raised, materialize in the form of a digital product. When students construct this narrative, I imagine them building it using digital tools, such as orally using a podcast or visually through a video, that reflects on how the ecological system has shifted over time, how modern technologies have impacted that system, its complexity at present, how it will continue to be maintained – for better or worse – for future generations. I hope that they find digital and physical ways of architecting a narrative that engages visitors of the river to learn more about their histories.

This entire process is bound to throw students off a bit. For instance, what does it really mean to engage in a digital project in the perspective of land? How can that shift in materiality alter student understanding of their ecologies, shift their processes of making, and change their orientations to their ecologies, materials, and campuses? How does this shift in inquiry change the research process? These are all questions I hope to raise and complicate through a project that I believe has a number of outcomes for students. Thank you for listening today and helping me shape this project, and I look forward to discussing and collaborating with you.

 

References

Cronon, W. (1992). A Place for Stories: Nature, History, and Narrative. The Journal of American History, 78.4: 1347-1376.

Haas, A. (2014). The Politics of Our Intellectual Interfaces: Revisiting the Technological Metaphors We Live and Think With. Computers and Writing Conference. 7 June, 2014.

Haas, A.M. (2012). Race, Rhetoric, and Technology: A Case Study of Decolonial Technical Communication Theory, Methodology, and Pedagogy. Journal of Business and Technical Communication 26: 277–310.

Marilyn Cooper (1986). The Ecology of Writing. College English, 48.4: 364-375.