Tinkering in the Digital Studio

As is the case with many other universities (see, for example, Clemson’s Class of ’41 Studio), Florida State University’s Writing Centers have responded to the multimodal turn by creating a composing space, The Digital Studio, that supports the use of digital media in both research and in composing. Matt Davis, Kevin Brock, and Stephen McElroy discuss the formation of Florida State’s Digital Studio and the Studio’s tutors’ approach to assisting students: one that is both rhetorical and technical.

Opened in 2008, [The Digital Studio] is an extension of the university’s Reading-Writing Center and employs graduate teaching assistants from the university’s English department. These graduate tutors interact with and assist hundreds of multimodal composers each semester. These interactions often take on the form of the one-on-one tutoring sessions that are most like the basic unit of writing center work, but visitors to the Digital Studio can also use one of the workstations on their own or in groups and with or without dedicated tutor oversight. More often than not, though, students do take advantage of the tutors’ varied expertise, posing questions not only about technical issues but also about rhetorical concerns—does what I have created so far really say what I think it says? Is this the best approach for my particular audience?

The kind of assistance — both technical and rhetorical — frames the example of tinkering I offer here. The video that follows depicts another service offered by the Digital Studio, the opportunity to hold classes in the Digital Studio where students can receive support that is both rhetorical and technical — but always primarily rhetorical.

In the Spring of 2014, Heather Lang (see her portfolio here: heatheralang.com) designed and taught a section of first year composition titled “Writing about Media Culture.” Her course included three new media projects; one of which asked students to remediate an annotated bibliography into an infograph (assignment sheet available here: annotated_infograph.pdf). While leading class in the Digital Studio, Heather discussed the assignment with her students from both a rhetorical perspective and a technical perspective. Then, after introducing the assignment, she offered students the opportunity to compose — to tinker — while circulating around the classroom fielding questions from students about the assignment, about the technology, and about their approach to the assignment.

And as the video suggests, Heather’s students were exploring possibilities together by drawing from different sources of knowledge: a model text, discussion, Heather’s lecture, and each other. In short, Heather provided her students the opportunity to learn and tinker in as a classroom community, a learning situation that Dave Cormier describes as “the curriculum for innovation,” the “new canvas” onto which a new model of literacy education is drawn (514). As Jeffrey Sayers notes, this kind of composing has historically been foreign to English Studies:

As opposed to scientists and engineers, who are educated in labs and other collaborative environments, or even to artists, who are well-versed in studio- based learning, the stereotype of the run-of-the-mill English scholar is, once again, that “lone scholar”: the isolated writer whose specialties are abstract thinking and single-authored publications. (Sayers 282)

By providing students the opportunity to tinker, to consult each other, to eavesdrop, Heather’s students were provided the opportunity to learn a set of rhetorical concepts (such as modal affordances) with the technology. By emphasizing rhetorical concepts above a “mastery” of the platform, Heather’s students were able to focus on their idea and the goal for their project while composing by way of an “ad-hoc form of exploring” possibilities instead of following procedures (Sayers 284).