On Sheridan’s “Fabricating Consent: Three-Dimensional Objects as Rhetorical Compositions”

I’ve been a bit tardy posting about my scholarly reading because the start of school last week has really kicked me in the butt.  Hard.  I’ve more or less triple-whammied myself.  I took on an administrative assignment: I’m the “Writing Program Coordinator,” which means I deal with our undergrad major and our MA in writing, and while this is something I’ve done before, I still have to get back up to speed and/or figure out what has changed since I did this a couple years ago.  I’m teaching an overload this term, which complicates some of the previously mentioned administrative work start-up time.  And I wasn’t really as “ready” for the new term last week as I ideally would have liked to have been.  The break is never long enough, but with trips to both Florida and Iowa and Annette at MLA for the first week of classes, it was really really not long enough.  Oh well.

Anyway, I have actually still been reading about an article a week, and last week’s selection was David Sheridan’s “Fabricating Consent:  Three Dimensional Objects as Rhetorical Compositions,”  which is in the December issue of Computers and Composition. It’s about the implications of the tools that are coming online for fabricating objects– so-called 3D printers, for example– and how that might be incorporated into composition and rhetoric, and it’s also advocating for a rhetorical exploration of objects.

There’s always the “why would you do this” question– one I’ll bring up again– and I think Sheridan does a really good job of naming the fundamental categories for answers to that question in the field generally, and he goes on to structure his article in response to these questions:

Because it’s possible. (New technologies increasingly allow rhetors to produce visual compositions.)

Because it’s powerful. (Visual rhetoric allows us to communicate more effectively than words alone can.)

Because it’s valued. (Visual rhetoric is valued in the personal, professional, and public spheres that students inhabit.)

Because it’s ours. (Visual rhetoric, is the domain of ordinary rhetors, not just a specialized group of professionals, such as graphic designers.)

These are all the reasons why I see including writing practices that go beyond “words in a row” in different classes– I’m thinking of movies, audio/podcasts, web sites, posters, etc., etc.  I have a hard time imagining 3D fabrications along the line of what Sheridan is describing in parts of this article, but that is mainly because I have a hard time wrapping my head around the idea of 3D desktop printing, period.  But apparently, as Sheridan cites pretty clearly here, affordable 3D “printers” are just around the counter, and I guess in a lot of ways, we’re in the stage now with this stuff that we were 30 years ago with the advent of desktop publishing.  I mean, in the late 1970s/early 1980s, the idea that it would be possible to publish a newspaper or a magazine without laying out the physical page– skipping past stuff like the waxed column of print created by the linotype operators, light tables, blue grids, etc.– probably seemed pretty abstract.

Sheridan also gives us a good bibliography in this piece of all kinds of scholars who have written in different ways of how objects have the power to persuade in lots of different ways.  In fact, it’s enough stuff there to form the basis of a great “rhetoric of objects” sort of graduate course.  If nothing else, I might borrow some of this the next time I teach the Rhetoric of Science and Technology course.

But I think there is still a bit of the question of “why would you do this;” or, perhaps more specifically, “when would you do this?”  Sheridan cites Lanham’s essay “The Electronic Word” to get to the issue of “what business are we in,” offers several examples of things sort of like 3D compositions, and he writes:

I could imagine a colleague challenging me in the way that Bruce McComiskey’s colleagues challenge him: You’re a writing teacher! What business is it of yours to teach students to make t-shirts, mugs, lamp shades, and dolls. My reply would echo McComiskey’s: my job is to teach rhetoric, in all its forms, and 3D compositions are compelling rhetorical forms. My training as a teacher and scholar of rhetoric helps me to understand and teach the way compositions like an altered Barbie can function as powerful strategies of persuasion in certain contexts.

(The “altered Barbie” thing is one of the examples he discusses earlier about the Barbie Liberation Organization).

For me, it’s all about contexts and purposes of the class.  If I ever get a graduate-level multimedia authoring class off the ground (it’s on the “to do” list), then some discussion about these kinds of 3D “fabs” would very much fit in.  As part of our first year writing program at EMU, students generally fabricate things and/or otherwise represent their writing in the kinds of ways that Sheridan talks about here in the “Celebration of Student Writing” that happens toward the end of the Fall and Winter semesters.  So I can definitely see it as a part of a writing course.

Having said that, I think that in a class like first year writing at a place like EMU, I would be doing students a great disservice if I spent too much time on learning how to fabricate t-shirts, mugs, lamp shades, dolls, and other 3D compositions, especially if it was at the expense of teaching “words in a row” kinds of writing skills and researching skills.  I want to stress “in a class like first year writing at a place like EMU” because we have a lot of students in those classes who are “at risk,” to put it euphemistically. A good number of these students struggle mightily with some very basic, traditional, and unsexy writing skills.  So to the extent that first year writing is a “service” course (and I am well aware that that’s debatable), I think we owe it to students to focus first on those arguably boring and traditional elements of a writing course first, and to incorporate other elements of writing (e.g., 3D fabrication, visual rhetoric, audio, etc.) only as it relates to “the basics.”

This is not a position that everyone in the computers and writing world has, but I have always been of the opinion that students need to first have a good handle on “words in a row” literacy before they venture into images, sounds, objects, etc.  Or at the very least, the images, sounds, and objects that are incorporated into writing pedagogy for first year students has to serve “words in a row” literacy first. I wrote an essay/commentary back in 2004 called “Yes, But Is It Writing?” that was more or less in response to some stuff I saw at the Computers and Writing conference that year.  I remember going to a presentation where the speaker (I have no idea who) was talking about incorporating Flash movies into a first year writing class, and where this speaker showed some of the (frankly, mediocre) work his students did with their movies.  As I wrote back then:

I’m not trying to suggest first-year composition courses are or should be just about the so-called basic skills, and, like most of my composition and rhetoric colleagues, I resist the idea that first year composition is a sort of remedial course. But at the same time, being able to “design” a cool looking web site or Flash movie is not the same thing as being able to “write.”

A class that focuses on intensely graphic projects, one where the teacher would inevitably have to devote a great deal of class time to helping students learn and use the multimedia software and hardware, might help students to be “visually sophisticated” and even critical readers of visual mediums like television or film. But it wouldn’t necessarily help student write decent paragraphs and sentences and “essays,” no matter how you define the difficult to define term “essay.”

So the same thing with 3D fabs:  best used with moderation, I think.

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