I teach a variety of writing classes at UC Berkeley–two that fulfill the University’s Reading and Composition Requirement, an intermediate and an advanced writing class. The intermediate class–CW 105: Finding Your Voice with Others–is one in which students read current articles–academic and journalism–as well as a little theory–Marshall McLuhan, Walter Ong, David Post, Lawrence Lessig, Sherry Turkle, Anne Wysocki, etc–about new media and technology. Multimodal forms of expression are required, and students write reflective journals with each project submitted, thinking about how the use of technology affects the language we use. And they also think about design related issues: color, shape, image, platform.
One purpose of the course is to help students who have fulfilled the R&C Requirement continue to develop academic reading and writing strategies as they learn to hear, appreciate and deploy their own voices. Voice is a slippery concept. Most writing books and manuals take a kind of Grammar Girl approach, which is fine. It’s useful as a starting place. But students enrolled in 105 have read something like this already. Probably more than once.
While 105 is not a creative writing class (what kind of writing is not, in some sense, creative? question for another day), I do try to approach the concept of voice in a way that is about something more than style (while it is also, of course, related to style–see the concept begin to slip and slide?!). I use material that you might more often find in a creative writing course to get the discussion rolling. For example, I might use some passages from Finding Your Writer’s Voice, by Thaisa Frank and Dorothy Wall (a book I love): “Your voice is actually a very ordinary thing. It is just who you are, projected artistically. It is often linked to your speaking voice, and your breath, and the rhythms and sense of pace that you draw on when you are too absorbed in what you are saying to listen to yourself from a distance. It is also linked to your body, the language or dialect you spoke in childhood, and whatever naturally interests you. Your voice is how you write when you don’t have time to be elegant” (5). And later from the same chapter: “A search for voice must always involve a willingness to experience what you already know in a new light” (7).
And in 105 that new light often shines from new media. Students are using tools they have, for the most part, never used. They are writing in public. They are taking risks. And so when a student says to me, can I try, can I use, can have an extension, can I use I (yes, dear god, please use I–use it wisely, don’t over use it, but do not let writing at the University rob you of I). I say yes. We might have a brief discussion (depending on the question), but usually I say yes, try it; yes, you can turn it in late; yes yes yes.
I’m not an easy teacher, but I try to be a generous one.
How is yes rewarded? (okay, I’ll confess, sometimes it’s not; sometimes I should have probably said no: live and learn)
On our second day of class, Amelia Barili from UC’s Department of Spanish and Portuguese, spoke to the connection between Borges and Bush, elaborating in an interesting way by following some of the links in “The Garden of Forking Paths.” On first read of Forking Paths by Borges and Bush’s classic essay As We May Think it’s clear that both men are thinking about a post-war world: Bush in concrete terms about things that need to be invented (things that resemble fax machines, digital cameras, etc.); Borges in a more abstract way about ethics and identity. What I did not know about Borges is that he was a pacifist, which makes thinking about the assassin in Forking Paths all the more interesting.
Our discussion of Borges focused on the way in which we could easily imagine reading Forking Paths like a hypertext story (or maybe it is a hypertext story?) following links to peel away the layers if we wanted to know more about Liddell Hart or Scheherazade, for example. After class I spoke with Amelia for a bit about how I’m using Twitter and other Web 2.0 tools in my class, which led to me mentioning an encounter I had with Borges when I was an undergraduate, which I’ve written about here in a tiny piece of creative nonfiction: Borges in the SUB.
I also wanted to mention the doodle Google made to honor Borges and his imagination on his birthday this year in class but forgot to.
On the Friday after class I was meeting with students in my intermediate writing class, a hybrid course offered in the classroom one day and online one day. The class has been reading Born Digital by Palfrey and Gasser, and writing a Digital Literacy essay. They have the choice of writing a narrative or a more traditional academic essay, or some blend of the two. Talking with them about their drafts, especially on the topic of identity, has been truly fascinating. Most have commented on the fact that they feel very much in control of this subject matter. One student commented that as she read Born Digital and excerpts from Hanging Out, Messing Around, Geeking Out, she felt as though she were “checking their research” against her own experience. In other words, she feels she has some authority when it comes to the topic of digital natives. From this authority, I believe, comes authenticity, and so these student writers are feeling a lot of “power” as another put it in writing this first essay.
One student, who is majoring in Portuguese, writes about being inspired by the Portuguese poet Fernando Pessoa (1888-1935)–who wrote with three different alter egos–to use different online identities in her posts when she was in high school. I was fascinated by her story (and thrilled to be introduced to Pessoa–what is more exciting than learning from our students!). This led me to mention Borges, who she hadn’t heard of, so I handed her a copy of The Garden of Forking Paths.
So here’s the thing: all of us have these layers, these links, in our lives and experience. Some people, like Borges, are far better than most of us at arranging them into meaningful texts. If we become more aware (hyperaware?) our lives become at once, I think, more concrete and more surreal, and without a doubt, richer.