Text of Writing and Communication Colloquium lecture

The following is the text of a lecture I gave today at the Writing and Communication Colloquium here at Georgia Tech. The title was “How I Teach Materiality (And Why I Bother)”. I’m posting it here because I feel that it effectively explains my pedagogical practice and how it intersects with my research. The lecture was accompanied by a Prezi which can be found here.

How I Teach Materiality (And Why I Bother)
Aaron Kashtan, Ph.D.

So I want to begin by explaining what materiality is and what role it plays in my research, and then I’m going to explain how I use materiality in my teaching. The basic premise of my research is that the physical, sensuous form of texts , the visual and tactile and technological properties of texts, has a significant effect on the way we perceive and understand texts. We are conditioned to think of texts in purely informational, semiotic terms. We think of literary texts, for example, as almost abstract Platonic essences that can be embodied or instantiated in a variety of forms without changing their essential nature. And in many cases this is true. Any given literary text can be published in a variety of different editions with different pagination, different typefaces, different cover art, different illustrations, etc., while still remaining the “same” text. Like, we recognize these SLIDE as being essentially the same literary text even if they look different. And most of the literary critical statements we could make about one would also apply to the other. To this extent the particular way in which the text of Moby Dick is embodied appears to be just accidental. Yet there are cases where the physical, visual, sensuous form of a text does in fact affect our perception of its meaning, in very visible ways. As a simple example, SLIDE Obviously this is completely inappropriate, right? The font Comic Sans has humorous, childish connotations, which is not appropriate when you’re trying to prevent sexual abuse or whatever. And this applies to media more generally. For example, we never just read Moby Dick in the abstract sense – we never just read Huck Finn, for example – we always read a particular edition of Moby Dick which has a particular binding, a particular typeface, particular illustrations if any, particular cover art, etc. And all of those things contribute to how we understand and interpret the text. This is an idea that’s familiar from the work of bibliographic scholars like Robert Darnton and Jerome McGann. And for me, materiality is the name for these sorts of interactions between texts and their physical containers. Materiality refers to how our experience of a text is conditioned by the physical and sensuous qualities of the text. And if anyone’s interested, my understanding of materiality is mostly informed by the work of Katherine Hayles and Johanna Drucker and Matthew Kirschenbaum. There are other authors like Jane Bennett and Jussi Parikka who write about materiality in a rather different way which is more philosophical and less concerned with textual criticism.

So anyway, all of this is a major premise of my research. SLIDE My last published essay, for example, was about how the experience of reading Alison Bechdel’s graphic novel Fun Home is different based on whether you’re reading the book as a hardcover, a paperback or an e-book, and I examined whether the physical experience of reading the book is actually consistent with the claims that the book itself makes about books and about reading. For example, in Fun Home, which is an autobiography, it talks about how much the author’s father loved books, and especially beautiful leather-bound hardcovers. How can we reconcile that with the fact that we may be reading the book as an e-text?

So those are the questions I asked in my research, and in my experience of teaching at Georgia Tech, I’ve been faced with the question of how to get my students to engage in this sort of thinking, how to make my students aware of materiality. And just to begin with the “why I bother” part, I think this is important. Again, I feel that students tend to think of literary study as a purely informational, semiotic process where only content matters, not physical form. But I believe that this is the way that media creators want you to think about media. Media try to present themselves as offering a transparent presentation of a story or a fictional world, and they try to erase the concrete, physical work involved in creating that presentation. Think of continuity editing, the whole point of which is to get you not to notice the edits. And my feeling is that when we don’t notice the operations of media, we are much more inclined to take media at face value and avoid thinking about them critically. Not only that, when we don’t pay attention to materiality, we tend to forget that interacting with media is always an embodied experience – again, we never read Moby Dick in the abstract sense, we always read a particular edition of Moby Dick, and we always read Moby Dick in a particular place and under particular physical circumstances.

And therefore I feel that my job as a teacher of literary analysis and media studies, is to make students aware of the operations of media, to sensitize them to the aspects of media that they tend to ignore. I want to get students to think about media non-transparently. I want them to be able to perceive the physical and technological support that their media experiences are predicated on. I feel that paying attention to materiality is a good way to teach students critical thinking more generally – it’s an exercise in how to think about things in non-obvious ways and to notice things you’re not supposed to pay attention to.

There’s the why, now let’s begin with the how. One important step in my method is to select texts where the physical experience of reading actually matters – where the physical properties of the text are actually important to its meaning. For example, my course last semester was on The Future of the Book. This course dealt with two types of literary texts; the first was texts that describe the physical and sensuous experience of reading, such as Italo Calvino’s If on a winter’s night a traveler. And here I actually had them compare the accounts of reading that these books gave, with the experience of reading the books themselves. One of the most exciting pedagogical moments in the semester was when we read a graphic novel called Talisman by Carla Speed McNeil. Talisman is about a little girl who has never attended school due to chronic illness, so she can’t read. But her mother’s boyfriend reads to her from a book, and for her this book becomes the greatest book ever, it contains every story that’s ever been told.  And when she finally learns to read, it turns out that her mother threw the book away.  I don’t have time to summarize the rest of the plot, but the book basically comes down very heavily on the side of physical books versus e-books. It indicates that physical books are talismans, hence the title, that the experience of reading a physical book is not comparable with the experience of reading an e-book. Now the irony here, and at least some of my students were shocked when they realized this, is that a lot of them were reading Talisman on digital and mobile devices. And when you read the book in that way, it gives you a very different appreciation of the message the book is trying to send.

That’s the first category of books we covered last semester. The second category was books that do interesting things with their physical form.  For example, Jason Shiga’s Meanwhile, which is a choose-your-own adventure book in comics form, or Garth Risk Hallberg’s A Field Guide to the North American Family, which is a story written in non-linear order and incorporating photographs which were submitted through a website. And the questions I asked them to consider when reading these books were, what sort of interactions exist between the content of these books and their physical form? How do these books use their own materiality as a signifying resource?

This semester I’m using a similar method to teach an 1102 course about comics, and I find that comics are extremely useful for this purpose, because when you read a comic it’s almost impossible not to pay attention to things like page layout and coloring, and even the lettering is more noticeable than in other media. In fact, the argument I’m developing for my current book is that comics are important precisely because they always comment in self-reflexive ways on their own materiality. SLIDE This kind of thing is a lot easier in comics than in novels.

So I use these sorts of texts in order to model the sort of thinking I want the students to engage in when they do their own writing, because my real goal is to get the students to understand writing as a material, embodied process. Again, our instinctive belief is that writing is all about the expression of ideas, the expression of semiotic content, and that the container in which those ideas are embodied is irrelevant. I want them to realize that that’s not the case, that writing is always an embodied and situated process and that it always results in the creation of some sort of material artifact. So basically I want them to be able to take the sort of analysis of materiality that they are applying to the analysis of texts, and then apply that same sort of self-reflexive thinking to their own writing. I want them to be able to think self-reflexively about what they do when they write, and to see the ways in which how they write affects what they write.

Now one very simple way that I’ve done this is to have students write a paper about a particular material process or method of writing, actually using that material process or method of writing. In my first semester here, in an ENGL 1102 course that focused on handwriting and typography, I asked my students to write a handwritten paper analyzing their own handwriting. I thought that if they did it that way rather than writing the paper on a computer, then the actual process of writing the paper would serve as evidence for the claims they were making in the paper. The physical act of writing the essay was part of the essay itself. The side effect of this is that the papers were visual artifacts as well as written artifacts – you can’t really tell from this image, SLIDE but this paper was one of the most effective responses to this assignment, because it was not just well-written, it was beautifully written. It was an impressive combination of form and content.

Not all of my assignments have been as effective as that one was, but this method has still led to what I thought were pretty impressive results. For the final project in my ENGL 1102 course in spring of last year, I asked the students to choose an object and write a biography of that object, and then accompany it with some sort of sculpture incorporating that object or a picture of it. This is one of the coolest responses I got to that assignment – it’s kind of fallen apart now, but it’s basically an iPhone climbing to the top of the heap over the bodies of other lesser iPhones. Last semester, in the aforementioned course on the future of the book, the first two papers each asked the student to choose a particular book they had read outside of class and discuss it. The first paper asked the students to discuss the physical circumstances in which they read the book, the second paper asked the students to discuss the visual and tactile appearance of the book itself. and in each case the student had to format the paper in such a way that it reminded the reader of the book they were discussing. This here was one of the coolest examples of that. This is a paper about the circumstances in which the student read the Hunger Games, and it’s a foam quiver with arrows in it, and each of the arrows has one or more pages of the paper wrapped around it. (I was going to bring these and pass them around, but I didn’t have time to go back to my office for them, so I showed some other projects instead.)  Several students wrote papers about Harry Potter using the Harry Potter font, and this paper is the best of those. SLIDE And this one is about a book on graphic design, and the student actually formatted the paper so that it exhibited the same design principles that the original book talked about, which shows how thoroughly he had interalized those principles. SLIDE Now here, the connection between material form and content is not as tight as it was with the handwriting essay. But still, here the essays require the students to think through the ways in which the reading experience is conditioned by physical and material factors, and then they’re using their own essays to demonstrate how that works – they’re manipulating the physical and material properties of their own texts in such a way that it affects how I as the reader experience their writing. Here are a couple other artifacts that were produced for the final project in that course, where I asked the students to predict the future of the book, and to do it in the form of a book of the future.

Finally I want to discuss how I’ve incorporated this method into the course I’m teaching this semester, which is on comics and modern media. Again, since comics are a method of communication, I feel that it’s reasonable to ask the students to actually use that method of communication to talk about comics.  Now the first step here is to have the students use comics as a method of analyzing comics. In the first major project, which I’m grading now, I’ve asked the students to choose any comics page and analyze it, and as part of their analysis, I want them to explain how the page would have been more or less effective if it had been drawn differently. And to demonstrate that, I’ve asked them to take the page they’re writing about and redraw it, and then I’ve told them that in the body of their essay, they should actually discuss their own redrawn version of the page and show how it proves the points they’ve made about the original page. And similarly, the final project for this course is going to ask them to create a collaborative comic which talks about the ways in which comics can develop in the future. I find that it’s easier to think about materiality if you’re actually using it.

The biggest challenge I’ve encountered is, number one, getting the students on board with what is a rather unusual method of teaching literature, and number two, integrating this sort of thing into my own critical and creative practice. I’ve never been a particularly creative artist, and I often find myself asking the students to do stuff that I feel uncomfortable doing myself. For an essay that I’m writing for a special issue of Digital Humanities Quarterly edited by Roger Whitson, I’m discussing the importance of using comics to do comics criticism, and I’m going to produce this essay in the form of a comic. I expect this is going to be surprisingly hard, but hopefully it will offer some useful insights that I can then use to further enrich the way I use materiality in my teaching.


A brief thought

I think comics scholars have sometimes been bad at articulating why other academics should be interested in comics if they’re not already. This is more of a problem for comics studies than for other emerging fields, like games studies, because comics are still a fairly marginal medium, and it’s not always intuitively obvious that comics are worth studying simply by virtue of their cultural importance and visibility.

And I think one good argument for why comics are worth studying — and this is an argument that people are not really making — is because comics are a microcosm of many different sorts of problems related to media and materiality. If we look at, for example, the way comics are affected by transitions from print to digital culture, we can draw conclusions that are generalizable to other media. Christensen and Magnussen say in the prologue to Comics and Culture that “comics represent an almost complete catalogue of semiotic problems and were, in that respect, an appropriate subject of study for theoretical semiology.” I think you could similarly say that comics are a complete catalogue of media-theoretic problems and therefore an appropriate test case for media theory.