Situating Our Project

In this section, we situate our project within new media composition, maker rhetoric, and ecological rhetoric that emphasize the rhetorical opportunities of making with three-dimensional objects and the importance of play, failure, and risk-taking within rhetorical practice and craft. We then provide some context for the New Media Rhetoric graduate course at Texas Tech and our use of littleBits in the class.

Multimodal and New Media Composition, Maker Rhetoric, Practice, and Play

Composition scholars have not only questioned our attachment to the print essay, but also our attachment to the digital as our primary understanding of technology or new media. Jody Shipka (2011) has expressed concern that terms like new media, multimodal, and technology have come to be equated with the digital. She asked composition scholars to consider "texts that explore how print, speech, still images, videos, sounds, scents, live performance, textures (for example, glass, cloth, paper affixed to plastic), and other three-dimensional objects come together, intersect, or overlap in innovative and compelling ways" (p. 8). As she noted, by equating new media with the digital, composition studies has constrained student composing, replacing "the limits of the page" with onscreen limitations (p. 11). "In doing so," she explained, "we risk missing or undervaluing the meaning-making and learning potentials associated with the uptake and transformation of still other representational systems and technologies" (p. 11).

As Shipka (2011) has urged us to, we should untether new media from merely the digital and instead focus on the materiality of new media. We follow Shipka in understanding composing with new media as "composing texts comprised of materials that, given the composers' histories of text production, represented new and uncharted territory for them" (p. 62). Anne Frances Wysocki (2004) has offered a similar understanding of new media, arguing that new media are those texts that call attention to their own materiality. And, as she argued, by being conscious of the materiality of the texts we produce, we can move past focusing on the "new" of "new media" and instead focus on the how and the why of making decisions (p. 19). (On the different uses of terms like new media, multimedia, multimodal, and digtal media, see Lauer, 2012.)

David Michael Sheridan's (2010) article "Fabricating Consent: Three-Dimensional Objects as Rhetorical Compositions" furthered the case for using three-dimensional objects in composition classes. Surveying the literature on multimodal and visual rhetoric, Sheridan showed how the same topoi used to argue for the integration of visual and multimodal rhetoric into composition can—and should—be used to argue for the incorporation of three-dimensional objects into composition. First, it's possible, as "ordinary citizens not only can produce, but can reproduce and distribute their compositions" (p. 252). Second, three-dimensional objects are rhetorically powerful, as rhetoricians like Richard Buchanan (1985), Shipka (2011), David M. Rieder (2017), Scot Barnett and Casey Boyle (2016), and Doug Hesse, Nancy Sommers, and Kathleen Blake Yancey (2012) have shown. Third, we should create three-dimensional objects because they are culturally valued: We live in a material world and do things with things. And fourth, material composition is within the disciplinary purview of rhetoric and composition: "it's ours" (Sheridan, 2010, p. 257). As Sheridan wrote, "if we define our work as helping students engage in a rich array of rhetorical practices valued by the broader culture, I think we should pay attention to 3D rhetoric" (p. 257).

Elsewhere, Sheridan (2016) argued that makerspaces involve rhetorical work: Objects created in makerspaces "derive meaning from the complex interaction between words, shape, dimensionality, and materials," and "maker compositions often adopt designs that anticipate certain interactions with a target physical environment." Following Charles Kostelnick's (1996, p. 9) emphasis on the "supra-textual" aspects of texts—those material features like binding, paper weight and texture, illustration locations, and so forth—Sheridan (2016) called attention to the rhetoricity of making three-dimensional objects, suggesting that three-dimensional objects provide more tools at our disposal to create "new kinds of documents with new ways of enacting rhetoricity." Such understandings of rhetorical education as making were echoed in Joyce Locke Carter's (2016) Conference on College Composition and Communication (CCCC) Chair's Address, where she urged CCCC members to become engaged in making. Significantly, she stressed the importance of a maker mentality rather than a set of skills: "what's called for is a different mindset, not a skillset" (p. 390).

Carter's (2016) call for developing a "different mindset" and Sheridan's (2016) argument for valuing the rhetorical work made possible by "a maker mentality" suggest that composition might be informed by the values and practices of maker communities. In his discussion of "the Arduino Way," Massimo Banzi (2011, p. 5) outlined some of the values and practices of making and prototyping with Arduino, "an open source physical computing platform based on a simple input/output (I/O) board and a development environment that implements the Processing language" (p. 1). Among those values and practices—ones important to our argument here—are tinkering, prototyping, and collaboration. Banzi described tinkering as "playing with the medium in an open-ended way and finding the unexpected" (p. 5). Tinkering is thus an approach to play that, "guided by whim, imagination, and curiosity," allows for unexpected invention (p. vi, quoting the Tinkering exhibition at the Exploratorium in San Francisco). David M. Rieder (2017), building off Banzi's theory, further suggested that tinkering allows for makers to "defamiliarize" components and processes and thus "identify their potential for creative and suasive engagement" (p. 39). The Arduino Way is also guided by prototyping, in which makers attempt to quickly and simply "make things and build objects that interact with other objects, people, and networks" (Banzi, 2011, p. 6). Prototyping involves "making designs rather than talking about them" so that invention occurs through the practices of tinkering, discovering, and "thinking with our hands" (Banzi, 2011, p. 5). Third, the principle of collaboration is central to making practices. Rather than relying on models of the sole creative genius, maker communities rely on and value collaboration, often sharing resources and documentation both locally and through online forums.

Importantly for Sheridan (2016), makerspace rhetoric frees composers "from the constraints of standardization." Rhetorical practice with objects becomes a matter of craft. Wysocki (2004), following Andrew Feenberg (1991), has made a similar argument for understanding composition as craft, calling "for people to take up the careful, individual, crafted making of objects—in order to work against the standardization of our industrial corporatized world" (Wysocki, 2004, p. 21). Feenberg's (1991) advocacy for craft is in contrast to the mass-produced and uniform, and as Wysocki (2004) pointed out, such an understanding of craft is also an understanding of subjectivity and relationality:

when someone makes an object that is both separate from her but that shows how she can use the tools and materials and techniques of her time, then she can see a possible self—a self positioned and working within the wide material conditions of her world, even shaping that world—in that object. (p. 21)

While littleBits are certainly mass-produced, as commonplaces that can be combined with other material objects they provide opportunities to engage in individualized crafting—a "democratization of electronics" (Bdeir, 2009, p. 397). Our play with littleBits thus finds alignment with Geoffrey Sirc's (2002) argument that composition has been too closely tied to the conventions of academic writing, ignoring models provided by avant-garde compositionists who drew on commonplace materials, like Marcel Duchamp's use of "a porcelain urinal, a snow shovel, a comb, a typewriter cover, anything whatever" (p. 42). Sirc noted that the artists he proposes as model compositionists saw that "the world was full of potential art" (pp. 42–43) and that writing and inventing was about choosing what's "around, on hand" (p. 44). Likewise, as we invented with littleBits, we combined littleBits modules with other material we found lying around and on hand: tape, construction paper, paper cups, scrap paper, MP3 files available online, and so forth. Our play with littleBits thus also echoes the work of Steven Hammer and Aimée Knight (2015), whose play with circuit-bending privileges invention as an act of discovery rather than as something conventional. The process of taking mass-produced objects and making them into unique, crafted objects, Hammer and Knight argued, "decanonizes the process of making."

Ecological Approaches to Rhetoric: Practice, Play, and Failure

Calls to attend to three-dimensional objects in rhetoric, composition, and technical communication are in line with recent turns toward understanding rhetorical action as ecological (Boyle, 2016; Cooper, 1986, 2010; Edbauer, 2005; Rivers & Weber, 2011). Ecological approaches to rhetoric have questioned humanist assumptions about discrete individual agents and the field's attachment to final, polished products. Understanding rhetorical action "as an ongoing series of mediated encounters" (Boyle, 2016, p. 534), advocates of ecological approaches to rhetoric challenge our traditional understanding of rhetorical change as the result of a discrete action, or "through a single document"; instead, we should understand rhetorical action as occurring "through multiple mundane and monumental texts" (Rivers & Weber, 2011, p. 187).

These mundane and monumental textual encounters mediate our actions, and call attention to how rhetoric is a practice. Following Marilyn Cooper (2010) and a variety of other posthumanist and ecological thinkers, Casey Boyle (2016) argued that practice is an accumulative activity, understood serially: "A series is composed of items that are continuous with but also distinct from one another without being separate" (p. 547). Thus, rhetorical practice is meant "to produce greater capacities within any given ecology" (p. 547), or, put differently, rhetorical practice is "a continuous cultivation of habits . . . whose aim is to compose new capacities for conducting ourselves within expanded media ecologies" (p. 549). As Cooper (2010) explained, language and tools are behavioral rather than referential; that is, language and tools mediate behaviors, which "arise out of physical and kinetic coordinations between agents and their environments" (p. 22).

Thus, successful rhetorical action—and successful learning—is not a matter of genius or mastery, but rather is developed "through the gradual attunement of movement and perception" (Cooper, 2010, p. 24). Consequently, rhetorical education must be a matter of play and practice. As Cooper explained, while critiquing approaches to literacy that are overly cognitive and individualistic, rhetorical practice involves "a lot of playing around with stuff" (p. 28). This understanding of rhetorical practice shifts our attention from valuing mastery to valuing play, failure, and inventional processes. And attending to materiality in rhetorical education also encourages experimentation and play. By calling attention to materiality, Wysocki (2004) explained, we are also "calling attention to what previously functioned quietly, invisibly," offering "us more room for play because it gives us perspective for seeing and working alertly with a wider range of the material potentials of our texts" (p. 15). A material, ecological approach to rhetorical education also reframes skill: "skill [is] an interactive achievement . . . rather than a flash of genius" (Cooper, 2010, p. 24).

These perspectives on rhetorical education have much in common with Seymour Papert's (1993) constructionist understanding of education. In Mindstorms: Children, Computers, and Powerful Ideas, first published in 1980, Papert argued that computers could revolutionize K–12 education, but not because computers automatically led to new pedagogies—indeed he critiqued "workbook-oriented" pedagogies and approaches in which computers merely replaced rote, print workbooks and pedagogies in which students merely learned "about the machines themselves" (Franz & Papert, 1988, p. 408). Rather, Papert (1993), drawing on and revising the work of his teacher and colleague Jean Piaget, argued that learning is not a step-by-step process, but is instead recursive, involving the constant revision of mental and physical models for understanding and interacting with the world. Mindstorms shared the educational philosophy behind Papert's practices in which students used computer programs to learn math. Papert argued that students learn through making things, practices that allow them to draw on their already existing mental models of the world and then revise those models through trial and error. In this way, computers and other objects become "objects-to-think-with" (p. 11): material objects that are not mere tools to learn abstract concepts but rather objects that are used in processes of inquiry to solve problems. Thus, students "build their own intellectual structures with materials drawn from the surrounding culture" (p. 32); rather than teach "formal rules," we should assist students in developing insights they can revise and develop heuristics for approaching problems (p. 205). For Papert, this learning is both intellectual and affective, involving "messing about" with objects (Franz & Papert, 1988, p. 409). (Matt Ratto, 2011, drew on Papert's constructionism to develop his theory of critical making, which we draw on in our discussion of disruption.)

Moving from a valuation of mastery to a valuation of play and process also allows us to reframe failure. In her Composition Forum article "In Support of Failure," Allison Carr (2013) argued that we should understand the affective work that failure does. Traditionally, we understand student failure as "indicat[ing] that students have missed the signposts and wandered off into the wilderness." As Carr explained,

success in writing—no matter what pedagogy you work with—is reached by achieving clear, recognizable goals in an efficient and inventive manner. Failure, on the other hand, isn't any one thing but simply the absence of success, the silent, shadowy underbelly that frightens us into tugging our bootstraps to "try, try again."

Carr had no interest in recuperating "failure into success"; rather, she asked rhetoric and composition teachers to make "failure—and failure's feltness—more visible." Thus, rather than ask students to try, try again—or try harder—we might ask students to fail, fail again—or fail harder. In effect, then, we should embrace failure.

Throughout this webtext, we are informed by such ecological and materialist understandings of rhetorical practice, emphasizing how rhetorical practice with three-dimensional objects involves play, failure, and risk and can promote composing as a craft that takes mass-manufactured objects and remixes them into new compositions.

Context of the Course and Background on littleBits

Leslie holds onto some littleBits as she looks at print instructions sitting on the table
Leslie inventing a drawing machine with littleBits
Jamie holds up some print instructions for littleBits and studies them
Jamie studying littleBits instructions

Students in Texas Tech University's online PhD program in Technical Communication and Rhetoric visit Lubbock annually for a two-week intensive May Seminar. While advanced students are giving presentations, having annual reviews, studying for or taking comprehensive exams, or working on their dissertations, first-year PhD students meet face-to-face for the first time in a graduate seminar. In May 2016, first-year students in the program took New Media Rhetoric with Michael J. Faris. Meeting four hours a day for two weeks, students read and discussed new media theory and scholarship in rhetoric and composition, and worked intensely on collaborative new media projects.

One group was assigned to play with littleBits and to create documentation about using littleBits that could be useful for instructors and students of Texas Tech's undergraduate technical communication service course. The assignment asked the students in the group—Andrew M. Blick, Jack T. Labriola, Leslie Hankey, Jamie May, and Richard T. Mangum—to explore and experiment with littleBits and then to create documentation for students and instructors of undergraduate technological communication. Using five littleBits kits—the STEAM Student Set, Gizmos & Gadgets Kit, Smart Home Kit, Arduino Coding Kit, and Premium Kit—purchased through Michael's research funds, students were asked to produce the following documents:

  • a promotional video for teachers and students introducing them to littleBits;
  • at least two instructional deliverables explaining how to do something basic with littleBits (which could be a redesign of already-existing documentation), designed for students and instructors;
  • at least two instructional deliverables about how to do something complex that wasn't already explained by littleBits documentation; and
  • an instructional video about an automated machine created with littleBits that purposefully fails.

The second and third items in this list could be delivered in any medium. Students were to select the medium most appropriate for the task at hand, whether that be a PDF, a video, a poster, and so forth. The third item—instructional deliverables on projects that weren't already documented by littleBits—required that students would have to invent something new.

The last component in this list—a project on an automated machine that purposefully fails—was inspired by recent scholarship in rhetoric and composition that explores aspects of failure and glitch in composition (e.g., Boyle, 2015; Carr, 2013; Hammer, 2015; Hammer & Knight, 2015), as well as the popular work of Simone Giertz, whose YouTube videos chronicle her attempts at creating automated robots that purposefully fail. For example, she has created a robot that unsuccessfully serves breakfast by dumping cereal and milk into a bowl (and largely missing the bowl before dropping both the cereal box and the milk carton) and then serving an empty spoon of cereal to her mouth (Giertz, 2015a); a machine that automates chopping vegetables but ultimately wildly (and dangerously) swings two chopping knives that fail to properly chop vegetables but begin to chop through her wooden cutting board (Giertz, 2015c); and an alarm clock that swings a rubber hand to slap her in the face and wake her up to hilarious effects, including her hair getting caught in the alarm's motor (Giertz, 2015b). What Giertz's videos exemplify is the approach that Steven Hammer (2015) advocated in his discussion of glitch:

a composition in which we reveal our technologies as coauthors; a composition in which we perform with our technologies and reveal our processes; a composition in which we subtly—ø® ®@d¡C@11¥—shift our writing style(s) to not only write with or about technology, but to write technology.

Maker rhetorics using three-dimensional objects allow for such an approach of writing technologies, and littleBits provide such an opportunity. They enable users to create and invent technology through the use of magnetic electronic pieces, which can be assembled into miniature circuit boards that can power remote control cars, fans, and lamps, and even allow the user to practice some coding (depending on the kit that's bought and the pieces that are included). littleBits were created out of a maker mentality toward design. As littleBits designer Ayah Bdeir (2012) explained in her TED Talk, the development of transistors at Bell Labs in the 1940s fundamentally changed building. No longer were we solely building static objects, but we were now also building interactive objects. The one problem was that "The transistor was only for experts." Her (2009) aim was "to move electronics from late stages of the design process to its earliest ones, and from the hands of experts, to those of artists, makers and designers" ( p. 397). Bdeir's approach to littleBits was motivated by the sort of democratizing of craft that Feenberg (1991) and Wysocki (2004) advocated. As readymades, littleBits function as what Johndan Johnson-Eilola (2010) called gizmos: "texts that are highly unstable and user-alterable in ways that printed texts are not: They can be moved around, recombined, and transformed in useful and sometimes surprising ways" (p. 43).

The website for littleBits explains:

Let's empower the next generation to have the creative confidence & curiosity to always ask why. To test ideas without fear. To take feedback without ego. To use their brains and hands to solve real-world problems when there isn't a clear right answer. With littleBits, kids learn how to be more than just consumers of technology. They become inventors. (littleBits, 2016)

While we believe we should be critical of littleBits's utopian rhetoric of empowerment (see Losh, 2014, on rhetoric about educational technologies), there is also much to be gained from using modular devices like littleBits in rhetoric, composition, and technical communication classes. littleBits, as three-dimensional modular objects, allowed students in New Media Rhetoric to explore and apply the multimodal composition strategies and theories that they were concurrently studying in our seminar. During the seminar, students read and discussed work in media theory (e.g., Peters, 2015), rhetorical theory about technology (e.g., Selber, 2010), and work on new media and composition pedagogy (e.g., Alexander & Rhodes, 2014; Hammer & Knight, 2015; Sheridan, 2010, 2016; Shipka, 2011; Sirc, 1997; Wysocki, 2004).

Looking at Leslie's back, we see her holding a throwing-arm invention made of littleBits; a small catapult-like device is in her hands, ready to launch a paper ball from a paper cup
Leslie plays with a throwing arm invention

Through engaging with littleBits, graduate students in New Media Rhetoric were able to explore the dynamics of composing with and in new media. In the following sections of this webtext, we describe our experiences playing, creating, disrupting, and redesigning with littleBits.