What Monkeys Teach Us about Authorship:
Toward a Distributed Agency
in Digital Composing Practices

Pedagogical Possibilities

To undertake a robust reworking of rhetorical agency in digital media spaces, scholars in rhetoric and composition have become attuned to the pedagogical possibilities of merging the divide between digital composition and public engagement. I concur with Marilyn Cooper (2011) that what we need is not a pedagogy of empowerment, but a pedagogy of responsibility (p. 443). Following Cooper’s redefinition of rhetorical agency as emergent and enacted, what is at stake now is no longer the initiative of empowering students to assert their individual agency that has already become an integral part of their multimodal practices, but the need to propel students to become public rhetors who respond to their relations with a conglomeration of various actors in composition processes. Being responsive does not necessarily entail a solely conscious activity, as I will discuss in greater detail in this webtext, but rather operates on both conscious and nonconscious levels of perception. Recent articles in Kairos (DeLuca, 2015; Digirhet, 2008) expand digital rhetoric authorship to incorporate issues such as digital citizenship, activism, and engagement. Articles including Katherine DeLuca’s (2015) Can We Block These Political Thingys? reminded us of the ways whereby social media push forward the advocacy of civic engagement and the creation of public rhetors. Similarly, Sarah Warren-Riley and Elise V. Hurley (2017) upheld a multimodal public writing perspective that instantiated the emergence of a digital advocacy from everyday and mundane rhetorical practices. In this light, I contend that the issue of monkey selfie unveils pedagogical possibilities—i.e., sustaining public writing advocacy and bridging reflexivity and practice—that subvert a fixed definition of authorship and copyright. Below, I will focus on outlining the possibilities of teaching authorship and invention in digital and multimodal composition.

Sustaining Public Writing Advocacy in Digital Composing Practice

What do monkeys teach us about authorship? The lawsuit promoted further discussions about authorship and copyright, which may invigorate multimodal public writing pedagogy that has recently blossomed in the scholarship of digital and multimodal composition. The recent scholarly discussion of multimodal public writing (Alexander & Rhodes, 2014; Sheridan et al., 2012; Warren-Riley & Hurley, 2017; Weisser, 2002) promotes a multimodal public writing pedagogy that shifts the focus from abstract and detached theorizations to everyday and mundane rhetorical practices (such as Facebook posting and Tweeting). This multimodal public writing advocacy is in alignment with Sheridan et. al.'s (2012) assertion that public contexts of writing and communities of practice can potentially yield a kairotically richer (p. 110) writing ecology, which, compared with conventional composition instruction, emphasizes the struggles of individual rhetors with rhetorical situations and encompasses a constellation of multiple actors and networks. While conventional composition classrooms place an emphasis on relatively fixed relations between teachers and students, their objectives and learning outcomes, multimodal pedagogy taps into the multiplicity and flexibility of rhetorical situations that public rhetors encounter in their everyday lives. Through this lens, such a view of public writing also conjures up the conceptualization of objects and things as vibrant actors, enacting effects that exceed (and are sometimes in direct conflict with) human agency and intentionality (Barnett & Boyle, 2016, p.1). Extending the scholarly interest of engaging with vibrant actors in digital composition, I contend that mundane objects and things are also agential in creating a critical space for teaching authorship and copyright. The monkey selfie image, for example, generated more questions than answers regarding who should assume authorship for nonhuman created works. The issue invited students to articulate multiple actors and stakeholders, including not only the monkey and the photographer who compose and recompose the selfie, but also the digital platforms that shift and challenge conventional understandings of authorship.

Cluster map of ideas related to animal authorship
Figure 1. An example of using visual clustering to teach invention

One of the pedagogical implications of the monkey selfie image is that nonhuman actors such as artworks, memes, and AI open up avenues for furthering invention practices. Visual arguments and digital activities provide an alternative entry point for positioning students' agency and creativity during the process of inventing composition topics (Kitalong & Miner, 2017, p. 53). Instead of implementing an anthropocentric framework that prioritizes human agency in invention practices, teachers and practitioners can think with online actors and apparatuses to produce more engaging inquiry questions. For English composition and research writing classes, we can invite students to brainstorm researchable topics related to nonhuman authorship. I have co-created with my first-year composition students a visual clustering (Figure 1) of potential topics emergent from the monkey selfie issue—including whether there exists a boundary between human-made and animal-made art and to what extent nonhuman artworks contain aesthetic values. My students reacted vigorously to the activity and brainstormed other potential topics such as animal protection and animal rights. Building on this invention activity, students were able to generate ideas about their own research topics. In this way, multimodal invention activities alike may cultivate a space for students to engage in more thought-provoking conversations about authorship issues in the public sphere.

Bridging Reflexivity and Practice in Digital Composing Practices

The monkey selfie issue also teaches us to bridge reflexivity and practice in multimodal pedagogy. New digital applications, apparatuses, and affordances continue to transform our traditional assumptions and institutional practices that separate theory from practice. This stance signifies a circle back to the epistemic gap advanced by Anne Frances Wysocki (2004), i.e., the gap between writing about how to analyze or design isolated individual texts and writing about the broad contexts and functioning of media structures in general (p. 6). As I have mentioned earlier in this webtext, it is not my intention to argue against the value of conscious awareness in reflection. Rather, I follow the call to promote a pedagogical approach that embeds reflexivity in practice, or, borrowing Boyle’s (2016) words, to enact rhetorical actions that operate on nonconscious levels with which we exercise that embeddedness (p. 538). That is to say, we should prepare our students to attend more to their relations with other actors and agents in multimodal and digital composition, while exploring open-ended possibilities: I do not yet know what a (writing) body can do; after which, we attempt to find out, repeatedly (Boyle, 2016, p. 552). In this light, the monkey selfie issue prompts us to think beyond current discursive and material practices and towards changes that may take place in the future. While “animal authorship” may not be a legitimate concern under the current legal definition of authorship as germane to only legal persons, how may the definition look similar or different fifty years from now given progress to be made and directions to be charted in animal and nonhuman rights movements? In the same vein, moving beyond a focus on human agency in writing pedagogy does not necessarily foreclose possibilities for nurturing criticality in composing practices. Instead, balancing theory and practice, reflexivity and unconsciousness, propels students to inquire not so much into how much they already know as into what is yet to be unveiled.

Cartoon grey monkey in a forest
Figure 2. Creating artworks to remix digital composition

Additionally, criticality does not always unfold along a linear and static trajectory. I, for instance, have drawn and designed an animated GIF for this webtext using CorelDRAW and Adobe Photoshop (See the home page). Digital creations and visual graphics, rather than being neutral platforms of delivery, constantly mold and reshape human composers' rhetorical objectives. Even though I was not fully aware of my artistic intentions at the outset, the graphic design platforms I used to create the artwork predisposed my way of approaching the “monkey selfie” case. That is, by depicting a cartoon monkey (Figure 2)—as opposed to a realistic monkey—who grins at the camera while taking a selfie of himself, I convey to the audience, in a tacit and subtle fashion, that animals do exercise agency in composing creative works. At the same time, the construction of animal agency in the animated GIF is subject to scrutiny. By way of portraying the monkey as exhibiting human behavior and characteristics, I may have inadvertently injected a humanized view of animals and nonhuman agents into the artwork. Using artworks and parodies in digital composition, students can also be encouraged to remix and recompose their research topics, such as those related to authorship and copyright. Memes and animated GIFs, I believe, constitute powerful means of persuasion whereby our students and public rhetors not only creatively recompose digital images and visual artifacts, but also critically examine the evolution of their beliefs and assumptions.

Situating reflection in practice, thus, challenges students to go beyond discussing authorship issues and move towards producing creative works in new media spaces. For more advanced classes in new media studies and digital rhetoric research, teachers can prompt students to create and circulate digital artworks—e.g., memes and animated GIFs—in response to a controversial issue of nonhuman authorship—e.g., cyborg and monkey selfies. Specifically, to reflect upon their recomposition and circulation processes, students will respond to more in-depth questions about the rhetorical choices they make and the potential consequences of those choices. Part of the digital advocacy initiative is to help students grow into responsible public rhetors who scrutinize and articulate the influence of material circumstances on their understanding of authorship. As such, the following questions may generate further questions and critical discussions.

1. To what extent have you considered the issues of authorship and copyright while recomposing and redistributing online texts, such as creating and sharing animated GIFs?

2. How does your rhetorical choice and (in)attention to authorship and copyright reflect the ways through which knowledge is distributed in today’s age of new media?

3. Due to the tacit presence or even absence of authorship in multimodal and digital composition, how do you evaluate online creative works to ensure the credibility of information being presented?

4. To what extent are you willing to cite nonhuman generated creative works? What factors influence your rhetorical choice of citing/not citing?

5. How is the "original" meaning of a text preserved, reshaped, or remixed during the processes of circulation and delivery in new media environments? What kinds of relations among human and nonhuman authors are sustained and/or challenged?

Rather than raising questions about end results, open-ended inquiries and assignments encourage students to continuously probe their rhetorical choices in complex systems of digital ecologies. While I deem it useful to teach the legal definitions of authorship and copyright, presenting the definitions as a “given” to students may circumscribe the possibility of sustaining ongoing conversations on the topic. Instead, teachers can ask open-ended questions to cultivate students’ reflection of their practices, and adapt the questions for students at different stages of composition. For example, questions about students’ choice of citing or not citing nonhuman generated art provide the opportunity for students to rethink their conceptions and predispositions during digital composition. Questions about the "original" meaning of a text, on the other hand, generate further debates and discussions for students to examine the contested construction of agency and authorship in today's digital age.

Taken together, these pedagogical activities provide alternative ways of teaching authorship and invention that foster criticality and reflexivity in digital composing practices. This being said, that agency is distributed in new media spaces opens up the gateway for examining not only technological affordances but also its constraints—which echoes the exigency to critically investigate the credibility of media texts in the presence of “fake news stories” and “alternative facts” (Warren-Waley & Hurley, 2017, p. 37). That authorship is not always present in an online text makes it challenging to evaluate the text. Such a constraint further complicates the ways through which public rhetors produce knowledge and remix values. Open-ended inquiry questions, in this sense, can be a good starting point for facilitating critical reflection embedded in practice.

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