Monday, June 4, 2012

Is it "a way with words" or "away with words"?

Wysocki, Anne Frances. "Awaywithwords: On the Possibilities in Unavailable Designs." Computers and Composition 22.1 (2005): 55-62. Print.

Wysocki’s article serves as a detailed discussion of how assumptions about the natural properties of things constrain how we use them.  As the author explains through a metaphor about water being used as a weapon, we are limited if we think natural properties specify the limitation of things. Instead, particular uses of things (water or communication methods) cannot be separated from the time and space in which they are used.

Wysocki shows that communication is most effective when it is approached through “entwining context, purpose, audience, and communication strategies (including material choices)” (56) but we must also ask “how our materials have acquired the constraints they have and hence why, often, certain materials and designs are not considered available for certain uses” (56). 

She considers the role that spacing between words evolved as a result of the move from oral delivery to silent reading.  The usage of space on the page ought to be considered carefully because it affects how we read pages and understand them.  Students should “consider how they use the spaces and not just one time that can be shaped on pages.  They also need to question how they have come to understand the spaces of pages so that they can, if need be, use different spaces, potentially powerful spaces that—as Howe, for example, has described—have been rendered unavailable by naturalized, unquestioned practice” (57). 

She moves then to another naturalized practice—that of seeing image and word as a dichotomy.  Kress sees words as “governed by a ‘temporal and sequential logic’” while images as “governed by a “spatial and simultaneous logic” (57).  She presents these categories as problematic, but shaped by human practice.  For example, while we might suggest that images are unique in the way that they can be taken in at a glance, images like Brueghel’s “Children’s Games” (below) defy this characterization.

Our notion of image is the result of human practices, much in the way that our use of space is the result of shifts in human experiences.  Thus, Wysocki suggests that we should consider how we have shaped material practices and how those practices have consequences for how others behave. 

Wysocki’s treatment of materiality and humanity is important for the writing teacher, and particularly for the online writing teacher.  First, she demonstrates how we ought to be suspicious of traditional notions of the role of text and help our students to think critically about the norms they accept as well.  More importantly though, she opens an opportunity for us to analyze the course materials as a medium that might appear to have natural characteristics as a result of the way they has been habitually presented, particularly through course management systems.  The online writing teacher might think carefully about the notions Wysocki presents about the consequences of “how we use paper, ink, and pixels to shape—for better or worse—the actions of others” (59).


  1. Cheri,

    Her definition of instruction and the constraints really make you think about instructional decisions.Thanks for sharing!!!

  2. Hi Cheri,

    I have read this article before and found it to be valuable for the reasons you outline in your final paragraph.

  3. I agree with your final paragraph, Cheri. (And the rest of the piece, but extra-specially that final paragraph.) It made me think about the difficulty of some of the goals we set for ourselves in FYC, though. Wysocki's argument is simple on the surface, but not really so as you get deeper into it. I wonder how many FYC students would have the interest or sophistication to engage it? We can certainly help students gain a healthy suspicion of norms. Could we lead them to analyze the medium of a written document? Probably. How much time should we spend doing so? How can we rationalize it to those outside of composition?