Material Studies

(Seminar by Sipai Klein, Julia Munro, Michael Tondre)

The meaning-making process writers face has been historically determined by the “technology” of paper. The integration of electronic communication has arguably changed writers’ meaning-making processes and the discourse produced by writers. In other words, the material contexts of writing have influenced how we write about the world and how the world shapes what we can write. As teachers of writing, we often encounter issues of changing material contexts as changes occur to the tools with which we teach (e.g., textbook to ebook) and the communication devices that students bring into the classroom (e.g., laptop to tablet). We bring to the table  O’Hara, Taylor, Newman, and Sellen (2002), whose research heavily borrows from writing studies but approaches the topic of materiality and its influence on writers from the field of human-computer interaction. These researchers observe writers in the process of composing and attempt to understand how diverse material artifacts influence these writers’ cognitive activities. “An understanding of materiality of writing from multiple sources” raises questions about the very tools we use to teach writing and the tools we expect our own students to use as they compose their texts.

To begin, please read the following article by Christian Metz, “Photography and Fetish.” A classic essay in the domain of film studies, Metz’s article is a semiotical-psychoanalytical take on the differences between photography and film that nicely articulates the “draw” and power of material objects (begin on page 83).

An object of study useful to our discussion of material studies is The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum (USHMM) web site. It is, first and foremost, an excellent site that provides viewers with easy access to a wealth of resources held by the museum itself; it is also a useful example of the effective ways in which the objects of material studies are made available via digital media.

Please examine the following links from the USHMM web site:
1) Everyday Objects, Enduring Legacies

2) The Curator’s Corner – “Kristine Keren and her Green Sweater.”

(Optional: For contrast, read the following from the Auschwitz-Berkenau Memorial and Museum web site.

A Question for consideration:
– Does the increasing representation of archival objects via digital media (such that viewers have a digital, rather than physical, contact with the objects) change material studies? [Munro]

The study of material culture has long held a place of distinction in humanities and social sciences curricula. By definition, material studies seeks to situate the theoretically abstract and discursively constructed alongside the hard, tangible stuff of everyday life. But the relations between the abstract and the concrete find special significance in the digital realm, where material objects are subject to a further level of mediation. What happens to the study of material artifacts when they appear in virtual spaces? How can we use digital technologies in order to help students to think through the political, psychic, and affective life of things? Take a look at this website, a course page for Sev Fowler’s thing theory seminar at Columbia University, as a case in point:

As you look through the site, you may want to keep a few further questions in mind:

• What is the status of the artifact in the digital domain?
• How does the web shape and alter the experience of physical things, rather than providing a transparent reflective  medium
• In what ways do technological constructs change the very nature of research, knowledge production, and             learning outcomes in the classroom?

My hope is that these questions will provide the foundations for an activity about material studies and its role  in multimodal composition, so you may wish focus your responses in light of your own disciplinary interests or field of expertise.

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