• Matthew Davis
    University of Massachussetts Boston
  • Kevin Brock
    North Carolina State University
  • Stephen J. McElroy
    Florida State University

I. Connecting the Contexts of Composition

Kairos points to context: the backdrop within and against which the opportune moment takes shape. In examinations of student composing, context often means the four walls of the classroom, though this version of context precludes attention to the different situations that influence students' compositions. Here, we'd like to counter that by examining the work of one particular student, Natascha, and paying particular attention to how curricular and extracurricular contexts shape her composing practice. In doing so, we show two things: first, the important role that multiple contexts play in mediating Natascha's composing practice; and second, the particular ways that these contexts enable and constrain her composing choices across a range of situations and genres. To make this connection, we'll juxtapose Natascha's work as she completes one assignment and two projects for an upper-level undergraduate course in composing for print and digital media—her school-sponsored literate practices—with Natascha's self-sponsored literate practice as a blogger. This second context, Natascha's extracurriculum (Gere), provides a point of departure and a point of connection for discussing how Natascha composes herself and her texts between the curriculum and the extracurriculum—that is, between the school-sponsored literacy practices required by the course and her own self-sponsored literacy practices.

Sponsors of Literacy and the Extracurriculum

In order to understand Natascha's curricular and extracurricular literacy practices, it's helpful to understand the different sponsors of literacy at play as she proceeds through Writing, Editing, and Print Online, or WEPO (Brandt Sponsors, Literacy). Sponsors of literacy are any agents, local or distant, concrete or abstract, who enable, support, teach, model, as well as recruit, regulate, suppress, or withhold literacy—and gain advantage by it in some way (Sponsors 166). Sponsors can be formal institutions—schools, churches, government offices—or informal institutions, like communities, neighborhoods, families, or writing groups. Sponsors of literacy are a double-edged sword: on one hand, they connect an individual development to literacy as an economic development, providing powerful incentives for individuals to take up certain literacy practices, often by lending institutional resources toward those ends (Sponsors 166-9). Institutional sponsors of literacy provide occasions for individuals to pursue literacy—to engage with and develop a variety of reading and writing practices—and they locate that individuals' pursuit of literacy within systems of value—financial, social, and personal. On the other hand, however, sponsors of literacy also benefit from their sponsorship, exacting compliance and loyalty of literacy practice towards institutional ends. Just as they support and enable certain kinds of literacy, sponsors also regulate and suppress other kinds of literacy; they provide both incentives and barriers to literacy development (169). The individual effects of sponsorship are that an ordinary person's literacy learning—its occasions, materials, applications, potentials—follows the transformations going on within sponsoring institutions as those institutions fight for economic and ideological position (177). The pursuit of individual literacy (or literacy's pursuit of an individual) is then both enabled and constrained by sponsors such that individual agency is encouraged within certain limitations, so long as it fits with the patterns of sponsorship in that institution (167). From this perspective, varieties of literate practice emerge from the competition between institutions within different value systems (173). There is, however, a version of literacy sponsorship that is more individually agentive. Self-sponsored literacy, occasions when individuals pursue projects of self-initiated learning exist outside the realm of formal institutional sponsorship (171). Self-sponsored writing—the writing of journals and correspondence, for instance—locates literacy outside the catalogue of obligatory relations that categorizes much institutionally sponsored literacy, as well as often locating literacy in non-monetary economies of value (183). What's valuable about self-sponsored writing is often not financial gain, but the chance to perform, publish, and share writing within the social groups of ones choosing—or not to share it at all.

The self-sponsored literacy practices of students, those that take place outside academic settings, are the extracurriulum of composition, where writing development occurs outside formal education and enables writers to perform, publish, and gain recognitions for their writing (Gere 76-78). The extracurriculum and the economy of self-sponsored writing is different from commercial or academic economies of other literacy sponsors; it values [p]ositive feelings about oneself and one's writing, motivation to revise and improve composition skills, opportunities for publication of various sorts, [and] the belief that writing can make a difference in individual and community life (78). The extracurriculum contrasts the curriculum—a type of school-sponsored literacy: the two have different motivations, value systems, and different systems of circulation. These differences, according to Gere, are what constitute the uncoupling of school and composition, and provide literacy researchers a chance to focus on the contexts of composing that occur outside the walls of the academy (80). Though we agree with Gere that the extracurriculum provides a new focus for attention to self-sponsored literacy, we also agree with Jean Ferguson Carr that literacy researchers would do well to remember that the boundaries between curriculum and extracurriculum are permeable, and that we often see examples of one in the context of the other (96). In short, students sometimes bring into the classroom their extracurricular composing practices and (teachers hope) they take their curricular composing practices back outside when they go. This frame provides a way to understand Natascha's work for WEPO, and highlights exchanges between curriculum and extracurriculum.

Natascha and Taschima

In the spring of 2011, Natascha was an 18 year old sophomore taking the first class, Writing and Editing in Print and Online (WEPO), in her new major, Editing Writing and Media. On paper, Natascha's previous experiences with digital text technologies looked pretty familiar for her cohort—she had posted on a blog and created a website, but didn't know that wikis extended beyond Wikipedia, and she had never made a digital video. In an early informal chat, Natascha mentioned that she was a blogger and enjoyed writing, but that she usually didn't do well in English classes. What she didn't mention, but what soon became apparent through her coursework, was that Natascha had an online alter ego: Taschima. Since February 2009, Taschima has run Bloody Bookaholic, a blog that hosts book reviews and recommendations—mostly for YA fantasy novels—though the 46 reviews currently available range from Anne Rice to George Carlin to Nicolas Sparks. The blog's motto is Allergic to Reality; Compelled by Fiction and its subtitle: A Kick Ass Young Adult Book Blog.

Bloody Bookaholic Home Page

The blog's purpose, as Taschima writes, is to help you not wasted your time, and find the best match for you. Whether it's fiction or non, supernatural or chick lit, the book for everyone is out there, you just gotta look. She promises her 2500+ members honest reviews that eschew book bashing (that is just wrong, she writes) and ratings that rank from I'm in love to It's not me, it's you. On the About page, Taschima admits that Taschima is my bookworm alter ego. My true name is Natascha, but don't repeat it, people might start calling me that. So when Natascha mentioned that she had posted to a blog—an admission common enough for a student in her major, she did not mention that she also administrated it. She didn't mention it was Bloody Bookaholic. And though she mentioned that she really did like writing, she did not mention that many people liked her writing as well: as of May 15, 2012, the total page views on Bloody Bookaholic was over half a million, at 580,261.

We cannot claim that Natascha is representative of the group of students in her class, or of students more generally—few of our students run websites, even fewer—if any—do it with such success. But we do think that Natascha's work is indicative of several things: first, how students, sometimes successfully, sometimes not so successfully, navigate the permeable boundaries of curriculum and extracurriculum, creating networks of in- and out-of-school practices, texts, and people; second, how students' extracurricular composing practices escape attention; and third, how attention to those practices can address the research questions of this study by extending the view of student composing outside the four walls of the classroom. A closer look at Taschima's blog and Natascha's in-class work for her writing course evidences these claims and highlights the intersections between curriculum and extracurriculum as a way to show how Natascha linked her self-sponsored literate practice on the blog with the course assignments in various ways.

The image above is the header and navigation bar on the homepage for Bloody Bookaholic. Underneath the title bar is a slideshow of the cover images of all of the books reviewed on the site- it appears here as a series of images of book covers. Underneath that is the navigation bar for the site with Home, About, Reviews, Interviews, My Bookshelf, TBR (to be read) Pile, Awards, and Contact pages. Pictured below is the remaining portion of the homepage, including the layout that is mimicked by all of the subsequent pages.

Bloody Bookaholic Home Page 2

At the top of the column on the left is a widget linked to GoodReads, a site that tracks what Taschima is currently reading. Below that are the blog search functions and member list widgets, modules for subscriptions and recent posts, and polls for book cover of the month. In the column to the right, the pages contain a widget for a book of the month, the rating system for reviews, a toolbar to help blog followers get in touch with each other, and a widget tracking Taschima's progress on her reading challenge (as of May 15, 2012 she had read 32 of the 75 books that comprise her goal).

In the middle column of the blog page is a longer frame containing the header “Bloody Bookaholic's Commandment” which is Thou Shall Read Till Thy Eyes Bleed. Underneath these are epigraphs and the content for the page. On the home page, for example, this area contains the schedule for an upcoming young adult book conference. On other pages, this section contains what one might expect: the About page has information on the blog and its author; the Review page provides searches of the reviews by author and title; the Interviews page links to transcripts for 15 author interviews—some of whom also have books reviewed on the blog. The TBR Pile section lists the upcoming reads. The Awards page shows off awards the blog has been awarded by readers—the Zombie Chicken Award, the Superior Scribbler Award, the Phenomenal and Prolific Blogger awards among 27 others. Finally, the Contact page has Taschima's contact and social networking information. This page also outlines her policies for review, stating that she accepts review copies but that there's a caveat: Understand that this blog is a YA book blog. I do not review children's books. Nor do I review E-books because I just can't concentrate with the internet so close by. But if your book is not YA, and it has to do with the supernatural, paranormal, or Urban Fantasy, email me and I will be glad to check it out. She clearly possesses awareness of her site's scope, purpose, and the constraints, which she deals with in order to administrate it successfully.

The first assignment for the WEPO course was to choose between posting reading notes to the class wiki and curating the class blog. Given Bloody Bookaholic, it is not surprising that, when required to choose between the two, Natascha chose to curate the class blog. In order to gain perspective on what Natascha's curation entailed, it's helpful to contrast the blog she curated with the template from which she started. Below is a screenshot of the class blog in that template—it has a simple, wintry template, two spots on the navigation bar for Home and About, and several posts, but few comments.

Home Page of WEPO A course blog

Below are several pages of the blog Natascha designed for her section. Visually, it is much different than the template above—the color scheme has been customized, the navigation bar now includes four more pages, the wintry header image is gone, and the widgets on the right have been reordered or changed. The layout has also changed substantially: the column sizes and formatting are tailored, and the orientation is different—the blog is now oriented vertically.

WEPO B Blog Home Page

Substantively, the blog is also different. The four additional pages on the navigation bar represent additions Natascha has made: the About page now contains an explanation of the blog's purpose and a link to our course wiki, as well as a snippet from the course syllabus listing the course goals.

About Page of WEPO B course blog

The Journals tab aggregates those posts to the course blog that served as writing journals, and the scheduled readings page reproduces the details of our semester schedule, which was originally on Blackboard and in the syllabus. An additional page titled Class Notes and Helpful Links reproduces the first page of the class wiki, where the class posted notes about each reading for the course.

Journals Page of WEPO course blog

The Class Notes and Helpful Links page also reproduces some content from the next page, a Help page, on which Natascha's posted links to various university writing centers, and online research sites, and provided explanations of how each one might be used. At the bottom of the Help page pictured below, she's added a helpful hint for her classmates: You can also find this list on the top Menu bar under HP (it is not only short for Harry Potter in here!)

Class Notes page of WEPO course blog

There is, however, more than humor that connects Taschima's experience with Bloody Bookaholic with the course assignment—the course blog takes on new life as Natascha translates her successful foray in the blogosphere with the first assignment in her new major: incorporating visual aesthetic, layout, internal and external links, and demonstrating the importance of information aggregation. Much like on Bloody Bookaholic, the information most necessary for helping the other students engage with the course blog—help information, schedules and lists—are easy to find and often repeated in several locations.

Natascha's first major project for the course, a—not surprisingly perhaps—blog co-constructed with two other students in the class, explored the rhetorical concepts of ethos, pathos, and logos. Natascha chose to take that blog down after the project was complete—so it is unavailable now—and she insinuated in her reflection that working with others did not always produce the kind of quality content she wanted. Natascha saw a connection in her first project to her work as Taschima though, listing Bloody Bookaholic as one of the sources informing her project; she wrote in her project reflection that my very own blog provided me with the knowledge I needed to execute the project.

In her second project, a written and visual literature review, Natascha chose to research educational blogging. Before the written literature review, the project called for an annotated bibliography and a book cover: imagining their literature reviews were being published as monographs, the assignment asked students to mock up a book cover complete with title, summary, blurbs, and author information.

Natascha's Book Cover

Natascha's book cover is reproduced above. Though simple, it is fun—and funny—and connects her second project to her interests outside of school. The cover of the book (second panel from right), titled Educational Blogging, has a large wordcloud on it—the cloud shaped in the form of the stylized B from the Blogger.com website—the same one Taschima sees each time she logs on to Bloody Bookaholic. The summary (far right) outlines her research question, if too broadly: the ultimate question is blogging, when joined with the everyday classroom material, a good way to instruct students? [sic] The blurbs on the back cover (panel second from left) add a bit of humor. First, the entire population of North America states that the review changed their lives. Then, Mr. X laments, why didn't I think of this idea before?!? Lastly, Natascha herself blurbs the book: The only way to describe this lit review is with the word legendary. Lastly, the author bio (far left) provides some information about Natascha, mentioning that she is also a book blogger[,] which is why she was so interested in what people thought about blogging being incorporated into the classroom setting. In toto, Natascha's book cover is rather simple—and simplistic. The cover is interesting but lacks the visual savvy with which she constructs either of the blogs; the summary looks a bit thin; the blurbs, despite being rather humorous, don't parody blurbs so much as caricature their conventions.

Put simply, Natascha merges her interests with the course requirements by seeing a connection between the curriculum—the assignment of an academic literature review—and her extracurriculum as a book blogger, though the connection hasn't provided substantive ways of dealing with the challenges of a new context and new genres. Taschima seems to know the book industry and book reviews, though Natascha can't quite find her way through a literature review. The text of Natascha's review provides additional evidence of this struggle. It is uneven, slow to start, and provides a thesis that leaves something to be desired:

They [meaning teachers and students] could use blogs to keep a record of their writing process, as sources of information, as a bridge between parents and teachers, etc. Others, by others meaning people who are more qualified than me, have thought the same thing. This is what this lit review is all about. In this lit review we look at different scholarly journals, timeline being from 2000 to 2010, which explore the idea of implementing blogging in the classroom setting.

The subsequent sections of her written review march from one source to the other without transition, and there is little effort made to connect the sources to each other. She does make some observations, however: she notices an uptick in positive associations in blogging research:

the journals and papers that I was able to read and analyze have been pretty positive when it come to blogging in the past 10 years. At the beginning there were a few papers published on blogging, but as the subject was put out there for people to read and understand more people got interest in the subject and started giving in their two cents. Blogging has huge potential in the classroom setting for both teachers and students. It can enhance both of their learning and provide a new medium for them to express themselves without fear of any real judgment. All these authors in their own fashion found a way to shine the light on educational blogging.

Taschima's blog is an instance of self-sponsored writing—one that emerges from the author's impulse to provide helpful recommendations to like-minded readers—to make sure they don't waste [their] time in finding the book what will bring them the joy of reading. Taschima's engagement emerges from and is constitutive of that sponsorship—it is not institutional sponsorship from without, but self- and community-sponsored engagement from within. Bloody Bookaholic provides Taschima the chance to create and contribute to a community of book lovers by providing them with information, recommendations, reviews with their favorite authors, and by modeling the behavior that community values—engagement, imagination, and passion. In taking dual identities, Natascha's self-sponsored pedagogically oriented activity dramatizes the uncoupling of schooling and composition (Gere 80).  She chooses for herself separate identities for different types of literate work: Natascha writes for class—she likes it, but she doesn't do well in English; Taschima likes writing, and she does do well at it (she may not care at all about English class—her contribution lies elsewhere).  In dramatizing this distinction, Natascha points up what Jean Ferguson Carr calls the permeable boundaries between curriculum and extracurriculum, the points at which institutionally and self sponsored literacies intersect and interact (96).