Building Rhetoric(s) of Narrative in the First-Year Writing Classroom

Building Rhetoric(s) of Narrative in the First-Year Writing Classroom


How does technology change how we read and what stories we tell one another? And how does digital technology in particular influence narratives in contemporary culture? These two questions have guided my Writing 101 classes for three years to show how reading and writing have always been and continue to be mediated by technology (in the broadest sense of the word), in practice and theory. This year, I built on this notion to explore how narrative occurs in the most unlikely of places: in poetry and the archive.

Digitally saturated as we may be, I start every semester with a discussion of how technology’s origins as techne, or “something made; an art, skill, or craft; a work of art,” are embedded in our very notions of reading and writing through history. Distancing ourselves from the idea that technology is always already digital is a difficult task for most first-year students, so starting with a discussion and etymological investigation of the very definition of “technology” is only the first step we take as a class to understand writing as “made” and reading as a phenomenon of the historical, material, and cultural process of “maker culture.”

After redefining technology, we focus on the relationship of contemporary poetry to the larger technological universe in which we find ourselves today. This focus on contemporary poetry elicits questions about the relationship between the text as a material object and the text as rhetorical device that represents and highlights longer historical arches. One of the texts we read is Solmaz Sharif’s LOOK, a book of poetry about contemporary warfare and its effects on the human condition. Sharif’s work highlights the link between the sanitized language of the US military dictionary and how it affects how we respond to a war that we do not see. Our class discussions focus on the relationship between the placement of words on the page and the concepts that Sharif requires readers to “look” at. Requiring readers to “look,” to “pay attention,” to “examine” the atrocities of the Afghanistan and Iraq wars through a deeply dynamic sanitization of the English language and focus on drone warfare helps students to understand that to look at the language of elision, of ellipsis, of sanitization is to actively engage with the language of war.

In reading a full book of poetry, my students grasp the poet’s project as a whole and see a narrative emerge through word choice, patterns between individual poems, and the placement of poems in relation to paratextual gestures. Looking beyond the formal elements of the individual poem elicits the rhetorical power of Sharif’s narrative: the material object of the poetry book has a particular historical trajectory that we miss in conversations about poetic works today. Thus, as we move from reading contemporary works of poetry like LOOK, with a conceptual framework that highlights the uses and misuses of current technologies, we shift our focus to how material objects like the book of poetry itself instantiate a conceptual, rhetorical narrative of materiality.

Spending the first six weeks with contemporary books of poetry provides the necessary close and distant reading foundations that students then extend to working with archival documents found in the Rubenstein Manuscript and Rare Book Library and Duke’s Digital Production Center. Working with Amy McDonald, Assistant University Archivist, I have my students examine the exhibition “Black Students Matter: Taking Over Allen in ‘69” in the exhibit gallery in Perkins Library. Doing so allows students to see how physical, material documents (and objects, like gas masks!) build visceral narratives that contest a given historical record, as the exhibit focuses on the Black student perspective of the Takeover. After looking at the physical exhibit, I ask students to examine an archival document not included in the exhibition downstairs to show them how creating narrative with archival documents forces curators to make editorial choices.

Toward the end of the semester, my students create a digital exhibition of their own using archival materials. Taking archival documents from the Rubenstein and the Duke Digital Library, they research archival documents, design an online exhibition space, and develop a narrative. This project shows students how digital spaces use design to create narrative and how narrative can create design. In groups of four, students take trips to the Rubenstein to investigate archival documents, collaboratively write an exhibition proposal, design and implement a digital exhibition using Omeka or Wordpress, and present their exhibitions at the end of the semester.

Exploring the rhetorics of narrative through close reading of poetry and distant reading of the archive earlier in the semester helps my students develop their narrative for this final project. In doing so, they learn how to think critically about the place and space of narrative in our culture today using digital technology to build small, intimate narratives about, for instance, comic-book versions of classic novels or the way that Duke University has advertised itself throughout its history. I am still looking for the perfect exhibition platform for pedagogical use, but plan to continue using the digital exhibit assignment in future iterations of this course to show the power of narrative.

IMAGE CREDIT: Photo by Tobias Fischer on Unsplash

ABOUT THE AUTHORLisa Marie Chinn is a lecturing fellow in the Thompson Writing Program at Duke University. She studies twentieth- and twenty-first-century poetry, print culture, poetics, and sound studies. When not teaching, reading, or writing, Chinn likes to run and play the upright bass.