Typewriter Composition

Each course I've taught at UIUC has amounted to continuing education for me. New materials make this true, but I’ve also been learning about old materials in new ways.

I posted a while back about how I planned to use del.icio.us to organize readings in my "Writing Technologies" course, and after that post I ended up using del.icio.us to organize links for my "Rhetoric of Public Engagement" course as well.

(Note to practitioners: If you’re in class and say something like “Check out my delicious,” people will giggle. If you try to modify this by saying “Check out my delicious links,” people will still giggle.)

Organizing links is one thing, but mapping networks of online reading is another. I've underutilized del.icio.us in the "Writing Technologies" course—so far.

I'm not worried about it, though, as we've been doing other neat things. On Monday, students will be "turning in" websites on their research of campus handwriting, and projects include inquiry into handwriting on/for:
  • public and private white boards
  • ibooks (a branded scheduler we have at the U of I)
  • class notes
  • graffiti
  • and hands

The projects about handwriting on hands are particularly interesting to me, reminding me of how valuable it is to have students develop topics. At least when I teach, this leads to inquiry into things I would never have thought of.

Our typewriter composition unit is gearing up, too.

As students will be using typewriters to compose a few of their graded assignments, I hauled my growing fleet of machines to class for a little typewriter composition primer. It took some a while to figure out how to turn the electric ones on; others avoided the return arms and manually return their carriages; another student stood before her manual typewriter, waited a bit, and then asked “Where’s the return key.”

Typewriter composition gets at the significance of technology in writing, a practice we often think of as entirely cognitive, linguistic, and rhetorical. The technological mediation/element in composition is something that, having taught this course, I would add to any overview of composition theory and practice.

Even more interestingly, understanding the typewriter (historically, mechanically, culturally in terms of its range of uses) means understanding the word processor as remediating typewriter technology and, in some ways, as simulacral. Our word processors are typewriters in ways that, I think this unit reveals, significantly structure our composition.

Next week, students in the course will turn in their first assignment written (not just typed) on a typewriter, and we'll go from there.


  1. "I hauled my growing fleet of machines to class..."

    Please, please, please do not mention this to df. About a year ago, he picked up a red typewriter from somewhere just because it looked cool. I've been living with this person for a long time and I know what that means. So far, the collection has stayed at one and I am grateful. He definitely does not need a "typewriter friend" to encourage this habit.

    The assignment looks cool though. Your students must love your class.

  2. It does indeed look very cool. There's a couple of old typewriters in the hallway outside my office. No one ever touches them. Hmm. Wonder if anyone would notice if they disappeared? (Just into the interior of my office, I mean. For future possible use as part of an assignment like this one.)

  3. (copied from an email message sent 1 minute ago)

    Hey DF,

    You should see all the great old typewriters I have? Do you have any typewriters? Do you want to start a typewriter museum together? We could collect a ton of them!!!

  4. Anonymous5:14 PM

    Omigod I want to take this class from you!!!!! -tt

  5. Your enrolled, tt! :)

  6. Anonymous9:45 PM

    I can't get over how many research interests we share. I've got a 1960s/70s manual Olivetti in my office that I bought ($1 state surplus!) to explore the evolution of keyboards and to remember how writing differs on that production tool. We should work together at some point. Cheers.

  7. An Olivetti! Man, I've been looking for one of those for a looong time. (Exclusively at garage sales, of course -- which seems to slow down the process of acquisition: a good thing.)

    No doubt re: collaborating at some point! I've thought the same thing several times. :)

  8. Nice new banner. This is one monster blog, to be sure.