Holmes: “Multiple Bodies, Actants, and a Composition Classroom: Actor- Network Theory in Practice”

Holmes, Steven. “Multiple Bodies, Actants, and a Composition Classroom: Actor- Network Theory in Practice.” Rhetoric Review. 33.4 (2014): 421-438. Web.

ANT, principle of general symmetry, actant pedagogy, poststructuralism, deconstruction

One sentence summary:

How one might simulate ANT as pedagogy in the writing classroom, with a case study of an assignment.


Holmes argues that ANT offers an alternative pedagogical strategy grounded in description to an explanatory, postmodern pedagogy as described by James Berlin that has become a “near universal pedagogical strategy for rhetoric and writing teachers” (421). Holmes builds his approach around the idea of actant-pedagogy, contrasting it with Berlin’s social-epistemic pedagogy. Holmes describes a unit in an advanced writing course that seeks, through research and discourse analysis, to simulate the anti-methodology of ANT. While not precluding explanatory moments altogether, the focus of Holmes’ pedagogy is to compose ontological networks, to assemble the actors of an issue into an account that may then be communicated to other actors and reflected upon by students.

Nathaniel Rivers, “Tracing the Missing Masses”

Bruno Latour, We have Never Been Modern

Bruno Latour, Reassembling the Social

Jane Bennet, Vibrant Matter

Jody Shipka, Toward a Composition Made Whole

LatourBot“[R]hetoric and writing scholars … have largely avoided exploring ANT directly as a pedagogical method with something to teach students about their political agency as writers” (422).

“ANT is a tool that I can only use after the activity of teaching to describe my efforts to employ actant-pedagogy within a contingent set of alliances, mediators, students, technologies, and networks of associations through which my intentional (and unintentional) pedagogical aims unfold. For this reason I suggest that actant-pedagogy is better understood as a strategic pedagogical effort to simulate ANT’s descriptive antimethodology to teach them how not to represent rhetorical situations through explanation and heuristic-driven critique alone” (423).

“[N]etworks have to be composed by writers through a rather laborious and difficult process of determining unique and local configurations of agency, connectivity, affect, influence, and many other factors” (426).

“Simply stated, it is one thing to provide students with a drawing of a pencil (for example, an assignment prompt directing them to document nonhuman actors in a certain fashion) that becomes their own pencil (descriptive tool). It is a different point of emphasis entirely to help them understand the difference between the pencil and the drawing of the pencil, and negotiating this gap even at a basic level is a necessary and crucial step if we are to think of applying ANT as a way to raise students’ political consciousness” (429).

“ANT does not foreclose the importance of social-epistemic critique” (431).

The charge I take from Holmes’ work here is to think through potential uses of an ANT-inspired pedagogy that focus on composing networks/assemblages/accounts. One of the first distinctions to make in a FYW course, it would seem to me, would be to frame writing, analysis, and research on issues or controversies or problems as opposed to topics. Whereas researching and analyzing a topic entails a kind of durable realm of knowledge that affords revelation or explanation (“this is what I discovered when I looked this up”), engagement with an issue/problem/controversy implies flux or the capacity for alternatively composed descriptions (not descriptions revealed or explained through an appeal to already-known information) that ANT-inspired pedagogies build from.

In general, the form of an assignment would involve two primary artifacts: a description and a reflection. In short, the writer’s task would be to:

1) Write a descriptive account of an issue/controversy/problem to a political actor (by political here I do not mean a politician per se, rather an actor who may wield or influence power within an assemblage). 4-6 pages, I suppose,  but it could be longer.

2) Reflect on what was included and excluded from the account and discuss how such inclusion/exclusion gives shape to their accounts. How do their accounts inflect and reflect the assumptions or commonplaces related to the issue? 2-4 pages, but, again, could be longer

In addition, I think it would make sense to collect other artifacts into a portfolio, a small collection of things that contributed to and bear witness to the invention of  descriptive account, preferably detailed in the reflection.

Over the course of a 3-4 week unit, the entire class could focus on one issue. It could be hypothetical: the university president has decided to ban vending machines from campus. It could be topical: students performing regular “die-ins” on campus, disrupting classes or events. It could be on a grander scale: the appropriate extent of government or corporate surveillance. In the first week the key would be for students to assemble the actors through a series of in- and out-of-class questions and explorations.

Week one: Exploration

In class discussion/invention of the major contours of the issue. This may include detailing assumptions, listing materials, related issues or concepts, key figures, key terms, knowledge bases, historiography, etc. In class work would be followed by an assignment to extend the work out of class and bring back results for further exploration.

Week two: Tracing

In class work focuses on finer detailing and interactivity of actors. Students begin to present notions of connectivity, select paths toward and begin to compose an account. Out of class work involves composing a draft of an account.

Week three: Assemblage.

A draft comes due. In class work includes peer feedback and a re-accounting of the actors. Out of class, the focus turns toward situating the account as a communication to a specific political actor.

Week three/four: Description.

The description is completed along with a reflection describing the choices that comprise the composition. In class work includes grappling with gaps, asymmetries, silences, inflections, commonplaces, etc. as missing from or abundant in accounts.

This is a rough sketch, and it’s not terribly different from the kind of work that Holmes details in the soda tax unit he guided advanced writing students through. The collecting of actors is key, I think, in the early week one and two stages of such an assignment. I imagine lots of small group followed by large group discussion. A reading or set of readings would accompany this assignment as well. That choice would depend on the issue, of course. If the issue of vegetarianism were pursued as a class, for example, David Foster Wallace’s “Consider the Lobster” would work well. If a topical issue were pursued (the Black Lives Matter/I can’t Breathe or Occupy movements, for example) there would likely be a number of videos or webtexts that would work well in the service of tracing the contours of the issue.

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