Relational reinvention : writing, engagement, and mapping as wicked response
This multimedia dissertation, situated in Rhetoric and Composition, Digital Media Studies, and Civic Engagement, articulates a sustainable, agile approach to “wicked problems.” These complex, definition-resistant, interlocking problems (such as racism or climate change) aren’t ultimately solvable; rather than wicked problems being “acted upon,” they can only be creatively and rigorously “responded to” by networks of committed individuals and institutions. This dissertation posits that a wicked problem necessitates a “wicked response”: a sustained, emergent, and fluid strategy that focuses on changing relationships – to people, to space, and to knowledge.
In order, to make this argument, I present the case of Mart, a small, formerly prosperous town in East Texas that has been in decline over the last half of a century. Throughout this dissertation, I analyze the ongoing efforts of the Mart Community Project (MCP), a cohort of Mart residents, international artists, and students and instructors from a variety of departments at the University of Texas at Austin. Over the past two years, the MCP has engaged in over twenty-five discrete projects, all with the aim of helping the Mart Community reimagine itself in the face of its primary wicked problem: a lack of civic cohesion. In the first chapter I explore how language fails to define or describe a wicked problem, yet is still necessary in order to transform it. I illustrate this contradiction in part through the Chambless Field mural, a successful MCP community arts project that by “writing community” became a productive response. My second chapter examines service learning and demonstrates how university/community partnerships and “participatory engagement” can be part of a nuanced approach to a wicked problem. Using the work of UT students in design-oriented and civic engagement classes, I demonstrate in the third chapter how “mapping” can be both a savvy pedagogical tool and a key element in reinventing the relationships of people to space and to one another. This dissertation offers up these diverse strategies with the sincere hope that the particulars of the MCP’s wicked response might be productively generalized to aid others participating in similarly challenging civic engagement work on wicked problems.