why teach digital writing?

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Changed Context for Writing

Writing with networked computers changes the contexts for writing in a number of ways. For instance, the changed contexts for writing often must be understood in terms of power and identity. Compositionists have attended to issues of agency and subjectivity in regard to digital media and online spaces; Stephen Knadler (2001), Heidi McKee (2003), Teresa Redd (2003), Elaine Richardson (1997), Todd Taylor (1997), and others have addressed issues of race and difference in digital spaces, both from an instructor’s standpoint and from students’ perspectives. A strong thread of composition scholarship has also explored issues of gender in digital space, attending to the male-centered context of computing and to possible feminist interventions in electronic spaces (e.g., Ann Brady Aschauer, 1999; Dene Grigar, 1999; Mary Hocks, 1999; Gian Pagnucci & Nicholas Mauriello, 1999; Laura Sullivan, 1999; Pamela Takayoshi, 1994, 2000; Takayoshi, Emily Huot, & Meghan Huot, 1999; Patricia Webb, 2003; Janice Wolfe, 1999).

More Flickr photos tagged with writing

New technologies have raised questions not only about manifestations of race and gender in the “bodiless” realm of cyberspace, but new technologies have also raised speculation about emergent and electronic literacy practices (see, for example, Jay David Bolter, 2001; Joanne Buckley, 1997; Nicholas Burbles, 1998; Gary Heba, 1997; Deborah Holdstein & Cynthia Selfe, 1990; Michael Joyce, 1998; Selfe, 1987, 1989, 1999; Myron Tuman, 1992). A good deal of scholarship has been devoted to exploring the impact of interface literacy on the practices of writing. Closely related is scholarship analyzing how specific interfaces potentially shape writing practices and processes (e.g., Marcia Curtis, 1998; Patricia Sullivan, 1991, 1998; Selfe & Richard Selfe, 1994; Paul LeBlanc, 1993; William Condon, 1992; Tim McGee & Patricia Ericsson, 2002; Alex Vernon, 2000; Anne Wysocki, 2001; Wysocki & Julia Jasken, 2004); certainly, text messaging, blogs, and wikis are shaping research paths related to interfaces of/for writing.

We thus need to think about context at a deeper level, in terms of production and distribution (Porter, 2005). Computer technologies allow writers with access to a computer network to become publishers and distributors of their writing. And chances are they will get feedback, sometimes immediately. Therefore, audiences and writers are related to each other more interactively in time and space. Writers can easily integrate the work of others into new meanings via new media and rescripting of old media—text, image, sound, and video—with a power and speed impossible before computer technologies.popup The depth and breadth of this type of collaboration—both implicit (“borrowing” from others) and complicit (communities of writers)—may be one of the most significant impacts of computer technologies on the contexts and practices of writing. This context presses up against larger issues of intellectual property, plagiarism, access, credibility of sources, and dissemination of information (Dànielle Nicole DeVoss, 2001; DeVoss & Annette Rosati, 2002).

Additional concerns develop when composing with multiple media that are borrowed, reformed, and recast into compositions. Considerable work has been done and continues to develop in the realms of intellectual property and copyright. Framing this work are examinations of institutional and political dynamics as they impact writing classrooms via, for example, policies, guidelines, and intellectual property laws (Laura Gurak & Johndan Johnson-Eilola, 1998; Tharon Howard, 1997; Johnson-Eilola, 1998a, 1998b; James Kalmbach, 1997; Susan Lang, Joyce Walker, & Keith Dorwick, 2000; James Porter, 1998; Porter, Sullivan, Stuart Blythe, Jeffrey Grabill, & Libby Miles, 2000; the CCCC Guidelines on Promotion and Tenure Guidelines for Work with Technology). Indeed, fair use policies are continually tested when composing with multiple media given the ease of access to media, the ease of manipulating and reforming media, and the ease of redistributing compositions.popup

When we put it all together, the ability to compose documents with multiple media, to publish this writing quickly, to distribute it to mass audiences, and to allow audiences to interact with this writing (and with writers) challenges many of the traditional principles and practices of composition, which are based (implicitly) on a print view of writing. The changing nature and contexts of composing impacts meaning making at every turn.

Changed Spaces of Writing

It is near impossible for us to separate the considerations above from issues of space—intellectual space, technological/digital space, institutional space, physical space. We have found, on different campuses and within different institutions, that traditional classrooms work to separate students from teachers, students from each other, and, importantly, tools from production. Traditional spaces constrain our work in intellectual and in physical ways.popup And, often, the traditional model and layout of classrooms is remediated in computer-based spaces.popup (Certainly, we are not the first to acknowledge this constraint; see, for instance, Charles Moran, 1990, 1992, 1998; Selfe, 1987, 1989).

So why pay attention to space when our focus is on digital writing, and online and virtual spaces for distribution and delivery of texts? Essentially, space shapes the work we do and the ways in which we interact with one another. Spaces require us to participate as activists on our campuses. For instance, at Michigan State University, one of our University-level instructional technology committees recently made a set of recommendations directly related to space; the committee recommended that:

  1. The commitment to technology classrooms should continue; MSU should continue to convert classrooms with limited or no technology to technology classrooms.

  2. Technology classrooms should be regularly assessed regarding faculty need and instructional use, especially as more classrooms support laptop use and wireless capabilities.

  3. As new computer labs are added or existing laboratories are renovated, different lab designs should be reviewed, considered, and implemented—including “pod and cluster“ layouts.

  4. The redesign of labs must be driven by the instructional uses of the space.

  5. Labs must accommodate student laptop use and the growing pressure for wireless spaces and wireless access. http://www.msu.edu/~ictc/ictc_appr04.html

Not surprising, we at MSU aren’t the only ones talking in pretty robust ways about technology spaces for teaching. So if what’s going on at MSU is one frame for our thoughts on instructional technology design, national conversations are another frame. For instance, one of the main themes of the January 2004 National Learning Infrastructure Initiative conference was the “Design of Learning Spaces.” The NLII encouraged participants to consider how we can better understand the “flexible, forward-looking relationships that occur at the nexus of technology, pedagogy, learning, and physical space" (http://www.educause.edu/Browse/645&PARENT_ID=696) and how we can design spaces that provide for communication, collaboration, and intensive work with computers.

We offer one model here of an technology-rich instructional space that does facilitate the tasks typical of a writing classroom.popup This space allows for large-group and small-group writing work. It allows for individual work, and work away from the machines. It allows student groups to present their work. And it allows for students to engage in learning across interfaces and operating systems, as the lab is half PC and half Mac. Another model space for writing instruction can be found at Stanford University, with their flexible arrangements and presentation screens.popup These are wireless and wired spaces. The tables and chairs are easily movable and very flexible. The spaces are laptop spaces where students can work in small groups and use smart boards and large screens do share and discuss their work.

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