A Distant View of English Journal, 1912-2012

Jason Palmeri & Ben McCorkle



A century's worth of technology-based pedagogical practice is a difficult thing to wrap one's arms around, but by adopting a distant reading methodology with systematic coding schema, it is possible to make some sense of the constants, the seismic shifts, and the aberrations that constitute this timeframe—at least insofar as it is represented in the pages of English Journal. By widening the scope of historical inquiry, a number of implications emerge that we might not otherwise see. Foremost among them is the recognition that there has, in fact, been a long history of new media production as part of English teaching, predating the computer by decades. Both in terms of the amount and the consistency of representation, English educators have long expressed an interest in utilizing communication technologies and their resultant media forms as a way of generating student interest, promoting rhetorical awareness of popular culture, and providing real world contexts for composing with various modalities. Far less common in our research was the presence of outright disdain towards technology (although we might suggest that, true or not, the idea that English teachers from previous generations were Luddites is a commonly held one for many of us today). In addition to challenging common ways of narrating the history of multimodality in the field, we contend that there is a practical dimension to knowing this history: assuming that we are creating texts anew with the tools and practices of the digital age precludes us from exploring potentially valuable approaches, assignments, and curriculum designs from the past.

Although we have documented a long history of new media production in English teaching, we also have shown that, when media are new, they present opportunities for innovative production pedagogies that can be lost as new media get placed into traditional disciplinary frameworks. As we have seen in several instances, interest in experimenting with multimodal production tends to accompany the early stages of an emerging medium. Over time, the interest in production often wanes and becomes replaced by a nearly exclusive emphasis on reception. Furthermore, such a turn often positions students as passive readers of media rather than active participants who compose texts with them.

As we consider reasons why past media production pedagogies have waned in K-12 English education, we especially seek to highlight the persistent commonplace that new media should primarily be used to support the teaching of alphabetic literacy. We suggest that the pervasiveness of this commonplace may be one reason why past production moments in the field fizzled as teachers re-focused attention on how new media could serve the goals of alphabetic literacy instruction. In our past work, we both have relied on the commonplace that new media can enhance traditional alphabetic writing instruction—indeed it was a central claim of Jason Palmeri's (2012) Remixing Composition—yet this history makes us question if this ideological commonplace ultimately might be counterproductive for enacting and sustaining transformative change in how the discipline engages new media composing. Although we recognize the ongoing value of teaching alphabetic literacy, we've also come to realize that an over-emphasis on using new media to do so can unduly limit our ability to engage students in composing persuasive multimodal texts that diverge from print conventions.

We might also read the historic waning of media production pedagogies as a phenomenon related, at least in part, to access—a concern that has long been central to computers and writing scholarship (Moran, 1999; Selfe, 1999). As we see it, gaining access to a particular technology not only pertains to the hardware of production; it also involves creating and sustaining cultures of production where participants feel encouraged or empowered to participate in the symbolic economy associated with that technology (Banks, 2005). As media forms mature, production values increase, and technology becomes more sophisticated, students and teachers alike may become alienated over time from the impulse to create. To counter this trend, we argue that English teachers should embrace amateur models of new media production, challenging the common impulse to leave the production of established media texts to professionals.

As Gail Hawisher and Cynthia Selfe (2004) reminded us, technological literacies have "lifespans" that emerge, grow, and recede over time (p. 212). As such, they are supported by a complex cultural ecology of social, political, personal, and economic factors. Some technologies such as radio appear to have had relatively short lifespans, while others such as film have persisted longer. (It's important to note that our analysis of the lifespans of technological literacies is more limited than Hawisher and Selfe in that we focused only on technological literacies in K-12 English pedagogy rather than in the culture at large.) Moreover, Kathleen Hall Jamieson's (1975) groundbreaking work with genre antecedents applies here as well: new media forms are built on the constraining and enabling conventions of past forms (p. 414). As podcasting and other digital audio pedagogies have emerged, for example, it is important that we remember that there exists a rich history of teaching with and about radio. Doing so potentially helps us investigate our current moment to see how such antedent forces continue to act upon us in unrecognized ways.

Situating the emergence of the personal computer within this larger history is instructive as well. The computer was, as we anticipated, a powerful agent of media production pedagogy, one that emerged strong from the gate (if you discount the "false start" of the late '60s), and maintained a steady pace ever since. What's noteworthy about the computer compared to other technologies, though, is that early computer pedagogies were largely alphabetic-centric and not robustly multimodal in nature, largely due (we surmise) to the constraints of the technology at the time. It wasn't until the introduction of the World Wide Web and more consumer-oriented multimedia production applications in the 1990s that we begin to see growing pedagogical interest in non-alphabetic modalities of production. If the field of computers and writing situates the history of multimodal pedagogy entirely along the timeline of the personal computer, we don't fully see what an outlier the computer has been compared to earlier technologies, where experimentation with multimodal production happened much earlier and then tended to wane.

Our work has also humbled us by demonstrating that many of the ideological commonplaces that we use to discuss digital multimodal pedagogy have a long and relatively stable history in the field. We can remind ourselves that young people have been imagined as forsaking print for new media going all the way back to silent film era—that English pedagogy throughout the twentieth century has been characterized by deep anxieties about and adaptations to a media environment in which print literacy was increasingly articulated in relation to other media forms. We may become more cautious and critical in making claims that introducing a new technology to the composition class will magically increase student engagement and transform literacy instruction when we come to realize how very old these commonplaces are in the discourse of English education.

Finally, our work argues for the value of distant reading methodologies for re-seeing disciplinary histories. Quite simply, we could not have adequately analyzed trends in media pedagogy in English Journal over a 100-year period using conventional case study methodologies. We needed to step back and adopt more distant methods (systematic data coding, data visualization) that helped us make sense of an archive of this size and duration. Yet, we are conscious, too, of the limitations and necessary tentativeness of our findings using this approach. When we zoom out at a distance, we can reveal intriguing patterns, but we also necessarily occlude consideration of many of the complex micro-forces that influence media pedagogies in any one moment. In the end, we see our distant reading project as a complement to historical case study methodologies—not a replacement for them. As we continue working with this archive, we will turn our attention to combining close and distant reading to offer more complex and multivalent visions of how English pedagogies have interacted with shifting media ecologies over time. We also hope that this work will inspire other scholars to look to the English Journal archive as a rich resource that has much teach us about new media, about pedagogy, and about the ongoing evolution of our discipline.