Doing Digital: a production-focused pedagogy

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Presenter: Andy Buchenot
School Affiliation: Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis

Presenter: Kristin Prins
School Affiliation: UW-Milwaukee



"Rearticulating the responsibilities of teachers to include the design of literacy technologies is an essential task in the profession hopes to remain relevant pedagogically
and to influence the computer interfaces shaping how students think about, and engage in, discourse related activities."
~Stuart Selber

This project advocates a composition pedagogy focused on identifying and negotiating the constraints and engaging the possibilities inscribed in digital production technologies. What this means is teaching writing with an eye toward the social as well as the technological. It means teaching students to think about their audience and to think about the technologies they might use to reach that audience. It means pushing students to consider the default options on their word processors as options--not as requirements enforced by impenetrable machine code. It means reminding students that there is rhetorical value in the what they say, how they say it, and the medium they say it in.

"Writing isn’t just scripting text anymore. Writing requires carefully and critically analyzing and selecting among multiple media elements."
~The Writing in Digital Environments (WIDE) Research Collective

The goal of this pedagogy is to encourage students to imagine themselves as active, critical users of writing technologies. To borrow a phrase from Diana George, we want to encourage students to be “producers as well as consumers or critics” (emphasis added). Being a producer positions students to exploit technologies in much the same ways that they exploit assigned readings or grammar rules: as grist for the writing mill, as elements that should be studied, questioned and used to serve their personal/rhetorical purposes. For producers, technologies are dynamic. Image editors can be used in response to a composition assignment or in response to an Internet meme. It might not be what the software was designed for or what the instructor imagined, but these uses of technologies are active, critical and responsive to social conditions.

"What human beings are and will become is decided in the shape of our tools no less than in the action of statesmen and political movements.
The design of technology is thus an ontological decision fraught with political consequences."
~Andrew Feenberg

When students act as producers, digital technologies become something that might be used for a variety of personal and political ends. If students learn a little about CSS, they might realize that they can make a web-based document that looks “professional.” Students might also realize they can use their knowledge of CSS to make all of the ads on Google disappear. These are small actions, but they are significant to the shape of writing and technology to come. We argue that encouraging students to imagine themselves as producers makes it more possible for them to engage in the kinds of meaningful social action that the field of composition has advocated since its inception.

But how might we actually do this? The sections below include specific suggestions that we believe will help move us past “using computers” to “doing digital.” These suggestions are meant to encourage students to become producers. Each of these suggestions is then broken into two sets of applications: one for online classrooms and one for face-to-face classrooms. Some of the online course suggestions might translate well to face-to-face classes and some of the face-to-face suggestions could be useful to an online class.

Digital Production Starts on Day One

Or sooner!

From the beginning of the semester, ask students to reflect on how they use digital writing technologies. You might start with an assignment that asks students to write a technological literacy narrative. These narratives might be used as a rangefinder to see where students are at and where you might go together. We strongly recommend having ongoing conversations in class about writing technologies. Make talking about technologies part of everyday class discussion, not an addendum.

For example: What do these two different ways of laying out Microsoft Word’s menu system suggest about how writers are asked to work in Word? (Image from here.)

Digital Technologies are Customizable

Without any ability to code, students can change the way that the tools they use to produce texts and shape meaning look and work.

(Open Office, Pages, Notepad)

Getting Your Hands Dirty

Many folks who produce digital writing have little or no knowledge of code, they have just gotten good at using digital technologies through experience. The best way to do that is the best way to get good at any kind of writing: Do a lot of it.

Remember Revision

Nothing starts out looking the way it ends up. You can help your students think of themselves as digital producers by dispelling the illusion that websites and blogs and Content Management Systems just happen. Show them old versions of Windows. Click through old interfaces from CNN or the New York Times. Look at any interface designed in the 90s. (Introduce students to the Internet Archive’s Wayback Machine!)

Extra Credit

(OmmWriter, Writemonkey, Scribus)


Bennett, S. and K. Maton. (2010). Beyond the ‘digital natives’ debate: Towards a more nuanced understanding of students’ technology experiences. Journal of Computer Assisted Learning 26(5). 321-31.

Kitalong, K., Bridgeford, T., Moore, M. and Selfe, D. (2003). Variations on a theme: The technology autobiography as a versatile writing assignment. In P. Takayoshi and B. Huot (Eds.),Teaching writing with computers: an introduction. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

Kramer, R. and Bernhardt, S. (1996). Teaching text design. Technical Communication Quarterly 5(1). 35-60.

Lunsford, A. (2006). Writing, technologies, and the fifth canon. Computers and Composition 23, 169–177.

Selber, S. (2004). Multiliteracies for a digital age. Carbondale: Southern Illinois UP.

Writing in Digital Environments (WIDE) Research Center Collective. (2005). Why teach digital writing? Kairos 10(1).

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