Doing Digital: A Production-Focused Pedagogy
- "Rearticulating the responsibilities of teachers to include the design of literacy technologies is an essential task if the profession hopes to remain relevant pedagogically and to influence the computer interfaces shaping how students think about, and engage in, discourse related activities."
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 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."
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 range-finder 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.
It is customary to start an online class with an online scavenger hunt/orientation. Do this as soon as possible and make it a focus of first week discussion. Ask students to reflecton what seems confusing, frustrating, or natural about interacting with the site.
What do your students use to write essays? Have they used a word processor to compose essays? Which one(s)? What version(s)? How might that affect the way they write? One place to start this discussion might be looking at and comparing Microsoft Word 2007 to 2010: how do these two versions of Word differently emphasize and accommodate writers' tasks?
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.
Once students have looked around the course website, ask them to start adjusting the default settings. Ask them to reflect on and discuss the changes they've made. What were they able to change? What might those changes mean for how they're interacting with the course and the course website? (This might be a good opportunity for you and your students to become familiar with your institution's IT support services.)
Assign students to customize the word processing software they use by adjusting default settings or by experimenting with new functions. Ask students to compose an essay in an unfamiliar program (Open Office, Pages, Notepad, etc.). Ask them to reflect on and write about/discuss their experiences, how their own writing processes might be shaped by making those changes. What might those changes mean for how and what they write. (The Kramer and Bernhardt essay below might come in handy as you scaffold this assignment.)
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.
Now that your students have played with some settings, assign them to compose a text that could only be made in an online environment. This could include embedding links, using color, and/or incorporating images or video. You might also discuss the particularities of "having" class online (such as quoting from other students' discussion posts). Ask students to reflect on their processes for composing this text, with particular emphasis on what they struggled with in producing, arranging, and submitting the text.
Give an essay asssignment and talk about the options that sutdents have for approaching and completing that assignment. What can they do with word processing programs? What can they do with the expectations of the course? What can they do with the "technologies" of the assigned readings? (If your class hasn't yet talked about access, this might be a good time to have that discussion: What digital technological resources are available on campus? Computer labs? Online server space? Technical help? Grants? Chances are, there is a librarian on campus who would love to fill you and your students in on all the details.)
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 (CMS) 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!)
Show students other versions of your CMS. How are they different? Why might they be different? In your class' discussion board, look at other discussion board options. Ask your student to discuss why they think your discussion board was created the way it was. Ask them to reflect on and discuss how they might revise their digital essays to shape meaning in similar ways.
Show students some old versions of blogs and other websites. Ask them to discuss how the layout has changed over time, how those changes affect the way they understand the sites, and how they might revise their own work to create similar effects.
Introduce students to cascasding style sheets (CSS), the coding language used to change the look and formatting of many webpages. Assign students to start messing with CSS code to see how most design changes are made and what the effects of those changes are. Ask them to reflect on and discuss what these technologies do to the ways they think/write/communicate.
Assign students to work with page design software that is new to them. (Very different free software options for experimentation include stripped-down software like OmmWriter and Writemonkey,, as well as open-source desktop publishing software like Scribus. And there are all kinds of options in between. Of course, if your students can't download software onto the computers they use - say because they're working in a campus computer lab - ask them to work in other available software. Again, your institution's IT department could be hugely helpful here.)
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).
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).
Lunsford, A. (2006). Writing, technologies, and the fifth canon. Computers and Composition 23(2).
Selber, S. (2004). Multiliteracies for a digital age. Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois University Press.
Writing in Digital Environments (WIDE) Research Center Collective. (2005). Why teach digital writing? Kairos 10(1).