B.24: Learning the Language of the Digital Native: Cultivating Writing Instruction in the Digital Age
Reviewed by Daniel Frank, Clemson University (firstname.lastname@example.org)
John Alberti, Northern Kentucky University
Jen Cellio, Northern Kentucky University
Jonathan Cullick, Northern Kentucky University
Jude Noel, Northern Kentucky University
Elizabeth VandeWater, Northern Kentucky University
This panel sought to unpack the issues, languages, and learning styles of the “digital native” as explored by a cross section of educators with varying relationships to the field. While Elizabeth VandeWater and John Alberti represented the point of view of the young teacher operating at the intersection of established, traditional practice and innovate, new pedagogies, Jude Noel, an eighteen-year-old, self-identified “Generation C” digital native, and Dr. Jonathan Cullick, an established mentor with decades of teaching experience, came to the discussion from the edges of the generational divide. The resulting perspectives brought to the table here led us to consider a multi-faceted exploration of what it means to teach and learn in the networked, digital age. Ultimately, the talk raised many more questions than it answered, but this in itself is valuable.
Jude Noel went first. His presentation was a reflection of his time as a student in John Alberti’s digitally networked English class. This class was designed to let its digital native students have as much agency as possible, ultimately leading to writing and designing the shape of the class for the next semester and the next batch of students. Noel responded well to the increased agency. As he was led to consider how to bring his own skills, experiences, and interests to an academic set of expectations and standards, he, and others, came to realize that even digital natives were not using social media to its fullest potential. The students realized that they could bring their skills to the mix, but in order to be truly effective, they had to develop a well rounded repertoire of genre knowledge, rhetorical awareness, and technical prowess: they were led to realize that, in order to fully create the things they wanted to create, there was “a limit to what they could learn on their own.” However, Noel warned, force too much information and instruction on them, and a teacher will crush their autonomy. “Digital Natives love to create,” but the idea of being judged, graded, or otherwise led by the nose will dampen this spirit. The key as a teacher, then, is to find the spot of instruction where students realize that what they “need to learn is what they want to learn” in order to create the digital artifacts they want to create. Under this pedagogy, Noel showed us that he flourished. His work on an online blog gave him the skills and passion that helped him secure a position as paid staff on an online magazine.
Elizabeth VandeWater then shared her experiences as a high school English teacher and master’s student. VandeWater teaches at a High school that sees a share of both urban and rural populations. VandeWater’s presentation, overall, meditated on the disjunction between the progressive ideas about teaching and technology as a Master’s student and the top-down, rules-laden, disconnected approach to technology necessitated by the rules of the high school institution. Generally, VandeWater reported, older teachers and institutions thought of technology as a simple buzzword that meant “use computers.” Without a deeper understanding of what technology really meant to digital natives, these computers were heavily mediated with rules and filters. It’s a paradox, VandeWater mused: “we want to teach our students about using technology ethically yet we block the technology, we don’t trust them.” The problem here is a systemic failure to adopt new ways of thinking about writing and learning. A pedagogy desiring to speak to student learning through technology needs to embrace the refigured values of the discourse. If it does not, there will be disjunctions on multiple levels. Students will resent the rules-laden attempts to appropriate their space(s) without understanding it. There will be disjuncture on the administrative level as well; VandeWater notes a break between “what we think is important” and what standardized, top-down assessments actually end up testing for. VandeWater is working in that rupture, asking the key questions: “How can we use technology on a way that will bridge the gaps between assessment and technologies and real world skills?” “How can a teacher meet the standards of a traditional generation of pedagogical expectations while teaching the skills, modes, and methods of a digital generation?” “How can teachers find an ‘authentic method’ of teaching?”
Jonathan Cullick brought the perspective of a member of the boomer generation. In his talk, Cullick reflected on the rising complexity of technology and its reshaped demands. A teacher must respond to state standards that, increasingly, demand that teachers teach technology. “In the old days,” he says, “technology was as easy as turning on a slide projector.” But now technology carries with it its own ideology, one that is firmly “in the student’s hands.” And yet, Cullick offers, “maybe we don’t have to feel disempowered. Maybe we can let them teach us,” and in this transaction, teachers can still bring something to the table: “we can still help them with situatedness.” We can help mentor them in the practice of genre, audience, research methods, etc., bringing our own expertise and experience to the conversation, but not leading with or forcing it: to think in this way, Cullick offers, is to rethink of teaching as a “dynamic community,” a web of information that gives and pulls across the generations.
Finally, John Alberti reflected on his goals in creating the “Writing in the Digital Age” class that so inspired his student, Jude. Alberti sought to empower his students, to give them agency and authority in the classroom, to ask them to have a hand in designing the classroom, and to help them shift between the roles of teacher and student as they bring their varying skills and experiences to bear in creative, digital tasks. Alberti found that blurring the boundaries between teacher and student, here, invoked a blurring of other once-rigid boundaries, too: he came to see that writing in the digital age was no singular, encapsulable process; digital platforms come and go quickly, and each one speaks to a different style of product. Instead, Alberti found progress in working with students to think about discursive practices and identity formation across genres. “Students are becoming ever more aware of their online identity,” he found, and this is the rhetorical space he has focused on: “When you enter a discursive space you enter a kind of identity.” They key, then, was to help students realize that their personal identities, their online, creative identities, and their academic identities didn’t have to be separate, but could invoke a constant, fluid process of rhetorical and discursive awareness. Through this work Alberti found that subverting the old paradigm lead to new questions: what is writing in the digital age, anymore? Is a YouTube video writing? Is writing even still a thing in this age of post-composition? What is the language of technology, what is the technology of language? However, alongside these questions, Alberti found solid revelations as well. He found that his students were responding to real audiences and purposes with their work, entering into conversations, and revising not based off of rules handed from the top-down, but from reactions to their text. Students started making choices based off of their own decisions of the aesthetic they wanted to use rather than from guesswork, grade hunting, or attempts to ‘please’ the teacher.
The tail end of the presentation broke into small groups, each led by one of the speakers. I ended up in a group with Jude. Our conversation was free-wheeling, tumbling through questions about how kids on the net form communities, sling about memes, and form meaning, and how a teacher can, or should, navigate that kind of work in the classroom. Or will the teacher be met with resistance for clumsy attempts at appropriating “their space” for educational ends? We didn’t get to any answers, and I left the small group wondering at how far the other groups got in their discussions and trying to shake the feeling that I had missed out by not hearing about them.
Ultimately this final move of breaking into small groups and moving into freeform discussion characterized my feelings about the panel as a whole: little was decided and many more questions were raised rather than answered. However, they were the right questions; they were questions that considered not just “digital natives” and specific technologies but the shifted paradigm that they work within. It’s a paradigm that empowers the student instead of the teacher. It encourages the student to take an active role in the learning process, to step beyond the lines that demarcate “teacher” and “student” and learn through engagement—though identity formation, through rising, falling, and changing genres, through design, and through interest, all of which can vary from individual to individual or as memes, modes, and genres rise and fall. With this in mind, it may be that asking questions rather than declaring answers is the only way a teacher can work to get there.