why teach digital writing?

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A Rhetorical View of Writing

writing as text
writing as text > focus on made object

writing as process

writing as process > focus on making -- invention and creation (Hart-Davidson, 2003)

writing as action

writing as action > focus on impact, context, effect, audience (Ridolfo, 2005)

To most people, the word “writing” means words on paper, prose in sentences and paragraphs. And from this perspective, computers (or any technology) are incidental to writing, simply a means of producing it but not actually part of the art of writing. But not to us. Not to folks in the field of rhetoric and composition and especially not to folks in the field of computers and writing. We reject the idea that writing equals style, syntax, coherence, and organization—meaning at the level of the sentence and the paragraph. And we reject the idea that all writing is the same, whether it is produced with a pencil, a typewriter, or a networked computer.

We instead view writing as a process of discovering meaning or knowledge, not as simply a way to present it. Our view sees writing not merely for its conveyance properties, but for its communicative properties: Writing is not a container. Writing teachers and researchers, generally, hold to a broader view of writing—a view in which the technological changes in production and distribution matter a great deal. Even the most "traditional" teachers of writing who are engaged in the field of rhetoric and composition adopt what we suggest is a rhetorical viewpoint. But what does this mean?

Let's consider one aspect key to the role of technology in writing: the question of the scope of "writing." What is included when we say "writing?" From a rhetorical viewpoint, writing concerns not only the words on the page (the product), but also concerns the means and mechanisms for production (that is, process, understood cognitively, socially, and technologically); mechanisms for distribution or delivery (for example, media); invention, exploration, research, methodology, and inquiry procedures; as well as questions of audience, persuasiveness, and impact.

From this perspective, writing technologies play a significant role in meaning making—especially in terms of production (process) and distribution (delivery). It recalls the classical Aristotelian and Ciceronian views of the canons of rhetoric, shorthand for the scope of rhetorical performance.

Rhetoric and writing includes questions of context, invention (idea generation), argument, and delivery, as well as matters of grammar, syntax, style, and organization.popup This is what we agree on. Our textbooks indicate that we agree, as do our curricula. The issue we would like to raise here, though, is a bit more pointed: Are we willing to live up to our shared conception of writing, our rhetorical view? The degree to which we are willing to do so may well determine the biggest difference between those who believe teaching digital writing to be a central as opposed to a specialized practice. To put it bluntly, we argue that computers and writing specialists routinely consider more of the classical rhetorical canon—invention, arrangement, style, memory, and delivery—than mainstream compositionists do. They also routinely invite more real-world practice into their writing classrooms via technology across all of the canonical categories.

Practices of Arrangement

One example of this shift comes in the ways that arrangement (dispositio), derived from Aristotle’s rhetoric, has informed the genres students learn. In the writing classroom that teaches with the rhetorical modes, arrangement still centers upon narration, exposition, and argument. However, in networked realms, the arrangements that students need to understand and be able to produce must fluidly account for the cultural conventions of textual organization, form, and content that their particular and multiple audiences will bring to bear when reading and navigating. That is, there isn’t one set of arrangements that we can teach students that will prepare them for the rhetorical exigencies and purposes they face in writing in digital environments.

To teach something about arrangement in digitally mediated environments, one might introduce students to the considerable work that literacy scholars have done in tracing cultural differences as these impact genres of alphabetic writing (Anis Bawarshi, 2003; Charles Cooper & Lee Odell, 1999; Amy Devitt, 2004; Ann Johns, 2002). Scholarship in design also considers the arrangement of media (Stephen Berhardt, 1993; Lester Faigley, 1999; Gunther Kress & Theo VanLeeuwen, 2001; Wysocki, 1998, 2001) in ways that fuse form, function, and content in digital landscapes—across screens and landscapes, not pages. Arrangement also includes understanding how information can be accessed by users in different situations and for different purposes. Grabill (1998, 2003a, 2003b) and Allison Regan and John Zuern (2000) have targeted issues of access by exploring the movement of computer-mediated composition outside of the classroom and into communities. Lester Faigley, Selfe (1999), Moran (1999), and Joseph Janangelo (1991) have studied issues of access and traced access across cultural, social, and historical trends. Taken together, teaching arrangement of information in digital environments for the proliferation of audiences and complexity of purposes demands much more than simply having an introduction, evidence, and conclusion. Similar examples could be drawn from the other canons of rhetoric, elocutio, pronuntiatio, memoria, and inventio, and the ways that these shift when teaching and practicing composing in digital environments (DeVoss, Ellen Cushman, & Grabill, 2004; DeVoss & Porter, 2004).

Think you are one of the enlightened ones? Try our "do you take digital rhetoric seriously? " quiz!quiz Each of these examples is grounded in one of the canonical categories and includes one or more ancient rhetorical principle. Each also reflects a very common writing practice in the real world. Check them out...and see which ones you'd consider uttering in your writing classroom.

From Writing to Composing

Technologies also change the very ways that meaning is made, the shape of thoughts that appear on the screen. Writing as a technology works by placing letters side-by-side in some order on the page. David Olson described the ways that using this tool impacts the shape of thought: "Writing provides a series of models for, and thereby brings into consciousness, the lexical, syntactic, and logical properties of what is said" (p. 259). The tools of writing (e.g. alphabet, word, sentence, etc.) make possible the objectification of language because "scripts provide a model for speech" not the other way around. Writing makes meta-linguistic knowledge possible, in other words, and that’s hugely important to learning and teaching.

writing changes shape

writing changes shape

spaces of writing

the interfaces of and for writing change shape
(the print interface, the simple digital interface, the complex digital interface)

If writing does this for speech, imagine the kinds of meta-semiotic knowledge developed when composing with multiple media. George Landow (1992) described how "hypermedia takes us even closer to the complex interrelated-ness of everyday conscious-ness; it extends hypertext by re-integrating our visible and auditory faculties into textual experience, linking graphic images, sound, and video to verbal signs.popup Hypermedia seeks to approximate the way our waking minds always make a synthesis of information received from all five senses" (p. 212). The process of orchestrating multiple media makes possible a meta-semiotic knowledge of how various sign technologies work together to produce meaning. How text relates to sound, image, color, and motion to forge meaning is a process of composing quite unlike the process of writing that demands only that writes decontextualize speech from the context of its production (Cushman 2004a, 2004b; Diana George, 2002; Wysocki, 2002). At times, the process of production of meaning with these technologies decenters the notion of author by making the reader a writer and producer of meaning.popup

Writing isn’t just scripting text anymore. Writing requires carefully and critically analyzing and selecting among multiple media elements. Take the number of interactive media pieces related to writing and producing haikus. Two teen-aged girls, Sammie and Jennifer, have produced one that instructs in form, offers a place to submit, then publishes the work. Cushman has produced another that asks viewers to arrange lines as images and arrange them with background patterns and images. Kohler developed a piece that produces haikus randomly. It’s a haiku circus now made possible through variations on composing, producing, and meaning making. Digital writers rely on rhetorically sophisticated combination of words, motion, interactivity, and visuals to make meaning. Computer software applications allow writers to easily manipulate and embed visual information in documents. At the most basic level, even word-processing applications come with fairly large clip art collections and offer the means for writers to create data displays like charts, graphs, and diagrams. Most web search engines allow writers to search for photographs, animations, and video clips to download and use in documents, web pages, and digital movies. These options require writers to think carefully about production choices. These tools shift the ways in which composing takes place: they change the way we do research, the way we produce “texts,” the way we deliver our writing.popup


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