why teach digital writing?

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How We Should Teach Digital Writing

Most university-level writing instruction has yet to catch up with the dramatic changes we are talking about here. Most college composition courses are still taught exclusively from a print perspective. While we think the print perspective should continue to be taught, it is not sufficient by itself. But what does it really mean to teach from a digital perspective?

For the past 10-20 years, those in fields like computers and writing have been making arguments for teaching writing with computers that have become commonplaces of institutional discourse: because students need to be effective writers with computers after the university; because students use computers for coursework across the university; because the computer changes writing processes; and so on.

These arguments are all true. In fact, we do believe that all writing courses should be taught with computer technology to prepare students for their future professional lives and for their civic lives as participants in an increasingly digital and global world. However, these arguments are clearly insufficient, and in some respects, not precisely relevant for the pedagogical practices that we think are necessary. Think about these two common counter-claims:

  1. Well, sure, students write with computers, but that doesn't necessarily mean that I need to teach writing with computers; they seem to do fine on their own.

  2. Writing is still writing, whether it is done with pen or computer—the computer has become so normalized that it is impossible to see how writing itself is any different just because of the technology used to make it.

So what does it really mean to teach digital writing?popup Given that our argument is that digital writing is different because of the network and the deep and broad changes in writing that networks afford and require (e.g., think of standards), then we begin our pedagogical thinking with the network. Consider this typical scenario from our classrooms:

writing tools
When we ask students to write in a classroom with computers, markers, crayons, and the paper and pens that they bring to class, they choose different technologies for different purposes. Some students like to scribble, some to draw, some to jot notes on paper, and others turn immediately to the computer. Those who turn to the computer sometimes write with an email application, sometimes with word processing software, sometimes with a graphics program that allows them to make images.

There are a number of issues embedded in this example, but the basic pedagogical imperative is to teach writing in places that afford students the technological choices that they need. Those choices certainly entail computers because eventually students need to make their writing into something persistent. As the writer advances her project, the artifact she has created will need to be moved, shared, and revised, all practices that need networks. And the practices of using networks change writing—they are acts of invention.

The point is not teach writing with computers. It is to teach writing in spaces that also allow students to write with computers. Why? The answer is fundamentally pedagogical in nature:

  1. Because students need a full set of technology choices—including computers and networks—to support how they write, share, socialize, play, and organize their lives. A significant number of their meaning-making activities are networked activities, including the writing they do for us.

  2. Because if teachers of writing expect to intervene usefully to help students with their writing processes, they have to engage in students' production, which is now mostly computer mediated and networked.
In other words, if we want to teach writing or help students learn how to write more effectively, then we have to be with them where they write. Networks are classrooms.

We imagine a pedagogy based on these principles:

  • Situated in contexts of rich affordances for writing. The contexts where we teach and write matter. We don't necessarily need to teach in a computer classroom as we have understood such a classroom in the past. But we must teach writing in contexts that afford basic infrastructural and semiotic choices for students. These contexts begin in particular classrooms, but extend to the campus and community as a whole. Students should be able to write anytime and anywhere with anyone. Writing teachers should do more that help design classrooms; we must be involved in the design of infrastructures to support writing.popup

  • Rooted in a rhetoric that is technological, social, and cultural. Issues of invention and inquiry (exploration, research, methodology) as well as questions of audience, persuasiveness, and impact matter in different ways, and these differences need to be taught. As we have suggested elsewhere, from this perspective, writing technologies play a significant role in meaning making—especially in terms of production (process) and distribution (delivery).popup

  • Linked to a thoughtful, critical consciousness of technology. Like many others, we are concerned that the depth and intensity of the media that washes over us is writing us more than we are writing it. There is a tremendous amount of work that needs to be done to develop critical pedagogies for engaging digital media, particularly those that demand student productivity. Thoughtfully, critically selecting among tools for performing writing tasks and preparing compositions means recognizing and selecting among many options.popup

  • Framed by learning how to learn. Teaching mere technical skills, or teaching particular software applications, is not what we do (Selfe & DeVoss, 2002). Technologies do not frame our instruction—rather, writing with purpose for audiences frames our instruction, along with the myriad components that require attention to do this writing well (e.g., attending to audiences, purposes, and contexts; selecting among genres; identifying appropriate tone; selecting among and integrating source material).popup Teaching software is technical training that may meet immediate needs, but it does not expand students' intellectual capacity. Thus our instruction teaches composing with technologies as an integrated process and as a liberal art—that is, we see our task as helping students acquire the intellectual and critical capacities they need to critique and choose among available options and to acquire new knowledge for themselves as tools develop and evolve.popup

  • Anchored by multimodal approaches to writing. Writing no longer means merely words on the printed page. Today, writing means selecting among and scripting multiple media, including photographs, charts, video, images, audio, diagrams, hyperlinks, and more. Students need to understand how these media signify and how to layer and juxtapose media to create sophisticated messages.popup

How We Should Train Digital Writing Teachers and Support Their Work

As we have noted throughout this piece, digital writing requires attention to context, to rhetoric, to networks, and to our romance with print conventions and theories. One factor that umbrellas all of the considerations we’ve thus far put forth, however, is faculty development.

Digital writing can’t happen without faculty development, and by this, we do not necessarily mean random and irregular workshops with no pedagogical or theoretical scaffolding and no follow-up. Faculty development means truly cultivating an ecology of digital writing through a commitment to regular training sessions; mentoring approaches; sustained software, hardware, and other support; and honed conceptual frames.

As we’ve argued, teaching in a computer lab is not necessarily teaching digital writing. Faculty development should thus be guided by the philosophy that technology should be carefully and thoughtfully integrated into the writing classroom in ways that supplement pedagogical principles and curricular goals. The outcomes of faculty development are to create a space for faculty to practice hands-on skills with a wide variety of writing technologies (e.g., specific software, hardware, use of campus server space and networks) and to foster and sustain ideas for classroom activities and digital writing assignments or exercises.popup

An ecology of digital writing means starting and sustaining discussions about approaches to integrating different technologies in writing classes for different tasks and goals. Fostering an ecology of digital writing means faculty having the technology and tools they need to think through or to teach with at their disposal in a timely matter. Sustaining an ecology of technology means having human and material means available to faculty—appropriate machines, money, protection of time, rewards for the work we do, and more.

Furthermore, professional development efforts must be offered to graduate teaching assistants, who are often an untapped resource (or, on the other hand, an overworked commodity) in terms of technology use, and often the most progressive technological/digital thinkers in a particular department or institution. Thus we must anchor theoretically sound and technically smart approaches to digital writing in our teaching preparation classes, in our technology theory classes, and in our graduate student training and continued professional development (Barb Blakely Duffelmeyer, 2003; Jude Edminster & Joe Moxley, 2002; Holdstein, 1989; Takayoshi & Brian Huot, 2003; Taylor, 1998).


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