Academic Literacy in a Wired World:
Redefining Genres for College Writing Courses

By Alice L. Trupe

The freshman composition course and its supporting course, basic writing, have been largely conceived as "service courses" from their inception, designed to initiate first-year students in the literacies that the academy requires of them. Institutions issue the mandate, "Teach students to write," to English departments and composition instructors. In doing so, they suggest that the students, whom we might see as simply newcomers to a specific set of discourse conventions, lack basic literacy skills.  This institutional mandate, "Teach students to write," begs the question, "Write what?"

The practical answer to this question is played out in thousands of writing classes each year, and it has remained fairly stable for the past one hundred years. The freshman essay and the research paper are vehicles through which students are expected to demonstrate their literacy.  Once the student leaves first-year composition, however, he or she is unlikely to make much use of the essay genre that has been the staple of that first-year course. The research paper may prove a more useful genre than the essay in the undergraduate curriculum, but it is a genre conceived largely for student display of reading and research skills.  Though it may be useful to the student in later undergraduate courses, the research paper that is usually assigned has little value as a genre outside of educational institutions.

Whereas these specialized genres for students have served as the measure of freshman writing ability for a hundred years, transformation of writing courses by computer technology is a recent phenomenon. Composition instructors first welcomed word processing because it facilitated production of the standard freshman essay. However, the move into electronic environments rapidly began to revolutionize classroom practices and genres. Today, the expanding possibilities for writing engendered through desktop publishing, email, Web-based bulletin boards, MOOs, Web page and other hypertext authoring, and presentation software show up the limitations the freshman essay imposes on thought and writing.

Yet it is precisely this limiting genre that most of us expect first-year writers to master. On their path to mastery, we may encourage them to explore the possibilities of interactive computer environments. For example, we may use a synchronous chat environment to "talk about" assigned readings as a prewriting activity. But in the final analysis, the test of what students have learned through classroom activities often remains the plain vanilla, five-paragraph essay, since that is what is assessed for a grade.  Most composition instructors have accepted the premise that this format demonstrates students' mastery both of information and of standard prose-composition skills:

So, ultimately we evaluate the student writer's academic literacy in terms of her or his ability to produce this sanctioned text.

The sanctioned genre differs in striking ways from the genres developed through various computer applications that we see filtering into our classrooms. We can expect these genres and similar ones will dominate the twenty-first-century world for which we try to educate our students. Our own professional work has dramatically illustrated the impact of computer technology on the ways we communicate. Through our experiences with technology, we see that rhetorically effective texts produced in email, chat, and hypertext environments require a new set of literacy skills of their authors. Furthermore, in the environments where electronic literacy skills are developed, such as MOOs or bulletin boards, new classroom dynamics emerge, and these in turn require new pedagogies.  Given these changes, can we continue to assume that freshman writers should be assimilated into the academy by learning essayist skills?

In this article, I will contrast some of the rhetorical features of standard freshman texts with some of the rhetorical features of emergent genres, look at the skills each genre requires of its authors, and examine some of the ways that electronic environments reshape classroom relations and practices. These contrasting features provide a basis for considering this conundrum: What should an academically literate student’s text look like? Or how should an undergraduate writer demonstrate academic literacy in a wired world?

Rhetorical Features

What features do we look for in the essay that demonstrates school writing competence? Or, perhaps more important within our institutions, what features indicate lack of competence in a first-year student writer's text?

Length is one indicator. The thesis statement is another marker of academic literacy. A third important marker is the presence of clear cues to organization. Familiarity with this kind of wording further illustrates an awareness of the tone expected in academic texts, and matters of tone, or stylistic choices, are often associated with the development of "voice." Finally, observance of the conventions of "standard English" is a major defining characteristic of competent school writing.

If our first-year writing students can produce several essays that exhibit all of these features over the course of a semester, we and our colleagues throughout the institution believe that writing instruction has been a success.  It takes at least one semester of intensive work on both student's and teacher's parts for the student to acquire the skills to produce such texts; some basic writing students will take longer, and some students will decide college is not for them if they cannot perform successfully in writing courses.

But if we asked student writers to demonstrate writing competency in genres other than the essay, could we reach some different conclusions as to student writers' literacy skills?

Contrast the characteristic features of effective electronic texts with those features of the freshman essay enumerated above. Rhetorically effective email messages, Web pages, PowerPoint presentations,and electronic chat posts tend toward brevity and succinctness, even terseness. Paragraphs, sentences, conventional phrases, and words are compressed and abbreviated. The feature that generates the most alarm among academic readers is writers' inattention to conventions of spelling, capitalization, and punctuation. Email and electronic chat are intended to facilitate speed of communication, and electronic presentations are intended to supplement oral presentation, purposes that foster such abbreviation. 

Additionally, rhetorically effective electronic texts can make meaning in significantly different ways from traditional print texts. Most of them are interactive, and they routinely contain graphic elements. Interactivity implies that writers expect response from real readers.  Email messages and conference posts address specific audiences and are so designated within the text, instead of being designed for the composition classroom’s construct of "the educated general reader."  These texts are not composed for mere display of classroom competency. The invitation to interactivity  also affects the degree to which messages are elaborated. Because they are produced in the context of conversations or threads, they lack the evidence, the supporting detail, and the contextualizing information required in the freshman essay.

The Web page is published for, potentially, a global audience. Interactivity and intertextuality are built into the Web page through linking. Linking replaces verbal cues such as transitions as the means through which connections are created between parts of a text. Linking also replaces the verbal summaries of others' arguments and endnotes or footnotes that create context for readers in traditional print texts. The reader of a Web page must take an active role in constructing the organization of the text and supplying needed context through further research.

Thus, when text is arranged in short hypertextual units or generated in the fast-paced interactive environment of the MOO, the unifying "voice" may well seem irrelevant.  Instead of achieving cohesiveness through transitional wording, texts created in interactive environments indicate intertextual relations through repetition of significant words and, in the slower paced environments, such as listservs and asynchronous conferences, through quoting others' messages.

The rich possibilities for intertextuality are further expanded through the ways that the whole domain of electronic interaction routinely contains cross-references across genres. Listserv messages refer other subscribers to URLs for Web pages; Web pages include email links; participants in electronic conferences interact selectively with each other via email.  The movement of information into digital environments makes audio, video, and graphical files—formerly considered different genres—easily accessible within any digital genre.

Another rich possibility afforded in electronic texts, especially chat environments and MOOs, is the opportunity to create a number of personae, rather than a stable voice, and thus to speak with a variety of voices. These personae interact in a virtual "room," a textually created environment with graphic elements and links, and the interactions of participants include their textually created actions. Interaction may be public or private; one may post comments to the assembled group or "whisper" to a selected participant. Participants often come and go in the MOO, moving in and out of multiple conversations, rather than settling in for sustained discourse, and such movement affords opportunities for shifting identity as well as virtual location.

Skilled participants in synchronous electronic discussions are adept at multitasking. They may be balancing several conversations with friends at remote locations through messaging programs or reading and responding to their email or searching the Web for music files or completing a paper for their next class at the same time that they are participating in a classroom MOO discussion, adopting a different voice or persona in each activity.

In this fast-paced environment, concern for spelling, capitalization, and punctuation is more than an unnecessary encumbrance to interaction; it is obtrusive and pedantic.  Creative spellings, acronyms, and abbreviations are welcomed, and conventional markers of sentence boundaries are usually superfluous.

A Writer's Toolkit of Skills for Producing Electronic Texts

Those of us who value these new genres, and ourselves work in these environments, are eager to take our students into them. Once we've had a class of basic writers enthusiastically debating a reading in synchronous chat, writing extended responses to other students' comments in a bulletin board, or using email to seek our help in revising a text, we are hooked!  We begin thinking about all the possibilities for expanding text-based communication beyond the exchange of hard-copy drafts in the classroom circle. Each year's new students bring greater familiarity with electronic environments to our classrooms.  

But when we incorporate these kinds of educational technology, we need to think about the different writing skills we are requiring students to develop in MOO sessions, email listservs, Web page writing, PowerPoint presentations, production of newsletters or brochures, and peer response via commenting functions in word processing programs. What kind of literacy are we encouraging?

To begin with, since electronically developed genres require briefer texts than traditional academic writing does, they require that the writer make his point(s) quickly, concisely, and clearly. The introductory paragraphs I have routinely helped student writers to develop are inappropriate in email, Web documents, and conference posts.  The student’s impulse to simply state the main idea in a sentence, which I have worked to counteract when teaching essayist literacy, is far more appropriate when writing texts in and for electronic environments. Paragraph development in most electronic texts is highly compressed.

Instead of elaborating their points in detail-packed paragraphs, writers of email, conference posts, or Web documents often refer readers to other documents, through links which the reader can decide to follow or not or through pasting other messages into the message at hand. Thus the ability to elaborate is reshaped in electronic environments.

In many cases, the documents that are linked or cross-referenced have been written by other writers.  Implicit in the linking of documents by various authors is some element  of collaboration or intertextuality.   The traditional freshman essay is an independent production, with, perhaps, some corroboration of the student’s points from the higher authority of published texts in the form of selective quotation and paraphrase.  Collaboration in the creation and negotiation of meaning through ongoing interaction, however, is a skill that much of our writing instruction does not really require or reward, even though we labor to inculcate collaborative skills through peer group response. In electronic environments, it is far easier to create situations that develop collaborative skills.

Furthermore, in a fast-paced synchronous environment, students must process and respond to each other's texts in non-linear ways. A particular thread emerges, disappears, and reappears over a number of posts, not consecutively. Patterns emerge across various writers' contributions, but relationships that readers perceive are not articulated in the words of any individual text. Students must learn to follow threads, to build cohesive texts as readers, without reference to the sequence in which the conference is written. Each reader's cohesive text, organized out of the collaboratively produced text as a whole, is individually constructed in the absence of the verbal previews, summaries, or transitions that the single-authored linear text includes.

We must reconsider our sense of the audience in electronic domains. We ask novice academic writers to imagine their audience as the informed general reader or, in the classroom context, to think of their peers as their audience. In contrast, the audience for email and electronic conference posts is concrete and personal. Email is directed to a specific individual, and even in chat and listservs, posts are often addressed to specific individuals.  Students do not need instruction in rhetorical skills to imagine this specific, individual audience for their writing.

Also, texts in this environment are ephemeral. The most skilled writers in MOO and chat environments generate text quickly. The slow, progressive generation of text that comes through the multiple-revision process is a hindrance to effective communication when revision comes through interaction.  In the MOO or email exchange, if a reader fails to understand the writer's post, his or her response will show that, and the writer's next post will almost certainly clarify the obscurity of the first post. Indeed, too much attention to spelling, grammar, syntax, and mechanics will result in a writer's posts' being bypassed in a chat environment, where the conversation moves too quickly for such niceties. Thus, many of the competencies in drafting and editing required to display academic literacy are irrelevant for functioning expertly in the electronic discussion environment.

To build effective Web pages, students must develop the ability to think of texts in meaningful sections that may be linked in a variety of ways, instead of weaving the sections into a cohesive whole by using transitional devices. Hypertext is truly process-based, with the reader participating in the interactive process of constructing the text as a whole.  Web hypertexts must incorporate graphic elements, possibly animation, sound, or video elements as well as verbal elements. Instead of developing a thesis, a linear thread through a document, student writers learn to distribute meaning across files and link meanings associatively and visually.

Visual presentation of information becomes far more complex than mastering the elements of the MLA format for the essay. Color, choice of font, and placement on the page foreground some parts of the text and relegate others to subordinate status.  Students who pay attention to making these choices for a Web document are less likely to settle for plain text in the hard copy of their essays, when it is so easy to incorporate desktop publishing techniques, including graphics, into their papers.  Writing for the Web privileges artistic abilities where the traditional essay privileges verbal abilities alone.

With all of these exciting possibilities open to student writers, and possibilities, moreover, that make use of ways of thinking and writing they have already developed, why would we want to channel students' thinking and writing practices into producing the freshman essay? Is this our best measure of academic literacy?

To answer this, we may want to consider the ways in which electronic environments and texts are changing the ways we talk and write in the academy.

Academic Relations and Practices in Electronic Environments

The assumptions we make about the discourse community that we invite student writers to join have been shaped through several kinds of academic discourse: rhetoricians' and linguists' metaphors (e.g., the Burkean parlor conversation, Frank Smith's "literacy club"); descriptions of basic writers (see Rose, Shaughnessy, and others); the premises and designs of writing courses and textbooks (e.g., Bartholomae and Petrosky's Facts, Artifacts and Counterfacts and Ways of Reading).

But to what extent do these textual definitions of our workplace, the academy, hold true in our day-to-day experience? I would like to summarize my own recent experience of the academic community I inhabit and ask you to compare your experience with mine. I would like to use this experience to test our assumptions about the effectiveness of the vehicle we customarily use to assess the literacy skills of student writers.

The world I enter each day when I unlock my office door seems to be comprised about equally of three parts: face-to-face meetings with students and colleagues, an electronic community composed through my reading and writing on the Internet, and the discursive world of academic texts disseminated through traditional print media. But the electronic meeting place and texts seem to be impinging more and more on the other realms.

Discussions that used to unfold in print journals and books at a leisurely pace over years now occur in electronic environments and communities, where the pace of discussion has speeded up astoundingly. We read hypertext articles in electronic journals. We meet in MOOs. Much of our professional conversation occurs in listservs. Listserv discussions evolve into collaborative projects, such as conference presentations, journal articles, and books. Our professional organizations maintain substantial Web sites. Conferences are announced on Web sites and may be accompanied by special listserv discussions and MOO sessions.  Book publication and conferences are heralded in CFP posts to the listservs as well as on Web sites and in announcements in print journals.   Books appear in print with companion Web sites, serving both to advertise for the publisher and to support professors who adopt the books for classes. We create our own professional sites as resources, and increasingly, we see the texts we produce for teaching as valid academic texts and professional resources, not only publishing our syllabi and writing center materials for our students but linking them to professional sites as well.

Our concept of academic work, the academic community, and ultimately "academic literacy" continues to be transformed daily as we ourselves learn new literacy skills.

What Are the Implications for Student Texts?

What impact does this new concept of the academy have on what we are doing in our classrooms daily? Our routine meetings with students include more and more synchronous or asynchronous conferencing and email; students do more and more research and writing via the Web. The result is that not only our classroom practices but the texts we exchange in the classroom reflect the new features of communication in electronic environments.

We work with students in electronic environments because we see certain benefits to them. I will not claim that these benefits occur for all students in all such environments but that they have been observed by many teachers who meet with students in virtual classrooms, and some of these benefits have been confirmed through classroom research.

1. Perhaps the greatest benefit is students' engagement in their work in electronic environments. Most students enjoy using computers even to write essays, and incorporation of MOOs, bulletin boards, and email in the writing classroom generally results in more interest in participation and, therefore, the production of more text. These benefits are likely goals we have for students in any classroom environment. 2. When students engage in conversation through text, not only do they produce more text, but their awareness of audience increases. They are likely to think more about how to communicate a particular point to a particular reader after they have had some conference or email experiences which required them to clarify and negotiate meaning. This kind of awareness is often more difficult to develop in the traditional classroom when students are producing the conventional essay for the "general reader" whom they have had little or no experience imagining, given that their real audience has been one or more teacher-evaluators. 3. As students converse in these environments, we often see not just a more genuine student voice in their writing but the playful construction of multiple writerly identities. Conscious play with self-portrayal develops their awareness of matters such as the tone they can create through their word choice, syntax, etc. 4. Such play often results in a realignment of authority in the classroom. Any teacher who has used a synchronous computer environment has learned that the teacher's voice is only one of many. This results in classroom discussion that may feel chaotic (see Taylor) compared to traditional face-to-face classroom interaction. However, students are usually more invested in their exchange of opinions than they are in teacher-regulated class discussion, more students get the opportunity to speak in the same period of time, and student authority may ultimately be taken more seriously by both teacher and peers.  (These phenomena also emerge, in less chaotic appearance, in asynchronous conferencing and class listserv discussions.) The establishment of the student's authority as a writer is a goal of writing instruction. 5. Electronic environments contribute substantially to a collaborative and intertextual writing environment. It is easy for students to work on texts together; indeed, any electronic conference is necessarily a collaboratively produced text. Referencing each other's texts and Web documents is as easy as cutting and pasting. In such environments, students can develop threading and synthesizing skills as well as distributing meaning over short units of text.

Do the same benefits occur in a course that is dedicated to producing a portfolio of three or four standard freshman essays? I would like to argue that they do not, that many first-year writing students do not show the same degree of collaborative meaning making, meaningful presentation of ideas, and sense of audience in essay writing that they do in a variety of electronic genres.

The final portfolio that I would like to ask student writers to produce might include some of the following kinds of writing.

Not only might such a portfolio be interesting for students to produce, but it could lead to our reevaluating the literacy skills our first-year writers have. We are likely to find that the literacies students have developed before entering our classrooms include more skills in genres like these and that student writers thus have more useful academic literacy skills than we have heretofore given them credit for.

The real question, of course, is whether students who could produce a successful portfolio including some of the texts I have suggested here could be successful in other courses. That is, would they meet our institutions' mandate that they demonstrate effective writing skills in other academic subjects?

I would like to argue that they could. After all, the traditional freshman essay has little currency in departments other than the English department. A student who could create a passing portfolio of texts illustrating competency in electronic environments would be demonstrating his or her audience awareness, understanding of rhetorical purpose, ability to work in an intertextual environment, collaborative skills, and graphic awareness. Along with some classroom attention to editing skills, what more could we ask of students in an introductory writing course?

I would not argue that the essay as a genre for exploring, discussing, and arguing academic concerns should be abandoned entirely. However, I do suggest that we seriously question the value of the traditional essay as a measure of academic writing competency.

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