Thinking through Technology Use in the Classroom

Where does technology fit in the composition classroom?

The Writing Program Administrators outcomes refer to composition as “complex writing processes that are increasingly reliant on the use of digital technologies” (n.p.). The WPA continues: “Writers’ composing activities have always been shaped by the technologies available to them, and digital technologies are changing writers’ relationships to their texts and audiences in evolving ways” (n.p.). I don’t disagree with this statement in the slightest, however, I think there is a lot to consider when bringing technology into the classroom.

Every semester I send out a survey to my students asking several simple questions that help me understand their background with composition and technology: 1. How do you define writing? 2. Please select all technologies you use on a daily basis. 3. Using what technology do you feel most comfortable composing with? 4. What technologies do you own? Every class that I have given these to (six in total), I have received varying answers, some of which I was surprised. I have seen a decline in Facebook use, a rise in Twitter and Snapchat use, and a consistent use of Kik or Facebook Messenger to communicate in addition to text messaging. Less than half of my students claim to own a laptop or desktop computer, but all but two students–out of 143 students– own a smart phone that connects to the internet. They admit to nonstop communication and connectivity to information and each other, however, they don’t consider themselves writers, even though they mostly define writing as writing out words to communicate an idea or expression.

Now, my surveys have only been distributed to Eastern Michigan University students in Ypsilanti, Michigan in two sections of WRTG120, two sections of WRTG121, and two sections of a summer writing class through Eastern’s EMU Opportunity Program. In the research survey results explained in “Revisualizing Composition: How First-Year Writers Use Composing Technologies,” which is a study that had 1,366 students from seven colleges and universities respond, Moore et al. says, “students use fairly traditional technologies for school assignments, while they use a wider variety of technologies, including Facebook, cell phones, and Twitter for writing for personal fulfillment and for entertainment. furthermore, students seem to be changing how they compose, even before most writing pedagogies offer scaffolded strategies for using a full range of composing technologies to invent, draft, arrange, revise, and deliver texts” (10, emphasis in original). I don’t think this is much of a surprise to, well, anyone, but there are several things that are important to take away from the empirical data that is pulled from these surveys.

Moore et al. reiterates what has been discussed in scholarship from the last decade, “Students are writing more than ever with the diverse range of composing technologies and platforms that are widely available to them” (2). They stress that composition instructors need to bring these technologies into the classroom because “traditional composition and rhetoric pedagogies aren’t appropriate for teaching students how to invent, draft, arrange, revise and deliver texts today, with the wide range of composing and collaboration technologies available” (3). The introduction of the newer technologies could teach students how to use their technology more effectively, which would then possibly translate into more efficient and effective writing. These are all assumptions that are debated in both formal and informal settings, however, one has to tread carefully with bringing new technology into the classroom for the sake of saying “current.”

Having graduate students teaching a large percentage of first-year composition classes could be seen as an advantage when it comes to keeping the department’s curriculum up-to-date on current technology–contingent labor dilemmas aside–however, the assumption of the “digital native” knowing how to work all technologies is highly problematic. Marc Santos and Mark Leahy fall into this line of thinking in their article “Postpedagogy and Web Writing.” In their explanation of the simplicity of certain mediums over others, they state: “In our experience, students are not always the mythic ‘digital natives’ we have been promised” (89). However, just a few sentences later, they state: “students with myriad experience levels can quickly acclimate to the technology…Similarly, if an instructor is less familiar with such tools, it would not take more than a day or two to master any one of them” (89). Now, the technologies in question are mediums like “Blogger, Tumblr, Twitter, WordPress, or Pinterest, but I think it is naive to claim that an instructor can “master” any of these in a “day or two.” This would greatly depend on the experience and technical know-how of the instructor and student alike. As an avid user of Facebook, WordPress, GoogleDocs, Excel, etc. and someone that has been exploring hardware and software for nearly two decades, I would hardly call myself a master of anything.

Assuming anyone knows how to do precisely what you want of them using technology could lead to misinterpretation and misunderstanding. Santos and Leahy make some solid points about using these technologies: “Simply plopping student writing up on the web fails to account for the complex systems of reputation, recommendation, and discovery that characterize today’s Internet…we believe scholars need to extend discussions of accessibility beyond the availability of the technology itself” (89). Having a fruitful discussion about the medium, its limitations, and affordances could lead to an increase in rhetorical knowledge which would improve the students’ composition experience.

In Lannette Cadle’s piece, “Why I Still Blog,” she discusses the importance of the medium for the first-year writing student, graduate student, or even professor. The blog has been around for quite some time, and many see it as being all but completely replaced by Facebook, Twitter, and other sites, however, blogs are a special medium for academics. She explains how “blogs have the time, space, and ability to accumulate and form patterns where later, more specialized forms such as Twitter are by designed more ephemeral” (n.p.). These patterns, according to Cadle, lead to the formation of an identity: “No matter what a blogger’s intentions are for a blog, it will construct an identity. This identity could be aspirational, actual, individual, communal, deliberately deceptive, or even subsumed under a corporate gloss, but identity will be there. The accretion over time of many posts not only gives a long view on content, it gives a long, dimensional vision of the person (or people) behind the words and other media” (n.p.). Most students are assigned the blog as part of an assignment, most often as a reading journal, which creates the feeling of busy work for the student. If they were to explore the conventions of the blog and note the limitations and affordances, perhaps more students that are interested in creating an online presence for their discipline would be more inclined to maintain their blog.

I think there are a lot of uses for technology in the classroom that can enrich a student’s experience with writing, but we have to make sure we don’t make assumptions about our students and fellow instructors. Growing up, I had to experiment and learn all the intricacies of programs on my computer without the help of Youtube and or engaging with the hive mind of social media. Many of our students have grown up with smartphones where there is an app for everything or a tutorial to show you exactly how to do what you need. There is very little exploration and taking risks to figure out how to do things on your own. Just because the student is 19, we shouldn’t assume they know how to use their computer and do all the formatting we desire in Microsoft Word. I think we have to be a little more patient with our students and be open to showing them the basics of the technology we use in our classrooms. Students might not fully understand how to write an abstract, but many of them understand the constraints of a tweet or comment box. If we show them the parallels, I think we would all be better writers.

 

References:

Cadle, Lanette. “Why I Still Blog.” PraxisWiki: Kairos: Rhetoric, Technology, and Pedagogy. N.p. 25 Oct. 2014. Web. 26 Jan. 2016.

Council of Writing Program Administrators. “WPA Outcomes Statement for First-Year Composition (3.0), Approved July 17, 2014. Council of Writing Program Administrators. Council of Writing Program Administrators, 2014. Web. 21 Jan. 2016.

Moore, Rosinski, Peeples, Pigg, Rife, Brunk-Chavez, Lackey, Rumsey, Tasaka, Curran, and Grabill. “Revisualizing Composition: How First-Year Writers Use Composing Technologies.” Computers and Composition 39 (2016): 1-13.

Santos, Marc and Mark Leahy. “Post pedagogy and Web Writing.” Computers and Composition 32 (2014): 84-95.

Advertisements

Connectivity in First-Year Writing: a Look at Composition Classes through Networks and Ecologies

 

Connectivity in First-Year Writing: A Look at Composition Classes through Networks and Ecologies

       Students, like most humans, don’t often think of themselves within a space where they are continuously affected by their surroundings. Humans intrinsically think of themselves as the center, or subject, of their life and current situation. Posthumanist theories such as object-oriented ontology and complex systems theory have been pushing to decenter the human and establish intricate networks of both human and non-human actors to better explain rhetorical situations. Young humans, (herein referred to as students), see themselves as a single unit moving through the school settings like an assembly line, picking up new tools and vocabulary as they move along a set track (i.e. course outcomes or program of study). However, what they don’t realize is that they are part of a large, complex network of both human and non-human actors. For this short study, using Jenny Edbouer’s “Unframing Models of Public Distribution” at the center, I propose a way to make students aware of the complexity of their involvement at a university, more specifically Eastern Michigan University’s First-Year Writing Program.

       Stemming from studies on the rhetorical situation, many scholars have expanded the framework laid out by Lloyd Bitzer (1968) and Richard Vatz (1973) by using ecological theories or complex systems theories. In Edbauer’s article, she explains how the rhetorical situation, and rhetoric in general, is typically viewed “as a totality of discrete elements: audience, rhetor, exigence, constraints, and text” (7). This framing makes rhetoric a “collection of elements” that is usually referenced as the rhetorical triangle and other inert variations that are limited within specific constraints of static, discernable moments. Edbouer references Louise Weatherbee Phelps’s work, Composition as a Human Science, at length to highlight the need for an explanation of a rhetorical situation “in flux” in order to “recontextualize those elements in a wider sphere of active, historical, and lived processes” (8). Edbouer uses an etymological approach to show how the term “rhetorical situation” points towards a static, pointable location, stemming from the Latin word situs, “tied to the originary position of objects” (9). She finds this reference to rhetoric unsuitable since much of the discussion around rhetoric is social in nature, which is never fixed to a single location.

       The social nature of rhetoric requires a complex system in order for the situation to be mapped properly. Edbouer explains that no person is ever “outside the networked interconnection of forces, energies, rhetorics, moods, and experiences,” which is most easily diagrammed as a network of nodes and connections between both human and non-human actors. Marilyn Cooper, in her article “Rhetorical Agency as Emergent and Enacted,” explains the complex system of a network as “self-organizing: order (and change) results from an ongoing process in which a multitude of agents interact frequently and in which the results of interactions feed back into the process” (421). The network of these interactions could be a snapshot of a moment in time which can be diagrammed out to show a specific subject (an actor or node), and the connections that are currently influencing them, both tangible and intangible. Cooper highlights the aspect of the complex system that is always changing and situational, however, to fully understand the implications and influences on a subject, the network must be further complicated into what Jenny Edbouer calls an ecological rhetorical model.

       The ecological rhetorical model, unlike a closed network system, opens up all possibilities for connections and influences in an open network. When introducing this system, she explains “an ecological, or affective, rhetorical model [as] one that reads rhetoric both as a process of distributed emergence and as an ongoing circulation process” (13, emphasis in original). The open, ecological rhetorical model exhibits rhetoric as “infected by the viral intensities that are circulating in the social field” where rhetoric will “evolve in aparallel ways” which don’t share a carbon-copy situation, but “certain contagions and energy” (14). Simply put, the expansion of connectors from each node is exponential and influential, creating/changing a multitude of “processes, events, and bodies” (14). If the network is a useful tool to help us analyze particular situations in a manageable way, the ecological model is the method to find the influence of nodes in both related and unrelated situations in a fluid temporal space.

       To put these two methods of analysis in perspective, I want to show how we can analyze a student within the First-Year Writing Program (FYWP) at Eastern Michigan University (EMU). A student enrolled in the FYWP enters a seemingly tangible network which is not always made explicit in the classroom, although it is suggested to the student through the five program outcomes: rhetoric, process, conventions, multimodality, and reflection. The outcomes, posted on the program website and wiki, as well as printed in the assigned textbook, Understanding Rhetoric, explicitly shows how they connect the two composition classes that make up the FYWP, WRTG120 and WRTG121. If made explicit, the student can see how they are connected to the course and program, and in extension the university, based on these principles since the student will be interacting with these outcomes to demonstrate understanding regardless of section in all composition classes. In order to feel any sort of connectivity to the instructor, peers, or program, it is imperative for them to see this network take form. In the event that the instructor does not present the outcomes in a way that promotes the connectivity, the students may never be aware of the network and ecological structure of FYW, which does them a disservice. If we are at all invested in their education and want to create free, critical thinkers, we must set them on the networked, ecological path to prevent students becoming interchangeable parts in the university business model.

fywpoutcomes
Eastern Michigan University’s First-Year Writing Program Course Outcomes 

       Once the student feels a sense of connectivity, it is important for the instructor to engage with the idea of agency. Steve Accardi explains how all studies in agency revolve around the idea that “an ability, power, or authority [can] be possessed by a subject or subjects” (2). In writing studies, it “suggests a writer is a rational individual, capable of inventing ideas autonomously and pursuing an intention to engage or provoke an audience” (Accardi 2). This concept is explored through all five core principles of the program, but this doesn’t necessarily connect the student to the network they are engaging in. Carolyn Miller suggests, in her article “What can Automation Tell Us About Agency?,” a “decentering of the subject-the death of the author//agent-signals a crisis for agency, or perhaps more accurately, for rhetoric, since traditional rhetoric requires the possibility for influence that agency entails” (143). This decentering then takes the connectivity of the students and instructor into a larger network with non-human actors, such as the curriculum, physical classroom, and program outcomes.

        Once the student is aware of the network, the student then can look beyond their own subjectivity and be granted agency to engage in the network at large. Cooper explains that agency is “interpellated, a role they can perform or a node they can occupy temporarily” (423), which suggests that agency is not always embodied by the students and that an aspect of the network, many times the instructor, must offer an invitation to give power/agency to the student to both engage with the network, as well as perform inside the classroom (423). The classroom, and FYWP at large, is what Amin and Thrift would call a “container” in the network and ecological model (qtd in Edbauer11). The analogy of the classroom as container and city as container is helpful to understand how the classes are situated in the ecology. Edbauer furthers the city/container example by explaining “that Austin is a container for the local elements within a given space, much as New York is a container for another set of local elements. Talking about those two different cities merely involves talking about the different elements held by the same (kind of) container called ‘city’” (Edbauer 11, emphasis my own). Following the example of the city, the classroom and program can be seen as a verb because the framework–program outcomes, curriculum, and pedagogical instruction–possesses unique qualities not found in all other classroom/program networks (Edbauer 11). All classrooms and FYWP’s share similar characteristics, which makes them containers in a network. However, due to the connectivity of the unique ties the composition classroom has to the program at large, “these sites are sustained by the amalgam of processes, which can be described in ecological terms of varying intensities of encounters and interactions,” making each class slightly unique due to the instructors and students’ conduct in each node (Edbauer 13).  

        The ecology of the FYWP does not need to be made explicit to the students, or the instructors, for it to exist. The efficacy of the instructor is called into question if they do not adhere to the course outcomes or the expectations of the writing program administrator, however, the students may not be aware of such expectations. Although it is ideal that the student is made aware of the ecology their class is part of, if they are not, they are still within it and impacting the program without cognitive engagement. The below diagram is a visual representation of what a networked FYWP might look like at EMU at the level of an individual WRTG120 or WRTG121 section–at its most basic design. All students come into the university with prior knowledge in composition from high school and other education, which influences both the classroom–teachers just engage in a comparative writing discussion–and the student’s writing aptitude. Depending on the instructor and how they decide to integrate the program outcomes into their classroom, disciplinary influence, both of the student’s major/interest and the instructor’s background, has at least a minimal effect on the class. Again, depending on the instructor, the section of students may or may not participate in the Celebration of Student Writing (a conference to display researched work in a multimodal presentation). The students that do participate in the culminating conference engage in their future/concurrent classes in a different manner than if they did not.

FYWP Netork-Ecology (2)

       If this were an ecological rhetorical model, there would be many more human and nonhuman actors that influence the program. Most sections run autonomously with at least a nod to the program outcomes, which reinforces connectivity. There would also be writing program administrators and others in the FYWP communicating their research and pedagogy at meetings and in private settings which alter curriculae and pedagogy. The students’ prior knowledge and disciplinary expectations also connect and alter connectors. Even a conversation grounded in the fundamentals of composition can alter the connection a student has to the program. All these factors are difficult (impossible?) to completely map, but can be made explicit in the classroom to students so they fully understand how their registration to a section is also an invitation to a much larger ecology.

       Framing the First-Year Writing program as an ecological rhetorical model helps the students, instructors, and writing program administrators understand the influence each actor has on the program. Program outcomes, the Celebration of Student Writing, and training of instructors fosters a strong commitment to writing that will carry with students throughout the university and their future careers. It is not within the scope of this paper to fully articulate the implications of this ecological model, but I hope some of the connections that I made explicit start the conversation about the need to make the ecological model explicit to all human actors of the FYWP.

Works Cited

Accardi, Steven. “Agency.” Ed. Paul Heilker and Peter Vandenberg. Keywords in Writing Studies. 1st ed. Boulder: Utah State UP, 2015. 1-5. Print.

Cooper, Marilyn M. “Rhetorical Agency as Emergent and Enacted.” College Composition and Communication 62.3 (2011): 420-49. Web.

Edbauer, Jenny. “Unframing Models of Public Distribution: From Rhetorical Situation to Rhetorical Ecologies.” Rhetoric Society Quarterly 35.4 (2005): 5-24. Web.

Losh, Alexander, Cannon, and Cannon. Understanding Rhetoric (EMU Custom Edition). Boston: Bedford St. Martin’s, 2015. ISBN 978-1-319-02870-1

Miller, Carolyn R. “What Can Automation Tell Us about Agency?” Rhetoric Society Quarterly 37.2 (2007): 137-57. JSTOR. Web. 1 Nov. 2015.