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.
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.