Scholastic writing used to be disconnected. From research: reading and writing took place in different spaces at different times. From other writers: writing was a solitary activity. From previous steps of the process: each piece of writing produced along the way was discarded. From a real audience: students wrote to prove something to a professor who claimed they were engaged in an imaginary “academic discourse.” From authentic purpose: writing ended up in the garbage can and all the student’s hard work, knowledge, insights and craftsmanship were wasted.
For some time, educators have stressed the importance of student-centered classes and active learning, but in actuality most of the traditional patterns of teacher-centered classes continue with little essential change. Teachers dump their knowledge on passive students and then students write for their teachers. The digital age, however, offers many new tools for integrated and collaborative research and writing, making the aim of student-centered learning an achievable reality. For the purposes of this paper, “integrated” refers to bridging out-of-class and in-class writing, combining reading and writing, and validating the various steps of the writing process. “Collaborative” suggests not only that writing has become a much more social activity, but, most importantly, that work has a real audience and therefore has authentic purpose.
The aim of this paper is to consolidate information and insights from classwork, class readings, a class blog and my own blogging experience during spring semester 2010 for Teaching Writing in the Digital Age, a class taught at San Francisco State by Kory Lawson Ching. I cannot hope to synthesize all the material we read and discussed, so I will focus on practical advice that I can carry away and apply to text-based classes of composition, literature or English as a Second Language. To limit the scope of this already-too-broad paper, I will not go into visual or multi-modal compositions or other kinds of new literacies such podcasts and gaming, although I think they can be adapted effectively to classes with a writing focus.
Acknowledging Out-of-Class Literacies Creates Continuity
Taken as a group, young people today are reading more than ever before: surfing the internet, playing text-based video games, reading blogs, zines and fan fiction. They are writing more than ever before: designing webpages, sending text-messages and emails, and writing for social-networking sites, discussion boards, and blogs. Yet some teachers complain about a decline in literacy, a new informality to writing, a slip in spelling and grammar, a lack of organization, an inability to focus deeply on one topic for extended periods.
Do these observations suggest a drop in literacy or a change in literacy? A gap is widening between the reading and writing students are doing in their personal lives and the reading and writing they are doing for class. Text has changed, is changing, and will continue to change, no question about it. If teachers wish to improve writing quality, if they wish to deepen and expand it, if they wish to help student-writers develop the literacy skills they will need and use in the real world, then instructors must first acknowledge the new kinds of writing that many student-writers are doing.
As a caveat to these broad statements, not all young people have access to computers. The digital divide continues, although discussions about it are fading. Of those who do have access to computers, most engage in some of these activities, but few are the overall techno-wizards educators sometimes imagine them to be. For those who do not have access or have not developed technological literacies, exposure to these tools is even more important so they can keep up in an increasingly digital world.
For our class blog, Lothlorien Watkins wrote a post called “Confessions of a Fanfic writer, D&D Player” in which she stated very clearly the importance of bridging out-of-class and in-class literacies: “If we accept as fact that the more literary events you engage in, the more literate you become, then isn’t it strange that we limit the variety of literary events valued in school? What if all acts of composition were at least encouraged and acknowledged? Think of the effect it might have on a student’s sense of agency and authority, as well as supporting the development of an understanding of one’s own ideological situatedness as a writer and a reader, and general textual savvy” (Watkins).
Lothlorien makes several important points here, first and foremost, that all writing is beneficial in developing literacy. As a parallel, imagine what would happen if we tried to limit the spoken utterances of a toddler. If we allowed only serious, articulate and meaningful statements, a child would never learn to speak. Unless the child can play with language and adapt speech to various contexts and needs, she will never be able to develop the skills needed to chair a meeting or give campaign speech. The same is true of beginning writers. They must be encouraged to experiment with writing in a variety of contexts for a range of purposes. Lothlorien also points out that acknowledging these new types of writing can give students a sense of “agency and authority,” or motivation and personal power, and can help them understand their “ideological situatedness,” or the culture, class, gender, religion and other background factors that determine in large part how they write and read.
Acknowledging the writing students are doing outside of class, creates continuity in agency, identity and voice. How will students be motivated if the writing they choose to do is ignored? The New London Group stated, “There is ample evidence that people do not learn anything well unless they are both motivated to learn and believe that they will be able to use and function with what they are learning in some way that is in their interest” (quoted in Anderson 40). Invalidating the forms of writing students are doing on their own undercuts or kills motivation in students who see academic writing as being utterly unconnected with the kind of writing they are interested in.
Alex Reid, in a blog post entitled, “What Composition is For and Why Digital Media is Integral to It,” wrote, “What we can know with a higher degree of certainty is that [students] will write for online spaces. Of course this writing is often very, very short and highly informal. But it is the one writing practice they actually elect to pursue. My suggestion is that by incorporating digital composition into [first year composition] we can make connections between their current elective writing practices and other writing practices that they might choose to adopt” (quoted in Ching). In other words, rather than invalidating the writing students are choosing to do on their own, incorporating it into a composition class can actually help students transfer this motivation to academic writing.
The New London Group also suggests that students must understand the applicability of education to their real lives, they must recognize that they “will be able to use and function with what they are learning in some way that is in their interest.” Why should students learn composition if they cannot see that they will ever use the forms being taught beyond the classroom? By including these other modes and genres, teachers can help students recognize that clear, exact, detailed, persuasive writing is beneficial in any form of text. Moreover, students must be shown how academic writing will help them in their careers, for many of them will have to write in a variety of forms such as memos, emails, and reports. Presenting composition only as a necessary tool for the university belittles the importance of writing.
Acknowledging the validity of out-of-class writing and, if possible incorporating it in the class in an honest and transparent way encourages the development of a holistic, but fluid writing identity. “Writing is related to representations of the self,” Viola Lasmana wrote in a post entitled “The Writing Self Being Written: Textual Beings in Online World,” “as students write and compose texts in online platforms, they also have to be mindful of how they represent themselves textually, visually, and digitally in the content and knowledge that they’ve produced online.”
The question of self-representation becomes more urgent online where the potentially limitless audience “creates a tension for the contending categories of private and public selves.” In other words, online writing navigates a tricky borderland between the private and public lives of an individual. Writing, if it is to have any authenticity, must arise from a person’s private self, yet a writer, especially online, must also create a public persona. Teachers should assist students in moving gradually from the private world to a public space. Continuity between everyday and academic writing will help students negotiate this complex shift of identity. Instead of separating personal and academic identities, inclusion of new media can help young writers create an “incipient sense of self in the discourses of one’s field,” as Geoffrey C. Middlebrook suggests in “Educational Blogging: A Forum for Developing Disciplinary and Professional Identity.”
Writers, however, are not just translating themselves into writing or shifting their private personas into a public realm, they are creating new identities. Identity in the digital age is open to experimentation, often blurring real and fictional identities. One blogger wrote, “I have an ongoing story. But I think we have several ongoing stories. I also think that if we bear in mind a particular audience, we change our story to suit them and this changes our notion of who we are according to our audience (Blogtrax 2005b)” (quoted in Davies and Merchant 178). This is an astute observation that a writer’s identity shifts depending on audience.
She goes on to say, “I am subject and object of the work; and interestingly because I am writing about blogging I sometimes do stuff so I can blog it. In this way the blog influences my life; it does not simply record aspects of it (Blogtrax 2005d)” (Davies 179). In other words, identity does not produce writing, but writing creates identity. In this case, Blogtrax’s real life is influenced by the blog she is writing, so writing precedes action. As writers experiment and play with identity online, Danah Boyd said they “write themselves into being” (quoted in Buckingham 10).
This authoring of identity is not a solo act either, in reference to social network sites, Chris Gerben states that “student-users are not simply co-authoring a text, by writing on each other’s profiles they are co-authoring each other” (Gerben 3). Traditional identities are less stable in the modern world; once based on culture, country, class, religion and gender, these categories are less limiting or defining. The internet allows more personal choice, as people connect with others from all over the world from widely different backgrounds, not limited by geography. Not only are new identities being created, but new communities and new affinity groups are coming into existence.
Incorporating new technology in classwork can also help students develop a personal voice, an aspect of writing generally overlooked by writing teachers. If academic writing is severed from everyday writing, voice will always be artificial. Often student-writers think that they must affect an artificial, academic voice that results in stilted, opaque prose. Acknowledging and incorporating new technologies can help students adapt their own personal voices to different purposes and even levels of formality while retaining their own unique sound. Perhaps the digital age is the time to change the tone of academic writing in general, which too-frequently arises from a “nobody” speaker, in a dry, emotionless voice, lacking rhetoric and style.
Writing for new media challenges traditional borders between the academic and non-academic by blurring “distinctions between the serious and the frivolous” (Anderson 169). Speaking of the kinds of writing that were most effective on blogs, Charles Tyron wrote in “Writing and Citizenship: Using Blogs to Teach First Year Writing” that “humorous forms of argument were often more successful than the professional discourse readers might encounter in other contexts” (Tyron 130). Teachers should encourage students to try out different voices, to write both seriously and playfully, to mix the serious and the frivolous, to play with the borderland between academic and non-academic writing. New media provides an open environment ideal for experimentation with voice.
The most significant reason to bridge in-class and out-of-class writing is to allow true learning to take place. Sugie Goen-Salter, in a talk about the Integrated Reading and Writing Program at SFSU, states that true learning can only be “acquired through existing frameworks or schemata.” Educators have long recognized that new knowledge can only be built onto older knowledge, it can’t be shoveled into students’ heads without connecting it to what they already know. What’s more, students must be able to “adapt existing knowledge to new situations” (Goen-Salter).
In other words, students must be able to transfer what they know to new academic contexts and they must know that what they are learning can be carried out of the class and applied to other situations. Finally, Goen-Salter suggests that for true learning to take place, students must able to reflect on the learning process, to practice metacognition. New media offers unique opportunities to keep stores of writing materials in a single, accessible site, so that students can look back over their writing and see what progress they have made.
Bridging Everyday and Academic Writing
How can a teacher connect out-of-class and in-class writings? First of all, teachers should make students aware of the skills most of them already have: familiarity with different modes of writing, descriptive, narrative, and persuasive skills, awareness of audience and purpose, and ability to write in different tones. I propose an activity in which students find examples from their own writing, the writing of friends, or the writing of peers who are strangers online or off for as many different modes of writing they can discover, including, but not limited to, text messages, online chatting, posts on social network sites, emails, and blogs. This exercise should also include paper-based media such as postcards, letters, comics, zines and fanfiction. If the assignment is open-ended, many unexpected forms of text should also appear.
In a related assignment, they could look for examples of text written for different audiences (parents, friends, teachers, bosses, politicians), and text for different purposes (description, narration, persuasion, requests, offers, refusals, invitations, excuses, praise, complaints). Students could hunt for samples of different tones, such as: accusatory, angry, apathetic, cynical, condescending, callous, critical, fanciful, gloomy, honest, humorous, intimate, judgemental, matter-of-fact, mocking, optimistic, sarcastic, sincere, solemn and whimsical (adapted from Scirocco). These samples could be posted on the class forum or shared in class, so that students could compare and analyze what they found.
Another activity would be the creation of a class wiki about tone and register. One axis: very formal, formal, medium, informal, very informal. Second axis: humorous, optimistic, matter-of-fact, gloomy, critical. Sample combinations: “Formal / Gloomy,” “Medium / Optimistic,” “Very Informal / Critical.” Students would be assigned one square in the grid, then given a short piece of writing that does not fit the description in their box, which they would have to adapt as a homework assignment. Then students would be required to look over other students’ entries and make changes here and there to make the pieces conform to the label. Since students would not be altering each other’s original pieces of writing this exercise could be a humorous, interactive and illuminating exercise. Other wikis could include audience and purpose or mode and genre.
Integrated reading and writing
Research and writing used to occur separately in space and time. Students would do their research in the library and then do their writing elsewhere. According to James P. Purdy in “The Changing Space of Research: Web 2.0 and the Integration of Research and Writing Environments,” the physical and temporal separation “disconnects research from writing, artificially separates the academic from the non-academic, and misrepresents how knowledge is created. This compartmentalization incorrectly leads students to believe that research and writing are wholly separate and separable, that they are uniformed by one another” (Purdy 48).
According to Goen-Salter, in the talk mentioned above on integrated reading and writing, students should be able to use what they know about reading to inform their writing and what they know about writing to inform their reading. For example, analysis of a text’s structure could help students develop more complex forms than the five-paragraph essay and studies of structure in writing could help them navigate their way through more complicated readings. The internet offers a plethora of opportunities to combine reading and writing in ways unknown before. Lisa Zawilinski writes, “As online readers gather information to solve a problem, they frequently analyze information, critically evaluate, synthesize across multiple texts and communicate with others using instant messaging, emails, blogs, wikis or other communication vehicles” (Zawilinski 652). In other words, the internet is already creating environments that mix research and writing in important new ways.
As the amount of information continues to explode, it is more urgent than ever, then, to give students the critical skills they will need to shift through and evaluate the vast amounts of material available. Researchers can no longer rely on the information they find in books in the library, selected by staff or professors. “An important lesson for students (and all researchers) can be found in acknowledging the potential for misinformation in research and the resultant need to critically analyze rather than passively accept published findings” (Purdy 51). In spite of loud complaints from academia about the loss of control on such sites as Wikipedia, this is certainly a positive change. Reading now requires independent critical thinking all the time, and not a reliance on selection from authorities.
The first step is to encourage students to personalize research spaces with RSS feeds, bookmarks and even their own tagging system on academic sites like JSTOR. By creating their own research environments, student-writers are in effect writing their own library, changing how they view and interact with material. These self-designed research spaces challenge the authority of an academic monopoly on knowledge because they are no longer limited geographically to a single spot, but can be accessed wherever researchers can get the internet. “Research becomes less about being in a particular place (e.g., an archive or library)” Purdy says, “and more about engaging in a particular activity” (Purdy 54).
Nor are these self-created research spaces limited to a particular assignment but can carry on after a paper is finished and students graduate: “The ideal result is that students see their research efforts as less tied to only one specific assignment (a class requirement they can forget all about after the semester) and more connected to ongoing knowledge-generating activity (an intellectual practice they can apply to other contexts)” (Purdy 53).
As research and writing become more interconnected, Purdy argues, students realize they are not just consumers of knowledge, but active producers, evaluating, summarizing, criticizing, expanding, and integrating what they read while they read it. “Even if students do not pursue academic careers, as most will not,” Purdy writes, “their sense that academic research matters for and impacts their lives is a potentially valuable outcome of connecting, rather than separating, their Web 2.0 experiences and scholarly work.”
When reading and writing happen together, the emphasis shifts from the consumption of knowledge to the production of knowledge. The writing that students produce then becomes a real part of the knowledge pool, instead of disappearing in the teacher’s wastebasket or in a box in the students’ garage, and students see a real and immediate, lasting significance to their work. Richardson tells us that, as composition instructors, it is our duty to “prepare our students to become not only readers and writers, but editors and collaborators and publishers as well” (Richardson 5).
The web is making knowledge more open and accessible and therefore more democratic. Tim Berners-Lee, developer of the World Wide Web in 1989, said, “The original thing I wanted to do was make it a collaborative medium, a place where we all meet and read and write” (quoted in Richardson 1) and Google’s mission is “to organize the world’s data and make it universally accessible and useful.” Before academics relied on a scarcity of knowledge, a hoarding of information in the ivory tower, to give economic value to their activities. Lankshear writes that “Conventional social relations associated with the roles of author/authority and expert have broken down radically under the move from ‘publishing’ to participation, from centralized authority to mass collaboration” (Lankshear 14).
There are important qualifications to this democratizing tendency of the web, however. Although “affinity groups” can be liberate someone from traditional identities, these groups are still frequently separated by class, racial and gender lines. Students need to be given the skills to recognize their own “ideological situatedness,” as Lothlorien put it at the beginning of this paper, to recognize what invisible factors are determining how they write and read, so that they have more flexibility to become socially conscious citizens of a global community.
Using New Media in the Classroom
The danger of trying to connect everyday and academic writing is setting up a kind of creepy treehouse effect, an artificial environment that supposedly recreates the familiar, more entertaining worlds that students move through, when in fact an overwhelming, but hidden presence of a teacher hovers over all interactions, turning child-like spontaneity into poorly disguised adult intentionality.
Ruth Osorio explained in a post to the class blog “Intention, Intention, Intention,” “By trying to lure students into the world of composition through deceptive means and hiding the teachable moments, we could invade the students’ social environment and dismiss their intelligence” (Osorio). Ruth is suggesting that not making the underlying rationale for an assignment explicit indicates to students that a teacher thinks they are too stupid to understand why a particular activity is taking place. Not doing so also misses out on the opportunity of a “teachable moment,” a chance to examine why we write and why we write differently in different environments. Making it explicit that teachers are not trying to recreate out-of-class writing activities, but to reinvent them for new purposes should prevent most creepy treehouse effects. The important thing here is honesty, or as Ruth so effectively put it, “Intention, Intention, Intention.”
When using new media it is important to acknowledge that although some of the tools are the same, the context and the expectations are completely different. Since expectations are different, a teacher should make those expectations clear. From my own personal experience, I have often been unsure about how formal the class forums should be. Are these informal message boards for students to chat freely about the reading and classwork or are these places where students should post well-shaped, balanced formal writing? Often the expectation is somewhere in between these two extremes, but students must experiment tentatively until a particular tone and register is set by the whole class. Teachers can prevent a lot of anxiety by clarifying. Even better if they require students to read the kinds of writings the teacher hopes they will strive towards, introducing award-winning blogs, for example. Too often, we ask students to produce writing without giving them sufficient examples of what is expected or what is possible.
Scott Warnock suggests in Teaching Writing Online: How & Why that teachers should not overdo it with new media; they should not overwhelm themselves or their students. The ECAR Study of Undergraduates and Information Technology (Salaway, Caruso & Nelson, 2007) found that new media must be fully integrated into the class or students find it a waste of time: “This research found that students are discriminating and recognize ‘[t]echnology is an enabler of learning when professors use it effectively’ (p. 13) while ‘[p]oor use of technology ([that is] under use, over use, inappropriate use, or over dependence […]) detracts from the learning experience’ (p. 14)” (Middlebrook, conclusion).
As previously stated above, teachers should help students move from private writing to public spaces. This can happen with different types of writing assignments. Some paper-based free-writing can be wholly private, not shared with anyone. For the next step into a more public realm, I suggest a class message board that is only very loosely monitored by the teacher to give students a chance to produce text without worry about grammar, punctuation or depth. They could ask for clarification on assignments, express frustration, discuss topics only tangentially connected to the class, and build social ties. The class forum could be a place where students post more thoughtful question with quotes from the text. Other students would then be required to respond to at least two questions with thoughtful, clear and detailed writing, but without much emphasis on style or structure.
A class blog could be used to produce yet another level of polished writing and to open the students’ work up to a wider audience. In contexts such as these, Middlebrook insists students adhere “to course objectives that students write clear, grammatical, well-structured prose; discover and convey complex ideas critically; appreciate the nuances of good argument; identify and speak to specific audiences in a voice of authority and persuasiveness; and address the academic, public, and professional aspects of writing within disciplines and career fields” (Middlebrook). Finally, formal papers could actually be published in a little booklet, a required purchase of all students, so they have some tangible record of their hard work, bringing classwork back to print-based medium, which is not replaced by digital media, but augmented by it.
In “HOT Blogging: A Framework for Blogging to Promote Higher Order Thinking,” Lisa Zawlinski suggests that blogs may be used to promote higher order thinking skills: analysis, synthesis and evaluation. She identifies four types of classroom blogs: Classroom News Blog (syllabus, homework assignments, updates), Mirror Blogs (quotes, impressions, reflections, new ideas), Literature Response Blogs (question and response, summary, synthesis), and Showcase Blogs (student works in various media published). The first three, however, might work better on a less-public class forum than on a public blog.
Zawlinski writes that integrating the blog into classwork should include these steps: Bolstering the Background (finding out what students already know, research projects on author and time period, lists of resources), Priming the Pump (first impressions, summaries, confusions clarifies, connections to themselves, other texts or the world), Continuing the Conversation (summarizing and synthesizing across multiple textual units and classroom discussion), and Making Multiplicity Explicit (requiring students to address others’ comments and respond with evidence and clear explanations) (Zawilinski 652 – 655).
Process-Oriented, Collaborative and Shared
With new media, what matters most is the process, not the product. Unlike previous kinds of free-writing and generative assignments, discarded once the final product is turned in, new media gives each step of the writing process its own validity and its own separate existence. Text on a message board is not preserved, but serves its own purpose and exists in its own right, as do questions and responses to the class forums. Writers may use material, ideas, and insights later for more formal blog posts.
Teachers can demonstrate the interconnectedness of the writing process by encouraging students to use writing from the blog posts in their final papers as I have done with this essay. I would also encourage students to borrow from each others’ writing, again as I have done here, to encourage student-centered learning and support the democratization of knowledge.
Often, the posts on a blog might actually take precedence over the final paper, because it is the blog which is actually shared and read by the most people. This final paper, for instance, will be broken up into pieces and posted on my blog. As I do so, I will revise the paper once again, so the paper, once turned in, is no longer frozen in time, but becomes a work-in-progress. Other final papers written for other classes I have also been broken up, revised and posted. At first, I felt like I was cheating because I was altering the “final product.” When I recognized the silliness of this assumption, I felt a sense of relief that the weak points in my writing could be strengthened and the snags smoothed. Ideas I came up with after the deadline could be added and arguments expanded. In response to certain comments to the posts, I have also altered parts of the main text.
What begins to matter most is the collaborative process itself, an ongoing, ever-changing, ever developing conversation, or as Chris Gerben put it in “Putting 2.0 and Two Together,” making the material “a museum-in-progress” (Gerben 1). The real and immediate audience provided by new technology in turn co-author the text. Gerben discusses a concept known as “versioning, which takes into consideration that as new voices join a conversation, the direction and outcome of the conversation itself changes” (Gerben 15).
And Gerben effectively proved his point by responding to the annotated bibliography I posted on my blog which distilled some of the ideas I found most illuminating from his article, but ended with a small criticism that he was trying to stay so relevant that he offered little practical advice that teachers could immediately carry into the classroom. He responded, “I would love to talk about specific uses of FB/2.0 in the classroom. Let’s chat!” indicating a willingness to respond to my challenge and to continue and expand his article beyond its limits. Likewise, he added to and changed the tone and direction of my own post, and even this paper. In Gerben’s words, the conversations of process become the final text.
Perhaps the most significant benefit of new technologies is that new media can offer writers a real audience and authentic purpose. The objectives of this essay have shifted since I began writing it because I did not get a hoped for position as a Graduate Teaching Assistant for freshman composition. (Those doing a masters in literature were given priority over those like me who were only doing a certificate — at least I would like to think that was the reason.) For almost a week, I was unable to produce any substantial work on this paper, since my main motivation had left me.
Yet I realized that when I post this paper on my blog, it will actually be read by some people. My posts on changes in the revision process due to word processing and Google.docs have had multiple visitors, and one commenter asked, “Why wasn’t I taught this in writing classes?” In effect, I am teaching writing. (I won’t reproduce those ideas on revision here, since readers may find them in my posts “The Draft is Obsolete” and “Multiple, Simultaneous Drafts.”) I also recognized that the ideas I am synthesizing and developing in this paper should not apply only to freshman composition classes, but to the literature classes I would prefer to teach and even the English as a Second Language Classes that I am now teaching.
Mark D. Kelly writes in a class post, “The Big Shift 10,” responding to Richardson’s list of ten important shifts created by new media, “We all know the feeling of laboring over a particularly painful paper, frustrated by the effort it can take to produce work that will be handed in, graded, returned, and thrown away . . . most students dispose of schoolwork once a course is completed, relegating the fruits of their intellectual labor to the blue bin on the curb. They can find no place for their work on their bookshelves, let alone imagining a place for it out there, in the world. But modern network connectivity may offer student work a place in the world, a chance to contribute to scholarly pursuits and general knowledge, a chance to avoid the void of the blue bin. The internet has changed dramatically the way we find, store, and share information. Anyone can now publish work with a few clicks, and chances are there will be an audience for it.”
Writing has changed and teachers must adapt to the changes if they wish to make a real difference in the quality and depth of writing their students will produce in the outside world. Rather than resisting the evolution, educators should recognize that new technologies offer new tools to make collaborative, integrated reading and writing a reality. Writing becomes a truly interactive process in an ongoing conversation in which each part of the conversation matters.
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