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You all likely guessed what article I would be responding to this week.  Since last semester I’ve been involved in multiple discussions with multiple people – faculty, grad students, undergrads – about the role of technological proficiency when composing digital texts in our writing classes.  The reigning consensus (albeit with small affordances made to the nuance and complexity of the process of writing in our classes) is that we need not worry with developing or teaching technological proficiency because: 1) our students will come into the composition classroom with a wealth of knowledge – more knowledge than we could ever have – about composing with technology; 2) we can’t be expected to develop technological proficiency with which to teach because technology is changing at a pace that we simply can’t keep up with while maintaining our miscellaneous disciplinary constraints (grad classes, book chapters, dissertations, grading, etc.); and 3) by attending to the rhetorical features of digital texts, the technological “wow” factor can be relegated to a secondary role in the service of rhetorical savvy on the part of student-composed digital texts.  I want to take on these three responses in reverse order relying on my own subject position as a composition instructor and by relying on Slattery’s “Textual Coordination:  An Argument for the Value of Writers’ Skill with Information Technology.”

  • By attending to the rhetorical features of digital texts, the technological “wow” factor can be relegated to a secondary role in the service of rhetorical savvy on the part of student-composed digital texts.

If you attended the keynote address of the Spring Writing Conference this year, you might have heard me ask Dr. Alexander if he attended to the teaching of technologies necessary for digital composition.  In response he noted that he did not because a) he didn’t necessarily know all the technologies; and b) in assessing the work, he attended to the rhetorical aspects of the composition.  This is much the same response I received to a similar question in another class on digital rhetoric last semester.  To this response I ask:  “I too attend to the rhetorical aspects of my students digitally composed texts; however, if we are preparing and encouraging students to deploy their texts in public spaces to encourage change, is the broader populace also attending/rewarding only the rhetorical aspects of a piece or does the broader public concern itself with the ”wow” factor first and the rhetorical affect later?”  I would argue that this is the case.  Without speculating too much about the deterministic position of the media consumer in the age of Late Capitalism, I would argue that flash grabs the reader and holds them long enough for rhetorical affect to be applied/consumed.  To assume the position of many of the folks in the discipline – that style isn’t that important – is a mistake as it not only absolves students from a very important rhetorical cannon, it also assumes perhaps too much about the savvy-ness of the public reader.

  • We can’t be expected to develop technological proficiency with which to teach digital texts because technology is changing at a pace that we simply can’t keep up with while maintaining our miscellaneous disciplinary constraints

I think that Slattery’s article speaks directly to this claim.  As he recognizes in his piece, “One frequently-0cited concern about teaching technology is that rapidly-changing technologies make it difficult to keep one’s skills current” (356).  As a remedy, Slattery offers the notion of technological repertoire and a meta-awareness of information technologies:  “As tools evolve, they typically borrow functionality and features from technologies that preceeded them.  Writers who are familiar with a variety of technologies are better prepared to adapt to changing technology” (358).  It’s certainly true that as scholars we’ll never be able to stay ahead of the curve and learn a plethora of coding languages, document manipulation suites, and motion/still graphics editing tools; however, familiarizing ourselves with portions of all of those different technological tools allows us a meta-awareness of tools with which we can help students more effectively navigate alienating/unfamiliar interfaces when composing digital documents in our composition classrooms.  To make claims as a discipline to a new form of composing without understanding the tools needed to make that composition happen seems naïve.  You might say, “Well, you don’t need to understand how your car works to drive it do you?”  The answer is “No”; however, I’m also not claiming to be the mechanic that can also assess how well the car functions and what’s wrong with it when it won’t get out of neutral.

  • Our students will come into the composition classroom with a wealth of knowledge – more knowledge than we could ever have – about composing with technology.

Thanks to Nicole, I’ve thought about this particular point in a lot different light of late.  I think that there is an assumption about what kind of technological proficiency our student comes to composition with. Certainly I think this is the case when we generalize our students – as we do at a private Northeastern university – as upper middle-class, white students that have “come up” with the net and it’s attendant compositional spaces.  Yet, this is certainly the first time I’ve had a student demographic that looks like the traditional college student. . . and it will likely be the only time.  Assuming a technological proficiency on the part of our students also assumes a great deal about their subject position as mainstream – jacked into iPods, crusing around on Macbooks, and generally ‘wired’ with communicative technologies available to a somewhat gentrified student demographic.  Of course this assumption marginalizes those students without technological know-how and creates a double digital-divide: at once excluded from technological composition because of a longstanding relationship with technology that is troubled, the marginalized student becomes alienated from the institution that she attended to close the socioeconomic gap that defines her subject position because of a lack of technological facility.

I’m aware that I’m making this argument from a position of privilege. . . I have an admittedly small technological repertoire and meta-awareness of many tools that technical communication – and undergraduate composition – require.  As such, I could be accused of making an argument from a position of expertise that automatically “others” composition pedagogues who are teaching digital writing without knowledge of digital textual creation tools.  In the end though – and until something changes – I will side on Dr. Alexander’s position of teaching digital rhetoric outside the writing department – but for different reasons.  If we’re not going to cultivate a meta-awareness of technological tools in our pedagogues as a discipline, we won’t be able to as effectively instruct student writers in creating digital compositions for use in the broader public sphere.

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