The Reply’s the Thing Wherein I’ll Catch the Conscience of the Ning

Last week I went to three conferences in three days: Digital Is (put on by the National Writing Project and sponsored by the MacArthur Foundation), The National Writing Project’s annual conference, and The National Council of Teacher’s of English annual conference. I don’t necessarily recommend trying to take that much in that quickly. It’s physically and mentally brutal. But each conference was wonderful in it’s own way, and I’m now trying to synthesize in my own mind what I took in.

Two things stand out: (1) We need more research on digital writing and digital learning styles; (2) We need to rethink the position of digital assignments in the writing classroom.

I don’t want to say too much about number one. It seems self-evident. We have a lot of research on how people write and how they learn to write. We have some on what happens to writing when it goes digital. We need more. We need a more theoretical basis for what we do with digital assignments.

Number two, I have been thinking about more, and I hope others are as well. It asks us to think about the purpose of a writing class. Unfortunately, all too often the purpose of a writing class is not to teach people to write. It’s just to get them ready for the next writing class or the next state mandated assessment. Elementary school teachers want their students to do well in middle school. Those teachers are looking ahead to high school where the teachers hold meetings to ask what they need to do to prepare their students for college. I teach first year college students. In those classes we’re worried about what they need to know to succeed in their other college classes.

That worry is something of a hindrance to teaching them to write and teaching them to think their way through real life writing situations. Their next college class might ask them to write a timed compare and contrast essay with five paragraphs and a thesis statement. No job is ever going to ask them to do that.

Their jobs will ask them to write project narratives, proposals, marketing scripts, emails, problem-solution analysis, and so on. It will ask them to write all sorts of things we can’t even imagine right now because the technology with which they will do so does not yet exist. We don’t know exactly what we’re preparing them for, but we do know that the technological changes of the past few years indicate that the more we shift into digital paradigms, the more everyone needs to be prepared to write. Publicly and professionally.

We also know that one of the characteristics of digital writing is more immediacy of audience. A print publication has built in delays in feedback. A digital publication might receive nearly immediate replies.

And we know that student writing changes when the sense of audience is more immediate. Couple that with the fact that writing is no longer an island unto itself in the digital age but part and parcel with other means of conveying meaning, and I have to conclude that we aren’t doing enough to move writing instruction into the digital age.

I’ve done some experimenting with digital projects, and all of my students now submit their essays electronically. But essays are essentially a print format. Having them write the same things and simply exchange them electronically with the instructor is not digitally innovative. What I’m saying is the students need to do different assignments. Public writing assignments and multimedia projects should be the core of the writing class, not the afterthought. The world around us has flipped inside out. We need to flip our classroom models inside out to keep up.

We need to take the student writing experiences to the blogs, the wikis, and the Nings. We need to create ways to solicit real audiences for them. They need genuine reactions to their writing as opposed to scripted responses from peer review assignments.

I’ve been saying this for some time, but the more I think about the significance of bringing an immediate and real life audience into the equation of student writing, the more I believe I haven’t said it enough. I haven’t done it enough. In my class this semester, I designated 60% for traditional academic essays and only 10% for a multimedia project. If I’m really thinking about what they need to be writers in the world they live in as opposed to what they need to get through the next class after mine, this is backwards. My students need to be (1) writing more; (2) writing in a bigger variety of forms; (3) writing with a more immediate sense of real life audience; (4) working with a bigger variety of technologies. All that means the digital assignments should come closer to taking up the bigger percentage of the course focus.

Now how to shift assessment requirements, grading policies, departmental guidelines of all descriptions, teacher training, digital resources, and other concerns to meet this goal of changing classroom practices is a whole other basket of challenges that I don’t have the answers to. All I know is that it’s time for me and those around me to be thinking about and talking about how we can make it happen.