Breaking Students

Final projects are due today. I sit in my office as students drop by their final drafts. Many sit for a few minutes and reflect on their semester, worry about the next exam, or just complain. However, I am not getting this final closure from my favorite group of students this semester – those taking my Digital Rhetoric class. Why? Because they are submitting everything through their blog spaces. Instead of awkward hugs and friendly discussions of summer plans, I will steal into their blogs and grade.

This semester taught me a lot about how students write and how I teach. Here are some observations:

Students Procrastinate
When I designed this class, I thought the students would appreciate having flexible deadlines and writing at their own pace. I was wrong. I gave them a word count target for each week and routinely encouraged them to write. In fact, I gave them an hour a week in a computer lab just to work on their blogs and get support. I provided periodical ungraded feedback about their blogs. Nevertheless, most of them are frantically writing and posting on the day on which everything is due.

Students Have Been Disciplined
Through years of taking traditional classes either in high school or university, students bird songare uncomfortable when asked to write in non-traditional modes. As Foucault might suggest, the institutions conditioned/disciplined students to write academic research papers… and like it.  The students who excel in English struggle because they’ve learned how to game the system. The blog asks them to write in a unfamiliar form with their own voice to a public audience. I asked them to incorporate multimedia, use hyperlinks, and “be bloggy.”  They seemed to struggle because I did not provide enough rules or boundaries. They wanted more due dates, confines on their content, and traditional writing rules.

I see the same issue in my Business Writing students. Their end of the semester project is a business report. Many of them struggle all semester because they keep trying to produce traditional academic writing. A number of students kept asking about citation styles, the number of pages, and incorporating graphics. They couldn’t wrap their minds around using a chart of graphic as evidence – just like a quotation.  Many said, “I’ve never written this way before,” and they were scared.

Oral Presentations Have Pedagogical Value
While learning how to speak in public is an essential skill for most professions, the oral presentation has other pedagogical value. I mean, I knew this going into the semester, but it’s great to see it borne out by student feedback. Students said they learned what was important by trying to distill their project down to a short presentation. A number of students reported that the oral presentation helped them figure out the point of their projects. Other students said the presentation made them rethink their organization and use of graphics as evidence.  In other words, the presentation made them think critically about how they construct an argument in a way that the written draft could not.

Process over Product
I have always asserted that the final product is important in writing. And while this may be true, that doesn’t mean that writing should be taught that way. Instead, I tend to break projects down into pieces, have staggered due dates, and require drafts. A number of my students said they hated me two or three weeks ago when I asked for full drafts of their projects. However, these same students said they were grateful when they saw their peers trying to write and revise an entire paper and study for finals. One of my students said, “I know my paper is better than theirs because I had time to work on it.”

In the end, I think my courses prepare students for writing and thinking beyond the confines of the academic hot-house. By removing boundaries, I’ve asked them to think critically about their world and their voices. By showcasing the process of writing, I’ve demonstrated that writing is hard work that doesn’t leap fully formed from their heads. Or, maybe I’ve just taught them to avoid writing classes …

Digital Affordances

On my day off from teaching, I am sitting in a coffee shop revising an article for publication. I’ve got Run the Jewels bumping through my headphones that are effectively blocking out an obnoxious conversation happening at the table next to me. I need to online_classesfocus because I hate revision and I find it so easy to put it off (notice me writing this blog post). Nevertheless, I decided to write because I realized how much technology has afforded me this opportunity.

A year ago in the middle of writing my dissertation, I spoke with one of my mentors about revision. He talked about writing passages by hand and cajoling his girl friend to type the pages for him. Apparently, I made a face because he quickly reassured me that he paid her for her skill – after all, typing on a typewriter was a lot of work. He said she paid her way through college by typing papers; she was fast and accurate. She charged extra for last minute projects.

Despite his reassurances, I was still shocked. Not just because his wife typed his dissertation (all 250 pages), but because I was horrified by the idea of trying to do meaningful revision with out the word-processing power of my laptop. I peppered him with questions:

What if you hated the order of your paragraphs?  What if you disliked a quotation? What if you wanted a new topic sentence? What about transitions? What did your works cited look like? What if you spelled someone’s name wrong? How did you do research? How did you find timely sources?

Of course, people wrote differently than they do today. Many authors composed and revised by hand before sharing their work. In manuscript culture, authors often produced a fair copy of a draft before circulating works among their friends or submitting for publication. Unfortunately for people who study textual production, most our revision is invisible. We revise as we type. Our computers erase our work. Writing in a digital environment hides our effort.

Re-Reading Plato’s Phaedrus

The concern for how technology will change how we communicate is ancient; in The Phaedrus, Plato recounts the myth of Theuth who brings writing Thamus, king of Egypt.thothpha Theuth claims that writing will make the Egyptians wiser. However, Thamus is skeptical: “this invention will produce forgetfulness in the minds of those who learn to use it … their trust in writing, produced by external characters which are not part of themselves, will discourage the use of their own memory within them. You have invented an elixir not of memory, but of reminding; and you offer your pupils the appearance of wisdom” (165). Theuth and Thamus’s dialogue could be neatly transposed onto debates about the advent of digital media; Wired becomes Theuth lauding the advent of computers, while Neo-Luddite Sven Birkerts and others like him take the role of Thamus questioning the value of this new invention. New media have sparked debate for millennia.

The anxiety caused by new media may be complicated because humans use technology to communicate and make sense of their world. In The Two Virtuals, Alexander Reid (2007) ties the use of technology to knowledge: “knowledge is produced through the process of externalization, through its articulation in symbols” (29). The cave paintings as Lascaux show early humans using dyes and charcoal to share their understanding of their surroundings. Unlike Plato’s Thamus who fears externalization, Reid argues that technologies are what create human knowledge and culture. People use tools to communicate and to live, and we cannot be separated from them. Tools like the stylus, quill, ink pen, press, typewriter, and dot-matrix printer work with developments like papyrus, velum, linen paper, and wood-pulp paper to help us share and shape our beliefs, our fears, and our hopes for the future. As WELL founder Steward Brand (1993) argues in the first issue of Wired: “The cutting edge of new media is the cutting edge of human cognition, which is the edge of what it means to be human” (43). Technologies shape how we communicate with each other. For example in Orality and Literacy, Ong (1982) claims that media like radio and television resurrect oral culture: “electronic technology has brought us into the age of ‘secondary orality.’ This new orality has striking resemblances to the old in its participatory mystique, its fostering a communal sense, its concentration on the present moment, and even its use of formulas” (133). In other words, new technologies can change how we read, how we participate in popular culture, and how we remain connected to our families.

Resources to check out:
Werner, Daniel S. Myth and Philosophy in Plato’s Phaedrus. New York: Cambridge UP, 2012.