Joe Torok is a PhD candidate in Rhetoric and Composition as well as a Lecturer in the English Department at Wayne State University. He teaches Basic Writing and Technical Communication and has been instrumental in helping the department significantly expand the number of its online course offerings.
I don’t often see technology in scare quotes, but when I hear some conversations about it in writing teacher circles, I imagine half-fisted hands with index and middle fingers upright, twitching down twice when conversations arise about attending to technology as part of pedagogy and the writing process.
It’s easy to be polemical, one way or the other, when discussing technology in the writing classroom. There’s the “should technology (i.e., laptops, smart phones, tablets, etc.) be banned in the classroom” conversation with plenty of voices on the lock-down side, and plenty ready to respond. In this post, I’m less interested in that conversation, and more interested in how the process of writing actually intersects with technology.
First, I want to take a moment to heap a bit of scorn on my own casual usage of the term technology. What do I mean when I use this term? Does it mean, by default, electronic, wireless devices? Perhaps. But what about a whiteboard, because that is surely different technology than a screen and projector, or a chalkboard, or a SMART Board. What about a pen or a pencil? Those are technologies, surely. Some argue that language itself is a technology. My point here is not to debate what counts or does not as technology. Rather, it is to bring into view what things we qualify as default tools for the teaching of writing, while anything outside of that default status, or anything that challenges the supremacy of such status, is often relegated to the category of technology, for better or for worse. In other words, chalkboards or whiteboards and pen and paper may not rise to the level of technology for some because they are (often imagined) as a part of the default setting for writing classrooms. Anything outside of those default tools becomes “technology.”
Back to the classroom. Recently, members of the composition committee revised the new common syllabus for ENG1010, the centerpiece of which is a new set of learning outcomes, and one of the outcomes centers on technology. The inclusion of a technology-based outcome was based on the concerns of committee members along with precedence from the WPA. Although the WPA has recently removed technology from its list of outcomes, a concern for new media is apparent in the introduction to the outcomes.
All this focus on technology is well and good, but I have still heard instructors say (sometimes to me directly), “First [I’ve been told], it’s not really my job to teach technology. Someone else should do that, i.e., as part of university entrance requirements, or in computer science departments—just about anywhere but in the humanities. Second [a bit more discreetly], I don’t know how to teach the use of technology in a writing classroom.” The objections, in short, are I don’t want to, and I don’t know how. The latter is understandable while the former risks something great in writing pedagogy. As Stuart Selber points out in his book Multilteracies for a Digital Age, passing on a pedagogical opportunity to, say, a computer science department risks abandoning the kinds of critical and rhetorical inquiry that disciplines in the humanities typically revel in and are uniquely situated to attend to. Whether or not Selber convinces someone that we ought to be teaching technology is beside the point: our local context requires it. So the more pressing question becomes how do we teach it.
Let’s take a closer look at one kind of digital writing technology all students will encounter at some point: email, or more specifically the email subject line. One answer to the how question might be to quiz or test students on the usage of email. Some instructors require students to send an email after the first day of class with questions about a part of the class syllabus. This kind of assignment tests what Selber describes as a student’s “functional” literacy. In other words, can he or she successfully send an email? Most of our students will enter our courses with a functional literacy of email and even the email subject line (i.e., they can send an email with something recognizable typed into the subject line). But for my money, the teaching has just begun. I don’t want my students to merely know how to functionally use a technology and leave it at that. In another technological circumstance, that would be like saying, “Okay, you know how to use a pen to fill up the lines from left to right, top to bottom with words on the page. We’re done here.” I want a bit more as a writing teacher, of course.
Selber also describes “critical literacy” as vital to multimodal pedagogy. To build off of the email and subject line examples, I would find it dissatisfying for my students to send me an email with non-existent, misleading, or inappropriate subject lines. If I were to be satisfied with functional literacy only, I would be okay with getting emails from “killrboy32191@yahoo” or “yogakittyrulz@hotmail” with subject lines like “[blank]” or “send me syllabus.” Developing critical literacy entails analyzing from where a student might send an email (i.e., which account—personal or school?), what kinds of subject line messages there are, and identifying effective possible choices.
A fun in-class exercise might include having students list the email accounts they have and categorizing them according to use (i.e., are they better for personal correspondence, or professional?) They might even create a new personal account for future use if the name of their present personal account is less than ideal for, say, applying for a job.
Another warm-up exercise in class may challenge students to think through different audiences when composing a subject line. For instance, a teacher may offer students the following prompt: write a subject line for an email that seeks to ask a person to meet at a later date. Here’s the catch: each student will be writing a subject line to different audiences. I’ve used folded pieces of paper that students select with audiences such as “significant other,” “grandma,” “boss,” “best friend,” “professor,” “santa clause,” “a stranger,” “a co-worker,” “the president,” “a seven-year old niece,” etc., etc. What’s key here is an attention to a critical literacy of technology (in this case the email subject line) beyond a mere functional literacy.
Selber adds another layer as well: “rhetorical literacy.” Rhetorical literacy, Selber says, works toward apt, effective, persuasive, uses of technology. In our simple example, can the student actually compose an apt, effective, persuasive email subject line to a clearly defined audience? Test them; have them send you an email; give them feedback on their writing after the first day of class by responding to the email you assigned them to send you. After all, we’re writing teachers, regardless of “technology.”