Digital Writing: An Update

January 23, 2013 § 1 Comment

It has been close to eight years since one of my students asked if she could build a hypertext reading of Gary Snyder’s poem “Piute Creek.” Brooke’s work is no longer extant, as it was built on a now defunct server. But looking back I can glimpse how her project led to a series of questions about writing and teaching I have been thinking through for years.

In the summer of 2006, teaching for the Bread Loaf School of English in Juneau, Alaska, I experimented with using a blog to capture the intellectual and experiential work of a small group of graduate students in my course “Searching for Wildness.” The project demonstrated to me the practical possibilities of writing in a digital format; it also helped me find a new medium for making visible what takes place during a college-level humanities class–that seeks to imagine through this visibility the shared intellectual project of teaching and learning.

During our year India I chronicled our experiences for family and friends on a blog where I posted a few thoughts on digital writing. Then, in 2010, I mused in “Professors, Students, Blogs” about my experiences writing on a web log (or “blog”) during my sabbatical year. The writing and photography that accumulated on that blog from our time in India inspired a number of other writing-related projects using blogs, including working with students who were using a blog for their writing.

The 2012-13 academic year has been an opportunity for me to go further with the course blog. In my fall environmental studies course, “Writing in an Endangered World,” the students and I did all of our writing using digital means. The course blog replaced the printed syllabus; handouts and writing prompts were shared on the blog; and I used the blog to engage with the materials we were reading before class and to reflect on our discussions. Students designed and archived their writing on their own blogs as well.

As I prepared the course materials for “Writing in an Endangered World” I wrote the following for the students in response to a question I thought some of them might have, Why a Blog?

 E-mail, web pages, wikis, blogs, Facebook, social networks, twitter—much of the writing we are doing now takes place in a digital format. And while all of us are still working out the conceptual implications of these new technologies, the advent of digital writing has created pedagogical opportunities to think about (and with) the digital tools that we use to represent and understand ourselves, and the world.

I then went on to say:

Blogging offers significant opportunities for student writers:

  • Designing and managing a blog offers experience using one of the digital technologies we use as readers and writers. Digital writing requires all of the knowledge and skill writers use in other formats in addition to the new ways digital writing blends modes of representation (visual and verbal) and creates opportunities for fresh conceptual and material connections;
  • A blog can help shift the motivation for writing from the assignment to the writer. For it may be that one of the obstacles to growth as a writer is the writing assignment: that is, more often than not, writing assignments motivate writing for a purpose other than one’s own. Your blog posts will therefore be focused on questions and problems rather than assignments, on the thoughtful (and creative) exploration of ideas as opposed to more mechanistic forms of response to the readings;
  • The relatively short form of the blog entry encourages concise and purposive writing. Managing to say exactly what you need to say in fewer words will challenge you as a writer;
  • The likelihood that the blog will actually be read will help you become more rhetorically aware—of the conceptual, linguistic, social, emotional and ethical concerns a writer must address to be effective with any audience;
  • Writing in a digital format (a web log, or blog) enacts (and represents) the complex process of thinking and writing that takes place in a college-level course; and we will use your writing experiences, and the archive of writing that we create, to reflect on your learning process, and the role of writing in that process;
  • Finally, from a standpoint of sustainability, a blog allows for drafting and composing and sharing your thinking without using reams of paper. While the resources to sustain the electronic networks consume vast amounts of energy, we will at least be using and recycling less paper.

All of these reasons are even more compelling to me having tested them in the fall. (It is pretty neat to teach a whole course as an English professor and use no paper.) As a result, I am embarking on another blog-based course this semester, our introduction to the major course, Literary Analysis. Once again, students will be doing all of their writing on their own blogs. The additional opportunity in this course is for students to create and curate a blog that might serve as a portfolio of their reading, thinking and writing in the major.

I would be remiss were I not to credit the idea of the student blogs to my friend, colleague and collaborator, Sean Meehan, who has used blogs with his students at Washington College. Sean’s example has demonstrated to me the myriad ways a blog can be used to further my pedagogical goal to improve student learning in my courses. I should also mention professor Joe Harris’ Spring 2012 Digital Writing course at Duke University that helped me find my way to a number of writings on the subject of digital writing. Too, I was intrigued by the question that professor Harris says drives the course: What needs to change when you write not for the page but the screen?

What I have discovered in my own work is that the problem of writing—and, of learning to write—remains unchanged. Writing is a problem precisely because it requires thinking. And thinking is an extraordinarily difficult thing to do. As William Carlos Williams reminds us, “an empty head tapped on / sounds hollow / in any language.” As a result, Harris’ question has become less interesting, perhaps. Still, as I become more skeptical of the claims about writing and literacy mediated by technology I am receiving in my book review editor mailbox book-length studies and essays in anthologies announcing on the one hand the fall of literacy as we know it and on the other hand a radical and visionary transformation of literacy.

In one of the recent books that has come across my desk, this one coming out of the national writing project, Digital Writing Matters, one finds a working definition and a kind of breathless sense that something profound is taking place:

[We] define digital writing as compositions created with, and oftentimes for reading or viewing on, a computer or other device that is connected to the Internet. This in itself is a transformation in the ways in which we write. The bigger transformation is, however, the networked ways in which we can share, distribute, and archive digital compositions using Internet based technologies. Today’s network connectivity allows writers to draw from myriad sources, use a range of media, craft various types of compositions representing a range of tools and genres, and distribute that work almost instantaneously and sometimes globally. Michael Crawford, one of Chris Joseph’s interviewees (2005), summed up the new possibilities of digital writing well: “I like to think of it as a totally new place . . .where one can experience freedom of form and from the boundaries now imposed.” And for Alison Clifford, “The most positive aspect of digital writing has come from the need to re-think writing and how stories are told.

It would be difficult to make a case that the ecosystem of writing has not been radically changed. But at the same time, all of this talk about new possibilities sidesteps the day-to-day work of writing, and the challenges of teaching of writing. I’m just not convinced that the medium, in this case, is the message, or that digital technologies have changed the problem of putting words together in a sequence that does what we might want language to do. At the same time, digital technologies provide and exciting space for writers to write, and for students aspiring to become writers might find their voice. So as the jury continues to wander all I can say for sure is that digital technologies are simply one more set of tools to find our way to those mindful and mannerly and well-formed words we were hoping to write.

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