Don’t panic, but the future of human existence depends on what you choose to teach in your Composition course.

I couldn’t quite tell if I was sensing a tone of excitement or panic in this week’s texts.

While I think both Miller and Yancey (CCC 56:2) make excellent arguments for rethinking and possibly expanding our practices (we already inhabit a world heavily influenced by screen literacy), and I couldn’t agree more when both Wysocki (Writing New Media) and Yancey suggest that the writing we ask students to do in school is not connected enough to their lives, I’m still not convinced that this justifies changing the purpose of a first year writing course from “writing/composing” (as Hesse argues in CCC 61:3) to “rhetoric/composing” (as Selfe does, also CCC 61:3).

I do think we should teach composition in a broader context, integrating visual arguments and the rhetoric of new media composition, but I think this has to be a different course than what is usually conceived of as first year comp. Might a certain large, urban state university in northern California change the focus of its second year composition course, currently emphasizing writing about literature, to multimodal composition? I, for one, would love to teach a such a course, but I would want students in it to have a good handle on written composition (and here’s maybe where we need to expand beyond the singular focus on the academic essay, considering that the world we inhabit includes written composition in many forms, some of them digital), so that writing can be one of many possible modes of communication for our students.

So, while I hear the new media alarm, it’s competing with others that have been going off for some time—in particular, the one screaming about the need for colleges to equip students with basic writing skills.

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7 comments on “Don’t panic, but the future of human existence depends on what you choose to teach in your Composition course.

  1. I think that this course is serving as a good first step to multimodal composition. I for one am learning so much about digital technologies and how/why they integrate with the field of composition. While I find all of this information incredibly exciting I don’t think that I would be ready to walk into a first year composition class and begin teaching these ideas without first having gone through this course. I think we would be doing a disservice to our students to ask them to engage with and understand something we have yet to explore ourselves.

    However, I am not saying that we should wait to introduce these concepts either, as the readings have pointed out, this new technology is changing faster than we can get it into the class as it is. Instead, I agree with this weeks readings that new majors need to be put into place and new classrooms created (E708) that prepare us for creating our own multimodal composition classrooms. We dont need to have all of the technology available to us or have an abundance of knowledge about them, but, as educators we do need to be AWARE of them. We need to imagine for ourselves what these new classrooms can look like and the possibilities they can serve. The Miller video was a great example of this!!

    I think it is excitement that we are sensing in these texts, especially since it has been quite some time since composition studies had so many possibilities at its feet. I am excited.

    • A Short Rant–
      Freshman composition is a gateway to critical thinking and the language of the academy. Similarly, digital literacy is a gateway to academic advancement and future job prospects. CMS systems such as blackboard and i-learn are customized to reflect institutional values in terms of what constitutes basic digital literacy. (http://www.blackboard.com/Solutions-by-Market/Overview.aspx) I think that freshman composition, as a gateway course, should be customized to reflect the institutional norm of screen and print literacies.
      I’d just like to say that multimodal composition has to be integrated on an institutional/CMS level or else it’s effects are negligible. If digital literacy skills are dropped after freshman composition, then students are not learning to integrate technology into their academic and vocational lives.

  2. I very much like your suggestion, Alissa, of keeping the first year composition course focused on writing and having a second year where multi-modal communications are taught. Nevertheless, I do think there is place in the first year composition course for new literacies as long as the primary focus remains writing as it is traditionally understood. For example, a teacher could begin by putting students at ease by showing them that they already write a great deal and that they use narrative and persuasive skills in their daily lives that might be transferred into academic writing. Similarly, the teacher could show that students already have the most basic skills for writing: identifying context, audience and purpose of writing and changing tone and register accordingly.

    Also I believe that having students compose a visual argument with photos or video would be a highly effective and memorable way of teaching the basic structure of an persuasive essay: thesis, point, evidence, point, evidence, point, evidence, and conclusion.

  3. I also tend to back off from Selfe’s admittedly strong argument for “rhetoric/composing.” You can never completely separate rhetoric from a writing class, but I think opening up the comp class too much to non-written media will short-change students who need practice writing; as we hear all the time, people already complain that students have grammar, spelling, and other language problems in other classes. And if students are already doing this method of composing on their own, then it seems there is a limited extent to which they need us showing them how to use it.

    That said, I agree with April that we should still try to incorporate tech into the classroom. And like Ron pointed out, we can use these new texts as examples, as ways to get people to see how they may already use rhetorical maneuvers and tie that back into writing in a more traditional format.

    Interestingly, and possibly undermining my point, today’s NYT online had an article about Tufts University applicants submitting YouTube videos with their application. It mentions that this was an option in addition to, not in place of, a required essay, and the dean of admissions stresses that writing will always be around. But it’s pretty telling.

  4. I was really inspired by Miller’s Part 2 presentation and I think it is important to start thinking in terms of ‘and’ instead of ‘or’ when it comes to the English dept’s writing courses. In his presentation, for instance, Miller says that “the future can only be a bright one if it’s realized through the shared labor of those who work in the humanities and those who work in the sciences.” In a similar vein, the future of writing can only be a bright one if it expands to include other modes of writing, not replace or shortchange existing modes of writing with text/language. I believe in English writing courses that still emphasize the importance of writing with text and language (ie. with the alphabet), but I also think that there should be an added component — perhaps an extra class like “New Media Literacies & Writing” or something similar? — that makes students aware of the various design resources available to them, and for them to be able to use these resources critically and for purposes that would nurture them to become great, proficient writers of the English language, as well as great, innovative writers who are able to use the resources at hand in order to effect real change in the community, be global citizens etc. possessing not just uni-literacy but multi-literacies to navigate the world we live in. I also really like what Miller said about the technology: “the goal of this technology is not the technology itself, but what the technology makes possible.”

  5. I am particularly drawn to the idea of focusing new literacy efforts on a literature based course. There seems to be a natural relationship between the metaphor that exists in both fiction and poetry and the visual metaphor we would be asking our students to create. It seems that asking students to use visual literacy as an inroads to their learning is just asking them to flex a different symbolic muscle — a simple exchange of alphabetic text for image. I can really see the value in awakening students’ enthusiasm with these projects, but it really does come down to a question of what we are asking them to do. I really WANT to be convinced that I should have my students create visual essays, play lists, slide shows, collages and various other multi-modal compositions — it certainly would make life as a composition instructor infinitely more interesting — but I agree with Alyssa that our primary focus still has to be to equip our students with basic writing skills.

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