Writing Off Writing

In her case study of David John Damon, Cynthia Selfe contrasts his advanced digital literacy skills at college with his undeveloped conventional writing skills, asserting how the university’s overvaluation of the latter and undervaluation of the former were the cause of his eventual flunking out. Spending most of his time working as a Web design consultant and producing CDs, Damon failed two “conventional communication classes,” resulting in a GPA too low to continue at the university. Selfe concludes that Damon “failed out of the university—primarily because he couldn’t produce a traditional essay organized according to the print-based literacy standards of linear propositional logic, Standard English, argumentative development, and standard spelling” (“Students Who Teach Us” 49).

I am undecided about the value of teaching digital literacies, which Hawisher et al. (the ‘et al’ includes Selfe) define simply as “the ability to read, compose, and communicate in computer environments” (“Becoming Literate in the Information Age: Cultural Ecologies and the Literacies of Technology” 642). But I can spot a weak argument in support of digital literacies.

Selfe characterizes “conventional” writing classes in language which more or less equates them with the outdated approach of current-traditionalism, making “conventional’ seem like a dirty word. More specifically, Damon’s teachers in the English Department, Selfe writes, “were very concerned about his ability to organize and write formal essays, his inattention to standard spelling, his inability to write sentences that were grammatically correct according to conventional standards, and his problems with development and logical argument” (“Students Who Teach Us 49). Why, Selfe implies, should such old-fashioned, limited, even trivial concerns get in the way of a student whose literacy is so far ahead of his teachers?

I wonder, for a start, how Selfe knows that Damon’s teachers were so retrograde. Perhaps they were not as obsessed with spelling and grammar as she suggests. Perhaps some of them knew a thing or two about writing.

I also wonder if Damon, to put it bluntly, did his homework for those classes. As Selfe herself points out, he “continued devoting the majority of his days to online design work, spending weekends travelling to consult with his Web design fraternity clients,” and so on.

But I also wonder about the broader issue implied by Selfe’s article: the blurring of the concepts of ‘composition’ and ‘literacy,’ and the expansion of the concept ‘literacy’ to include anything, more or less, that we can say we ‘read’ or ‘compose.’ That is, not just words but images, videos, etc. Do we read architecture, dance, paintings? At what point will we say that composition does not need to include words at all? At what point will we eschew the complex things words can do for us and for others.

Hawisher et al juxtapose a visual composition and a “conventional” book report by a student, Brittney. The book report she wrote simply “to please her teachers.” (That sounds awful, doesn’t it?) The visual composition she wrote “to challenge herself and to engage in the literacy practices she knows will matter most to her when she graduates” (661). (How wonderful!) On the one hand, however, I think there is more to writing and knowing than a book report–not necessarily the best example of an exciting writing project. On the other hand, I’m wondering how I could critique Selfe and others, as I am doing now, with a visual Powerpoint text, mostly pictures with a few narrative words typed across them.

Ending with an attempt at humor, I imagine the following dialogue:

Digitally Literate Student (DL): Teacher, you know that saying, a picture is worth a thousand words.

Conventional Teacher (CT—could be mistaken for Current Traditionalist): Yes.

DL: And you know how you said our papers had to be about a thousand words?

CT: Er, yes.

DL: Well, here’s my paper.

CT: Where?

DL: In hyperspace.

CT: Oh, Ok. Hang on. (Time passes while CT looks up ‘hyperspace’ in a conventional dictionary and then takes a class on the new literacies. Finally:) Then here’s my evaluation: you wrote too many words.


3 comments on “Writing Off Writing

  1. I also noticed (and was slightly offended by) Selfe’s very connotative writing on Damon’s “conventional” composition courses. While I believe digital literacies are important in how we conceptualize the world around us, I can’t imagine ditching print-based literacy standards of linear propositional logic, Standard English, argumentative development, and standard spelling in favor of “the ability to read, compose, and communicate in computer environments.” Personally, if I am reading something online, regardless of how eye-catching or well laid out it may be, if the author could not communicate effectively through their composition (too many spelling errors, ideas don’t follow a traceable train of thought, research is lacking etc.) I won’t bother with it.
    I am also not sure how I feel about assigning the term “literacy” to everything. It seems to be replacing the word expertise. Architects certainly must be “literate” in their field; they have to understand a broad range of terms, ideas, visual forms of representation and arguments within the field of architecture to be able to express their ideas, arguments, structure plans etc. legibly to their peers. This does sound like it mirrors alphabetic literacy in the way it requires the architect to be fully immersed in an understanding of their field, but could it not be classified as expertise? Do we just not give ourselves enough credit for our own integrated knowledge? Or is it a potentially humanizing term we can apply to numerous expertise areas important to the advancement of human thought and culture?

  2. I also found Selfe’s assertions about “conventional literacy” to be a little off-putting in this context. Sometimes I find this aspect of the “New Literacy” the hardest to swallow; I myself am caught in a constant argument about whether or not I am being old fashioned in my views, or whether I there actually is some value to the “linear” and and highly structured nature of conventional academic literacy practices. Even if just for the sake of being able to connect effectively with the literate history of the English language, isn’t becoming somewhat fluent in these kinds of literacy practices valuable? Or is the ability to read and write a certain way being relegated to categories like art history and other wonderfully interesting but generally useless subjects of study? I like to think that language is somewhat more important on a variety of levels than certain other “underwater basketweaving” studies, but maybe that really is only true in the sense of its applicability, in which case “New Literacies” really ought to be a major focus for comp teachers.

    Oh well. Like almost everything else I have studied in this course, the idea of “new vs. conventional” literacy puts me somewhat at odds with myself. Your hilarious student-teacher interaction at the end exemplifies the struggle nicely…

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