The Digital Imperative and Traditional Forms in the Composition Classroom: Contrastive or Complimentary Modes?

Film still, Virtual Love, by Lynn Hershmen Leeson

Film still, Virtual Love, by Lynn Hershman Leeson



In her article, “The Digital Imperative: Making the Case for a 21st Century Pedagogy,” J. Elizabeth Clark states that the traditional approach to the Composition classroom emphasizing essayist writing should necessarily account for the emergence of virtual space as a site for student writing to occur.  However, the question of degree comes up when trying to account for new developments within literacy culture that should be integrated within writing curricula and the real need to continue to teach academic essayist writing.  To begin to understand how to balance the anticipated requirements of the future and still design course assignments for the immediate present is an essential one that teachers of composition should strive to achieve in their pedagogy.

While Clark makes the case for digital rhetoric to find a home in a significant way within writing instruction, she fails to demonstrate the intersections between the academic and private/public cultural spheres of literacy that students engage with in their own lives.  If the goal is to anticipate the social and cultural developments of writing in the near future, it is important to also consider the forms of writing that will be preserved within the academy so that the separate and overlapping domains of literacy can be properly accounted for within a course’s design.  One example of the overlapping domains of digital and traditional print rhetoric in the academy is the civic emphasis on education.  In considering the design of assignments, how might instructors construct a bridge between the academic essayist form and the emergent digital?  Might the features of digital rhetoric such as interactivity, collaboration, ownership and authority concerns, and the malleability of texts already exist under the rubric ‘the production of knowledge’ – and could a Composition course addressing literacy practices as the production of cultural knowledge exhibit and experiment with the features of many types of writing (both digital and traditional) while preserving the relevance of instruction and expanding the embrace to include the social, cultural dimensions of the academic, public and private lives of students?

Henry Jenkins in his article, “Confronting the Challenges of Participatory Culture: Media Education for the 21st Century,” traces the borders and tentatively maps the terrain of virtual literacy formats.  Several of the benefits of this new culture of composing have direct relationships to peer-2-peer learning within the Composition classroom that can be adapted to ‘upgrade’ the models already in place.  For instance, as cultural values regarding intellectual property are influenced by technological developments, student can begin to account for these changes within different acts of composing texts, including those intended for the university and those which fall somewhere within the personal sphere of usage as cultural expressions continue to diversify in cyberspace.  Assignments can easily be designed and situated within units/lessons which frame these considerations for discussion while incorporating the elements of new media literacies such as the development of social skills, collaboration, and networking to compose across different platforms for multi-modal research projects.  In order to prepare students for different contexts of composing texts, teachers of Composition should necessarily begin to integrate the digital into their classroom practices.  However, it remains in the present that the success of students within the university structure depends on their ability to produce academically proficient writing.  The challenge for teachers is to find ways to embrace the digital and expand the definitions of literacy while preserving and adapting the traditional approaches to the developing present.


One comment on “The Digital Imperative and Traditional Forms in the Composition Classroom: Contrastive or Complimentary Modes?

  1. I like your idea about building a bridge between the online writing students are already doing on their own time and the writing we would like them to do in the academy. It reminds me of an argument that Kutz, Groden, and Zamel make in “The Discovery of Competence”–that we must build a bridge between home and academic discourses, with neither relegated to its own island. For students, home discourses have gone public over the last decade. The old split between the private and the public has flipped. Non-academic discourse, once more private than academic discourse, is now the more public of the two.

    The hyper-publicness of once private discourse makes it both more available and more elusive (because it is more diffuse). This makes it essential that we frame digital discourse conceptually. I like the fact that you try to nail down some core qualities of digital rhetoric: “interactivity, collaboration, ownership and authority concerns, and the malleability of texts.” As composition teachers, we can draw students’ attention to qualities of their public, digital rhetoric that they may not be aware of. We can address digital texts that occupy a central position in their lives–using a system of analysis that they can then use to analyze and create academic texts.

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