My notes on Chapter Six of Writing New Media, “The Database and the Essay: Understanding Composition as Articuluation” by Johndan Johnson-Eilola eventually gave way to me trying to re-conceptualize research and the research paper. It’s been very much on my mind lately, not only because I’ve got to figure one out myself not too long from now, but I’m having a sort of existential crisis in my own classroom.
Let me explain. The suits that run my workplace really, really want us to be doing Things. Lots of Things. Like “Project-Based Learning.” Like “instilling 21st-Century Skills.” Like “The Four Cs.” Like “professional learning communities.” And trying to get ourselves out of Federal Program Improvement, which entails doing a lot of practice for bubble tests like these and these. All at the same time. Reasonable people can agree that the ingredients list on this recipe is ridiculous and needs paring down. I spent a week at a PBL conference over the summer and, after crafting a rather decent skeleton for an entire unit on Latin American globalization, completely on my own (after my co-writer bailed on the whole conference after a day), and all of this after completing a project for an SFSU class (on blogging in secondary classrooms), I realized that if there was anyone on the faculty who could be expected to experiment with these competing ideas, who might be even marginally successful at it, it was probably going to be me.
I’ve already run into my own hurdles, like trying to teach my seniors why it’s not OK to rip off photos, because it’s like plagiarism. I instructed them on where to get fair-and-acceptable-use photos, and not to use anything else, and they still use stuff in their blogs I’m not even sure about. I just have to sit here and pray that they took my advice, made the effort, and that if they didn’t, that their use of said photos are going to be just fine because they are not commercial enterprises – they are teenagers blogging because Mrs. G. told them to or they will flunk.
Anyway, I have always done research papers with my classes, tenth graders and seniors, and while I don’t see my senior paper changing a whole lot anytime soon (even last month I got another email from a former student thanking me for making them write the damned thing, because they were just assigned a new one and are now responsible for getting their entire dorm floor of freshmen through it, because evidently, nobody else learned it before landing at Stanford). But as research becomes in some ways easier because Internet, it’s also harder because, well, Internet (is that 9 billion hits?).
Teaching these “digital natives,” some of whom know a lot but most of whom know little more than my 73-year-old father (who just figured out how to make his laptop connect to wifi systems other than the one he has at home…hooray! Dad? DAD?!?!) is daunting. There’s so much – I’ve had twenty years to figure it out, and as it grew, I learned – they are learning as it’s already here. There are things out there that help me narrow it a bit.
And so I come to Johnson-Eilola’s two underlying concepts, borrowed from theorists in other disciplines, of understanding writing itself. First, as “symbolic-analytic work” (201), where the author controls various ways to manipulate information and makes those available to the end user. I wrote in my notes that this sounds to me like “knowing the user,” whoever’s going to re-use those data sets, and that maybe knowing who’s going to use your product is a lot like a writer knowing his or her audience, the people who are going to read and reinterpret what has been written. Second, as “articulation” (201), as texts mean things only socially, and break down and are re-formed as a matter of course – meaning isn’t static.
It all reminded me of the thing with which I always open my units on research and writing research papers: “You are not necessarily saying anything new. Many people have written, in some cases astonishingly well and astonishingly voluminously, about your topic. What you are doing is bringing it together in a new way according to these rules I am about to show you.” And I think that is still true. To some extent. But now we need to consider the very rules, like MLA format. The Johnson-Eilola paper covers that territory, discussing the various ways that InfoWorld and NPR tried to control who linked to their content (209), all of which were failures by themselves. But, like the very nature of writing in a postmodern world, the ground is always shifting under our feet. But even if we are theoretically comfortable with that, practically? We are far from it, most of us. I mean, for God’s sake, we’re not even really turning in a traditional paper for this class; we’re presenting our research findings in some way that is commensurate with a class that pushes the envelope of our conception of writing in the digital age. Now, I’ll tell you what I’m very likely going to be doing: Writing an eight-page research paper and then figuring out a way to make it digitally pretty in order to present it to all of you. I guess I still, at the very root, think and construct ideas for myself, and navigate my world, in a linear fashion (Jordan’s post discussed Johnson-Eilola’s take on this idea).
But what if I could take off the training wheels? What if I were comfortable foregoing that and producing a great digital essay without that intermediate step? I’m not even there in my own work. Getting myself to the place where I would be comfortable teaching it is quite another matter. And if I have already identified myself as the most able and willing person in my workplace to do that, then we as a profession have a long period of introspection, learning, and practice. Some of that might come in a group like the aforementioned PLC, but I can say from two decades of experience that a lot of that is a profoundly individual endeavor.
As a parent and a secondary educator, I have other concerns about the commercialization and marketing of text chunks and the “prescriptive nature” of school writing, but I think Jordan’s post captured all of that pretty well.