OhMann The Pressure’s On!

Kathleen Blake Yancey comes to us with what seems like a magnificent step forward in writing – the general public is writing of their own volition outside of the classroom, completely unprompted (pun intended) by English teachers.

4558046In fact, Yancey points out that people have chosen “a rhetorical situation, a purpose, a potentially worldwide audience, a choice of technology and medium – and they write” (302). This sounds like a marvelous accomplishment for writing, but Ohmann points out, in a more recent article, that there is a lot of baggage that comes along with this. Namely, Ohmann is concerned that through the marketing of computers and microcomputers, we are essentially being led in our literacy by corporations and political interest. Of course, I believe we all acknowledge that there are always outside influences going into the shaping of literacies in our world, but Ohmann points out that in classrooms, microcomputers are used for little more than a medium to construct texts, and a storage place for files.

Now, I believe it is up to us to bridge the gap between writing in a personal, self-chosen place, and the writing we see and strive for in the classroom. To its credit, the CCCC’s position statement on Technology has asked that classrooms with technology “provide students with opportunities to apply digital technologies to solve substantial problems common to the academic, professional, civic, and/or personal realm of their lives,” but simply stating this isn’t enough. How do we get students to utilize good Habits of Mind (please scroll if opened) outside of the classroom and think critically about all (realistically most) texts that they create? According to a survey conducted by Jeff Grabill (2010), students held the perception that writing done socially or for personal fulfillment is not valuable outside of its specific realm of personal gratification. I believe that we need to find a way to get students to see social media, blogging, and perhaps even texting, as something that is not only valuable for their own development, but also can have repercussions for the world. I recognize that this is a large problem to tackle, and know it will be a process to complete. Ideally, we as instructors must start to show the intellectual potential of technology platforms in our classrooms, while also remembering to draw attention to the biases and money-driven goals surrounding those platforms (a la Ohmann).

So now I pose some questions to all of you (I have opinions and at least somewhat formed answers to these, but for the sake of conversation I’d rather hear your thoughts):

  • How do we incorporate social media based writing in a way that is both productive for our own classroom and will keep students more informed/intellectually engaged outside the classroom?
  • How far should we push students into recognizing the academic and intellectual potential of the writing they do solely for enjoyment?
  • How do we keep Composition relevant without losing the qualities in writing that we aspire to?
  • Everyone talks about writing, but what about reading? How can we facilitate good reading habits of social media, etc? More importantly, do we, as instructors, even know the full scope of what “good reading” looks like for majority of personal writing platforms out there?

Top Ten Tips for Avoiding Reductive Lists

In Richard Ohmann’s 1987 chapter in Cross-Talk in Comp Theory, his rather dire reading of the tea-leaves in Section 4 is titled simply “Computers.”

As Phil Kraft puts it, “all the skill is embodied in the machines”- in fact, that could be a definition of the term “user-friendly.” (“Designing for idiots is the highest expression of the engineering art,” in David Noble’s words…Operators seldom become programmers; programmers seldom become systems analysts; analysts seldom become designers or computer scientists (Corson 35). Graduates of MIT will get the challenging jobs; community college grads will be technicians; those who do no more than acquire basic skills and computer literacy in high school will probably find their way to electronic workstations at McDonald’s. I see every reason to expect that the computer revolution, like other revolutions from the top down, will indeed expand the minds and the freedom of an elite, meanwhile facilitating the degradation of labor and the stratification of the workforce that have been hallmarks of monopoly capitalism from its onset. (708)

While I think he’s probably right, and that this sums up the current trajectory of most students, he also wrote that near the beginning of the seepage of visible computer technology into everyday life, and that some of his predictions are dated.  Sure, the department secretary is the only one who used a computer back then, mostly for typing up flyers; but I would hope that these days are long behind us and that many of us are using computing technology for a whole host of other things.

Therefore, I also think that part of our job is to ensure that students have their own choices about where they end up at the end of compulsory schooling, in composition or otherwise.  And now that the computer revolution is 30 or 40 years in the making, we – all teachers – should be able to get down to the business of critically involving technologically mediated curriculum at this remove.  Writing New Media attempts to do exactly that, and in the process demonstrate to teachers what their new media classroom assignments might look like and look for in student competency.  There’s always a danger in this, of course: Helpful handbooks on writing became the constricting Five-Paragraph Theme after what seems like a cosmic game of “Telephone” between the comp theorists and the practicing classroom teachers.  We should resist anything that boils down to a “Ten Top Tips” list and perhaps just get “start[ed] nonetheless” (WNM 45).

Additionally, I fear, as a teacher who has been in this rodeo for a while, that the neat and orderly control mechanisms Ohmann described are going to circumvent and then circumscribe my wish for an educational way of being that is not neat and orderly, one which challenges its students’, their teachers’, even its own “agency and materiality.”  I still have to teach the five-paragraph essay.  When my students post things in their academic blogs that they shouldn’t, we adults swoop in and scold them (and it has already happened).  This is the nature of the beast we seek to tame.

Some interesting ideas. Also, this.

At any rate, we walk a fine line, which is, I suppose, what this class is about.  I wouldn’t hesitate to use a few of the templates Selfe offers in her chapter titled “Toward New Media Texts: Taking Up the Challenge of Visual Literacy.”  These are outlines for dealing with a “new” type of essay, the “visual essay” (OH MY GOD are you kidding me?  It has already begun…).  But for teachers who aren’t ready to walk this dark path without a flashlight, this chapter (and others in this book) provides practical ideas for traversing this treacherous ground.  Got it?

The Medium and The Message

In “Opening New Media to Writing”, Wysocki invites teachers to use new media as an addition to their composition-based pedagogy, and to allow new media to inform the composition classroom in new ways. In “Composition in a New Key”, Yancey does the same, and Cynthia Selfe joins in as well in “Toward New Media Texts: Taking up the Challenges of Visual Literacy”.

There is a call to arms in Wysocki, Yancey, and Selfe’s articles to push composition into a future of public writings and readings, visual analysis in addition to text, and examination of the construction of self, identity, and place through the lens of the internet. Ohmann, a skeptic, offers some minor cautionings and perhaps occupies a similar mindset that I do in “Literacy, Technology, and Monopoly Capital”: New Media and technology have the potential to be incredibly beneficial to education as a whole, but our goals and purposes will ultimately decide whether it is successful or not.

While I am enthusiastic about the potential benefits of such an application, I conflict with the purpose of inserting new media in a classroom.  Each reading contained a specific kind of reasoning for this shift, however I still struggle to except justifications at hand.

So, by adding new media into the composition classroom, are we training students for future jobs? Ohmann seems to think that this is an exaggeration of the future state of technology. He relates this ‘age of technology’ to previous ages of economic revolution; in this, technology is a tool of workforce stratification where only a few will need the specialized skills of technology.  By no means is Ohmann alone in his skepticism of the political implications of technology.

Certainly there are niche jobs in technology, and training for them is done in specific classes that may even happen in specific technology-centered schools. And, if future students are becoming proficient with new technologies earlier than ever, then how are we, who may often be behind their skills, going to help them with future jobs?

While there are those who would argue that even the most recent generation is under-prepared for jobs involving even the slightest technological skills, I’m not sure I understand the task of training for technological jobs in the writing classroom. Based on my job technology-related job experience, I envision composition classrooms working in Excel, Word, Outlook, and alike. And this seems like a challenge to me, even if Yancey does detail an interesting idea for using PowerPoint in the classroom.

Then, if we are not training a future workforce, are we leveraging new media as a means to engage students and motivate them? Yancey offers different points in her articles where she details several moments in history where writing and reading activities were done on a large scale outside the classroom. She asserts that not only do people not need formal instruction to participate in different forms of social reading and writing practices, they especially do not need assessment to validate these acts.

Ultimately, people don’t need grades to be active readers and writers. If we then decide to pull things from technologies that drive people to read and write more into the classroom and assess them, are we just going to slowly suffocate their joy?

Ok, so we’re not trying to be kill-joys and grade your favorite internet activity. Continue to make Willy Wonka memes without fear. Then, is this move into a related, but seemingly separate field a last-ditch effort to give composition departments a fighting chance in the academic world? Yancey, Selfe, and Wysocki spend a lot of time detailing how composition should be moving into the future–presumably so that we don’t get left in the past.

There’s been plenty of concern about the direction of composition studies over the past couple of decades (See: End of Composition Studies by David Smit– the title says it all). And so, it’s no wonder that we want to make sure that we’re presenting something fresh and appealing to colleges. But I think some of this progress has the potential to dismantle the field and place it in the realms of other disciplines. I think this is why Yancey mentions WAC classes and their new importance to composition teachers.

Ultimately, I’m conflicted with what our purpose is or could be, even if I can see all of these justifications as potential benefits. The answers I have are certainly a product of being here and now for me, grappling with teaching myself for the first-time, and generally doubting everything I do in the classroom. Perhaps though, others have more insight for the use of New Media in the classroom and the choice, like inserting anything into your teaching, is a personal one based on personal reasoning. Clearly, I’m not quite there yet.