Thinking about Writing in a Digital Age
In June, Darren Draper blogged about Will Richardson’s switch from a traditional blog to Tumblr. Darren conjectured that we might be entering a new phase in educational blogging, toward platforms like Tumblr and Posterous that support shorter, more spontaneous writing. Darren wondered whether this indicates a trend away from the thoughtful, in-depth writing that has been common in traditional blogs, and whether such movement ultimately might be harmful. (I interpreted that the “harm” would be a diluted level of intellectual discourse, but that’s strictly my interpretation.)
What fascinates me is that Darren starts with the technology and the possible impact on thinking & writing, while I, as a writer & English teacher educator see thinking, writing, & other forms of expression as the constants, with technologies as simply new channels or venues. And it gets me wondering what new visions might get hatched were technology specialists and academic subject teachers to be in ongoing conversation about the flow between the different areas.
For me, Tumblr and Posterous are easy and fun and off-handed; a traditional blog fits a different purpose. I use both. Composition researchers and writing teachers alike have said for decades that there are different times and forms for different kinds of writing, and part of the work of a writer is to make decisions about what is best for his or her purpose in a particular time.
In terms of today’s concerns, composition theorist Andrea Lunsford has spent the past five years conducting a study of the writing of Stanford University students and has commented on the surprising results they are starting to see. A Stanford University News story about Lunsford’s study opened with, “Today’s kids don’t just write for grades anymore. They write to shake the world. Moreover, they are writing more than any previous generation, ever, in history. They navigate in a bewildering new arena where writers and their audiences have merged.” On a Canadian television program (see below), Lunsford is emphatic that computers are not ruining students’ writing, rather, the combination of a rapidly-evolving social, technological, and communication landscape means that writing must also evolve.
Things get complicated when we start thinking about all the possible modes of expression we can use: sound, visuals, movement, etc. All of these can interact under the control of the composer– it’s like composing in three or four dimensions instead of two. I think the multi-layered interactions between all these modes will complicate our composing processes for a while, until we better understand what’s happening. And I do see some things happening.
For example, when I ask my preservice English teachers to work in pairs, take a poem and represent their interpretation using images and some lines that are key to that interpretation, the process of interpretation changes, in part because of working with another person, but more so because working with images opens up whole new worlds of possibility. I’m seeing discussions about the poems get deeper as partners talk about why they should use one image over another. The layouts of each pair’s interpretation becomes interesting– what is the significance of color, shape, placement in the communication? What implications might this have for the teaching of writing in their own secondary English classroom? Ultimately, I wonder what implications exist for the conception of English as an academic subject, but that’s for another time.
We often hear that teachers should focus on the pedagogy and not the technology. But how can we help teachers focus on pedagogy when so many struggle with technology? I’d love to see genuine interactions between technology professionals and “academic” subject teachers, not only about how to set up blogging accounts for kids, but, for example, about the available platforms for blogging and the affordances of each– and not only why choose Posterous over WordPress, but what are we using them for? If it’s just to put a new face on the same old thing, then let’s push each other out of the (educational) boxes we grew up in and see what we can create that makes learning real.
So I say, Tumblr (or its cousin, Posterous), Twitter, and traditional blogs for everyone, and build in to our curricula the very real questions we all have about communication and tools in this amazing new era. I bet our kids could teach us a lot about learning.