Writing in the Digital Age

This is a guest post by Alex Reid for the On the Horizon series on distributed learning environments. Alex is an Associate Professor of English and Professional Writing at the State University of New York, College at Cortland. His research focuses on issues of rhetoric, composition, and pedagogy in media networks and emerging media technologies. His recent book, The Two Virtuals: New Media and Composition (Parlor Press, 2007), received honorable mention for the W. Ross Winterowd Award for best book in composition theory in 2007. He has co-edited an essay collection, Design Discourse: Composing and Revising Professional Writing Programs, which is forthcoming from WAC Clearinghouse. His research also appears in journals such as Computers and Composition, Theory & Event, and Culture Machine. He is an editor of Kairos: A Journal of Rhetoric, Pedagogy, and Technology. His blog, Digital Digs (alexreid.typepad.com), received the John Lovas Memorial Academic Weblog award in 2007 for its scholarly contributions to the field of rhetoric and composition.

In the conversation over distributed learning environments, it is important to begin by recognizing that the question is not IF our learning environments can be or should be distributed but rather HOW. A professor teaching in a lecture hall back in the halcyon days before wireless connections or mobile phones still taught in a distributed learning environment. That professor stood connected to an elaborate, non-local, distributed network of knowledge, materials, laborers, institutional polices, and social contracts that governed the relationship between professor and students and provided authority, context, and cultural value to what s/he said. Certainly a course operating in an institutional CMS is connected to a distributed network of technologies, standards, and protocols, as well as institutional budgets, bureaucracies, and practices. Students’ learning experiences are shaped by these distributed networks, and our pedagogies circulate through these networks. This may seem self-evident, but our discourse on emerging technologies in teaching regularly makes the error of situating the choice between a new “distributed” environment and an existing cohesive one (and in the case of face-to-face teaching, even an imagined “immediate” environment). These are intellectual errors we simply cannot afford to make.

My article stems from my experiences teaching in publicly-accessible online spaces: blogs, wikis, YouTube, Second Life, etc. As a professor who researches and teaches communication in emerging media networks, I have particular disciplinary reasons for teaching in web 2.0 spaces. However, my decision to use these applications is not solely about disciplinary interest; it is also a pedagogical choice. My teaching hinges on experimentation and risk. Of course we aren’t eating random wild mushrooms or jumping from planes, so obviously experimentation and risk are relative terms here. Nor do I wish to romanticize my classroom; to the contrary, I find my classroom quite mundane. For me, it is an everyday notion to view the mind’s work as making experimental, temporary connections and taking calculated risks. Working across these applications with their classmates and other “real-world” collaborators, my students are faced with daily decisions of how to communicate what and where.

Despite the perceived tech-savvy nature of these Millennials, this context challenges my students. My students are so trained by classrooms where all the connections are pre-made and the only risk is boredom that they are often frustrated when I don’t tell them exactly how to connect the things we are learning, as if the world were just a larger version of the screw-together furniture in their apartments. Of course they know the world is more complex than that; they just don’t expect their classes to reflect that complexity. Not surprisingly, the walled garden CMS is much like screw-together furniture: carefully designed to manage student actions and pre-formatted with powerful assumptions about how knowledge is organized, how learning happens, and what relationship pertains between students and teachers. It is important to recognize that CMS’s are designed as they are for a reason. They reflect dominant ideologies about teaching, though certainly other marketplace imperatives are at work here as well.

From what I can see, this journal issue is shaping up to present a broad range of perspectives, and distributed learning environments certainly present a range of technical, economic, legal, and institutional challenges. From my perspective as a professor however, the questions these technologies raise are fundamentally disciplinary and pedagogical. They offer us the opportunity, indeed challenge us, to change how we teach, how we relate with our students, and even how we structure disciplinary knowledge. My article will examine some of the implications of taking on this challenge. The real question facing academia is whether or not we have the ability to rise beyond our well-worn mental habits, world views, and established identities–tasks we regularly ask of each new class of students every fall.

Alex Reid, Associate Professor
English & Professional Writing
SUNY Cortland
Co-editor, Kairos Praxis

SL: Alex Asylum

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7 Responses to Writing in the Digital Age

  1. Well said. My experience mirrors yours. Students have some of the tools (certainly most of the technical functionality) but are missing the context. This shift in context is what school should provide. It will need to come from faculty like yourself – where the context is the issue and the tools themselves are “mundane” and definitely not the focus.

  2. Nick Carbone says:

    I like the connection you make between pedagogical risk and experiment and learning risk and experiment. That is, students risk much when they write, speak, and think in our classrooms, or at least much more, in terms of confidence and exposure than we risk as teachers. In a way, then, we owe it to them to also put something at risk, to take a step that’s a bit tentative, an experiment. If we only do what we’re sure will work, we’ll only do what we’ve always done. And even then we can never be sure it will work. But the risk is to always do what we’ve always done that used to work and to blame our students for it not working any more.

    But risk and experimenting with new genres, technologies, kinds of digital writing, which can happen in smaller or larger steps, is a way to also put ourselves in our students’ shoes. Which ain’t a bad place to be now and then.

  3. Alex Reid says:

    Thanks Kevin and Nick. The article I’m writing will deal with this issue of risk and how our changing environment is altering relations within the college community. I’m going to try to address these concerns by placing them in the context of actor-networks (a la Bruno Latour and others). That is, we tend to naturalize teaching practices as the rational results of academic freedom (i.e, we simply choose how to teach) and imagine the rest of the campus as a comfortable backdrop. Actor-network theory allows us to examine the contexts that shape pedagogy (and how they are altered when they intersection media networks).

    Teaching in such environments does involve risk-taking, though not in a heroic sense; as Nick rightly points out, we need to recognize the inevitable nature of risk. Doing what we always do means taking a substantial risk as well.

  4. Really good point about how our approach to pedagogy shapes our choice of software. Seems this is mostly unconscious for most of us; seems we are waking up a bit and realizing we need to make our implicit assumptions more explicit. Looking forward to reading the article.

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