Teaching, writing, & technology conference: Report

I had to return early from the Conference on Teaching, Writing, & Technology, but that one day yielded some interesting thoughts.

Kathleen Yancey, (Professor and Director of the graduate program in Rhetoric and Composition at Florida State University), started the conference off with her talk, "Composition as Material Practices: What That Means and How That Means for the Teaching of Writing in the Early Twenty-First Century." One notion that caught my interest was that "different portfolios create different kinds of students." She compared print portfolios to being like a book, a finished product, and digital portfolios to being gallery-like with multiple paths that may not have conclusions. I think this claim has some validity, but is it necessarily so? Having a digital background could easily influence how one approached creating print portfolios, and vice versa. Even so, I will start thinking about how I might introduce my students to the notion of portfolios not having conclusions for all of its paths but rather being an ongoing exploration.

Yancey quoted Alan Luke as positing a "need to 're-invent' the discipline" and herself for a "need for a new vocabulary" of "texts/technologies/circulation." The likelihood of "re-inventing" a discipline is remote. Nevertheless, having this attitude of always seeking new ways of seeing and doing is crucial to learning, and sometimes having new vocabulary, even if for almost the same things, can help one achieve a different stance from which to see things anew.

In another sessions, Laura McGrath (Assistant Professor of English, Kennesaw State University), discussed the need to prepare students for different rhetorical situations, audiences, products, and purposes for a new global society. In doing so,she broke down learning objectives into three types:

Functional = create blog and blog intries; integrate images and hyperlinks

Critical = think critically about the power of communication technologies as well as their dangers

Rhetorical = assess available communicative possibilities; write for real readers;master conventions of Web writing; make appropriate choices in terms of presentation/style, tone, content; develop understanding of how ehtos is created, communicated, and maintained

This is a useful breakdown of keeping objectives in mind when designing one's curriculum. I wonder a little about the "critical" perspective. Up front, I think developing a critical awareness of anything is an ongoing process and a bit of exposure to it can help stimulate its development. But I imagine that a developed critical awareness depends much upon content knowledge, in the case of communication technologies, not only how they are used in a variety of ways in depth but also how they intersect with societal practices. As compositionists, we tend to be more aware of communication technologies but, again I imagine, considerably less so in other disciplines, simply due to our lack of content knowledge. When I take this perspective and then consider the time constraints in a course and student needs for functional and rhetorical understanding, I'm not sure how much time can or should be devoted to helping students develop a critical perspective. I often wonder how much of our perspectives in curriculum design is affected by where we are in our own intellectual growth, neglecting to take into account the path and time required to reach our present outlook.

In the same session, Tara Shankar (M.I.T. Media Lab) introduced her spriting tool. (Sprite = speaking + writing.) From the abstract of her dissertation defense:

Spriting in its general form is the activity of speaking "on the record" that yields a technologically supported representation of oral speech with essential properties of writing such as permanence of record, possibilities of editing, indexing, and scanning, but without the difficult transition to a deeply different form of representation such as writing itself. This thesis considers a particular (still primitive compared to what might come in the future) version of spriting in the form of two technology-supported representations of speech: (1) the speech in audible form, and (2) the speech in visible form. The product of spriting is a kind of "spoken" document, or talkument. As one reads a text, one may likewise aude a talkument. In contrast, Shankar uses the word writing for the manual activity of making marks, while text refers to the marks made.

Shankar found that spriting facilitated peer collaboration with elementary children throughout the revising and talking process unlike the one-time (or few times) collaboration of writing. In fact, the children showed a sophisticated sense of genre and language while spriting. It allows students who lack writing skills to develop their understanding of language, organization, and other genre skills crucial to formal education, and as Shankar states, "spriting can serve as a stepping stone to writing skills."