Jon Udell’s post on the new freshman comp has been making the academic rounds: Colin, Derek, and Will have all commented on it. I can only imagine the tremendous resistance to this idea in the field of composition, which, like all disciplines is quite conservative when it comes to preserving its regular practices. However, I do see other possibilities.
There were two particular points of interest to me in Udell’s post:
- The connection between writers and programmers: "We haven’t always seen the role of the writer and the role of the developer as deeply connected but, as the context for understanding software shifts from computers and networks to people and groups, I think we’ll find that they are."
- And the step into the new medium of video for the web (or screencasting as he terms it):
We’re just scratching the surface of this medium. Its educational power is immediately obvious, and over time its persuasive power will come into focus too. The New York Times recently asked: "Is cinema studies the new MBA?" I’ll go further and suggest that these methods ought to be part of the new freshman comp. Writing and editing will remain the foundation skills they always were, but we’ll increasingly combine them with speech and video. The tools and techniques are new to many of us. But the underlying principles–consistency of tone, clarity of structure, economy of expression, iterative refinement–will be familiar to programmers and writers alike.
And a third point comes up in the comments in reference to Daniel Pink’s contention that the MFA is the new MBA. Also as noted in that comment, Richard Gabriel’s contention that software engineering programs should model themselves after MFA programs: what does he mean by that?
Gabriel is referencing the system of mentoring, the community of writers, and the curriculum of ongoing practice, reflection, and revision in the context of workshops, conferences, and other coursework. Pink, on the other hand, is arguing that the "right brain" creativity nurtured in MFA programs represents the kind of cognitive skills we will need to be competitive in a world where more routine activities are outsourced or computerized. Udell’s point fits in with these. The ability to conceptualize, to reach an audience, to compose in a range of media, and to operate effectively in affective spaces: these are the essential job skills of the future, if not the present.
I can understand why these folks think of the MFA…because creative writing is the form of writing instruction (beyond composition) with which most people are familiar. I also understand why they do not think of technical writing programs, which they may view (and justifiably so) as too left-brain, as positivistic and mechanical, though I don’t believe they have to be that way. However, I don’t think that the MFA is necessarily the right model, b/c MFA programs in creative writing are often quite anti-technological. I think it comes from a lingering allegiance to a Romantic notion of authorial genius.
So, not composition, not MFA-style creative writing, and not traditional technical writing. Instead, I think you have to create a curriculum with the following attributes:
- a mentoring system similar to the MFA in which students develop close working relationships with faculty;
- a community of writers, students and faculty, who share their work with one another in performance, in workshop, in the hallways, on blogs, etc.;
- some creative writing courses, which offer opportunity for experimentation, for practicing poetic language, for thinking about character (psychology/affect) and narrative, for crossing genres, and for addressing audience in a unique way;
- courses in poetics and rhetoric as the underlying theories/philosophies of writing, which is something often absent from creative writing courses that tend to naturalize the writing process (and here I’m NOT thinking about the conventional rhetorics of a FYC handbook, not a pragmatics/how-to of process and audience-awareness, but an encounter with the aporias of symbolic behavior–again, the point is to develop the creative, conceptual "right-brain");
- courses in other professional genres–technical writing, business writing, and so on–that are not taught in the traditional positivistic manner, but rather in the context of creative writing and rhetoric/poetics;
- and, of course, coursework in new media, the practical but also its aesthetics, poetics, and rhetorics, which is not to say that technology isn’t infused throughout this curriculum, but that you actually have to have a place where students experiment with the media.
The result, ideally, of such a curriculum is a student who is a confident, practiced writer; who understands his/her creative process; who has developed a productive writing practice for him/herself; who has composed and performed work in multiple "creative writing" genres; who has internalized some sense of rhetorical and poetic theory (to really get into it would require further graduate study); who has experience writing in workplace genres and bringing a more creative, "right brain" attitude to them; and has a strong foundation in working with new media.
A composition program can’t develop such a student. Most MFA programs won’t either. However, this is precisely the way I envision our professional writing major, and I believe one could fairly describe our students, especially the more successful ones, in this manner. Even our minors can accomplish much of this, particularly if they make an effort to become part of the student community. Of course, our program is far from perfect, and often I worry that it is too diffuse or schizophrenic or just plain weird, but when I read articles like Udell’s, I am reassured that my colleagues and I are going in the right direction.