Planning composition: some logistical-programmatic challenges

1987, that’s when I took composition. I failed the final paper and got a C+ as I recall.  I remember that final paper was about some novel I didn’t read. One pointless literary based writing assignment in what would be a long string  of researchless, "new critical-esque" writing assignments  on books I didn’t read as an English major. Obviously I got better at pulling off such writing tasks. Meanwhile I was out in the "real world" making a living writing technical documentation, business proposals, designing brochures and catalogs, building databases–you know, learning how to write.

Anyway, in 1987 you could go through my dorm. I don’t remember anyone having a computer on my floor. CD players were the "new" technology; most people still had the majority of their music collections on cassette or LP. No cell phones of course but plenty of Sony Walkmans. You had to use a typewriter to write your papers. I had an electronic typewrite with a tiny LCD screen where you could see about half of a sentence at a time. There was enough memory that you could probably write your whole paper into storage. Amazing.

Yeah, a lot of things have changed since then… No kidding. But one thing has remained largely the same…

Yes, it’s first-year composition. (Well, maybe the average English curriculum too, but that’s for another day.) But I’m thinking that things have got to change, and change quickly. The last time I taught comp was in 2002 I believe. There were things that seemed outdated to me then. I felt our composition program was outdated in terms of scholarship, but that’s a different matter. It still felt to me like teaching students to produce print documents was the right course of action. At that point I didn’t even have a lab where I could teach web design. But that was four years ago.

Just think about YouTube. 18 months ago YouTube was little more than an idea. The site didn’t go active until November 2005. Ten months later its a billion dollar property. The world of video is just exploding. Combine it with all the other Web 2.0 developments and suddenly teaching students to write inside one inch margins feels a little like teaching them how to shoe on a horse.

The only saving grace is faith in the notion that print literacy is somehow foundational to other literacy practices, but that seems harder and harder to believe. I mean, if that’s the case, then how come all these super-literate folks in English departments struggle so mightily with new media?

But then I start thinking about the logistics of this, even just on my campus. Already we can start to see the creep of media production into the curriculum. Courses across the disciplines are starting to do it. At some point we will say our students need to learn to compose video much like we teach them to compose text now–video as a staple in first-year composition. How far out is this turning point? Five years? Look how quickly the YouTube phenomenon took off.

So on our campus we have around 30 video cameras that circulate from the library. What happens when 1200 composition students need to make videos every semester? Plus you have to take into account demand from other courses. We probably need at least 300 video cameras to circulate. It means we better be buying 50 video cameras (plus other equipment) every year and plan to do that as a minimum for the foreseeable future (b/c these cameras are going to need to be replaced). That probably works out to $40-50K/yr. Then you need to hire staff to service them and staff to support faculty and students using them.

We also need to think about training faculty.

Or do we think that the day when video and audio production are an integral part of workplace communication, of learning, of cultural-social interaction will never come?

It can’t stay 1987 forever.

7 thoughts on “Planning composition: some logistical-programmatic challenges

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  1. I’m teaching an intermediate comp course (the second of a two-part req @ UW-Madison and which samples heavily from Anne Wysocki’s Writing New Media Summer workshop), and although I’ve been thinking more and more about putting together a Writing with Video course, there are some reasons why I think using Photoshop and Studio 8 are a good place to start. 1) The only hardware needed is a computer (no cameras, lights, tripods, etc.), and there are lots of computer labs here. 2) As long as those computer labs have the software (and many do), students can do work on their own, without the need of additional hardware or a crew (I was a film/video major as an undergraduate, and although I was able to do some projects on my own, many required the recruitment of others. Of course, working in a group might be an interesting requirement of a writing with video course).
    For me, using PS & Studio 8 is a great starting point that introduces students editing images, web design, and movies/animations. And it’s a lot cheaper to use the existing infrastructure of the Univerity (butting getting a grant for such a project would be awesome). As for the training of facutlty, although I had experience with Photoshop, web design and digital video editing, it seemed like most of those who left Anne’s workshop had a good understanding of the basics after only two weeks–enough so that they could possibly teach what they had learned in a comp course.


  2. Good point Rick. Are you doing movies/animation in Flash? There are certainly some different ways you could go about producing video. You can do screencasting with something like Snapz Pro (that’s on the Mac side; I know there is something comparable on the PC side.). Also you could download video and edit it, if you were interested primarily in the editing side.
    I’ll be interested to see how it works out for you. I do think it’s possible to give dedicated faculty a starting point with media production in two weeks, at least enough that they could go out and maybe create a website and some video for themselves.
    When you start teaching it to others, as you’ve probably found out, something different happens though. Students do unpredictable things with the applications. They ask off the wall questions. I thought I knew Dreamweaver until I taught it for the first time. That first semester I spent a long time sitting with students trying to figure out what the hell they had done, why it wasn’t working, and how to fix it. Of course eventually you begin to see patterns of user behavior, and it all becomes a little easier.
    To be honest, I don’t know that 1200 students trying to build web pages using Photoshop and Studio 8 is less of a logistical challenge than having them use camcorders and iMovie to make videos. I would hazard to guess we have less than 100 licenses on campus to run these apps.
    What I have seen around is individual faculty or small groups of faculty working in modest ways using video, web, and/or other multimedia. It happens in programs specializing in new media (of course) and here and there in other programs (like FYC).
    I guess I’m wondering what happens when the video, the multimedia website, or some future version of these things becomes the equivalent of the five-page paper.
    Do we imagine that will never happen? That it won’t happen for twenty or thirty years? Or that it is “around the corner,” a decade away?
    Can the academy learn to keep pace or will it be left behind?


  3. You both raise very important questions. Can we envision how mainstream video production will be in either college/university or public school environments.
    One point I would make Alex is that while I love your simile about the horse shoe! print media still holds powerful sway in the academy. Aren’t most of us–faculty and studetns–still judged on what we “publish?”
    The word is still powerful–it hasn’t ceded wholly to the image yet. Karen


  4. Well, we certainly are still judged on our production of printed media. But there are two issues in your comment: one is about print; the other is about text or “the word.”
    My concern is not even generally about print, but about composition as instruction in the production of the “five-page, double-spaced essay with at least three library sources” or whatever.
    I was a freshman in 1987. I got my doctorate in 1997. Typically people take longer than that. The students in FYC in 2006 are the beginning assistant professors of 2016-2020.
    Of course we will still be writing a decade from now. Image, audio and video are not replacements for writing. My point is that writing will occur in a different, networked space and that composition needs to begin its turn toward that.


  5. 1987….I had a computer. With Windows 3.1 and WordPerfect. Dragged it off to college too. I don’t think I was the only one with a computer….still, it wasn’t yet the norm.


  6. Darn. I posted a response, but it didn’t pop. Oh well, a summary — we are working with movie clips, tweens, text and sound, but no video. I don’t have that experience (yet). And I love the idea of a video essay, but it’s something that will have to wait until after I finish my PhD. I have all these ideas for teaching, and reading about what you’re doing gets me excited for future, but I gotta focus on prelims & diss proposal just now.
    But I can see how, for instance, video production could more easily be made part of the composition curriculum if you have some sort of broadcasting or digital cinema program already on your campus, if some kind of partnership could be established.
    And I have also had to deal with a lot of questions I don’t have answers to, especially in Flash. And I’ve found all the technical questions and my lessons have really dominated our class discussions this semester (really, it’s just me talking). I’m looking into producing podcasts to make for a more student-centered space.


  7. That’s a great point Rick about how the technical issues can really take up time in the classroom. And right now we don’t have a curricular space dedicated to that prospect. As you seem to be suggesting, I’ve become interested in relatively low-tech productions like Garage Band and iMovie. Even still, it can be a time suck and I’ve been trying to think of ways this learning can happen without me giving direct instruction all the time.
    Good luck with it!


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