digital rhetoric Rhetoric/Composition

WPA Council and the struggle with technology

It seems it was about a year or so ago when a draft of the Writing Program Admin Council’s technology plank was drifting around and being discussed on listservs and blogs. Now a revised version has appeared. A couple of things to note about it. As the rationale behind the proposed plank explains, the composers of the draft considered "whether to include goals and strategies that would appeal to some
of the more technologically sophisticated programs and teachers."  They also kept in mind

the many colleges and universities where neither students nor

teachers have ready access to digital technologies or the Internet.
Indeed, we know of some schools in which teachers do not feel they can
require typed copy, let alone electronic submissions. Keeping these
schools in mind, we have drafted a statement that we hope will give
them reasonable objectives without outdistancing their possibilities
altogether, leaving them alienated from our shared purposes in teaching
required writing courses.

I suppose that’s fair enough… maybe. Well, what is meant by "ready access"? Do "many colleges and universities" not have general labs open to students in libraries, student centers, and such? Do they not have dorms where students have high-speed internet access? Do they not have wireless access on campus?

Here’s a recent survey, commisioned by Circuit City, that indicates more than 98% of college students use a computer everyday. Even this 2004 Harris Poll indicates that 90% of full-time college students own computers, and one would think this has gone up in three years. I don’t mean to suggest that a digital divide doesn’t exist, particularly in terms of high-speed access, but I am high skeptical of developing national policy based upon presumptions about access.

In fact, I am quite certain that decisions about the integration of technology into composition have very little to do with access and far more to do with faculty attitudes and experience with technology.

On the other hand, these concerns do make sense, I believe, if we are talking about multimedia production. As I’ve written here before, I find it difficult to imagine an FYC curriculum where all the students are involved in video and audio production. We don’t have the cameras; we don’t have the microphones; we don’t have enough licenses of the necessary software; we don’t have the storage space or network. And we certainly don’t have faculty trained to teach such a curriculum.

In short, there’s no way one could institute a national fyc goal of providing students with an education in multimedia composition, even if we wanted to, at least not in 2007 and probably not by 2010, but maybe by 2015.

And that, in my mind, is what we should be thinking about. Clearly we can’t predict what 2015 will look like or anticipate the technologies we’ll have to deal with then. Similarly we shouldn’t necessarily plan specifically for the technologies of today. The specifics will be supplanted, but we do need to grab ahold of the general shift here, which means thinking about networked composition, convergent media, mobile technologies, and virtual worlds.  The main concern is that we don’t want the FYC instructors of 2015 to be as unprepared to deal with the changing world as the FYC instructors of 2007.

All that said, the goals are not bad, as far as they go. They just don’t go far enough, and if the defense for not going farther is simply the nebulous, unsubstantiated concerns about access, I don’t think that’s valid.

  • The plank only mentions "text." In our discipline, text can sometimes mean any media. If that’s what is intended here, I think that should be made clear. If text is meant to suggest the more common meaning of simply words, then that doesn’t make sense. How would one explore the "rhetorical strategies available in electronic texts" without considering other media, networks, interactivity, mobile connectivity and so on? Unless of course electronic text means a PDF file or RTF version of a Word document attached to an e-mail message.
  • My suggestion other suggestion is that the plank should make a statement about addressing emerging technologies. Generally speaking, our students are already using these emerging technologies (so the access question seems strange here), but they are doing so with little rhetorical understanding, technical facility, or critical perspective. Rhetorical and critical knowledge, along with some improved technical facility, are what FYC can provide. More importantly, a criteria like this might help to push the discipline forward toward where it needs to be going.

6 replies on “WPA Council and the struggle with technology”

I still need to think through this latest round of walking the technology plank with the WPA, but I have a sense that your concerns about access are on the mark. Even with printed text, no one would develop a plank based upon the least common denominators. If some students didn’t have access to dictionaries, would a plank avoid suggesting that at some point writers need to produce texts with correct spelling. I guess a broader statement about rhetorical appropriateness would solve that problem, but I just don’t think people would get that hung up on what people don’t have and would focus more opportunities.
I also like the idea of emphasizing emerging technologies. I don’t think we can under-estimate the impact of Web 2.0. With YouTube, some video downloaders, and coverters anyone can create and share multimedia, so the access concerns give way to literacy and practice opportunities pretty quickly. If you don’t make a deliberate call for writers to play and learn with these modes, you’re just not going to produce communication that is fully relevant. Maybe the problem is calling it a technology plank at all. Something more like an innovation or experimentation plank might make more sense.


Good post and comments here. In the main graduate course I teach, which is about pedagogy and computers and writing, inevitably this discussion of access comes up. I always like to point out that if we really want to talk about “access” in a real and meaningful way, we should talk about the fact that at least 1 billion people on this planet don’t have easy access to clean drinking water and/or electricity, let alone to a reliable Internet provider.
Now, does this mean we should dismiss the needs of folks without clean water and/or electricity? Of course not. But it also probably doesn’t mean that those of us without these hardships should give up our own access.
Same with computers. And it also seems to me that we need to start to recognize that while there are (and will always be) some serious inequity problems regarding technology in America, this does not mean we should always been aiming only for the lowest common denominators, as Dan points out.
The fact is that a lot of people writing this plank for the WPA Council are doing so not because of any issue having to do with access. They are writing this plank this way because, despite the fact that they should know something about contemporary technologies (e.g., blogs, for a simple example), they remain less than clued in. There. I said it. Let’s see if anyone will disagree with me here….


Well, I won’t disagree with you. In fact, maybe I’ll take this a step farther.
We, meaning our discipline, have seriously dropped the ball on technology. Lester Faigley published Fragments of Rationality in 1992. It won the CCCC Outstanding Book award in 1994. By then, the study of computers and writing was at least a decade old. By 1994-95, there should have been a sense in every WPA’s mind that computers needed to be a part of FYC.
In 1994-95, this WPA plank would have made sense. The concerns about access would have been crucial. Obviously, the Web exploded about the same time and we should have followed. By 2000, every FYC program should have at least been piloting the use of a CMS, and every rhet/comp grad program should have included some investigation of electronic pedagogy.
To a certain extent this might seem like hindsight is 20-20, except that plenty of us took it upon ourselves to do these things: to learn html, to incorporate newsgroups and listservs into writing courses, to participate in CMS pilots, and so on.
Some of us were doing this, but not nearly enough and not the right people, not the influential WPA’s a big schools or senior faculty at the big rhet/comp programs.
If you’re a grad student in rhet/comp right now, I think you’d be doing yourself an incredible disservice if you weren’t learning how to teaching web-enhanced, hybrid, and online courses using emerging technologies. That doesn’t mean you have to specialize in the study of new media in terms of your research. And it doesn’t mean you have to buy into whatever is the latest thing.
What I think it does mean is that we have to create a way in our discipline for non-specialists to learn the practical technological knowledge and some basic pedagogic starting points so that they can keep up.


As you said, you can’t predict what 2015 will look like.
So, why worries about it?
I’m sure that in 2015 all the Rhetorical instructors will do their jobs better than today with the help of the “modern future” in the technology industry.


It’s not a matter of doing a job “better.” It’s a matter of the job changing as the practices of composition change. It is likely that rhet/comp grad students entering programs in 2007, on a whole, are more engaged and comfortable with networked composition than those from a decade ago. Just as those of us who earned PhD’s in the 90s were comfortable with composing on a computer in a way that those from the 70s and 80s were not.
In short, the compositional practices of people in our field are changing, but that doesn’t mean that we will automatically change our teaching practices. We will need to consciously engage the challenges of networked composition.
We may not be able to see 2015 clearly. But we can see the next two-three years fairly well. I think we can be confident that mobile technologies, virtual worlds and simulations, and convergent media will continue to develop and become more sophisticated.
As these communications technologies become integrated into mainstream culture, civic discourses, and workplaces, they will also become part of academic discourses. Simply put, we need to work on integrating these compositional practices into what we do.


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