new media in first-year composition

Charles asked a pertinent question in a comment on my last post, and as I thought of my response, I realized it would probably be better to answer it in a another post. He writes:

Multimodal writing and its attendant culture seems to be a natural part
of a writing studies program. But when and how should it be introduced?
Some argue as early as freshman comp. But there's only so much time in
one semester. If different modes and tools of writing are introduced
into FYC, then something else is taken out. What's your take on this?

Not surprisingly I've been asked some version of this question several times at MLA. So here are a few short considerations.

  1. In part this is another way of posing the question that Bolter asked about what "the teaching of writing" wants to do. So in part, my answer is the same. It depends on how one wants to approach the gamble about if/when the social media hammer is going to fall on rhet/comp. Will it be 5 years? 10 years? 20 years? Never? My bet is the 5-10 year range.
  2. Another important answer to this question is that these answers have to be formulated locally. As we know, FYC is difficult institutional territory. There are any
    number of hurdles to incorporating new media into FYC: faculty
    professional development, available technology and support, and the
    response of the rest of the institution. There is no universal answer. That said, social media is a largely common phenomenon for all of higher education, so we all will have to develop some response.

However Charles asks a slightly different question about what gets taken out of FYC if new media gets put in. I understand this perspective. You look at your syllabus and say, "if I am going to have students make a movie/podcast/website/etc, which assignment am I going to take out? Which pedagogical goals that were attendent to that assignment will thus also be left behind?"

So here's an uncomfortable, maybe radical, answer to that. Maybe the answer is that you take out everything that you did before: all the assignments, all the goals. Maybe new media isn't another mode in the "multimodal" classroom. Instead, new media redefines what composition and writing might be in a fundamental way. Put quite simply, the essay isn't an essay anymore, even if one continues to assign it in just the same way as it has been done for decades. In a sense, the "something else" has already been taken out.

I see FYC this way… Students need the opportunity to become writers. By "writers" I mean people who write on a regular basis with some sense of connecting to the world for some reason. By "write" I mean composing in any variety or combination of media that might be appropriate. That's the best way we can "prepare" students for the compositional and rhetorical challenges they will face as students, professionals, and citizens. In part this can still mean the fundamentals of rhetorical philosophy–of audience, purpose, and so on–applied to a variety of media. It means seeing how compositional practices are shaped by material, technological, discursive contexts, but also seeing compositional as an embodied process of distributed cognition. To do this, I think students will have to engage in the practice of new media composition.

I guess that's as close to an answer as I'm going to get this morning.