digital rhetoric

the desires of the teaching of writing

So I just returned from a curious panel on "multimodal literacies" featuring Ethna D. Lay, Ann Jurecic, and Jay David Bolter. And as was germane to the presentations, and with all due humility about (indeed specific statistical awareness of) the size of this blog's readership, I am certain more will learn of what was said there through reading this post than actually witnessed the presentation (which is not to say that it wasn't a typical session audience: it was).

Bolter made an interesting observation about the split between contemporary literature and social media, with the former remaining firmly in the realm of print despite the brief flirtation with hypertext in the early 90s. As we all know, literary studies has largely followed the same path. So here's the question: what happens if/when the rest of the world leaves the "writers" and their professorial readers behind? Whither composition in the wake of this? Does composition remain faithful to the essay or not? Yes, it is a question that has been asked before. But Bolter put it in a rather curious way. He asked,

What does the teaching of writing want to do?

So this got my thinking about the polymorphously perverse organism that goes by the name of "the teaching of writing" and what desires/wants it might cook up. How do the flows of desire that activate this set of assemblages hook into discourses on literacies, educational institutions, departments, faculty, teachers, etc? How are "we" empowered by our linkage into this circuit?

Then I recalled Victor Vitanza asking whether or not CCCC could have as its theme "Should writing be taught?" (and suggesting this is a question rhet/comp cannot entertain). Of course at the time that was written, I think he meantnthat rhet/comp could not ask a question for which one answer would put the discipline out of business. Now that is not so much the case. Today (or someday soon) the answer could be, "No, we shouldn't teach 'writing;' we should teach 'new media.'" 

I tend to look at this differently. Of course, we are well aware of the moralizing that accompanies literacy, going back to Plato…. All those "shoulds." I think in some way that is what Bolter was getting at in asking this question: that what the teaching of writing would want to do would reflect some moral obligation to literacy or students or discipline or something.  In a related way Ann Jurecic talked about the difficulty as a scholar in developing multimodal literacies when departments and the discipline tell us we "should" be doing more traditional writing. And Ethna Lay, focusing on FYC, considered how one should respond to new media compositions that elude the conventions and expectations of academic prose.

If for a moment we were dispassionate about it, we could see something quite interesting. That is, if we don't care about the fate of English as a discipline or the fate of literary practice or even the fate of cultural literacy, we could look at the rise of networked culture (and the response of the hyper-literate world of MLA and elsewhere) with some fascination. Is it possible to imagine a history composed in the 22nd century that remarks on how this hyper-literate community steered the world away from the emergence of a network culture? Uh, not really. So where exactly do we think we are going?

In answering the question I think Bolter was asking, I would say this. In the 19th century, the novel was generally a degraded literary form, suitable primarily for women to read. I think it would be hard to imagine, at that time, an arcane intellectual literacy founded largely on the reading of novels. Today things move more quickly. 40-50 years ago, the American auto industry was a world leader and a centerpiece of our economy. Now we are prepared to toss the dirt onto its grave. That's not to say that "we" won't still make cars somehow, but it will be different. Don't imagine for a second that the same thing could not happen to a higher education industry that styles itself as somehow immune. If it could happen to all of higher education, it could certainly to English and certainly to rhetoric/composition. That's not meant as a threat or warning or admonition. It's simply a recognition. That doesn't mean that we "should" embrace new media either.

As I have said before, it comes down to a gamble. I would say that 20 years from now there will still be books and writing genres appropriate for books. As Bolter noted, TV did not replace stage theater. Though I would add that theater, Broadway in particular, has been remediated by the Hollywood blockbuster and special F/X. However, books will become like theater or painting or many other wonderful and important media.

Meanwhile someone in higher education will take on the responsibility of teaching students to communicate in networked media environments. Maybe it will be some future version of English. Maybe rhet/comp will split from English and become that entity. Or maybe a third entity will emerge out of rhet/comp or from a completely different inter- or post-disciplinary space. But whatever that entity may be, it will take on the role that English played in the 20th century as teacher of cultural literacy.

And 100 years from now, I imagine folks will look back at this time. They will not see the millions/billions/trillions of banal blog posts, bad YouTube videos, and status updates. They will see something different. They will create a history of the rhetorics and poetics that forged a new, not-yet-discovered discourse.

But the question isn't about 100 or even 20 years from now. It's about 5 or 10 years. We know we don't have a realistic picture of the distant future; we know things will be quite different. We expect that we know where we will be in 5-10 years. We expect things to remain the same, or at least we expect that it is a safe bet, that no one will punish us for carrying on with business as usual. For individuals in an institutional context like this, inaction is almost always the safest bet. That is, until the hammer falls one day.

I guess I'm betting on the hammer… Not that I want to see it fall on anyone in particular ;-). I just think that it is going to come down. And all the shoulds in the world will be rewritten. And "the teaching of writing" will find a new way to get its fix.

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