NCTE's 21st century writing: the age of composition in the regime of computation

NCTE offers a recent report by Kathleen Blake Yancey on Writing in the 21st Century. Overall this is an interesting report and I am hopeful that it will spark some useful conversation in writing programs, English departments, and perhaps across campuses. Yancey ends with an identification of the challenges we face:

I couldn't agree more with that assessment, and I would like to extend upon some of the observations flowing through this report..

The report begins with a reference to Garrison Keillor and the injunction to "grow up in a society that values knowledge and hard work and public spirit over owning stuff and looking cool." In many ways I sympathize with this injunction, particularly with the rejection of the consumerist-materialist obsession in the U.S. But at the same time, this underlying value drives this report in an ambivalent way.

The text is largely a history of writing and schooling in America. There are a few running themes in this history: writing has been characterized as hard or difficult; writing has been tied to social progressivism; and research in writing has been de-emphasized in part because we have valued reading over writing. While in part the report seeks to unmask these historical assumptions, it also continues to carry them out. The challenge of moving to new models of composing will require hard work. There is a continuing desire to help students become "citizen composers" and thus participate in a socially progressive vision of what cultural discourses might be. And certainly there is a call for new research and an insistence that we take writing seriously where we have not.

There is nothing wrong with those claims or goals but certainly they represent more of a continuation of the same than a breaking from our past. And perhaps that is the rhetorically effective approach, and I don't disagree with them. But at the same time, I wonder about other possibilities, other perspectives, and what might be missing here.

One of the things missing here is a discussion of what Hayles terms the "regime of computation." Well, maybe "missing" is the wrong word. I really appreciated Yancey's move to recognize the materiality of compositional processes, even returning to that point in the conclusion. It might be better to say that thinking about computation offers up a way of reading this report that might shift one's reading. As we start to think about computation and networks, we shift the focus of the compositional process away from the "author" and out into a distributed environment.  Yancey mentions the importance in 21st writing of considering the role of the public as audience. That's a good move forward. But what about the public as co-composer? The network as composer? What happens when we take up Lev Manovich's software studies to examine the cultural operation of programming and code?

I don't have any problem with Yancey not going down this road in this report, but when she calls for developing new models of composing, I think we're going to need to take up these perspectives, and I believe this will be difficult for NCTE in that such perspectives do represent a rupture from past values about authorship and composition in a way this report does not.

Yancey notes that we are entering an "Age of Composition, a period where composers become composers not through direct and formal instruction alone (if at all), but rather through what we might call an extracurricular social co-apprenticeship." This reminds me of some of the things Will Richardson has been arguing for some time in his reimagination of education. If we begin to think about networked composition pedagogy in this way, folding in the issues of code and computation, we come to a vastly different notion of rhetorical instruction. The network teaches–the users, the wireless signals, the software, the CPUs, etc. And the network composes. Ths does not elide the role of the teacher, but simply reframes that role: teaching is always already networked, as is composition. Likewise the network does not ersase the role of consciousness in composition. I will attest to that right now. If it did, I would probably be doing something else with my conscious mind than staring at this screen! But both composer and teacher are suitably de-familarized… de-familiarized enough for us to perhaps re-examine those built-in values for hard work and social progressiveness/citizenship and against cool-ness.

And perhaps the most telling example of this lies within the report, in the examples that Yancey offers of networked writing: the 16-year who sent photos and emails of water rising in her trailer park to get help and the use of Facebook to ennact a playful rebellion against AP tests. Aren't these stories "cool"? Doesn't the response to the AP test constitute an almost textbook example of classical coolness: a statement of rebellion but one that is restrained by the knowledge that losing one's cool on the AP test will only hurt oneself.

I would defer to Jeff Rice, Greg Ulmer, Alan Liu and others on the theory of cool. But certainly playing it cool is a rhetorical performance. Often it is important not to appear to care too much: being able to perform excellence while remaining cool, begin able to argue persuasively while keeping your cool, cool as an aesthetic, communicating a feeling of cool to your audience. No doubt there are many kinds of cool and these are maybe different from the mall-bought cool Keillor derides. At the same time, the earnestness of composition pedagogy can be its own worst rhetorical enemy, second only to attempting to be cool and failing (the classic, sit-com teacher character).

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