digital rhetoric Higher Education Rhetoric/Composition Teaching

Selfe and Hesse converse on digital composition

Yesterday NCTE hosted this conversation with Selfe, Hesse, and about 65 other folks. We were in Elluminate, if you are familiar with that. If one is very optimistic, one could see the potential in such conversations, but we'd need much more practice and better technology. An hour obviously does not allow 65 people enough time to really converse. One has to appreciate Selfe and Hesse being willing to do this, but I do wish we might all have made better uses of our time.

That said, a recap and some thoughts.

Selfe presented an argument which is familiar if you have followed her work. Her main point was that multimodal composition allows students to communicate in different ways, thus not restricting education to those with facility at alphabetic literacy. Hesse didn't take up a position counter to that. In fact, the whole thing was mostly people agreeing with each other. Hesse's FYC program at Denver does quite a bit with digital composition, so at least in practice it would seem he has a fair degree of support for the concept. Furthermore, though not everyone participated, my sense is that the audience was one that was largely in agreement with the value of digital composition.

The only issues that were really raised had to do with resources and professional development. Those are certainly issues, but mostly if one hasn't decided that digital composition is a priority. And by "one," I mean as an institution and/or profession. IF, in a very hypothetical sense, at UB we decided, with the support of the administration, that digital composition was integral to composition, we could acquire the technological resources and provide the professional development needed. In fact, I think we are overly stuck on the notion of "computer labs," so when we get stuck on those costs, we may be going down the wrong road.

I appreciate Selfe's call for us to address students with non-alphabetic literacy strengths. However,  I fear that such an argument is one of dozens of things that universities should do. I think compositionists like to frame their arguments as ethical imperatives, and they respond well to such arguments. So while I agree that we should do this, I don't really see that as a positive path toward digital composition. For as much as Selfe states her dislike of the term "disability" (and I agree with her about the term's problematic status), her argument has a problem of situating digital composition as an "assistive technology" (at least for those less troubled by the term disability). And while these technologies certainly can be assistive in this sense, that's just one small portion of their functioning.

The other argument touched upon is the inevitability argument: all these students doing all these techie things and changes in communication in the workplace… inevitably we will need to address these technologies. I agree with that as well, but the argument does suffer from a few problems, which were discussed yesterday. First, what sense do we have of the prevalence of digital composition in the workplace or elsewhere in the academy? For the latter, the sense is not much is going on overall. Of course I always want to ask how many people are writing humanistic research essays in their workplace or in their other courses? So in part, I think this is a misleading concern, even though I do think composition ought to engage with such writing practices (but in a critical way, not in a way that is slavish to their trends). The second concern has to do with how much value we are willing to put on informal social communication, from texting to YouTube videos. Can we take these as indicators of where other rhetorical practices might go?

The other problem with inevitability is when. It suggests "some day" this will happen. But it doesn't necessarily create any exigency to do this now. Similarly the "should" argument is compelling, but there are lots of things composition "should" do.

I might add a different argument that essentially says that we have always taught composition in the context of available technologies. At some point in history, I'm not sure when, it became necessary to turn in typed essays (that was the case when I was an undergrad). Before that, handwritten essays were acceptable. Somewhere in the 90s, essentially all students started turning in word-processed essays. Each of these changes radically altered the materiality of composition, but we could ignore that because the materiality of the final product was the same (so much for our so-called "process orientation"!).  Now the materiality of our compositional spaces are changing rapidly. Not some day, not inevitably, but already and we are behind. 

We do not get to choose IF composition should change. Composition has changed. No matter what kind of assignments you create in your FYC course, the compositional contexts in which they are produced have radically altered. And we risk our intellectual and professional future by ignoring that fact.

As a side note…

The question I didn't get to ask was about networked, collaborative composition. Honestly I am more interested in the possibilities of students writing texts together using a range of networked technologies than I am in their bringing in non-textual media (though I think that is also significant). I think once you start composing online it is inevitable that you will bring in other media. I know I don't do it much here in the informal space of my blog, but if you look at my online publications, you'll see plenty of other media. If you were to look in the online spaces of my courses, you'd see a variety of media as well. But I digress. As I said, I think one of the important things to have happen in a composition class is for students to get practice in real collaboration. Not necessarily on a single document or paragraph, but on a site.

I didn't ask in part because we ran out of time, but also because I didn't see the point in asking. Just like conference panels, a conversation like that is highly performative and in my mind not really an opportunity to work through things. 

As a second side note…

One question I did ask when I registered got folded into the presentation and was answered (sort of), but there was certainly some miscommunication. I had asked if we thought that the fact that many rhet/comp folks have little/no expertise with digital comp was a problem for us in having this conversation. Selfe answered by saying that our state of not-knowing wasn't an excuse. That's an answer of sorts, but it doesn't really address the problem I was describing. The problem I was trying to describe is one where a majority of rhet/comp faculty do not agree with the argument that digital composition is integral to FYC and part of the reason they do not agree is that they have no facility with digital composition themselves. Yes they could be trained, but first they would have to want to be trained. They would have to see digital composition as integral to their work. 

So maybe this state of things isn't an "excuse," but I certainly think it is a problem we have to face.

In other words, right now I think it would be overly generous to say that 30% of rhet/comp PhDs have the facility with digital comp necessary to teach it in FYC. And I would think less than 5% of FYC instructors have that capacity (though they could be trained/supported if the programmatic/institutional priority was there). If the situation were reversed and 70% of r/c phds had this facility, I doubt we would be having this conversation. 

So to me, "excuse" or not, the whole problem we are really facing in this disciplinary question is the general lack of fitness among r/c faculty to address the concern.