digital humanities Rhetoric/Composition Teaching

Thinking in public: cloud-based composition

Richard Miller and Paul Hammond offer the video below exploring the role on the network in composition. The video is a good general introduction to this issue beginning broadly with a discussion of paradigm shifts and situating current technological developments as a paradigmatic shift away from a printcentric world. All familiar stuff, at least to most readers of this blog. About seven minutes in they begin to discuss this idea of learning and thinking in public and the importance of our ability to develop ideas through public spaces. And then it is here, about 10 minutes into the video, that I think it really starts getting interesting to me as they begin to explore their pedagogical-curricular implementation of cloud-based composition.

In their account, cloud-based composition is taking place in Google Docs (though there could be other options). Google docs allows them to follow through the variations iterations of student papers and the role of commenters in the overall process. They make an important observation in noting the difference between writing as a process that is desired to be clear and efficient versus thinking as a process that is often messy and inefficient. There is a disconnect between using writing as a mechanism for thought, where difficult and tangential ideas might arise, and writing as a process for completing an assignment. The former might produce interesting but complicated ideas that should be explored but are often expunged by students who are pursuing the latter form of writing, as a means to complete an assignment.

Writing is full of counterintuitive advice. I have told young fiction writers that their task is sometimes to avoid telling the story or getting to the end of the story. Similarly it might seem that good writing in a composition class would be writing that was not trying to efficiently meet the requirements of an assignment or rubric. On the other hand, as more experienced writers know, we go in search of those thorny difficult moments in our writing. Those are the places where interesting things are happening. It is in those encounters, with a kind of outside of thought, that we can discover the energy that will drive our writing.

Miller and Hammond then go on to talk about the value of peer commenting and revising in the cloud where the process remains participatory. It sounds and looks great in the video. I wonder how to make this process iterative among the students. That is, how do we get peers' comments and the author's revisions to form a conversation that goes back and forth more than once? Do they do this work in real time? I'm not sure what is proposed here in that regard. I'm also not sure how many iterations would be useful. I do know that teaching students to view their writing as part of a conversation and then to engage in that conversation with each other is one of the more difficult goals of FYC. 

Ultimately the video does a good job of expressing the importance of seeing the web's potential as a place for developing a sophisticated kind of thinking based on linking, research, and conversation. Though the curriculum they describe is a clear continuation of the traditions of rhetoric and composition, it also reflects some significant departures as we take on the challenge of teaching our students to engage thoughtfully and productively with networked media.

This is How We Think: Learning in Public After the Paradigm Shift from From Text to Cloud on Vimeo.