Jeff Rice has some good, provocative posts on moving beyond the essay (here and here). I was thinking about these in terms of the notion of prototyping discussed in the Aza Raskin's presentation below. Cory Doctorow discusses the video on Boing Boing and observes:
the Internet's ability to support and sustain low-cost iteration is its signal virtue, but this virtue is often missed by bigger, older institutions that are accustomed to high failure costs (e.g., you print a million of the wrong book or make a million of the wrong shirt, it's a big deal; you serve a million of the wrong page and change the design, it's business as usual).
Alex Halavais also writes on this talk. He writes:
As academics, we are extraordinarily good at talking, and not always as good at actually doing. This is a problem worth building our way put of, and the people at Drumbeat are essentially learning bricoleurs, willing to disassemble, take the parts that work, and repurpose them. This is necessarily a process of experimentation, and of research through practice.
In my thinking, these notions of rapid prototyping, iteration, experimentation, and so on are integral to addressing the problems Jeff observes with the essay.
the essay has become more of a ritual that a pedagogy. Like its many branches – writing about topics, analyzing literature, five paragraph or so structures, topic sentences – the practice is based in belief more than learning. Teachers claim to believe that its useful, but their complaints about the results overshadow their beliefs – to everyone but themselves. Such is the nature of a religious ritual. I believe it is real or handed down from above or beyond rebuke, but those outside of my religion tend to see things differently. Belief, too, is a response. It is a response absent of evidence outside of feeling. I believe. I feel. Thus, I know this is right. But religion takes this belief further by preaching it, even if it is a complete failure of response. The teaching of the essay is that kind of religion.
What's the connection between all these points? At I see Jeff's point, the problem with the essay is calcification. We have come to view the essay in naturalized, ahistorical terms as a kind of transcendental rhetoric or genre. We are stuck there much in the way one might become stuck in a religion with a set of beliefs that our beyond the control of the religious. That is, as members of a religion one doesn't typically get to change the terms of belief (at least not while remaining one of the faithful). It may seem like we change our beliefs when we move from New Criticism to poststructuralism to cultural studies and so on, but the faith in the essay across these shifts demonstrates the persistence of more core beliefs. The essay is part of one of Doctorow's bigger, older institutions that are perhaps "too big to fail." We continue to assign the essay, even though it doesn't work (and we continually complain that it doesn't work), because we don't know how to invent our way out of the essay and perhaps because we fear the consequences of failure. But rapid prototyping really offers a method for getting beyond the essay.
And one could employ rapid prototyping in two ways: as a means for collectively inventing (as a discipline or program) new techniques/genres for teaching writing and/or as a pedagogy internal to a class, where students participate in the prototyping of a genre. Either way, Raskin offers the following key advice:
1. Your first try will be wrong. Budget and design for it.
2. Aim to finish a usable artifact in a day. This helps you focus and scope.
3. You are making a touchable sketch. Do not fill in all the lines.
4. You are iterating your solution as well as your understanding of the problem.
5. Treat your code as throw-away, but be ready to refactor.
6. Borrow liberally
7. Tell a story with your prototype. It isn't just a set of features.
And I won't touch on each of these here, but they are all useful in thinking about the writing prototype. Instead, I want to start with two other things he said. The first is that a good design should invite participation. Whether you are designing an entire curriculum, a syllabus, or an assignment, the primary purpose is to invite your teachers/students/users to participate meaningfully. Each of these things is really a "touchable sketch" that requires participants to flesh out the details in order for the educational process to have value: an assignment that doesn't allow for students to take some ownership is no better than a curriculum that fails to inspire faculty.
Second Raskin relates an anecdote about the developers of the Palm Pilot using a block of wood as an initial prototype. They carried the block around, pulling it out when they thought they would want to make use of the device and taking note of when, where, and why the device might be used. In getting beyond the essay, we could rely on a similarly simple form of prototyping. Instead of having blind faith in the essay as communication, one might take note of the way rhetoric and composition actually operated in the world, or, even better,
imagine you are prototyping new portable, networked writing practice: when would you write? to whom? for what purpose? what technologies and media would you require? what processes would you use?
But don't try to flesh the whole thing out. Build a simple sketch. Invite participation of others. Plan to fail and iterate. Borrow from existing genres. And tell us a story about your genre. Help us imagine our future inhabiting this life beyond the lifeless essay.