the essay is dead; long live the essay

Here is the text of a presentation I gave at SUNY COW. A version of this will also be appearing, I think, in Computers and Composition.

It is a difficult time to make predictions about the future of rhetoric and composition. The imminent defunding of the humanities in the UK and the closure of language departments at SUNY Albany are only the headline events of a broader shrinkage of institutional support for the humanities that includes fewer tenure positions and the disappearance of money for research and professional development. Clearly this situation develops in the context of a larger crisis with the increasing costs of higher education, to say nothing of national and global economic recessions. Undoubtedly, the future of rhetoric and composition is embedded in this uncertain future of the humanities and higher education in general. Thankfully, such matters are beyond the purview of this presentation. However, in that larger context, one of the ways our discipline can demonstrate its continued importance to education is through its creative engagement with the communicational opportunities and challenges presented to us by emerging media technologies. 

Each year since 2004, EDUCAUSE and the New Media Consortium have produced the Horizon Report which has sought to identify technologies that were “on the horizon” for adoption in higher education. The report is organized chronologically with adoption timeframes of one year or less, two to three years, and four to five years. In more recent years, the reports have diversified to include projections for different global regions and educational sectors (K-12, museums, Australia, etc.). While a few of their predictions have gone awry (e.g. the emergence of “virtual worlds” during the height of hype surrounding Second Life), for the most part the report has reliably predicted the incorporation of social media and mobile technologies into higher education. Drawing on the 2011 edition, technological innovations such as open content electronic books, mobile technologies, augmented reality, and game-based learning will all likely impact composition in the next decade in the ways that social media and online instruction already have. While the most common student experiences in higher education continue to be structured by lecture halls, textbooks, and exams, today those experiences are punctuated by slide presentations, the university CMS, and the myriad of extracurricular media networks our students use outside the classroom and increasingly carry into the classroom on their smartphones and laptops. In short, William Gibson’s famous observation of the future’s uneven distribution is clearly visible on the university campus.

It is likely that the next decade will see a continuing uneven distribution of future technologies across disciplines and campuses. It took the better part of a decade and substantial and sustained investment by universities and colleges to ensure the widespread, if still shallow, adoption of course management systems we see today. Perhaps this is because the CMS is a singularly uninspiring piece of technology. Or perhaps, the problem lies in the inertia of pedagogic practice that still must be overcome. In other words, the future of composition may lie less in the new technologies we might grasp than in the old ones we shed. In my view, composition’s continuing role in higher education depends on its recognition of two points: that communicating and learning can no longer be viewed as individuated processes, and that print can no longer serve as a conceptual foundation for composition. These recognitions may seem long familiar to our field, but the overwhelming practice of composition courses remains the individually-written essay turned into the instructor on paper. If our discipline and programs cannot shift away from these historical practices, then they may be supplanted by more agile corporate interests and/or Internet, “edupunk” communities, and perhaps rightly so. In part, our continuing focus on composing the printed word reflects the ongoing scholarly practice in the humanities of writing essays and monographs. As long as essays and monographs remain the primary evidence of intellectual activity for humanities professors, their first-year composition analogs will likely remain the primary evidence of a student’s entry into academic and intellectual literacy. In other words, the essay has long served a “mini-me” pedagogy that defines academic and intellectual engagement as doing as I do. In this context, it is important to note that the next decade promises to bring dramatic changes in the economic viability of traditional scholarly publication. As such, one of the primary factors in the future of first-year composition could be the future of the scholarly monograph and print academic journal. At the same time, compositionists cannot afford to await these changes in scholarship. Instead, this decade must be the one in which the essay is finally killed and, perhaps, reborn.

The essay itself is a genre with a long, unfolding history. The five-paragraph themes written to pass state high school exams bear little resemblance to Montaigne’s writings, and the composition course, with its generically humanistic conceptions of “academic discourse,” describes its own version of the essay. For 20 years, the college essay has been the product of the word processor, mostly MS-Office, which has served as a workplace skeuomorph between the typewriter and emerging digital communications. Today, students can submit DOC files for assignments rather than printouts and receive digital comments in return. Nevertheless, the word processor’s compositional capacities are largely limited by the implicit assumption that products will be printed (on 8.5” X 11” paper at that). As a result, the typical composition essay continues to remediate its typewritten predecessor. Needless to say, Montaigne’s compositions were handwritten, but contemporary college essays calcified in a particular, typewritten, historical moment and have been carried by word processing into a world of contemporary digital networks where the essay’s operation is increasingly suspect. In place of the essay as rigid, ersatz-typewritten genre then, what is required is the return of the essay as the experimental attempt.

Admittedly, in itself, the call for experimentation in composition is hardly new. The experimentation called for here, however, is of a broader, disciplinary nature rather than an individual, authorial one: a collective effort to reinvent scholarly rhetoric across the canons. Indeed there could be little clearer evidence of the truncated nature of print-based rhetoric than the sparse attention it has traditionally paid to memory or delivery. (Though this has begun to shift in recent years in our scholarship, one wonders to what degree such moves have affected first-year composition.) In the next decade, storing, securing, organizing, searching, retrieving, copying, distributing, and accessing media will be central issues for rhetoric and the humanities in general. Teaching composition without addressing such concerns will become equivalent to teaching young Romans how to compose speeches without lessons in memorization or public speaking. Importantly, such concerns will not need to be purely hypothetical, as in the “imagine an audience” assignments that have typified composition for decades. The networked world creates an audience. Our students already blithely compose for this audience on Facebook and elsewhere. As such, the digital questions of memory and delivery already pertain. These questions are partly technical as they ask us to think about access on mobile devices, search terms, and so on. However there are also legal and ethical questions related to copyright, accessibility, use of open source tools and methods, etc. 

Inescapably, this reincarnation of memory and delivery resets the terms of invention, arrangement, and style. By now, we are well familiar with questions of how hyperlinks affect arrangement or the multimedia screen shapes writing style (though it is unclear that even such “familiar” questions have made their way to the typical composition class). We remain skeptical, if not fearful, of invention in the networked world, where our primary focus remains on the potential for plagiarism and our insistence on the unreliability of Wikipedia. However, we continue to come to these matters from a print first perspective, asking what is different, with the printed page as our baseline. While the printed page will undoubtedly be with us for decades, we can no longer afford to use it as our default for composition any more than filmmakers can use the stage or video game designers a board game. Current emerging technologies, as well as those of the near future, suggest mobile media that can be captured, composed, modified, annotated, and shared in real time. Though we have long discussed the social nature of discourse, the next decade will require us to confront collaborative authoring environments more directly. Though we have long recognized that the canons do not represent a linear process, the next decade will demand a more nimble understanding of their iterative relations. 

Unfortunately this is not as easy as it sounds but the good news is that the project we face is far more exciting than we might have thought. To imagine the emergence of digital technology as a task where composition instructors are perpetually obligated to learn new tools and cram them into their existing curriculum is to condemn us to a future of dull servitude to market whims. Sadly our old story of writing doesn’t allow for much more than that. It tells us that writing is a process of individuals intersecting with some abstract notion of the social or ideology or discourse. It is a story where we struggle to imagine some agency for those individuals in the face of that spectral force, and in that story technologies are tools that either help or hinder us. From a broader perspective, it is a story that reflects a faith in the modern human and society where writing plays an integral role in an imagined rational, civic, democratic discourse. While this presentation is not the time to launch into a broader conversation about such matters, we need to recognize that our understanding of the role technologies play in rhetoric and composition is embedded in our larger philosophies about human agency and society. Our failure to account for emerging technologies is not simply about the technologies, it is, more importantly, about our implicit, often unexamined, understanding of the relations among humans and other objects in the world. We cannot simply ask how we might use new technologies to achieve the goals we’ve long held. We cannot even try to strip the notion of print away from our goals and simply digitize our old objectives. Instead, a more foundational change is called for. Not because we now have computers, but because this technological shift in perspective allows us to see far more clearly how our legacy values have always been shaped by particular networks. The telescope did not cause our position in the universe to change. It simply allowed us to see that our previous worldview had been constructed upon a network of relations that no longer pertained. Now we find ourselves in a similar situation in regards to the modern human and all the dreams for a modern ideal society with its technoscientific domination of nature, and most importantly, human nature. In the coming century, such notions will make as much sense as the divine right of kings or the great chain of being.

These are difficult arguments to accept, particularly when they are glossed over as quickly as I have done here. Furthermore, such large philosophical issues may seem distant from the immediate concerns of a writing classroom. However I firmly believe that how one approaches both teaching and writing must stem from our conception of ourselves as humans, of how thinking happens, how language works, and so on. Perhaps one walks into a writing classroom thinking “today I am going to teach students to write thesis statements.” Or with a focus on brainstorming as invention or on transitions or revision strategies or whatever. Perhaps we begin our semesters thinking that our primary goal is to have students writing better-organized essays with clearer prose, whatever those adjectives mean. Or maybe we have some more culturally-oriented goal for students to develop critical awareness of how media or political discourses function and how they might intervene in them. However we think of these things, we must begin, explicitly or more likely implicitly, with some idea of how humans think, of what kinds of communications are possible, of how composing happens. Most likely these are all notions of a modern world, a world that the essay played no small part in inventing. Now the calcifying skeumorph of that essay must be abandoned in the spirit of a new essay, a new setting forth, into a world that, as Latour observes, has never been modern.

While I could continue along on this more abstract conversation, I thought I would spend a few minutes trying to concretize my argument today by considering what might transpire over the next decade. What might we see in the 2020 composition classroom?  And as I look at this, I don’t mean to suggest these as ideal outcomes. Instead I want to think about likely trends and then think briefly about the opportunities each might present. 

  1. Hybrid/blended courses: over this decade we will go in search of the appropriate balance of face-to-face and online education. The end result, I would guess, would be a 50-75% reduction in traditional face-to-face time. The point will not be to carryout traditional face-to-face activities (e.g. lecturing) in an online space, though there will be some of that. Instead, the emphasis must turn to new networked activities not achievable in the classroom. From personal experience and the experience of supervising others in such courses, I don’t believe they are easy to teach. Nor do I think they are easy for students. The benefit of this shift however is that it simply makes it impossible for us to do what we have always done. Out of necessity we will need to invent new behaviors, and I hope that we also take this opportunity to rethink some of our underlying conceptions.
  2. Moving beyond the walled CMS: while private (student-instructor) and classroom-only spaces will remain, an increasing amount of writing and teaching will occur in spaces accessible across all composition sections and/or to the general Internet. Here is where we will discover a genuine audience and purpose for student writers, as well as an enhanced intellectual community for instructors. The move into public networked spaces might finally breakdown our fantasies about the role of the individual human in the composing process. If we are lucky, it might also disabuse us of the idealized public sphere and instead demand that we work with the networks of actors and objects we actually encounter.
  3. Mobile, real-time learning: with learning less associated with the classroom and the increasing speed and availability of smartphones (though the “phone” part is increasingly a secondary appendage), we can develop an on-going, networked learning experience. That is, instead of a CMS where students log on twice a week to complete tasks, networked contributions will happen quickly, in real-time, as we see now with microblogging (e.g. Twitter). So much of what we teach about composition is constructed with a particular concept of time and space that only ever existed in some idealized and bureaucratic-institutional plane. Complain as we might about the social gaffs that result from these rapid, short bursts of text, they demonstrate a speed of thought, composition, and communication never before experienced and not really commensurate with our legacy notions of what writing is. Such practices will demand a new broader theory of composition and thought.
  4. “Gamification:” the latest fad in social media is the incorporation of game-like experiences. It is hard to tell today if this fad will pass or if it will have a lasting effect. However it is quite possible that future composition courses would include game-like elements (points, badges, leveling-up, etc.) that encourage regular participation. While there is much to be critical with gamification, the broader study of gaming is shedding a new light on human psychology and interaction that we will ultimately need to consider. We are discovering new things about how humans develop intrinsic motivation for their actions and bond with others to complete difficult tasks.

The end result is a compositional practice where processes from invention to delivery are regularly at work in real-time, mobile interchanges, and compositions emerge from ongoing essays or forays into the network. Compositions come to represent our ability to iterate versions, to collaborate, to motivate one another, and to communicate with our audiences not only in some hypothetical sense through the delivery of an end product that never reaches its imaginary audience but through ongoing conversation. As a result composition becomes a place where students learn how we use writing (technologies) to build communities, develop knowledge, and solve problems, which, of course, is what it has always been.



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