Rhetoric/Composition Teaching

Free advice to publishers building online composition instruction sites

Dear folks, you know who you are. Many of you contact me for input on the sites you are building, and let me be clear, I'm happy to provide it for you and put it in the context of your specific product. But maybe I can make it a little easier for you by telling you now.

1. I don't envy you the challenge you've set for yourself. Composition is such a varied endeavor nationally that it's difficult for me to imagine a product that would really work across those sites. No, that's not true. I can imagine such a product. It's Blackboard, and it sucks. If you want to be the Blackboard of composition instruction, I probably don't have any good advice to offer you.

2. There is an inescapable disconnect between trying to create something that is innovative and trying to create something that reflects the existing common practices of composition. I am certain that the mean and median composition pedagogy in the US consists of a) teaching the modes (argument, analysis, description, summary, etc.) and b) grammar. It's obvious because that's what 90% of your rhetorics and handbooks deliver: books that, by the way, I would never ever use. 

3. In composition, we are all sensitive to the conditions of instructors who have 100 writing students, many of whom may not have college level literacy as writers or readers. The best practices in composition instruction simply do not scale. It's a serious problem but it is not a problem that is solved through the mechanization of pedagogy and the ramping up of panoptic assessment. (Hey I know, could we have an app that would active a student's webcam so that we would know that s/he's the one actually writing the papers s/he turns in?) I get it, that in market terms it makes sense to create products for these instructors. They are the rank and file of FYC. They are the ones who already use your products. I'm just not interested in participating in building that widget. 

4. Of anything you might provide,I'm least interested in your content. Sorry. There's a ton of great, free content out there. Make it easy for me to use that instead. Actually, I forgot something. I'm least interested in your grammar drills. Actually that's like saying I'm least interested in getting beheaded. I'd tried to wipe your grammar drills out of my memory. I know, I know, people tell you they want grammar drills. I get that. But you'll never get me to say that it's ok, even as an option. Instructors may want to beat their students, but that doesn't mean we should put baseball bats in the classroom as an option. And I'd rather see students being hit with baseball bats than being given drills. At least with the former they'd realize they should be ducking.

I'm sorry. I've been rather negative so far. So let me give you some idea of what I think would be good. I'm not saying it will be Blackboard of composition and dominate the market. I will freely admit that my interests are idiosyncratic. But hey, this is free advice, so you get what you pay for, right? I'll start with a new numbered list.

1. I tend to think of writing as communication. In all honesty, it's a radical idea in composition, where most of the writing communicates nothing to no one. In part, that's a legacy technological problem from when writing was treeware. But now, as you can easily see if you're reading this, it's easy to communicate. So how about a site that makes it easy for students to communicate with their writing: communicate with their instructors, their classmates, their peers across the composition program, other interest groups, the campus, all users of the site at whatever institutions, the public, etc. 

2. While we're at it, why not do the same thing for instructors?

3. What if the work we did on your site could live beyond your site? If I could export it in a variety of formats? If I could share it easily on twitter or facebook?

4. I tend to think about composition as involving a wide range of media and devices. How about you?

5. Some writing is a collaborative, communal affair, from the iterations of wiki pages to technical documents written by teams. It would be great to have mechanisms that faciliated both real time and ansynchronous collaboration.

6. Make your product open source so that the compositon community can get involved in building for it.

7. Make it free. I don't know how you monetize that. But if you are open source and free you will be building a product that the rhet/comp community will get behind.

Sorry if that isn't helpful for you. Feel free to ask questions or comments.

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