8900: The digitally absent composition instructor
This is my first semester teaching a first-year composition course – teaching at all, for that matter. When teaching actual class sections was still a far-off, abstract thing I’d get to do soon – way back in May – I had the idealized notion that I’d nail it on the first try. That notion never really solidified into anything specific that I wanted to include, but I’m pretty sure the intent had been to teach a technologically perfect class. That never really happened. Before I knew it, life was consumed by packing, ill-fated house-hunting trips to Atlanta, and finalizing affairs in Michigan. Then after the move, everything centered pretty much on restarting life here; unpacking, becoming a legitimate Georgia resident, and generally orienting myself.
Then it was less than two weeks before the first day of class and I realized I hadn’t the haziest clue of what I really wanted my classes to look and function like. What was clear was the goal of ensuring students would leave my classes better prepared for college writing than when they entered. I think I did what many people do with their first classes: I retreated to something of a safe mode. I’d do a good job now, but try to make it great later. I built a syllabus around in-class lectures on all the bare essentials of writing (as if I am really qualified to make such pronouncements): process, organization, support, audience, revision, and all the other concepts pedagogy suggests. I then populated it with equally safe writing assignments, added a couple of TBD days to accommodate schedule tweaks, and called it ready. I don’t mean to devalue these things above, because they are the crucial parts of composition education that I hope every class I teach will deliver, but one of the things left on the cutting room floor was my notion of a “technologically perfect” class. It was crunch time, so I set aside that which was difficult to define.
My reaction as a new instructor mimics in part what was discussed in this week’s reading for 8900, but I’ll get to that in a moment. It’s important first to note that what Cynthia Selfe tells us comes from a timeline now significantly different from our own. 1997 (and still in 1999, when her thoughts were republished) was right as the brave new world of computer/internet technology was exploding. She was justified in her apprehension over the willful ignorance she saw in the composition instruction community, and perhaps that anxiety worsened in the light of how she viewed a class-based technological divide. I can see how in 1999, the tendency of comp instructors to omit a structured role for computers from their course plans deprived those of lower technological literacy of yet another opportunity to level the playing field. Beyond simply failing to capitalize upon what computers offered to composition, there did exist the risk that populations statistically less likely to own or make frequent use of computers would find themselves on the wrong side of a widening access gap.
Now back to 2012 in Sparks Hall and Classroom South: have I unwittingly done the very thing that Selfe feared? Have I disadvantaged students by not better integrating the use of computers in my own course design, or is the digital landscape sufficiently different now that I can put those fears aside? I believe we can go beyond the examples that are tirelessly trotted out in digital writing discussions, like social media and the proliferation of cell phones, and acknowledge that the economics are now far friendlier; the average cost of a bare bones desktop hovered around $1,000 at the end of the 90s, whereas perfectly capable laptops can now run between $250-$300. I won’t pretend that’s all there is to the issue of access, but I think that should be less of a concern to Selfe by now. On the other hand, I may still be doing a disservice to students by failing to more assertively break the writing venue model they likely had in high school: come to school, sit in a classroom with 20 other students, listen to one instructor talk about how one figures out how to write best, get an assignment, go home and type it out on a word processor (Selber nailed it – the mode is still a glorified typewriter), and finally hand it in.
I believe my hesitation to include formalized digital writing requirements in my haste to come up with a course plan can be linked back to a question I asked myself constantly during the development phase: “What purpose does this serve?” When I attempted answer that question regarding digital writing, I felt my responses were either too corny and trite (“our students are writing digitally all the time, anyway”) or that I risked distracting from the ultimate point of the course by trying too hard to be current. Thus, I retreated to a safe spot and made a copy of the any other old composition course. Write your papers, get some feedback, revise them, and off you go.
As I’m sure was intended when these readings were chosen, and as I hoped for when I decided on this course for my first semester, I’ve just taken a look at what I planned for my classes and am now thinking that waiting for “great” isn’t going to cut it. What I already have planned is good and important, but I think I need to take another crack at my syllabus to see what I can do better.