teaching: April 2005 Archives

Sometimes I don't know whether to laugh or cry, but I can't help but feel a little bit smug about this. Will tipped me to an essay from a week ago by Jon Udell, whose "heavy metal umlaut" screencast, you'll recall, both appeared here and at the tail end of my CCCC presentation last month. The essay is called "The New Freshman Comp," and in it, among other things, he emphasizes the importance of writing for software developers. And it's not difficult to imagine many of my colleagues being willing to follow him this far. We are often outspoken in our claims about the importance of writing across all disciplines. But Jon's turn is equally important; he writes,

If you're a developer struggling to evangelize an idea, I'd start by reiterating that your coding instincts can also help you become a better writer. Until recently, that's where I'd have ended this essay too. But recent events have shown me that writing alone, powerful though it can be, won't necessarily suffice.

And here's where many of my colleagues will pull up short. Our emphasis on writing, and this despite the work of some really smart people, is really an emphasis on writing in the narrowest scriptural sense. I can't tell you how many times I've heard otherwise sensible people fall back on the excuse that creating a web page isn't really writing (unless we focus primarily on that Strunk-ated crap that passes for Winning Web Writing! Wow!™), that we don't have time to teach technology (as though writing weren't itself a technology), that technology is just one more burden added to their classrooms.

To be honest, though, from my perspective, the inertia with which we constantly fend off the idea of technology is far more burdensome. It's like that 100-lb. backpack that David Weinberger talks about in Small Pieces, only ours is packed with the ideas that the typeset page is the only medium for writing, that essay writing is the only real writing, and perhaps most importantly, that we're somehow in charge of writing, that if we just ignore media like screencasting, they'll leave us alone.

We're just scratching the surface of this medium. Its educational power is immediately obvious, and over time its persuasive power will come into focus too. The New York Times recently asked: "Is cinema studies the new MBA?" I'll go further and suggest that these methods ought to be part of the new freshman comp. Writing and editing will remain the foundation skills they always were, but we'll increasingly combine them with speech and video. The tools and techniques are new to many of us. But the underlying principles--consistency of tone, clarity of structure, economy of expression, iterative refinement--will be familiar to programmers and writers alike.

On the way to this conclusion, Jon makes a suggestion that I'd like to flip around:

Would I really suggest that techies will become fluid storytellers not only in the medium of the written essay, but also in the medium of the narrated screencast? Actually, yes, I would, and I'm starting to find people who want to take on the challenge.

Would I really suggest that first-year composition take up the challenge of meeting those techies halfway, and the challenge of questioning our assumptions about the scope of writing?

Hells yes.

Jon, I don't know if you'll swing by here or not, but if you do, you should understand that there are plenty of us already teaching FYC who are more than willing to take on these challenges. And it helps that we're not the only people who believe that what we do is important. What would help even more?

  • Good applications: inexpensive, cross-platform apps whose development includes our concerns, instead of presuming to dictate them to us. (see FlackBoard, e.g.)

  • Partnerships: we're pretty much horrible at making contacts and working with people outside of academia. Okay. I am. But writing programs are historically (and woefully) underfunded--I hold a full-time position and teach in a very affluent department, and I still struggle with resources. The vast majority of my colleagues are not so lucky. There are plenty of people who would if they could but can't so they don't.

  • Conversations: I'll be honest. As lucky as I am, I simply can't afford to attend the marquee events in the industry, nor do I imagine I'll be invited anytime soon. There are some places that are doing a nice job of making space for academics in their conversations (MS, e.g.), but my guess is that there are precious few even then who have ever taught a section of freshman comp. Our field is not populated with jet-set A-listers, who can afford to hit SXSW one week and ETech the next. If you want to have conversations with us (and I can guarantee that there are plenty of us who'd love to have conversations with you), you're gonna have to do some outreach, learn more about us, and most importantly, work with us.

Easy, right? Actually, it wouldn't be too tough--there are lots of ways I can imagine these conversations and partnerships taking place, and a lot of upside if they did.

All right. That's all for tonight.



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This page is a archive of entries in the teaching category from April 2005.

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