Saturday, March 24, 2007

Dispatches from the Front Lines

I've just returned from the annual national Conference on College Composition and Communication, which was held in New York City this year. During the past century, university writing program administrators have worked hard to garner respect within the academy as fellow teachers, intellectuals, and professionals. Unfortunately, as one of my colleagues warned me years ago, researchers in the field are sometimes treated as "untouchables," perhaps because they have contact with the most marginalized discourse from the most marginalized members of the campus community, which makes them impure if not outright polluted by their admittedly necessary work . . . which like the labor of garbage collectors or morticians must still be done by someone, of course. Even within the low-caste family of her academic discipline, Composition Studies can seem the tattered stepsister to her two more glamorous siblings who benefit from the riches of their own departments and PhD programs: Communication and Rhetoric.

This is unfortunate, because the central conflict in the academy between the Culture of Information and the Culture of Knowledge -- which makes C.P. Snow's old divide between the humanities and the sciences look relatively minor by comparison -- is being played out most publicly and most violently in the classrooms of first-year writing. Here are some statistics that old fashioned bibliophiles who are firmly attached to the institutional status quo might find terrifying:
  • 83% of adult respondents thought that a twelve-year-old knew more about the Internet than their elected representative in Congress (Zogby 2006)
  • 48% of all children six and under have used a computer, and 30% have played video games (Rideout, Vandewater, and Wartella 2003)
  • 55% of youth 12-17 use social networking sites (Pew 2007)
  • 57% of teens who use the Internet could be considered media creators (Pew 2005), a statistic that may be an undercount, because it does not factor in newer digital forms of expression or those that produce artifacts other than written texts (Jenkins/MacArthur 2006)
  • While engaged in an average of 2.7 simultaneous Internet Message conversations, 39% of surveyed college students were also writing academic essays while multitasking online (Baron 2006)
  • 71% of students at the University of Minnesota use Wikipedia; 28% cite it (Adams 2006)
  • 36% of students in a U.S./Canada study admit to "cut and paste" plagiarism of sources from the Internet (McCabe 2004)
  • 81% of faculty in the Humanities and Social Sciences get digital resources from Google-type searches (Harley 2006)
Two years ago, the "4Cs" in San Francisco showed how seriously composition studies was taking the impact of digital culture on the academy. Lawrence Lessig's talk there was well-attended, and Andrea Lunsford's influential Intellectual Property Caucus was taking the discussion far beyond the mere policing of online plagiarism. This year the caucus passed an important resolution about open source, but in panels there was more concern about writing and new social media platforms like Facebook and MMOs rather than writing and copyright.

Furthermore, it looks like there is still little consensus on practice when it comes to using social media to teach. The two most noteworthy panels on teaching writing through blogging put forward two very different models of success. Dennis Jerz of Seton Hill has students blog under their own names -- where they "take responsibility" for their public statements, explore group blogging, and build discursive networks based on informal sociality using a university server. In contrast, Jeffrey Middlebrook of USC showed some amazingly sophisticated student blogs that epitomized good metadata and linking practices which emphasized individual presentations on commercial servers with pre-professional subject matter, although strangely students published their public sphere work under pseudonyms to protect their privacy.

I presented at the panel about videogames and rhetorical identities, which included the work of Mathew S. S. Johnson, who is a guest co-editor of the upcoming issue of Computers and Composition on the subject.

Despite these exciting developments, I was sorry to see little work being done about the metadata issues that may be more fundamental to research on the development and production of academic writing than chit chat about fun with wikis and blogs and MMOs. This is particularly true, given the high profile of large corporate players from the search engine business in reconfiguring the information literacy practices of our students and perhaps ultimately their access to the digital archives that are essential for well-informed authorship. In arguing on behalf of forming a new discipline around "Critical Information Studies," Siva Vaidhyanathan has identified several scholarly communities of association that may be threatening the ostrich-headed status quo: "Economists, sociologists, linguists, anthropologists, ethnomusicologists, communication scholars, lawyers, computer scientists, philosophers, and librarians." Librarians are an important cohort in the teaching of writing, and they still weren't adequately represented at 4Cs.

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Blogger Dennis G. Jerz said...

Regarding data and metadata... you should take a look at what Mike Vitia has been writing about database composition, in his serial short story "In the Clickstream."

I agree that's an area that deserves more focus. Would it make a good 4Cs panel?

7:39 PM  

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