A Critical Analysis of Yancey’s “Writing in the 21st Century” by Ian Hayden
In 2009 Kathleen Blake Yancey, past president of the National Council of Teachers of English, published a report titled Writing in the 21st Century in which she calls upon her constituency to support what she refers to as “21st century writing.” (1) Her opening claim is that “today, in the 21st century, people write as never before – in print and online.” (1) As a result, she argues, “we thus face three challenges that are also opportunities: developing new models of writing; designing a new curriculum supporting those models; and creating models for teaching that curriculum.” (1) The strong implication in Yancey’s title is that writing since the turn of the new century is different in significant ways from writing in earlier centuries, so different, in fact, as to require new models for understanding what writing is and how it should be taught.
I have identified four distinct parts to Yancey’s argument. In part one, Yancey attempts to establish the case for why change in the field of composition was necessary by identifying key historical themes in composition in the first half of the twentieth century. In part two, she describes key developments in philosophy, theory, and technology in the latter half of the twentieth century that created the context in which important changes in composition were made possible. In part three, Yancey reports on the changes in writing practices that have already occurred or have arisen spontaneously as a result of the developments discussed in part two. The conclusion of her argument, part four, outlines the changes that she contends are necessary in the field of composition in response to the historical problems, the social, intellectual, and technological changes, and the spontaneous developments in the practice of writing that she has already addressed.
In this essay, I examine Yancey’s claims about 21st century writing. I begin by evaluating the historical components of Yancey’s argument. I then consider the third part of her argument in which she describes the changes that she claims have already occurred and that necessitate reaction and reform of writing models and classroom practices. I conclude with a critical consideration of Yancey’s call to action, its place in the context of the general discourse about computing and composition, and its significance for compositionists in their attempts to understand the significance of digital literacy for writing instruction.
Why Change is Necessary
Yancey’s contentions about twenty-first century writing are built on the argument that change was necessary and that one can understand this only by going back to the root of the problem which exists in early twentieth century writing practices. (1) Yancey’s ultimate argument is for a re-tooling of composition instruction in response to changes in technology and the emergence of writing in digital environments. Hers is one of the few presentations of such arguments that tries to situate such a call for change in the context of history and that tries to claim that the inevitability of such change, that the irresistibility of the call to such change, is the natural consequence of a historical process that began in the early twentieth century. For this reason, it is both valuable and important, in addition to considering the specific changes she calls for in writing instruction, to also review her historical account.
Yancey begins her construction of historical context with a presentation of what she calls “five themes of writing and writing instruction in 20th century America.” (1) The first theme is that “writing has never been accorded the cultural respect or the support that reading has enjoyed, in part because through reading, society could control its citizens, whereas through writing, citizens might exercise their own control.” (2) One is struck immediately by Yancey’s decision to throw down the gauntlet and stake her historical position on the theme of societal control and the exercise of oppressive power versus individual freedom. She supports this claim by citing the work of Jennifer Monaghan and Wendy Saul who explain that “society has focused on children as readers because, historically, it has been much more interested in children as receptors than as producers of the written word…the emphasis was not on creative individuality, but on obedience to the law.” (2) The implication of this statement is, again, the control and repression of individual identity in the service of the interests of the powerful. Of course Monaghan and Saul complicate their own argument, and by extension Yancey’s, by identifying the favoring of reading over writing with the goal of “…an educated citizenry [which] could be relied upon to preserve the Republic. It is by requiring children to read the writings of adults that society has consistently attempted to transmit its values.” (2) The preservation of society and the transmission of values is, arguably, precisely the goal of any human group, large or small. That such a social function is restrictive is clear, but that it is necessarily negative is not. In addition, Yancey’s claim that writing has never been respected/valued in society is also problematic as many examples of the high value given to writing and writers in American culture are easy to come by (e.g. Emerson, Thoreau, Whitman, Twain, etc).
Yancey’s second theme is that “reading – in part because of its central location in family and church life – tended to produce feelings of intimacy and warmth, while writing, by way of contrast, was associated with unpleasantness – with unsatisfying work and episodes of despair – and thus evoked a good deal of ambivalence.” (2) Yancey supports this claim by citing the work of Deborah Brandt who asserts that “whereas people tend to remember reading for the sensual and emotional pleasure that it gave, they tended to remember writing for the pain or isolation it was meant to assuage.” (2) Yancey misreads Brandt and claims that writing is associated with causing pain, while Brandt’s actual point is that reading is associated with assuaging it. Brandt continues, however: “People’s descriptions of the settings of childhood and adolescent writing – a hospital bed, the front steps of a house, and…a highway overpass – were scenes of exile, hiding, or at least degraded versions of domesticity, in marked contrast to the memories of pillowed, well-lit family reading circles….” (2) Brandt’s characterization of writing as being associated with isolation and exile are thin at best. For Yancey to make such a claim about the characterization of writing in American culture, one would expect more solid documentary evidence – to accept such a claim, one would require it.
Whereas Yancey’s first two themes of writing in American life in the 20th century have been problematic because of weak or thin documentary support, her third theme, that “in school and out, writing required a good deal of labor” (2) is neither particularly strong nor does it quite succeed in leading one to the conclusion about writing practice in the United States that she intends. Yancey elaborates on this theme by citing the work of James Murphy who references the “sheer physical difficulty of inscribing alphabetic characters on some sort of surface” (2) as a feature of writing that is important to understanding writing in historical context. Murphy is of course referring most directly not to the recent past, however, but to the ancient past, when, for example, Roman children used wax and stylus to inscribe their letters. Yancey attempts to use Murphy’s description of writing at that time to the mechanical challenges of children writing with chalk on slate, or with pencils in the period between 1900 and 1950. It is difficult to accept the analogy, however. Her ultimate aim is to argue that the mechanical difficulty school children had in producing written texts in the early twentieth century resulted in “over-attention to form in composition instruction” and, consequently, that “much writing instruction was no more than instruction in penmanship.” (2) She makes the even broader assertion that “…writing itself in the early twentieth century had little if any status apart from handwriting.” (2) It is not clear, however, that attention to penmanship and handwriting in writing instruction had any direct link to the physical difficulty of putting words to paper or to the presumably messy work that resulted. It is at least equally likely, if not more so, that handwriting held cultural value for a variety of reasons, not least of which was as an indicator of social status, and that the emphasis on handwriting in early education was the result of an egalitarian impulse in American culture. In addition, Yancey’s lack of clarity regarding the level of education about which she speaks is as problematic as her questionable claims and logical leaps. Does she mean to say that writing instruction was limited to the art of handwriting at the secondary or even the university level?
Yancey’s fourth theme in 20th century American writing instruction is that “writing has historically and inextricably been linked to testing.” (2) She cites Horace Mann’s claim that “teachers’ evaluations of students’ oral presentations were uneven and thus unfair. Tests of writing, which could be reviewed more consistently, provided a remedy for this problem.” (2) The shift in the use of student writing produced by Mann’s arguments was further institutionalized through Harvard’s development of a freshman composition course meant to deal with the changes to its student body which had resulted from the university’s newly liberalized admissions policy. The course, however, was not “a strategically planned curricular development, nor did it evolve out of scholarship or pedagogical expertise. It was invented in a hurry to resolve a perceived crisis….” (2-3) The “perceived crisis” was the failure on the standard university entrance exam of approximately half of the students the university had chosen to admit. The unstated argument that Yancey is making is that, in addition to the association of writing with testing and evaluation, this historical episode at Harvard led to the additional association of writing instruction with remediation.
Yancey’s fifth theme is really an extension of the fourth, namely that “without a research base or a planned curriculum – which were the central components of reading and, likewise, the central components of all disciplines – composition tended to take on the colors of the time, primarily 1) its identification as a rudimentary skill and 2) its predominant role in the testing of students.” (3) Although the phenomena of writing’s associated with rudimentary skills and testing are indeed significant, her larger historical claim is too simplistic to adequately explain these associations. For example, her linking of freshman composition with changes in Harvard’s admissions policy ignores the more fundamental changes to the place of rhetoric at Harvard and other American universities that had begun in the late 19th century, including the development of the English department and the separation of composition instruction from the analysis of literature that took place at the same time. These developments coincided with post-Civil War American industrialization and the liberalization of university admissions policies in an effort to meet the demands of a growing industrialized economy. Although these additional historical features don’t invalidate Yancey’s basic claim about the association of writing with remediation and testing, they do point to the inadequacy of Yancey’s attempt at establishing historical context for the state of writing instruction during the first part of the 20th century.
Why Change is Possible
The next stage in the development of Yancey’s argument is designed to demonstrate what the developments in the middle to late 20th century were that created the context within which changes to writing and writing instruction could be imagined and brought to pass. She asserts that there were three developments in American life that were of particular importance; one was philosophical, one theoretical, and one technological. The first of these developments was the philosophical influence of science and progressivism. (3)Yancey observes that “at the beginning of the 20th century, the influence of science permeated all of education.” (3) She notes that “…what immediately happened was that writing became a phenomenon to be measured, and it began with the most rudimentary aspect of writing, the labor that produced it: handwriting, which was assessed by quantitative handwriting scales.” (3) More than handwriting measurement, writing rubrics, standardized writing tests, etc, as noted earlier, became common, and the notion of writing as a measurable phenomenon that could be reduced to its basic components and taught as a reproducible skill became entrenched in American thought and practice.
At the same time, progressive educational theory, which had been pioneered by educators like John Dewey since the early twentieth century, was emerging in new ways. Yancey observes that “…teachers from elementary school through college had a more progressive view of all language arts, including composition, as expressed in a curriculum centered on the child.” (3) Although Yancey does not elaborate on this development beyond mention of the beginning of the use of portfolios as a tool for evaluating student writing, one speculates that she identifies progressive educational theory as being the impetus behind investigations into writing process, cognitive theories of writing production, the expressivist theories of figures such as Peter Elbow, etc.
In addition to these philosophical developments, new experiments in the theory of composition were also emerging. Yancey relates that “in the 1960’s and 1970’s and 1980’s, we saw a new conception of writing emerge, one that came to be called process writing.” which was “informed by nascent research and enthusiastically adopted by many teachers in classrooms large and small and throughout the curriculum.” (4) The significance of this theoretical development was, at least in part, that it “…provided a new curriculum for composing located in new practices: invention, drafting, peer review, reflection, revising and re-writing, and publishing.” (4) Moreover, in stark contrast to earlier conceptions of the place of children with respect to language use, this time period saw the emergence of the idea of “students’ rights to their own language,” which made “…students legitimate language users in ways not imagined a mere 20 years before nor obvious to the culture at large, even now.” (4)
In addition to philosophical and theoretical developments, the development that introduced the broadest contextual change in the intellectual and social landscape of twentieth century America was the invention of the personal computer. (4) Yancey explains that “…at the same time that writing process was, on the one hand, being theorized, researched, and used to help students write…an invention that would transform writing, education, and life more generally was created: the personal computer.” (4) At this point, however, Yancey ceases her historical argument and immediately jumps into ways in which current computing capabilities create unique opportunities for students, teachers, and writing pedagogy such as the “intensely social” application of computing, an application of this technology far removed in time from the invention of the computer. This kind of sloppiness severely weakens to persuasiveness of Yancey’s argument and renders her attempt to establish historical context for a call to change in writing pedagogy much less effective because less credible than it otherwise might have been.
What Has Changed
Yancey’s call to her audience of writing teachers was a call to support “21st century writing,” and to develop new models, design new curriculum, and create models for teaching that would meet the challenges posed by the nature of writing in the 21st century (1). She then established the reasons why change is necessary by describing the historical context of writing in America during the twentieth century, and then argued that developments in philosophy, theory, and technology in the late twentieth century created the context within which change could occur. Her next move is detail the changes that have occurred through the end of the twentieth and into the beginning of the twenty-first centuries.
For Yancey, the most significant of the context altering developments of the late twentieth century was the advent of the computer. As she frequently does in this piece, Yancey jumps from a reference to the invention of the computer to a discussion of the implications of full-fledged twenty-first century computing and communication technology, including the internet and cell phones. This inconsistency aside, the effects of this technological shift are significant. Her discussion can be divided into three parts: 1) how this technology has affected the way the general public communicates, 2) how it has affected the way young people communicate, and 3) how it has affected the nature of texts, teaching, and literacy.
Yancey describes the ways in which 21st century computing and communication technology has affected the nature of public communication in contemporary society. She notes that “with digital technology…writers are everywhere – on bulletin boards and in chat rooms and in emails and in text messages and on blogs responding to news reports and, indeed, reporting the news themselves as I-reporters.” (4) This kind of public communication has two salient features. First, it is “a writing that belongs to the writer, not to an institution, with the result that people…want to compose and do – on the page and on the screen and on the network – to each other. “ (4) Second, the purpose of this communication is “…to share, yes; to encourage dialogue, perhaps; but mostly, I think, to participate.” (5) Yancey claims that “…participation of many varieties is increasing almost exponentially – whether measured in the number and kinds of Facebook posts, the daily increase in activity on the NCTE Ning social site, the number of students involved in this year’s elections, the numbers of blogs and the increase in little magazines, and even in the number of text messages I seem to get from persons, political campaigns, and my own institution.” (5) For Yancey, these phenomena signal the emergence of a digital commons “…not unlike the commons that used to be in small towns and large….” (5)
Yancey also addresses the ways in which 21st century computing and communication technology have affected ways in which young people communicate. She cites two examples. The first example describes the ordeal of a sixteen-year-old girl in Melbourne, Australia who took digital photos of rising flood waters around her home, emailed them to authorities, and asked for assistance. The second example describes an event centered on a Facebook posting that challenged students to insert the phrase “THIS IS SPARTA” into their AP English essays. The most striking characteristic of these examples is how poorly they support Yancey’s contention that technological innovations have not only wrought change in how young people communicate, but in the very nature of communication itself. One is left asking, “Is that it?”
More significant, however, is the problematic nature of the inferences Yancey draws from these examples. Yancey notes, for example, that, in the case of the sixteen-year-old Melbourne girl, all of her neighbors “…were rescued and many of their personal possessions wee salvaged as well – because a sixteen-year-old girl saw a need; because she knew how to compose in a twenty-first century way; and because she knew her audience.” (5) It is interesting that Yancey considers snapping photos and sending them off in an email as a primary example of “composing in a twenty-first century way”! As for this girl “knowing her audience,” if by that Yancey means that she knew to send her request for emergency assistance to the authorities, then apparently she did know her audience. However, this seems to miss the mark, or at least represent only the most elementary example, of the rhetorical notion of audience in the context of composition. Yancey poses the question “…what did she learn in this situation? That if you actually take action then someone might listen to you. That’s a real lesson in composition.” (5) In this statement, Yancey equates composition and social action. This would seem to reveal a social-epistemic or Critical/Cultural Studies bias on her part, or possibly an equating of composition with functional literacy.
Yancey’s more significant claims are made with respect to the students’ Facebook generated activity. She claims that this activity demonstrates “…that these students understand the power of networking, which they used for a collective self-sponsoring activity, in this case a kind of smart-mob action.” She claims that “when you have a cause, you can organize thousands of people on a very short notice – and millions when you have more time.” In the final analysis, she sees this as an indicator that “teenagers understand this in ways that many adults do not, and what’s as important, they understand how to make it happen.” First of all, her claim about teenagers and adults is problematic. Yancey is in her sixties. She may have trouble understanding the Facebook phenomenon, but I would argue that adults in their twenties, thirties, and even forties do not have this trouble. The very choice of this example suggests a kind of sixties-style hippy idealism about organization and protest that is problematic. Second, what does she mean by “understanding”. I would submit that teens to not “understand” what they are doing in any very substantial sense, and that her term “mob action” is probably apt in that it implies a kind of organic movement of people that happens of its own volition rather than as the result of savvy organizing. Adolescent life is characterized by impulsivity, lack of reflection, and absence of depth of education and experience. Is it really accurate to claim that these young people were acting out of considered understanding of what they were doing? Third, Yancey’s statement that “teens know how to make it happen” is also problematic. Make what happen? Know how to do what? Was this really so coordinated or was it organic, something that took on a life of its own and “went viral”? Does sneaking the phrase “THIS IS SPARTA” onto a high stakes exam really count as a cause? Finally, what are the implications of teen understanding being superior to adult understanding?
Yancey further argues that this example demonstrates that “these students understand how to contribute to Wikipedia. They understand both the reach and the impact of networking. They understand circulation of messages – from a Facebook group to high school and college teachers to a site that rivals encyclopedias in comprehensiveness and exceeds them in timeliness and that offers opportunities for all of us literally to make knowledge.”(6) Again, one must ask if this is really the case. This seems to be a very poor example to support such exalted claims about the techno-wisdom of adolescents. If this example accomplishes any of the things that Yancey claims it does it is to cause us to speculate about “the ways we might channel this energy for a cause more serious, for a purpose more worthy.” (6) However, Yancey goes too far: “In other words, these students know how to compose, and they know how to organize, and they know audience. How can we build on all that knowledge? How can we help them connect it to larger issues?” (6) There seems to be a Rousseauian bent to Yancey’s analysis, a sense of nobility and savvy associated with youth that is, I believe, misplaced. More importantly, Yancey’s assumption that somehow, since the advent of networked computing and cell phones, young people now know not only two of the cannons of rhetoric sui generis (organization and audience), but, ipso facto, they know how to compose is particularly troubling. All that remains to be done, it would seem, is to connect these young students to “larger issues.” What might those be? What “cause more serious” or “purpose more worthy” might Yancey be referring to? Yancey, of course, doesn’t elaborate.
Changes in philosophy, theory, and (primarily) in technology have affected not only the ways in which adult and young members of society communicate; they have changed the nature of texts themselves, and they have changed the ways in which individuals obtain literacy. Yancey contends that individuals who write “…become composers not through direct and formal instruction alone (if at all), but rather through what we might call an extracurricular social co-apprenticeship.” (5) This is a unique feature of composing in the networked environment of the internet. It means that the traditional “…hierarchy of expert-apprentice…” is flattened out and is replaced with “…a peer co-apprenticeship in which communicative knowledge is freely exchanged.” (5) This represents a wholly new development in the history of humanity’s expressive tendencies, one in which “our impulse to write is now digitized and expanded – or put differently, newly technologized, socialized, and networked.” (5) Yancey contends that “…seen historically this 21st century writing marks the beginning of a new era in literacy, a period we might call the Age of Composition….” (5)
Although Yancey does not elaborate on exactly what this “Age of Composition” might look like, she does identify two problems caused by the writing taking place in networked digital environments. First, the traditional “pyramid-like, sequential model of literacy development in which print literacy comes first and digital literacy comes second and networked literacy practices, if they come at all, come third and last…” (6) has become outmoded. It no longer fits with the reality of actual composition practice or with the demands and expectations of the world as it is outside of the writing classroom. Yancey argues that it is clear now that “…learning to write is a life-long process…” and that “we learn to compose digitally…in concert with print and alphabetic literacy, not in sequence.” (7)
The second problem is that we now have “…multiple models of composing operating simultaneously, each informed by new publication practices, new materials, and new vocabulary.” (5) She argues that “our current model(s) of composing are located largely in print, and it’s a model that culminates in publication.” (7) In fact, however, the notion of publication has completely changed. She asks, for example, “when composers blog as a form of invention or prewriting, rather than as a form of publication…what does that do to our print-based model(s) of composing that….” (7)
Technological evolution has not only given rise to questions about the transmission and acquisition of literacy and the notion of publication as the endpoint of the composition process, but has, in fact raised questions about many other aspects of composition and composition pedagogy as well. She asks, for example “how and when do we decide to include images and visuals in our compositions, and where might we include these processes in the curriculum?” (7) The inclusion of images in standard first year composition work has not been a serious question until now, not because the notion of visual rhetoric had not been articulated or explored, but because the nature of the technology available for constructing texts was such as to render such a possibility impractical at best. Now, however, inclusion of images is quite simple technically, and is, in fact, common in the world outside of freshman composition classes. Other questions raised by Yancey are equally characteristic of what appears to be a growing divide between actual practice and technological capabilities on the one hand, and current pedagogy on the other hand. Yancey wonders, for example, “how do we define a composing practice that is interlaced and interwoven with email, text-messaging, and web-browsing?” (7) Again, she asks “how does access to the vast amount and kinds of resources on the web alter our model(s)?” (7) Her final question is the most telling of all: “Can we retrofit our earlier model(s) of composing, or should we begin anew?” (7) One can interpret this question as belying a sense of bewilderment, a willingness to push ahead, but with no idea as to what the brave new world over the horizon of current practice might contain or mean.
What Needs to Change
Yancey’s final move is to argue for wholesale change. Specifically, that we strive to “articulate new models of composing developing right in front of our eye,” (7) that we “design a new model of a writing curriculum K-graduate school,” (7) and that we “create new models for teaching.” (8) Although her desire for action is clear, there seems to be, yet again, a leap from her description of change in composition practices during the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries and a call to completely rework composition theory and pedagogy. The strongest component of Yancey’s article is her enumeration of the questions that arise as a result of the apparent disconnect between current pedagogical practices in composition and the radically different composition landscape of actual writing practice in civic, professional, and personal life. In order to better evaluate Yancey’s call to action, and in order to determine whether this alleged disconnect is real or only apparent, one must examine these questions more closely.
One question Yancey raises is that of the use images and other visual elements in the context of traditional composition pedagogy. Her question echoes that related by Melinda Turnley in her article Towards a Mediological Method: A Framework for Critially Engagin g Dimensions of a Medium. Turnley quotes Jonathan Alexander who “suggested that the re-mixing and re-matching of media convergence calls into question some of our basic assumptions about reading, writing, and literacy.” (126) Turnley defines the term convergence as “the ways in which digital technology allows previously distinct media to come together.” (126) She argues that “this increased ability to combine multimodal elements further blurs the relationship between producers and consumers and intensifies the flow of information across multiple media platforms.” (126)
The question is whether or not this multimodal, convergent rhetorical environment is really new and whether or not it needs to be addressed, as Yancey argues, through changing how we think of and teach writing. Gee and Hayes argue that “multimodality is, of course, not remotely new.” (111) They proceed to demonstrate this with examples of illuminated manuscripts and the interconnectedness of ancient Greek “dance, poetry, ritual, and music” (111) They argue that “what is new today is the proliferation of multimodality in so many different forms.” (111) This proliferation is neither good nor bad, but it is complex and “…requires that people can ‘read’ words, images, and multimodal texts critically in terms of asking whose interests are served and whose are not, and what the agendas were of the producers of those words, images, and texts.” (120)
This assessment of multimodality suggests the need for a pedagogical response. As Turnley states, “the cultural and political impacts of media convergence are motivating compositionists to reevaluate our curricula and professional strategies.” (131) Her contribution to this project is a tabular heuristic framework consisting of seven dimensions (technological, social, economic, archival, aesthetic, subjective, and epistemological) “that can help writers, teachers, researchers, and administrators critically engage the complexities of shifting compositional contexts.” (131) Her contention is that “decisions and attitudes about technology, society, economics, archiving, aesthetics, subjectivity, and knowledge inevitably involve value judgments and relations of authority.” (133) Her purpose is to make explicit these aspects of each dimension of particular media and to provide composition teachers with a framework within which they can achieve clarity about their choices and use of these in their “deployment of particular dimensions of media in their work.” (133)
One of the logical consequences of Gee and Hayes’s historicizing the question of the multimodality of language is that it makes the question of media convergence in composition and computing less a question of what to do with a new phenomenon than one of what to do with an old phenomenon charged with a new and extensive vitality. In other words, is the return of multimodality really an indicator of the emergence of a new kind of literacy, or are we simply being confronted with return of an older literacy, in some ways more extensive than that to which we’ve become accustomed? There is the clear sense that writing in a digital environment unlocks language from the fixed nature of written words and a reemergence of the notion of composition as dialogue in the classical sense.
This question of composition as dialogue is of particular importance when considering the effects of technological developments on the field of composition. Douglas Hesse in his 2005 CCCC Chair’s Address entitled Who Owns Writing? considers the effects of technology used to evaluate student writing. He asks “…how would students understand writing if, ‘when it counted most,’ writing was something done to be rated by software?” (341) He fears that “this would only confirm the view that most students already have, namely that school writing is an exercise to produce required textual features rather than to achieve further rhetorical ends.” (341) This concern is essentially a variation on the question of whether or not composing on a computer is tantamount to composing alone. Yancey claims that it isn’t “composing alone: it’s composing in the company of others.” (7) She cites her THIS IS SPARTA students as an example of writers who understand “…the new audiences of twenty-first century composing – colleagues across the country and faceless AP graders alike. Put differently, they refused to write to a teacher-as-examiner exclusively; they wrote as well to live teachers who might be amused at the juxtaposition between a serious claim about John Wilkes booth and THIS IS SPARTA.” (6)
One might argue, however, that concerns about audience awareness are not unique to writing in digital environments. David Bartholomae and Peter Elbow, for example both address the illusion that one is writing in isolation, though they do so in very different ways and with different pedagogical objectives. For Bartholomae, writing with others means not so much the audience to whom one is writing, but rather the host of others who in composite form comprise the voice of the student writer. Bartholomae argues that “thinking of writing as academic writing makes us think of the page as crowded with others…that writing is not our own…they belong to TV, to Books, to Culture and History.” (64) His major concern in teaching academic writing is to ensure that his students are conscious of and confront “…the power politics of discursive practice…the particular representations of power, tradition and authority reproduced whenever one writes.” (64) Elbow, on the other hand, wants to maintain his students’ sense of or belief in private authorial space and personal voice, yet to situate that voice in conversation with a community of other autonomous authorial voices. He seeks to balance his attempt at extending “…a kind of invitation for them to pretend that no authorities have ever written about their subject before…” with encouraging his students “…to situate what they write into the conversation of other members of the classroom community to whom they are writing and with whom they are reading.” (79) Although the scope and nature of the interaction with audience is different for Bartholomae and for Elbow, both imbue their pedagogies with the clear notion that one is not writing alone, that there is always an audience and a community in which one’s work is situated.
That which is truly new about the question of audience in the context of digital writing is the immediacy of audience presence and the scope of audience size and reach. The WIDE Research Center Collective at the University of Michigan frames the notion of audience as a function of the network created by web-connected computing. They state that “the computer itself as a stand-alone machine is not revolutionary in the sense we mean. Rather, the dramatic change is the networked computer connected to the Internet and the World Wide Web.” They further elaborate the notion of networked audiences by describing connectivity as allowing “…writers to access and participate more seamlessly and instantaneously within web spaces and to distribute writing to large and widely dispersed audiences.” (How Technology Changes Writing Practice)
This notion of expansion of interactivity doesn’t apply only to audience. WIDE researchers also contend that “audiences and writers are related to each other more interactively in time and space.” The net effect of this is that “writers can easily integrate the work of others into new meanings…with a power and speed impossible before computer technologies.” This description creates expresses the immediacy of interaction available in digital writing environments that was possible before only in the context of face to face dialogue. In fact, WIDE researchers contend that “the depth and breadth of this type of collaboration…may be one of the most significant impacts of computer technologies on the contexts and practices of writing.” (Changed Context for Writing)
This phenomenon raises the possibility, as mentioned earlier, that writing in digital environments suggests a kind of reawakening of the possibilities inherent in the Platonic notion of dialogue, those that Socrates claimed would be lost in the as a result of writing. James Zappen argues that “we should thus think of dialogue not as a characteristic of any given medium but as a mode of consciousness…, as a willingness to read and write and think with others, to ask them to help us to see what is behind our heads, to see the conflicts and contradictions in our own beliefs.” (142) Zappen advocates Bakhtin’s interpretation of Socrates who:
…tells us that we think with others not by seeking to persuade others to accept beliefs that we already know to be true…but by entering into an exchange of utterances for the purpose of testing and contesting and creating ideas in cooperation and sometimes in conflict with others.” (142)
The application to writing in digital environments is clear.
Gee and Hayes address this same phenomenon from a different perspective, however. They recognize that “this ability to gain an audience at all, even if not a mass one, is in many respects good….” (4) There is an inherent risk, however, that:
“as the ability for people to find others with the same interests or passions increases, so do the number of groups. People can splinter and even polarize around their favored passions, values, and even political views, communicating only with others who share their passions, values, and views. The irony becomes that in a world where everyone can produce and find an audience, “everyone” becomes not a true public or civil space, but a bunch of groups “doing their own thing.” (4)
Although Gee and Hayes’s point is undoubtedly a very real caveat with respect to the continued evolution of networked computing and writing in digital environments, one is left without any clear sense of what to do about such a possibility. Whether or not the digital space created by networked computing really does become a true “digital commons” as Yancey contends or ends up hosting a balkanized collection of digital tribes remains to be seen.
The fact remains, however, that real engagement with one’s audience and the live nature of the writing one does in digital environments contributes something significant to thought surrounding writing instruction. In fact, in one of the boldest assertions of the WIDE Research Center Collective, it is argued that digital writing presents the possibility of more fully exercising the classical rhetorical cannon than other traditional pedagogical modes. They refer to an understanding of the elements of rhetoric and writing including “questions of context, invention, argument, and delivery, as well as matters of grammar, syntax, style, and organization” that most compositionists agree upon. Given agreement on those points, they contend that “…computers and writing specialists routinely consider more of the classical rhetorical cannon – invention, arrangement, style, memory, and delivery – than mainstream compositionists do.” Moreover, “they also routinely invite more real-world practice into their writing classrooms.” (A Rhetorical View of Writing) It is interesting to note that a common theme in the discussions of digital writing considered so far has been how classical rhetorical ideas are apparently reemerging and being revitalized through the development of twenty-first century technologies.
This question of the renaissance of classical notions of rhetoric and communication in the “digital age” becomes especially interesting when one begins to reflect on the notion of writing itself that has thus far informed our philosophies of composition and our pedagogies in the writing classroom. By far the most significant consequence of the development of digital communication technology may be that it catalyzes a paradigm shift in the very notion of writing and composition. Douglas Hesse considers George Lakoff’s idea about “how the very terms being used to characterize issues frame the possible ways of thinking about them.” (345) Hesse speculates on the possibility that “…the word ‘writing’ may frame our work in ways that aren’t always desirable.” (354) He note that the term “…may carry the sense of inscribing words on paper; that is, it may focus attention on the physical act of graphemic production, separate from thinking, with all the focus on correctness.” (345)
Writing in digital environments, multimodal convergence, networked composition and distribution, and continuous and immediate communication all seem to be putting enormous pressure on something, resulting in calls for radical change such as Yancey’s “call to support 21st century writing.” It may very well be that these technological developments and their social and cultural consequences are having the unforeseen effect of forcing into our awareness the existence of a framework or paradigm that is embedded in our notion of “writing.” If we allow for now that such a frame exists, we might also consider that it is rendered “visible” or conscious only as a result of its inability to cope with new phenomena resulting from technological developments. The logical conclusion is that Yancey’s call for pedagogical tinkering and new model development misses the true nature of what is needed, which is no less than a paradigm shift.
Downs and Wardle’s work on writing about writing and re-envisioning first-year composition provides further evidence of a flaw in the essential paradigm that forms the basis of for the practice or writing instruction. Their work is motivated in part by an attempt to understand the strange fact that “first-year composition is usually asked to prepare students to write across the university…” which “…assumes the existence of a ‘universal educated discourse’…that can be transferred from one writing situation to another.” They raise the incongruent evidence the “…twenty years of research and theory have repeatedly demonstrated that such a unified academic discourse does not exist and have seriously questioned what students can and do transfer from one context to another.” (552) They attribute the disconnect between quantitative research results and repeated practice to a logical snafu called a “category mistake” (555) that results in the notion of “academic discourse” and the misdirection of attempts to construct first-year composition courses in American universities. (555) There proposal to create a “radically reimagined FYC as an Introduction to Writing Studies – a course about how to understand and think about writing in school and society…” (558) is an attempt to address this persistent problem.
I submit, however, that one might also characterize their work as an attempt at shifting the paradigm currently underlying the notion of writing. This is, in essence, exactly what researchers at the WIDE Research Center Collective are working to do. They contend that “it is no longer possible to teach writing responsibly or effectively in traditional classrooms.” Their contention is that, although relegated to secondary status for decades, the rhetoric that emerges from the convergence of computers and writing will not only become the main field in composition in the twenty-first century, it will become the field itself. (Introduction) Both of these examples support the argument that the problem in the work of Yancey and many others is that, although they perceive the need for change, they are incapable of seeing clearly the exact nature of the changes because they are trying to fit new information into old paradigms. What will ultimately emerge from this struggle is, of course, yet to be seen.
In conclusion, Kathleen Blake Yancey’s article is valuable as an indication of the desperation on the part of many in the field of composition to understand dramatic changes in the way ordinary people of all ages communicate changes that have resulted directly from developments in technology. Yancey attempted to stabilize her perceived need to call her colleagues to action by grounding it in a less than persuasive identification of the prominent themes that characterized writing practices in the first half of the twentieth century. She followed this with an examination of the developments in philosophy, theory, and technology during the latter half of the twentieth century that created the possibility for change in writing practices to take place. Her next move was to detail the spontaneous changes in writing and communication practices that came about as a result of these developments. The climax and conclusion of her article is a rather vague and desperate call to action, rallying her colleagues, essentially, to do something and do it quickly. Further analysis of the questions raised by Yancey with respect to how writing pedagogy should respond to changes in real-world writing practice reveal a disconnect between writing as practiced in the world and writing pedagogy. More importantly, it seems that current models for the teaching of writing seem frustrated and unable to respond to these real-world changes in meaningful ways. This may be the result of thinking about writing being fixed in a frame or paradigm that limits and defines the parameters of thinking about writing. More than an adjustment in pedagogy and writing models, therefore, a paradigm shift seems called for along the lines of that outlined by Downs and Wardle and the WIDE Research Center Collective. Ironically, such a paradigm shift may lead to the reemergence of neo-classical modes of discourse and rhetorical practice as students and citizens engage not in a virtual commons, but rather in a digital Forum or Acropolis.
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Downs, Douglas, and Elizabeth Wardle. “Teaching about Writing, Righting Misconceptions: (Re)envisioning “First-Year Composition” as “Introduction to Writing Studies”” College Composition and Communication 58.4 (June 2007): 552-84. Print.
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Hesse, Douglas D. “2005 CCCC Chair’s Address: Who Owns Writing?” College Composition and Communication 57.2 (Dec. 2005): 335-57. Print.
Turnley, Melinda. “Towards a Mediological Method: A Framework for Critically Engaging Dimensions of a Medium.” Computers and Composition 28 (2011): 126-44. Print.
“Why Teach Digital Writing? Foreword.” Issue 16.1 (Fall 2011) – Kairos: A Journal of Rhetoric, Technology, and Pedagogy. Web. 12 Dec. 2011. <http://kairos.technorhetoric.net/10.1/coverweb/wide/>.
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Zappen, James Philip. The Rebirth of Dialogue: Bakhtin, Socrates, and the Rhetorical Tradition. Albany, NY: State University of New York, 2004. Print.