Genre, Interfaces, and Ways We Teach Digital Writing

I was having coffee the other day with my friend and colleague Ryan Trauman and we got to talking about how we approach teaching people to compose texts using digital media. Trauman is both brilliant theoretically and proficient with technology in ways that I can’t touch. So, when he talks, I listen.

What was interesting – to me anyway – about our conversation was how it revealed our two very different ways of coming at this question. Trauman starts with a conceptual discussion of how software is constructed. He talks with people, on a conceptual level, about ideas such as “layers” and how they show up in different software. His belief is that, if people understand the underlying conceptual frameworks of the software, they can move from one program to another and, eventually, find a way to use any software to create the texts they want to create. This is particularly important for people who are inexperienced with and/or intimidated by digital media technologies. So he begins with the theory and logic underlying the media and helps people understand the tools they have at hand. (And I hope I’m portraying his approach accurately.)

I would approach the same group of people in a different way. I begin by talking about multimodal genres with which people are already familiar – television, film, newspapers, webpages, and so on. We talk about the characteristics of those genres and how they work to communicate ideas and engage audiences. So, for example, we might begin by talking about the nature of the “shot” in film and how shots are edited together to create scenes or narratives, or how images can lead a person through a web page. My goal is to help them to articulate the kinds of texts they want to create, and the genre characteristics they will use when composing. My thinking is that, if they have a general idea of what they want we can then work through – and play with – the software as a way to make it happen.

Neither of our approaches is necessarily better than the other. (And they’re not mutually exclusive or the only ways to approach the teaching of digital writing, of course.) The conversation has had me thinking about the effect of our approaches on our students. Trauman helps people feel comfortable through the machine, and by having a good sense of the tools at hand allows them to work in ways that no doubt help them use the interfaces in more embodied and internalized ways. I can imagine that, as a student of Trauman’s, I’d be able to start using the software in less self-conscious way that would help me focus on the ideas I would trying to communicate – much as I do when I type. That’s a great result to have from teaching.

My approach, by starting with familiar texts and moving from those to rooting around in the software for ways to make genre-connected moves, I hope gives students a particular awareness of the rhetorical characteristics of genre they’re working with as well as an awareness of the deep knowledge of previous texts and genres they can bring to their composing. In this way it’s similar to the ways in which, as we read, and then write with print we begin to draw on the craft and rhetoric of what we’ve read to create our own texts. As the novelist Caryl Phillips has said, “All writers read for plunder.” In my approach, I don’t think I address a familiarity with the tools, and the anxiety about the uses of the software as well as Trauman does, and in his he may not help students connect to the genres they know well as explicitly as I do.

The point here for me, though, is not a critique or endorsement of either or our approaches, for I can see merit in both. What interests me is how we came to those approaches and the effect this will have on our students. My guess is that, like me, Trauman’s approach reflects his own patterns of work and comfort. I know that, even as I read a lot about pedagogy and teaching writing, I tend to gravitate toward the concepts and approaches that fit my ways of working and learning. It’s not that I may not see value in other ways of teaching and try to bring those to the students I work with that I think might benefit from those methods. But, truth is, I what and how I teach is inevitably flavored by my experiences, values, ideologies, and so that students who have me in the classroom are presented with ways of approaching writing – whether in digital or print – that is similar in flavor. Because I find genres and genre theory fascinating, and tend to think through writing and rhetoric often through the genres I know or the texts I’m trying to draw from, I bring that to my teaching. This is inevitably effective for some students and less so for others.

We all tend to fall back on our knowledge and our comfortable way of working and then reach out to others through the epistemologies and pedagogies that make us comfortable. In Daniel Kahneman’s book Thinking Fast and Slow he details the many and continuing instances when we allow ourselves to act in ways we perceive as “right” or “better” but in which we may be ignoring alternatives or the problems with our own approaches. So the conversation with Trauman has given me both another way to teach digital writing, as well as a reminder to be more rigorous in thinking about what is implied in my teaching and how I might find other ways to think about the classroom, even if they are harder and less comfortable for me at the beginning. No Earth-shaking conclusion here, I realize, but sometimes being reminded of what I need to know is enough.

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