Writing Instruction and the Binary of “Old”/”New” Media

[Some thoughts I cobbled together in response to the first half of Writing New Media (Utah State UP, 2004), a text assigned as part of my “Teaching College Composition” course in the fall of 2011.]

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437-1In my brief experience as a teacher, the most common complaint I’ve heard regarding new media assignments is that the use of digital media, computer technology, and visual rhetoric is somehow ancillary to students’ development and mastery of text-based composition processes. If students are still struggling to use “old media” properly, detractors ask, then how can we ask them to do even more by adding new media to the mix? Let’s solve the problems with the former before even considering the latter. According to the authors of Writing New Media, however, this mindset misapprehends the relationship between new and old media by assuming that these two modes of composition operate independently of one another. What Wysocki and her co-authors propose instead—and what I find the most compelling argument for new media to date—is that our digital culture demands an approach to writing instruction that both values and evaluates the positions we establish for ourselves within that culture via whatever means we choose (text, image, voice, data). To privilege “alphabetic literacy” above all other forms of literacy is to ignore the world in which we live (Wysocki et al. 70), and we do our students a disservice if we fail to address emerging modes of expression in our pedagogy.

As teachers of composition, however, we can only recognize this “disservice” if we refuse to view new media as an addition to or supplementation of more traditional forms of discourse. Wysocki’s introductory section develops a strong case for breaking down the old/new binary, arguing that since we position ourselves in the world through the various texts we produce and consume (7), and since material and technological advances now permit us to create texts out of almost anything (15), we must recognize the common materiality of all texts and develop a pedagogy that offers students opportunities to engage with old and new media alike. Rather than simply “adding” new media to their courses, Wysocki wants writing teachers to broaden their conception of composition in order to “bring to new media texts a humane and thoughtful attention to materiality, production, and consumption” (7). By seeing old and new as simply “media,” teachers create the pedagogical imperative for instruction that attends to every facet of subject construction, not simply the textual/traditional ones.

And, if we step out of the classroom for a moment, it’s quite obvious that individuals no longer construct their identities solely in words (if they ever did). The texts our students create outside the academy involve multiple forms of media; even if we could strip away all the alphabetic characters from the Facebook pages, YouTube and Twitter accounts, and personal blogs they visit on a daily basis, we would face little difficulty in ascertaining valuable information about their lives and personalities. Our students have been immersed in a technology-driven, visual culture since infancy, and they devote tremendous amounts of time and energy to the careful crafting of their online social personas. The composition classroom is the perfect site for students to engage in critical evaluations of their sociotextual practices, and the longer we “focus solely on teaching alphabetic composition,” the more we “run the risk of making composition studies increasingly irrelevant to students engaging in contemporary practices of communicating” (72). Expanding the purview of the composition course isn’t solely about providing students the best possible education, either. It also serves to reinforce our importance within the academy: as we become more relevant to our students, we become more valuable to our institutions.

So why, then, do teachers still resist new media assignments? Selfe makes a strong case for pedagogical inertia as a consequence of familiarity with traditional composition texts (71), and I can see how veteran teachers would be hesitant to embrace anything threatening to pull them out of their comfort zones. But after reading a few sections of Writing New Media, I think the resistance to change is rooted in a deeper understanding of the binaries between old and new, rare and common, traditional and transgressive. In valuing new media, teachers must value their students’ experiences at a level commensurate with their own, thereby decentering the power relationship within the classroom and, in many cases, privileging the “negative” side of the above binaries. No longer is old media inherently superior to new media. No longer is the teacher’s rare expertise in written composition more valuable than students’ common experiences with technology and visual texts. No longer is traditional academic discourse used to civilize and/or silence students’ transgressive voices. When we expand composition instruction and include new media texts, we deconstruct many of the traditional boundaries that operate below the surface of the teacher-student relationship, and in the process, we work to delegitimize our status within society at large. In helping students better understand their positions in the world, we place our own positions at increased risk of attack from those outside academia.

I’ve yet to see this paradox addressed in Writing New Media—in fact, the paradox hadn’t occurred to me until I got this far into my response—but I remain hopeful it will be discussed in other sections of the book. Though I value new media and want it to have a prominent place in my own classes, I understand why the fusion of old and new forms of discourse troubles many in the profession, and I’m anxious to see how we continue to navigate these turbulent waters while remaining true to the extracurricular experiences of our students.

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