I’m taking an online Computers and Writing, Theory, and Practice class this semester. The class is hosted on a WordPress blog, and we’ll be using Google Docs to complete our assignments. I’ve done online courses in the past, and generally do well in that venue. This class, however, is making me question all things pertaining to graduate school, composition scholarship, and pedagogical presumptions/assumptions/beliefs. Put simply, this class is hard. It’s hard because this is what we’re reading, for this week alone:
-A selection from Plato’s Phaedrus
-Walter Ong’s “Writing is a Technology that Restructures Thought”
-A selection from Alexander Reid’s The Two Virtuals: New Media and Composition
-Dennis Barron’s “From Pencils to Pixels”
-Donald Jones, “Thinking Critically about Digital Literacy”
We’re also working on a project that asks us to invent our own writing technology, which includes photos and an essay due Friday.
I was talking to a friend about course load, and I thought this was especially fitting given the #digped talk from Friday about the course as container. I wonder how these readings would be supported if we were meeting in a face-to-face class for 2.5 hours once a week. Would we still be reading as much? How would the discussion fill that space?
I found Ong’s piece and Reid’s chapter to be fascinating; difficult to read at parts, but they filled a gap that I had sort of watched grow as I began this MA program and began to immerse myself in composition scholarship. We teach writing as this Big Thing, and writing itself is so huge that it’s difficult to locate a point of entry when we also believe that writing is a process rather than a set of skills. I think that Reid touches on this exact point here:
Rhetoric and composition’s focus on the social and ideological features of discourse, while retaining its traditional notion of the individual writer and autonomous writing process, specifically produces a blindspot in understanding the role of technology and the body (including the brain) in the composition and communication of knowledge (“The Evolution of Writing,” 25).
What happens in postmodernism and post-process is that the outside is abstract, but we still perceive and respond to the subject as internal. I’m writing as a way to try and understand what, exactly, I read last night, so I may be somewhat off base – please correct me, if so. Reid talks about the virtual-actual as sort of blurring the boundaries between internal/external. Another key point that may/may not fit in here is this: “it is our ability to store and process information in spaces outside our body that allows us to engage in the complex thoughts on which consciousness is founded” (25). As I write-to-learn, I “store” this information in this text-box, which allows me to engage with new concepts as a means of understanding, gaining/producing new knowledge. I think Reid addresses this towards the middle of his chapter when he points out that “knowledge does not exist internally to then be represented externally; knowledge is produced through the process of externalization” (29). I’m still trying to understand what he means by writing as abstract; the best I can come up with is that it has to be abstract (theoretical, representational) because writing happens outside the body: it articulates (vents, pours out). It is not a limb, as he says, but a separate thing (33).
Understanding writing as a technology transforms the way I think about the teaching of writing. It forces me to un-privilege/de-center writing as the center of our communicative abilities and to recognize it as something that enables us to accomplish certain ends, to perform certain functions. Writing is functional, but as Ong says, it is internalized to the point that it has become normative. Baron’s “Pencils to Pixels” piece also gets at this same point, as he describes the pencil as a technology and the resistance it faced when it was first introduced. The pencil performs a specific function, just as this computer also allows me to communicate in a certain way. I think what I’m saying is that prior to reading these pieces, I felt that writing was bigger than me. Both Ong and Reid talk about how technology shapes our consciousness, we adapt to it as it adapts to us. Changes in technology ultimately result in a cognitive shift, especially as these technological changes influence the amount of information available to us, how it is delivered/circulated, and what role it plays in the interactions/transactions of our every day lives. Of course, writing fits, but it is not all-encompassing. This makes me feel more capable as a new writing instructor. I feel like I have something I can wrap my head around.
I’ve been working this morning on this project that asks us to invent our own technology. I’ve been thinking, again, about the intersection(s) of craft and composition and framing writing as a technology, as it should be, draws fresh perspective on something I’ve been wrestling with for a long time. If writing is a technology, if writing takes place outside of the body, if it blurs the line between internal/external, separates the knower from the known and thus has its own materiality – the materiality of writing – it is also craft, as it involves the active making/shaping/arranging of something. I don’t knit a scarf simply to produce externally something that I see inside my head, I knit a scarf to perform a function. Technology is not just a set of tools, but a way of making, knowing, being, satisfying, uniting, and meeting an end(s).