Monday, January 28, 2008

Teaching to Write for Computers (cat optional)

In Douglas Hesse’s article, “Saving a Place for Essayistic Literacy,” he seeks to “wrestle back the ‘essay’ from its history” in answer to some academics who seek to define a new kind of literacy in the computer age against the confines of the scholastic essay. Hess points to a contradiction, namely, that the logos driven academic essay with its well-defined topic and methods of documentation and perspicuity has moved far a field from the kinds of things the father of the genre, Montaigne, had actually written. Montaigne’s essays are not the articulation of airtight logical relationships in a linear development, but rather a series of overtly biased disjointed explorations steeped in rhetorical patterns more commonly found now in journalistic writing and yes, on the internet. The logical thread is there, but ironically for the technology involved it is not the industrial logical thread of the machine age that nosily stitches along prefab patterns, rather it is more like a single strand darning a pair of well-worn wool socks with a cat and a fire and glass of good port--spectacles if you need them (“post your photos here!”). There is a bit of old-fashioned musing that goes on in web spaces. It is as if the mind-stuff itself, those bits of refection, repose, and memory mix with the coinage of novel discoveries and armchair philosophy: The collection of the mind and the collection of things of the world.

I love the creative and anti-methodical approaches you find in internet spaces, and like Hess notes, there are plenty of traditional documents (academic essays, articles, reports, and the rest) on the web, so there isn’t an either or choice that needs to be made. In light of some calls from scholars for a new definition of writing literacy (Faigley and Romano) that takes its cues from the products of new technologies (and the call is still alive and well) I think Hesse’ point is valid and meaningful. There will, at least in the future of our student’s professional lives, be a need for cohesive logos/method driven documents like the academic essay and the formal report. Teachers like myself will continue to help students design and construct (even perform) in a variety of genres—on the web and on pulp. But I am unsure of how much web-based writing instruction is appropriate or useful.

The interesting fact is that Internet spaces have produced genres organically, partly based upon the technological possibilities and peoples' own ability to put them to use. I wonder if giving students courses in how to perform on the Internet in the same manner teachers taught the academic essay might even stifle and prevent new original and technologically emerging products? One problem with teaching web writing is that the entire formats and expectations are still emerging, which is a good thing, but it makes it hard to stay relevant. Think how quickly Internet guides and “how to” information about the web gets old fast. The textbooks often list defunct websites, search engines, bogus venues, and just plain outdated information that kill credibility and takes up valuable space.

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