Part 5-Letting Go

Clinging to the Dragon’s Teeth



Conclusion-Letting Go

And so, we must let go of the things holding us back from change.

We are in an age of uncertainty. There is little information on how new communication technologies are affecting us and data is scarce on how multimodal composition classes are affecting students in the long-term. However, can we afford to wait on empirical evidence and lose the opportunity to fulfill the needs of our students? On the backs of new technologies, society is changing forms and education should consider this. We must reconsider what composition even means in the modern world.


Does it seem a little mad to make these changes institutionally?


That’s why it begins with individuals and an openness to change. The greatest barriers to innovation can often occur in the attempts at innovation carried out by institutions as broad-reaching changes. Instead, colleges should provide opportunities and training to allow composition teachers the option of creating new spaces in their classroom plans to grapple with how to create what they’d like.

Composition should not be a static but a constantly shifting, moving set of principles, ideas, and skills that aid in the act of creating media.

While others can simply judge from the sideline, we should take advantage of an opportunity to teach valuable skills by utilizing and communicating within media environments students are familiar with. Doing so could offer new avenues for exploration and give the students a greater degree of agency in the course, allowing them to select



Works Cited in this Series

Marshall McLuhan. The Medium is the Massage. 

Marshall McLuhan. Understanding Media 

Marshall McLuhan.

McArthur Foundation. “Rethinking Learning: The 21st Century Learner” Youtube, commentating by Diano Rhoten, 1 December 2010,

Breman Vance. “No Teacher is an Island: Strategies for Enacting Multimodal Pedagogies” CEA Forum 46 (2) 2017. pp. 127-140. Print.

Breman Vance. “Video Games and Multimodality in First-Year Composition” CEA Critic 79 (1) March 2017. 10.1353/cea.2017.0008

“Employee Tenure Summary.” Bureau of Labor Statistics. 20 Sep. 2018,

Sharma, Vandana. “Soft Skills: An Employability Enabler.” IUP Journal of Soft Skills 12 (2) Jun. 2018 pp. 25-32,

Brooke, Collin Gifford. Lingua Fracta: Towards a Rhetoric of New Media. Hampton Press 2009. Print.

Horner, Bruce. Rewriting Composition: Terms of Exchange. Southern Illinois University Press. 2016.



Part 4-“Digital Natives” and a New Awareness

Clinging to the Dragon’s Teeth



“Digital Natives” and a New Awareness

“Digital Natives” and a New Awareness

The Short Part

“Our disciplinary insistence on the printed page, if it persists unchecked, will slowly bring us out of step with our students, our institutions, and the broader culture of which we are a part.” -Colin Gifford Brooke

It’s probably not news to anyone reading this that most educational institutions are out of touch with the w

Our world has shifted modes of communication and we insist on the value of print over other mediums. It is no longer simply an issue for the technologically inclined but is a present reality for wannabe Luddites like me that imagine that “if only we could get our students off their phones” our instruction would magically change. Even if we seem to show acceptance of technology through the integration of powerpoint, accepting digital copies of papers instead of print ones, and maybe even a “discussion board” that nobody ever posts to, all of these changes are either mostly aesthetic or mostly useless.

To encounter, engage, and create for new media, our students need more instruction in the classroom to actually handle these new forms.

One of the most dangerous assumptions we can make is that this new generation is made up of “digital natives” and thus, probably understand technology better than we do. So, it’s better not to embarrass ourselves and let them figure it out. Teachers are frightened of new technology (and we should be) but fear should not paralyze instructors from dealing with it in their classrooms. This new technology is changing our society and our sense of self. While teachers are coaching students to create written works, craft arguments, and carry out thoughtful analysis of media, we should be willing to stretch out into new media.

No one is born a “digital native” and the phrase itself is more than a bit of a misnomer. You are not born disposed to “new” or “old” media. Also, to describe Gen Z or younger Millenials as “Digital Natives” generalizes an enormously diverse population whose knowledge of digital media may be, in fact, limited to that of a consumer, with little critical thought being lent to the messages they intake from their devices.

If composition teachers are serious about enabling students to engage with modern discourse, they must learn to engage with New Media. Theorists since McLuhan have been repeating that “change is coming” ad nauseum.

Change has already come. If we don’t catch up soon, higher education’s role in preparing students for the workforce and the world will be questioned and challenged with greater intensity than it already is.

Diana Rhoten, director of the Digital Media and Learning Project, says that a “21st century learner” must learn to use the tools available to him to create instead of simply consume (MacArthur Foundation, 1:44). This new generation needs students who are prepared to interact with the new world.

Additionally, as primary education research champions the value of differentiation of instruction, colleges should take note and understand that education is never “one-size-fits-all.” It is the job for a teacher, in the new environment of digital information, to give the students an opportunity to create, and by creating, engage thoughtfully with the world around them, as opposed to training them solely through mediums that are often alien to their everyday experience. For students who are themselves likely interacting with a diverse range of media (with enormous differences between the media habits of one individual to another), we can drive students to not only learn skills but situate them more appropriately in environments of learning where they can use them to engage with the media they interact with.

Part 2: The Man, the Medium, the Message

Clinging to the Dragon’s Teeth



The Man, the Medium, the Message

Marshall McLuhan and New Media

For some help from the past, we’re going to look to a late 20th century media theorist (and full-time English professor at the University of Toronto) Marshall McLuhan. During his peak popularity, he was basically media theory’s equivalent of Neil Degrasse Tyson. He appeared on talk shows, television documentaries, interviewed John Lennon, and even showed up in a bizarre cameo (shown below) in the Woody Allen movie Annie Hall. 

McLuhan became well-known for his assertion that all technologies are extensions of man, and explored the profound difference the phonetic alphabet not only makes on humanity’s absorption of information but on our sense of self and our relationship with the world around us. McLuhan understood that technologies are more than simply tools to enhance some attribute of human experience, but can radically change it in a variety of ways stretching beyond our ability to travel faster, build quicker, or spend valuable hours watching people make colored goop instead of wasting our time trying to find food. Technology has the capability of changing us, and, when it has, we’ve often been ignorant of it when it’s doing it.

While introducing this concept in one of his most first major work, The Gutenberg Galaxy, McLuhan further expanded on the idea in Understanding Media. The most transformative of technologies, to McLuhan, affected how we communicate and, in his own age, technological advancements in communication increased in frequency with every little change making enormous impacts (as they continued to do in the three decades after his death in 1980).

To McLuhan, 20th century man was a man split between two eras. These two being the era of print and the “electric age,” where information was being relayed through electrical signals. McLuhan’s famous saying “The Medium is The Message” was a signature “tease” of his that laid out his theory’s conceit in one simple phrase. You can find McLuhan himself explaining the phrase below (keep watching for some interesting thoughts on television):

“Mediums” offered their own distinctive environments.

As McLuhan pointed out, the change in our world goes far beyond simply speed or amount of knowledge. The mediums themselves can radically change how we interact with the world, each other, and ourselves.

McLuhan spent a good deal of time talking about TV, which, in his day was the “rising star” of his era’s “new” media. Even in its limited availability at the time, with only a few channels, it was radically transforming the world. If you watched a little further in the video, you would see that television was not just “creating illiteracy” but rather, “creates another form of awareness” (3:02). How much more so does the internet create a new form of awareness than TV?

We’re going to turn to one of McLuhan’s famous works, “Understanding Media,” which catapulted him to stardom. Building on the work he had started in “The Gutenberg Galaxy.” He further explored the changes wrought by the “technology” of the phonetic alphabet and extended his message to other forms of media. Any technology to McLuhan was an extension of a part of man. According to him, the media of the electric age were extensions of man’s central nervous system, involving them through the combination of images and sounds to connect us to it, much like we were connected to one another in tribal communities before we developed the individualizing technology of the phonetic alphabet and by consequence, reading.

“The message of the movie medium is that of transition from lineal connections to configurations.” (27)

Movies are supremely visual in nature and cannot be judged by the same measurements as texts in their persuasive effectiveness. McLuhan lived before the age of home computing, but his understanding of film as a movement away from linearity and into “configurations” of mixed-media elements offers a sneak-peek into modern theories about new media and hypertexts. Clifford Brooke, who I previously quoted earlier, redefined the old “canons of rhetoric” to accommodate new media and change the language as we transition from text to “interface,” which is a fancy word to refer to “new media” forms, that are, by nature, constantly changing form and content depending on who is encountering them.

Before we move further, we must step back. To understand how profoundly our own technologies could affect us, we must turn to how previous technologies affected previous generations. McLuhan gives us some clues in his work.

I’m going to tell you a story first. It’s a story that was repeated often by McLuhan to refer to the rise of the phonetic alphabet:

The first King of Thebes -at this point simply a man called Cadmus- sought revenge for the murder of his compatriots. In true, ancient Greek warrior fashion, this involved killing a giant water dragon, and, as can be expected, he did (with a little help from his friends, the gods of Olympus). He was then instructed to “sow” the dragon’s teeth into the ground. These teeth then grew into warriors, who, after a jewel is thrown into the middle of their ranks, fight against one another. Cadmus himself finished them off. All except for five. These five Cadmus took with him to build Thebes. 

McLuhan interpreted the myth through the lens of Cadmus’ role as the bringer of literacy to the Thebans, and, consequently, to the whole of ancient Greece, radically transforming the region. These teeth were emblematic of the Phoenician alphabet and the resulting change, which, in this case began with conflict and misunderstanding and ended with the further spread of “civilization.”

When the dragon’s teeth were “sown,” there was conflict, with each “tooth-man” battling each other and Cadmus for the jewel. After this first bout, they became civil and helped build a civilization. This is true of any transformative technology, it creates a dissonance between the old world and the new. It challenges old ways of thinking and creates tension. For the Greeks, the alphabet was just this transformative technology. The dragon’s teeth were eblematic of the phonetic alphabet (it is unlikely the shared Phoenician roots of the phonetic alphabet and Cadmus himself was a coincidence).

“As an intensification and extension of the visual function, the phonetic alphabet diminishes the role of other senses of sound and touch and taste in any literate culture.” -Marshall McLuhan 

McLuhan spoke from a stance informed by an older technology that, much like the smartphone in our era, quickly took over and affected life in some pretty extraordinary ways. Societies impacted by the phonetic alphabet separated “thought and action” creating a new kind of person, one who was defined by linear, sequential thinking.

According to McLuhan, before the age of the phonetic alphabet, man was defined by his oral culture. There were few opportunities for effective, meaningful communication outside of the spoken word. There was little distinction between thought and action.


Clinging to the Dragons Teeth: Part One-What Does “Composition” Mean Anymore?

Clinging to the Dragon’s Teeth




Part One-What Does “Composition” Mean Anymore?

First year composition courses are notorious for being the place where freshman GPAs and self-confidence go to die. The set-up for these classes is painfully familiar. Three (or four) traditional papers to showcase someone’s writing ability. Although, on a surface level, they’re also supposed to convey their “soft skills” including critical thinking, organization, and creative thought. They are, more often than not, taught as simple “weed out” classes to get students to the “bare minimum” writing ability so that they can pass future classes (most of whom still require traditional academic essays as requirements for passing). All of the papers are thus designed to introduce “academic writing” to the students, which, as a genre, is rarely encountered outside of academia. Since there is little application for the writing outside of school and there are enormous differences between different students and their respective qualities of education, these courses are plagued by low student participation and subpar instruction.

For the past hundred years, the ways we interact with information has changed dramatically. While in the 19th century the only way you could gain knowledge was either by someone saying it to you directly or reading it in a book, we interact with enormous amounts of information everyday through the devices that pervade our existence. Most of us have, if we’re in wifi range or have a good data plan on our phones, immediate access to not only information but multiple types of communication. Randall Munroe, former contract programmer for NASA, the writer of the webcomic XKCD and contributor to several other online publications, estimated that if Google’s data points were converted to classic punchcard would cover the entire region of New England “up to a depth of a little less than five kilometers” (that’s a little more than three miles for the unenlightened non-metric users among us).

By Pete Birkinshaw from Manchester, UK - Used Punchcard, CC BY 2.0,
By Pete Birkinshaw from Manchester, UK – Used Punchcard, CC BY 2.0,

That’s a lot data for one organization to have, and it’s the data most of us have access at almost all times.

Marshall McLuhan, who I will refer back to frequently, understood that students and teachers should face the uncomfortable reality that, very soon, the information one could access outside of the classroom would be vastly more than the information someone could exclusively access inside the classroom.

And this was the 70s!

The classroom, which is still a holdover from an industrial age continue to create tensions between a person and his or her environment. As they move into the world of college education, it continues to be perpetuated to an even more extreme degree.

“Today’s child is growing up absurd, because he lives in two worlds, and neither of them inclines him to grow up. Growing up––that is our new work, and it is total. Mere instruction will not suffice.” -Marshall McLuhan, The Medium is the Massage

Photo by Stephen Paris from Pexels

How can we interact with a digital world when our schools are still trapped in industrial age?

Even our liberal arts colleges are affected by defiantly backward instructional methods. The systematic nature of most college courses reflects this intransigent concept of simple information recall.

“Cultural change is glacial and the commonsense understanding of writing will remain tied to the printed page for longer than any of us could reliably predict. At the same time, all but the most recalcitrant of us realizes that change is coming.” (Brooke, 23)

But is realizing that “change is coming” enough?

At what point should we enact the change?

In our freshman composition classes, we are needlessly out of date. Part of this comes out of just how quickly technology is taking over our lives.  Composition classes, on the whole are supposed to improve our students ability to respond to problems and issues in the world. They develop critical thinking skills, develop an argument, learn how to organize, and also learn how to select quality sources. So why does it just involve writing papers?

“Well,” some might argue “All of writing is happening on computers now. Isn’t that change?”

To that I would say “Yes” but it’s really only a small technical change. The papers may be written using newer technologies, but they still more or less resemble print formats and follow guidelines designed for print publications and using rhetorical methods designed for solely print-based texts.

Theorists are moving past the old vision of “texts” and grappling with the new creations of the digital age. They have been doing so for years. Clifford Brooke, who I quoted a few paragraphs above, had these words published in 2009, which was nearly a decade ago (and only two years after the release of the first iPhone). Now, admittedly, education is slow to move for some good reasons. There is little quantitative data related to the relative value of making digital media vs. traditional print media.

Which reminds me: We need to talk about what media means. If you feel like continuing, click on the next post. If you don’t, feel free to leave. I won’t judge.

I’ll just feel sad.