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.


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