The Moment of/for Composing

September 27, 2008

I want to begin thinking about our new epoch in literacy by outlining a too-quick history of literacy.

When you look at he history of literacy, it seems located, largely, in reading–and reading, as we know, has served several purposes, many of which are designed by those in power. Reading at once provides a mechanism for sharing knowledge; for influencing the moral development (and control) of the populace at large; and for assuring a “prepared” workforce. Interestingly, in spite of the fact that in public education, reading and writing are usually taught together as two sides of the same coin, such was not the case historically. While reading was slowly being made available to larger and larger groups of people, writing was not.

Why not? Ironically, the invention of print meant that you needed to write less than before: print meant that many texts were available for reading, so you didn’t need copy what you wanted to read, assuming you could read; if you did need something composed, others–scribes and secretaries–could write for you and made their living doing so.  Unlike reading, then, writing was a “professional” activity. Even to vote, once that become increasingly possible, all you needed to be able to do was to make your “mark,” the proverbial x.

But mostly, if you could write, you could participate in new ways, and that, apparently, wasn’t very attractive to people who could have supported this enfranchisement of literacy–and agency.

In the early years of the twentieth century, this situation changed as writing began to be incorporated into the curriculum for K-12. But even then, even when writing became part of mass education, the focus wasn’t on writing, but on handwriting–so much so that according to Donald Graves, his class in writing was a class in the medium of handwriting–the labored process of letter formation, which formation anticipates the focus on form in writing, decried by Hillocks and others, that has dominated the twentieth century teaching of composing.

It’s also so that in the 1960s and 1970s, we saw a new conception of writing emerge, one that came to be called process writing, informed by research and enthusiastically adopted by many teachers throughout the curriculum and in classrooms including 5 year old and 50 year olds alike. At the same time, the promise of composing process seems to have been undermined by two factors, at least: (1) the formalization of process itself, from a variegated and diverse, context-situated practice, to a stage-bound model suitable for (2) tests designed by a testing industry that has thrived over the last thirty years, an industry that too often substitutes a test of grammar for writing and that supports writing in testing, when they do, as an activity permitted in designated time chunks, typically no more than 35-minute chunks. The 1977 Britton et al model of writing education, with students increasingly writing for an audience of examiners has never been as true as it is today.  

Enter digital technology and, especially Web 2.0, and suddenly, it seems, writers are *everywhere*–on facebook and in chat rooms and on bulletin boards and in text messages and on blogs responding to new reports and, indeed, reporting the news themselves as I-reporters. Such writing is what Deborah Brandt has called self-sponsored writing: a writing that belongs to the writer, not to an institution.

As imporant, seen historically this writing marks the beginning of a new era in literacy, one where composers become composers not through direct and formal instruction but rather through what we might call a social co-apprenticeship. Scholars of composition (eg, Beaufort) have discussed social apprenticeships, which are opportunities to learn to write authentic texts in informal contexts. In the case of the web, writers compose authentic texts in informal digital contexts, but there isn’t a hierarchy of apprentice-mentor but rather a level co–apprenticeship where communicative knowledge is freely exchanged. Does (all) this matter, and if so, how?

The ways that we write online differ from the ways we compose in print: for example, what I’m writing and publishing here, online and in public, is basically part of a draft of a talk I’m giving at NCTE in November, which talk will be reprinted in Research in the Teaching of English and the NCTE Council Chronicle. In other words, the old model of publishing a polished draft as the conclusion of a process still works for some purposes, and like others, I continue to use it. At the same time, this model of composing is in contention and circulation with the composing model in this blog, where my publishing of this text in public is part of an invention process. Does this matter?  

The materials of composing today seem almost limitless–words and images; paper and links; animation and sound. It’s not clear, to me at least, how we choose among these materials, and what the differences in their effects might be. (Why did I choose the image of Britton’s findings? Why not use a screen shot of my facebok page? Or an audio file where I provide an oral annotation of this text?) Does this matter?

One way all these issues matter, I think, lies in how we think about composing, how we understand it, how we conceptualize and define and theorize it. And by we, I mean all of us: students and seniors, scholars and i-reporters. Together, we can create the new theory of writing we are already practicing, a theory that includes multiple spaces and materials and media; networking; and reflection.


One comment

  1. A little late coming to this one (ie after the speech has been made, published and the report is .pdf-ed. However, the optimist in me likes to think that in addition to reorganizing our composing process, the materiality and modality of our literacies and our models of publication (which are, obviously and also ironically, getting the most press), this new epoch of literacy may change the way that we understand and engage each other as humans. To take Pierre Levy’s version of apprenticeship– the one that leads to collective intelligence– we will come to understand the mutually beneficial conception of intersubjectivities. So we will see our intelligence, our subjectivity, as inherently linked with all other intelligences and subjectivities. He labels this space the cosmophere, which might not be a useful coinage all around, but the idea that to know will be to exist (his phrase: where epistemology meets and is ontology) and that to know will be to know collectively– now that sounds like a nice space to me.

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