As English Departments Change So Must Change the Writing Teacher

The face of the English department is changing.  Rhetoric and writing are replacing literature as the department mainstay.  According to Marc Bousquet there has been a decline in tenure track English teaching positions due in part to a shift from literature studies to rhetoric and composition studies.  I agree with this assessment and I have experienced it first hand at Modesto Junior College.

Several years ago I taught entry level English as a Second Language (ESL) classes at MJC.  During a staff meeting one day I was amazed at the number of part time teachers (non-tenure track).  The tenure teachers were outnumbered four-to-one.  What is so striking about this ratio (4-to-1) is that these were the numbers before the recent budget cuts this school year.  Many of the part time teachers were teaching entry level composition.  I think Bousquet’s assessment of the current state of the English department in many colleges and universities is accurate.

According to Bousquet the reason for the shift away from literature studies to rhetoric and composition studies is due to the increased use of new media:

To outsiders, it’s generally obvious that English departments have much to gain by investing heavily in the figure of writing. The near-universal digitization of professional, academic, commercial, personal and creative writing represents a world-historical shift in textuality, communications, and creativity. Over the past two decades, tens of millions of us have been engaged in the massive shared project of composing for hypermedia, the collective bringing into existence of a massively multi-authorial electronically-mediated textual object—the not-quite worldwide artifact known as “the web” or “the Internet.”

The internet and related new media have created a need for more writers.  To a digital immigrant like myself I find this notion intuitively wrong.  But, after closer examination, I began to realize what Bousquet was saying.  The internet is more than just a display of visual sensationality.  If you have ever spent any time “surfing” or perusing the internet you will find that there is a tremendous amount of “text”: as well as stunning visuals.  My point is that I agree with Bousquet’s assessment of a shift from more literature to more writing courses.

Not only is the face of the English department changing, but along with this change there will also have to be a shift in teaching methods.  Writing teachers will not be able to teach writing the same way that they were taught how to write.  The type of writing that is required by today’s students is different than the type of writing that was required a generation ago.  I think of the example that Postman used of the dye in the water to illustrate the effect of new Medias on teaching writing:

Technological change is not additive; it is ecological. I can explain this best by an analogy. What happens if we place a drop of red dye into a beaker of clear water? Do we have clear water plus a spot of red dye? Obviously not. We have a new coloration to every molecule of water. That is what I mean by ecological change. A new medium does not add something; it changes everything

There has been an evolution in writing function, and as a result, writing teaching.  According to Stuart Selber:

In the 1980s, for example, teachers of writing and communication wondered whether word-processing programs could make students better writers—and how (see Hawisher). In keeping with process-oriented research, teachers focused on the ways in which computers might aid prewriting and revising activities (Flinn; LeBlanc; Parris; Strickland; Weiss). In the 1990s, discussions about hypertext echoed within the social turn of the discipline, as researchers considered how richly networked texts might confound the very idea of literacy itself (Snyder; Bolter, Writing Space; Johnson-Eilola, Nostalgic

Angels). Especially vigorous in the last decade or so have been discussions of critical literacy, in part because the agenda of technology education often amounts to little more than indoctrination into the value systems of the dominant

computer culture—systems that could be characterized as well-intentioned but not particularly self-reflexive, especially when it comes to the effects and implications of technological designs. (472)

The changes in writing teaching that Selber discusses amount to more than technological uses of new media; the changes are cultural as well.  I agree with Selber because the changes occurring in technology and the media are pervasive enough to be culturally altering.  So, I think that writing teachers will have to change and adapt to the new media that are available in order to effectively teach writing students.

As a result of the cultural changes associated with new technology I think I will have to “plug in” to the new media and learn how to use it effectively to teach my students: the digital native.

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