Over the course of the next several months, I will be posting a series of reflections on the challenges and opportunities around creating a college-level course on authoring eBooks and mobile apps in the context of the humanities.
One benefit of a community like the Digital Rhetoric Collaborative is to make visible curricular decisions involving what and how we teach digital rhetoric. The purpose of this series of posts is to 1) take advantage of the many minds in our community who may want to offer suggestions about a new course I am currently working on; and 2) situate the challenges and benefits of designing courses for university departments interested in asking students to author in new environments, new modes, and with new(-ish) technologies.
First, a bit of context. I recently won an internal “Creative Teaching and Learning” grant that has as its purpose the stated goal of helping faculty to “devise new ways of cultivating student creativity.” My proposal, “Multimodal Authoring: eBook Publishing and Mobile Applications,” was selected and I am now faced with the prospect of designing a new course for my department. My department has a new media writing studio, along with a handful of faculty interested in this kind of course, but it is also very much a traditional English department, made up of mostly British and American literature specialists who are very good at what they do. We have two majors—one in writing and the other in English literature.
I remember vividly having to defend why our students should be making websites and authoring hypertext in a digital environment, especially in response to the questions, “Is this writing” and “Why is this something we should do in an English department?” But even now, with the rise of Web 2.0 and social media, the idea of creating a dedicated course that asks students to author digital products designed for e-readers or digital products designed to provide some kind of service for mobile applications, these same questions are asked. Why teach our students to compose in these environments?
This audience probably doesn’t need me to answer these questions. In fact, many other smart and innovative scholars have answered those questions in multiple formats for multiple audiences. Nevertheless, because a course such as this one may seem so completely removed from what “traditional” English departments have asked students to compose in the past, there might be some pressure to have answers to these questions at the ready. Yes, it’s writing. Yes, it’s important for those of use who teach writing to help students learn to compose digital texts, and it is possible writing teachers are well suited for this kind of teaching (see Writing New Media by Anne Wysocki, Johndan-Johson Eilola, Cynthia Self, & Geoffrey Sirc). These questions have been asked and, to a great degree, answered.
The questions I want to pose that seem the most urgent have to do with the same central question asked of any new course: “What do I want students to learn and why?” Perhaps others can help me come up with some additional responses, but here are my initial thoughts:
- Students who author in any kind of digital environment are being especially asked to compose in more than one mode, forcing them to think about rhetorical issues of design as well as content. The more practice students get in doing this, the better. Students must be aware of and be able to manage discursive AND non-discursive textual production.
- Such a course will ask students to think more critically of the applications they see daily and ask questions regarding their purpose, intended audience, design, functionality/usability, and, ultimately, rhetorical affordances. The app may function, but to what ends and for whom?
- As Stuart Selber articulates so well in Multiliteracies for a Digital Age (2004), our pedagogy must ask students to become “reflective producers of technology” in order for them to build their own rhetorical literacy in computer culture. Building applications for mobile devices is an act of producing technology, obviously, but there are also opportunities for students to reflect on whether their technology can serve rhetorical ends—whether for other students, the university, or the community at large.
- As a composing act, asking students to create e-reader publications allows them to also investigate how digital culture is changing and being changed by the remediated book culture of the 19th and 20th centuries.
- If creativity, as this grant defined it, is the “capacity for producing original, valuable ideas,” then there is an opportunity for students to problem-solve using these relatively new digital products. New solutions in the form of new products for old problems (poverty, homelessness, voter registration, educational opportunity, wellness, etc.).
Perhaps you can think of other learning outcomes for a course like this one?
Obviously, there is a leap of faith here that must be part of any new course, especially any new course in digital composing, and the subject of my next post. Will the technological demands of such a course be navigable, given what I know about the functional literacy of my students in the digital realm?