KN3: Crossing the Digital Divide: Engaged Scholarship, Writing, and Technology



Allen Brizee, Loyola University Maryland


Allen Brizee tied his keynote at the 2016 Computers and Writing Conference to the blockbuster movie Star Wars: The Force Awakens. The relationship between rhetoric (particularly its human aspect) and technology, Brizee suggested, is like the relationship between the Force and technology in the Star Wars universe. “Technology,” he said, “was merely a tool at a Jedi’s disposal to enhance her capabilities using the force.”

Brizee used the moral tales George Lucas creates in Star Wars to talk about the ethical aspect of the use of technology in compositionists’ work. After hooking us with Star Wars, Brizee gave us his thesis: “Engaged scholarship can help us use writing, [and]technology to cross the digital divide and bring about positive change in our communities.” He then discussed two programs from which we might learn lessons about this “engaged scholarship.”

He spent time talking about the Community Writing and Education Station (CWEST) at Purdue University and the York Road Literacy and Employment Initiative (YRLEI) at Loyola University. Involved in both programs at different times in his career, Brizee had interesting, honest insight into what needs to happen to successfully design a program that uses academic work to serve a community.

CWEST sought to aid the Lafayette Adult Resource Academy (LARA) and WorkOne West Central. In his discussion of this aid, Brizee pointed out that while design of the program was based on identified needs (community education and employment issues), the program got caught up in its use of technology. After all, as a part of Purdue’s oft-used Online Writing Lab (OWL), CWEST maybe necessarily needed to be preoccupied with using the available OWL-technology. However, noted Brizee, such preoccupation meant that very little time was spent making sure the CWEST resources were being used by the communities for which they were intended.

Indeed, while CWEST did communicate the information to help address the identified needs, it was found that its main clients (LARA and WorkOne) did not widely adopt CWEST resources, even though it had a lot of traffic worldwide. Brizee held that these problems were caused because CWEST did not truly know its clients. For instance, if it had known that many of the clients’ participants were “technologically nervous,” training sessions could have been integrated into the design of CWEST to help with digital literacy.

In his discussion of YRLEI, Brizee noted that the program sought to take lessons from CWEST and to work for a design that addressed identified needs while also paying attention to knowing its clients–Richnor Springs Neighborhood Association (RSNA) and GEDCO/CARES. While its design did include resources for digital literacy skills and workshop interaction with users, YRLEI still underestimated participants’ digital literacy.

Brizee used his keynote’s conclusion to talk about engaged scholarship and how compositionists can use such scholarship to fill the holes in programs like CWEST and YRLEI. He drew on Ernest L. Boyer in Scholarship Reconsidered (1990) to define engaged scholarship as scholarship that involves “[t]eaching, research, [and]service overlap[ing], inform[ing]one another, [and]focus[ing]on civic work, [and]social justice.” Engaged scholarship, Brizee argued, demands that compositionists consider the digital divide when doing digital work. Indeed, Brizee said that “[e]ngaged scholarship can help us use writing, [and]technology to cross the digital divide to bring about positive change.”

Many of the sessions at the 2016 Computers and Writing Conference grappled with the need for digital compositionists, pedagogues, and humanists to have “seats at the table” when decisions are being made about access and how best to use technology in different curricula. Brizee’s keynote gave examples of the kinds of question that should be asked at those seats: is the user/participant adequately involved in the design of a program that seeks to serve a community? and/or what assumptions are being made about a program’s clients/users/participants?

Brizee closed his keynote with a short excerpt from Howard Tinberg’s 2014 CCCC Convention address. Brizee pointed to Tinberg “underscor[ing]the value of our field’s capability to meet the needs of our communities through ‘public action…service-learning partnerships…’ and ‘…digital media.’” Noting that Tinberg said that such work should be central to the work of compositionists, Brizee wondered “if we are actually doing enough to respond to his call for action.”

Brizee’s last slide of his keynote presentation said, “May the Force be with you! Always…” If the Force for Brizee is the human component of compositionists’ work (it is), then this last slide was more than a playful allusion; it was a call to academics using digital technology to be sure to stay user-focused.

About Author

Spencer Smith

Spencer is a MA student focusing on rhetoric and composition in Ohio University’s English department. He is interested in pedagogy, learning, and how classroom activities help students compose their identities. Outside of the classroom, Spencer also seeks to teach and learn in, an organization he co-founded.

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