Everyday I am surrounded by people immersed in the process of reading and writing. Standing in line waiting for a coffee or sitting in an airport waiting to board a plane, crowds of people are texting short messages to friends, commenting on threads, thumbing through a newsfeed, or perusing a magazine article online. In this respect, we are confronted daily with the dynamic ways that reading and writing are changing and the devices that have made it possible. Such a shift in reading and writing practices also poses challenges for the ways I teach literature and first-year writing: how can I teach in ways that include students’ experiences with “texting?”
That is, how can I incorporate and help them to reflect on their experiences with digital, multimodal reading and writing platforms like Facebook or Twitter as well as the mobile devices through which they access them? As a teacher, I encourage students to reflect deeply on the interplay of critical methods and media consumption, tasking them to self-consciously assess their own habits of reading, watching, and interpretation. To bring together contemporary culture, multimodal composition, digital publishing, and the study of literature, my courses incorporate a wide variety of media (music videos, websites, films, and television) alongside literary texts to help students understand writing as a process that occurs in multiple mediums and genres, and, more importantly, that these genres and the audiences to which they are addressed can be altered by the technologies through which writing is produced.
The goals and strategies of my teaching, whether it is in first-year writing, introductory literature courses, or upper-level English electives, emphasize the value of collaborative work for our attempts to think critically about literature and culture. For example, in both upper-level courses and first-year writing classes, I ask students to take collaborative quizzes. Rather than assessing individual student reading comprehension, these quizzes assess how well students can craft answers through conversations with one another.
These collaborations, in turn, lead to student-led discussions in which they draw creative connections between different texts. In composition classes, these collaborations culminate in a class essay that asks students to organize their thoughts and write together. As a result, students model for one another the writing decisions we normally make on our own. By making these writing choices explicit at the level of the sentence and paragraph, students engage in conversations about their writing processes and often discover new strategies to implement in their individual essays. Currently, I am working on a pedagogy article about how I scaffold collaborative essays in the first-year classroom and encourage students to use technology like google.docs and course management software to facilitate their discussions.
In this way, I help students to develop critical thinking skills using literary texts and digital tools. In a class activity in course on Victorian Ecology, students were assigned sections from Bleak House to analyze in groups of four. As a way of grappling with this long and difficult text, I asked each group to create a hypertext version of their passage. Students hyperlinked the most significant words or phrases from their passage, connecting the reader to images, academic articles, and contemporary issues the passage evoked. Students practiced close reading skills at the same time they explored cultural and theoretical contexts of the work using digital tools and multimodal composition. These digital annotations provided the basis for the collaborative final project in which students built websites that linked to new pages they created that explained their catalog of images (Victorian cartoons, paintings, and etchings), provided a literature review of four academic articles, and discussed how Victorian pollution remains in the air, water, and atmosphere to this day. Through this exercise, students came to understand that the carbon emissions environmental scientists calculate have a history that can be described and contextualized using the methods of literary study.
In the first-year writing classroom, students work on their writing skills in multiple modes by studying how contemporary issues are shaped by visual and digital rhetoric in addition to the written word. In one of my expository writing courses, “The Rhetoric of Drugs,” I build the semester around a capstone community engagement project that asks students to reimagine public services announcements for the university community. At the beginning of the course, students analyze PSAs, learning to break down the visual, digital, and written rhetoric of these objects and to think critically about their explicit and implicit messaging. By situating PSAs alongside readings about the history of the war on drugs and its racial motivations as well as texts about pharmaceutical drugs and the invention of addiction as a concept in the nineteenth century, students analyze the discourse of drugs in culture in order to understand the ways that PSAs offer limited perspectives into the history of these complex issues. Students discover the institutionalized racism of the United States’ drug laws and their mandatory minimums – which PSAs hardly acknowledge. I encourage students to explore their intuitive reactions to these discoveries in writing and to think through the ways their ideas about drugs and cultural may have changed. At the end of the semester, students design their own public services announcements with goal of communicating to a broader public new messages about drugs and culture based on the ways their own ideas may have been challenged or changed over the course of the semester.
In all of my courses at Emory and Georgia Tech, including fifteen first-year composition courses and three English electives, my goal was to allow students to explore literary and digital texts asreaders in order to become stronger writers. Through the cultivation of writing as a practice that changes according to contexts like generic conventions and the audience expectations they produce, students come to understand that the study of literature and writing extends beyond the expository essay to their own texting devices. Every time they click on a link or download a new app, they are participating in a profoundly textual culture, which is imbricated in a history of reading and writing practices, from Romantic poetry to Public Service Announcements. Literary study in the “immersive” form of reading Middlemarch orporing over The Prelude might seem a far cry from the technologies we use to compose e-mails or text messages. Yet at an increasingly accelerated rate, students encounter these writing technologies and become producers of texts before they encounter literary texts and the history of the relationship between technology and textual production. In this sense, my teaching emphasizes careful attention to “texting” as a figure for writing and its proliferation in myriad forms that cannot be limited to literary texts, but must encompass what the study of literature and its genres has to teach us about writing in the digital age.