Digital Composition in the Teacher Ed Classroom

I have needed — wanted — to blog this past week, but haven’t for two reasons:

  1. I felt like I should blog about the Chicago teacher’s strike, but haven’t been keeping up like I should be.
  2. Time. Hence, (1).

So I’m not going to blog about the strike, but this morning granted me a drizzly day and a little bit of time (that, yes, I should probably be spending elsewhere) to check my feeds and wait for the green radar blob to pass over Ann Arbor before my run, so here I am. And instead of blogging about the strike, I’m going to engage this post from Sweetland’s Digital Rhetoric Collaborative, “Creating an Ebook and Mobile App Multimedia Authoring Course: Getting Started.” Murray’s been tasked with designing a course for his department surrounding the development of ebooks/mobile apps, and as we all do when we design a course, needs to ask: “What do I want students to learn and why?”

A much harder question, when teaching with digital media, than it might sometimes seem, and one I’ve been grappling with since my move from the composition classroom into working with pre-service English teachers.

It’s a difficult question in part because there are so many potential goals one might have for authorship in digital, hypertextual spaces, and these goals depend on one’s teaching context. These goals could be functional; when you ask students to set goals for themselves on projects like this, they often set functional goals first. “I want to learn how to use iMovie” has been a common one in my classroom — okay, but how do you know you’ve “learned how to use iMovie?” is my typical response. But perhaps the teacher’s goal really is to teach students “how to” do something in a digital authorship space. For example, this semester my pre-service English teacher folks are designing WordPress sites where they will archive teaching artifacts, blog about their experiences in their field placements, and post things like CVs and teaching philosophies. One of my goals is for them to actually learn “okay, here’s how I navigate WordPress” and “holy cow, there’s this thing called WordPress that I could totally use in my classroom!”

Or your goals might be rhetorical. As Murray notes,

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.

The follow-up question is inevitably and of course, “why?” For my pre-service teachers, headed into teaching environments where making time for assignments that require students to engage in rhetorical decision-making gets eclipsed by time spent preparing students for the ACT, they will need to not only be able to say this is important, but to say why it’s important. Which means I need to be able to say why it’s important for pre-service teachers to learn. Which I still struggle with.

I suppose in part I engage my students with digital composition in pre-service courses because I want them to think rhetorically about how they present themselves as teachers to the world — today, teachers either get upheld in heartwarming films that depict the teacher as self-sacrificing hero (there’s a new one coming out… sigh), or they get denigrated by a media that wants to blame teachers for the world’s ills (see: all coverage of CPS strike). My students need to know how to present themselves as teachers to the public in ways that are both professional and personable. Teachers make rhetorical decisions all day long — in the graphic organizers they design for third period, in the presentation they prepare for staff members at the end of the day, in their correspondences with parents, in the design of their classroom websites, in the way they word and present assignments to students. These things get eclipsed in a lot of teacher education classrooms, but engaging with digital media composition makes those decisions more conscious, more surface-level.

Or, your goals might be critical. You might want students to question the role of particular technologies/apps/etc. in their lives. As Murray puts it, you might want 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?” This is a very real part of teaching — so many teachers are faced with moments where administrators or other teachers present a new program, a new technology, accompanied by “oooo check out this cool new thing we’re now going to use in all the classrooms!” Too many terrible technologies are being lobbed at teachers these days. I’m thinking, in particular, of my own experiences with Criterion, an automated essay evaluator/grader that I was told I must use during my first two years of teaching. At first, my critical digital literacies weren’t up to snuff — I didn’t have the skills to look at the technology and ask “to what ends and for whom?” By the time I had earned a master’s degree and worked with it for two years, Criterion all but made me nauseous. My hope is that it won’t take my students two years and an advanced degree to ask questions like this in their careers.

Alright, drizzle has subsided — time for a run. As always, DRC has given me much to think about today.

An hour and a half later…

It rained on me anyway. Oh well. 🙂