With end-of-term papers coming due, I’d like to reflect on, and perhaps reconsider, general undergraduate attitudes toward research documentation. Simply put, we need to remember citations allow for continuation of our knowledge and culture. Without accurate citation we wouldn’t be able to verify findings and perspectives very well, and judging content is difficult enough without recognizing the source of perspectives and knowledge. First-year students want to be heard, hence the popularity of networks like twitter and facebook that announce one’s presence. But in order to be heard in academic writing, knowing from where we are coming, with whom we speak, and how we respect what others have said, provide one’s credentials. Being unambiguous about one’s dialogue with others necessitates in-text citation and systematic documentation. What others say demands signal phrases be carefully constructed, which is why I’m a big fan of Graff and Berkenstein’s They Say/I Say. Thinking about writing as a Burkean conversation can help students work to represent speakers relevant to their topics—challenging work that many students view as toiling ineffectual when the opposite is the case. For citation establishes and builds ethos—a writer’s ethical standing before one’s audience.
No doubt, documenting is demanding for students. It does require rigorous diligence, yet when academic writers begin to control their signal phrases and documentation, this is when they can better evaluate sources because they’ve been able to differentiate between statements. After students stop obsessing over conventions, writers can draw closer to matters of their written voice, control of one’s research, and supporting a thesis-argument. Writing a draft makes this possible just as planning to cite through one’s notes and annotations makes this process of control easier. Perhaps somewhat paradoxically, this differentiation involves the researcher’s reading process. As the citation project concludes in their review of student papers thus far, the ability to summarize is not being emphasized. Instead, “the students paraphrased, copied from, or patchwrote from individual sentences in their sources” (Howard, Rodrigue, and Serviss). In my experience, student obsession over documentation and their seeking of concrete evidence in the form of quotation infringes on a student’s development in abstracting–literally drawing away–content from a source. And unfortunately, teachers can reinforce this obsession by pointing out documentation as a means of quickly “improving” student academic writing.
Through the separating out of texts by others, writers can extend what we know and believe. Students can move beyond the vortex of messiness that holds back their voices. Student writers are frustrated by not having authority and feel research steals their voices when citations and source differentiation should actually support/develop their authority.
We live in the age of fast capitalism. At first glance, this is an exciting time to live. Through global transit and technology, the world is better connected. People have access to different cultures and language. Our opportunity to learn and know increases. Potentially, people can improve themselves. The world market can assemble products and provide services quickly and with economic and resource efficiency. Westerners have a particular advantage at the moment and as consumers can get more of what they want, when and how they want it. For all the serious environmental and human consequences, there are lots of benefits to more and cheaper.
So you may ask, how does fast capitalism effect student writing? If more communication is necessary through globalization and interconnected technology, in fact, there are many opportunities for students to write as future workers. Again, that’s exciting. Student writers can write for multiple purposes: email, texting, web design, multi-media advertising, research and reports, etc. As future workers, students must be adaptable to market needs, but is that really a big deal? Flexibility is a virtue of fast capitalism, and who begins college with the goal of becoming lazy? People are motivated to go to college for various reasons, but laziness isn’t usually at the top of their list. Students are motivated to train for a job or want the experience of learning under demanding and stimulating classes. Even if the reason to attend higher education originates from parents or social pressure, college can be an ideal setting in preparing for a world of fast capital.
And frankly, old fashioned capitalism and industry can make work boring . When Henry Ford famously implemented the assembly line where tasks were broken down into simple manageable units, workers felt under challenged with the same day-to-day drudgery. But industrialization didn’t stop with managing products. People were susceptible too. Post-Fordian thinking breaks people down into manageable units. Yet if fast capitalism works, people are kept too busy to become bored. Productivity is admirable and its own reward, isn’t it?
Today’s writers are challenged with new tasks and more genres than before. Unfortunately, as writing across the curriculum has shown us, little in writing is easily transferred. Writing is never a generic or basic skill. Under the industrial age, writing tasks were standardized. For example, the business letter, scientific research, or technical instructions were learned and executed by the same professionals. But today, we are expected to write using complicated technological tools for sophisticated goals. This takes more time to learn than most workers or students have available to them. Complex talents like writing take time and practice to learn. So what happens when more people are required to write in an information age? The resulting pressure isn’t necessarily bad; it can motivate and stimulate problem solving and creativity. One problem, however, is that since the platforms and genres change with the speed of cultural markets, fewer students will be quick or advantaged enough to adapt. Especially in a time when more communication is needed, this is frustrating for students, teachers, and employers.
Students appear to write no worse than in years past, yet in such demanding times, it may feel like there are fewer competent writers because in meeting specific communication tasks, people are excluded from the time it takes to master those tasks. In addition, one written skill set conflicts with others: students often say frustratingly, “But that’s the way I learned it before.” By the time someone masters a Blackberry, the iPhone becomes the mobile communication platform of choice. By the time a writer learns MLA citation, it’s been updated and s/he has become a chemistry major required to document according to the American Chemical Society guidelines. Likewise, as a budding chemist, exposition is less important than the ability to produce complicated molecule diagrams, so writing first-year composition essays only partially prepares them for the new genre demand.
Specialization coupled with fast capitalism can cause resistance on the part of students saying they can’t write because they sense the time, energy, and proficiency will move on before they’ve mastered the necessary skill sets. Frustration leads to desperation. Groups blame one another for the bad writing they see. Students ignore or avoid their impulses to express and develop their writing ability. The effect can be contagious enough to effect an entire school, region, or nation. And since one rule of fast capitalism is that those who are fastest to deliver draw economic investment, talented people are then drawn to the social, regional, and economic success. Some worker pools gain advantage; others stagnate or even degrade. Those that stagnate must sell off what they have, whether its skill or local materials, usually at reduced market rates.
But one piece of good news is that technological tools like writing can allow people greater means to produce. Learning to write doesn’t need to be a continual chasing after new kinds of writing and conventions. Learning to write that fosters inquiry positions students with talents for inventing new ideas and revising old ways of explaining, directing, and making products or services.
Questions: Since fast capitalism emphasizes writing as a handmaiden to employment, does it leave space for people’s humanity, family, and nation? Is so, where?
Filed under: History, invention, New Media, postprocess, rhetoric
“It’s not about timing. It’s not about keeping it short. It’s about relevance.” –Mike Wesch, Assistant Professor of Cultural Anthropology, Kansas State University
Wesch is right. Information is not scarce. But even in an information age, knowledge making can be. Writing is more than a container for knowledge; it can help processing, development and production of new knowledge. For this reason, writing to learn and examining expression might present an attractive study for college students. Students crave forums for expression; they want to be heard. Learning information alongside learning to persuade is powerful and rewarding. Personal purpose and goals make information relevant, but understanding that we have to talk to one another within different social structures is some of what rhetoric and writing provides in its educational long-term.
If we accept the Academic 2.0 argument about the importance of teaching the “how” and not merely the “what” of information, we embrace the importance of writing and rhetorical studies. We can then work to implement communication activities beyond the lecture and can accept communication’s interdisciplinary habits in addition to its residing within the domain of the English department.
That said, community college students often face a wider digital divide than assumed under Web 2.0 arguments. It’s incorrect to assume all students have been naturalized to blogs, wikis, mashups, or mobile networks. This is not to say community colleges give up. The opportunities to write and research with these technologies are likely to accelerate, and ignoring the latest developments because not everyone knows them will only widen the technological divide. However, it is important to acknowledge what many (considering that the majority of students in the country are community college students perhaps I should say “the majority of”) freshmen are not digital natives. And if their professors must immigrate to the digital too, there is a tendency to go with what is most comfortable: chalk and talk, lecture and note take, and read/discuss.
While I see nothing wrong with these classroom approaches in general, academia needs to consider seriously Wesch’s earlier observation that The Machine is Us/ing Us, for our media platforms rewrite how we compose and make language (and therefore knowledge).
Or as one of the comments under the Academia 2.0 video says,
Academia is dead! learning can be done faster and better outside of universities, renting an office space and committing yourself to learning a subject has far less distractions...
Community colleges’ missions center on learning and job training, so I say, Why not put the media machine into the curriculum? It’s influencing how people gather information and make personal, civic, and business decisions. Academica can become more relevant if entry points to the network are practiced in and outside the classroom.
So blog on…
Language is social, no matter how it is used. Writers may have trouble remembering this while alone at the keyboard. But sometimes, we need reminding because knowing it can help us write and help our writing. One of the more quoted passages in composition describes language as a social gathering in a parlor:
Imagine that you enter a parlor. You come late. When you arrive, others have long preceded you, and they are engaged in a heated discussion, a discussion too heated for them to pause and tell you exactly what it is about. In fact, the discussion had already begun long before any of them got there, so that no one present is qualified to retrace for you all the steps that had gone before. You listen for a while, until you decide that you have caught the tenor of the argument; then you put in your oar. Someone answers; you answer him; another comes to your defense; another aligns himself against you, to either the embarrassment or gratification of your opponent, depending upon the quality of your ally’s assistance. However, the discussion is interminable. The hour grows late, you must depart. And you do depart, with the discussion still vigorously in progress.
Language provides an ongoing conversation–unending even though it comes to an end for us individually. The point here is that writing, even without the speakers or listeners and their agendas before us, is shaped through social circumstances.
- We step into conversations (written or oral), and need to get our bearings.
- We “read” other people and their talk.
- When we sense where the talk is going and people’s purposes, we participate.
- We may argue points rigorously. We may choose to be silent sometimes. Both are expressions.
- We participate for as long as needed or desired.
- We stop contributing with the understanding that people may act differently because of us.
- And the words go on…
Recent textbooks such as They Say, I Say propose learning to write requires practicing one’s moves, much like a dancer, musician, or ballplayer. Templates are often taught as crutches in learning to write. Mechanics such as grammar and punctuation may be studied. These are part of the listening in Burke’s parlor. Learning conventions isn’t learning to write because it doesn’t directly practices one’s expressions, and writing follows the adage of learning best by doing. Examples are important but only useful if they help us engage with our goals and environment. Moving from dependent to independent student writers requires several mind frames, but the first is appreciating that writing is social, public, and involves persuasion.
Whether they admit that writing is social or not, writers know audiences project a powerful affect, and this can have negative consequences. For example, many students view their writing and expressions as personal–for their eyes only and not to be shared. This protectionism may be addressed by creating safety in the classroom for student expression by respecting them even where counterarguments can easily be pointed out. This can be difficult because healthy skepticism founds academics. Many working class and middle class students come to college having learned deference to authority. Successful students might have learned to follow directions or execute orders in accordance with teachers or bosses. This is not a bad lesson; however, writing only for teachers may discourage risk-taking and narrow their concept of audience while encouraging codependent writing decisions.
Grades are powerful socializers too, but these can also narrow how student writers learn to reach their audiences. So considering all this, I’ll end this post by asking for your input. How would you have students write for larger audiences? With what communities could students engage in order to enter them into a suitiable Burkean parlor?