For the past year and a half, both as a teacher and a graduate student, I have been focusing quite a bit of my energy on digital technology, the internet, and what it means to learn. This past spring, I completed an MA thesis exploring this issue, which has led me to think deeply about the way I engage my students. I think cognitive dissonance pretty well sums up what I have been feeling. And this is particularly acute with writing instruction.
I just cannot shake the concern that I am teaching students 20th century skills for the 21st century. True, there are certain elements of writing instruction that will always require mastery: how to write compelling and concise sentences, for example. After all, it does not matter what format students are writing in or for whom--as writers they should always aspire to convey their ideas as powerfully as possible.
Instead, my struggles occur as I consider the types of assignments I use. Looking over my curriculum for junior English, I am struck by two recurring attributes: most prompts revolve around "literary analysis" and the prompt language emphasizes "originality." As for the former, my assignments ask students to explain what a writer says about a certain theme or idea, like "love" in Tim O'Brien's "The Things They Carried," or "self-determination" in Hurston's "Their Eyes Were Watching God." Of course, students are instructed to select the theme that they find most important and/or interesting, but essays keep a tight focus on how the author manipulates and comments on the chosen theme. In terms of "originality," my prompts place a premium on "insightful thesis statements" that illustrate an idea "a reader might not see on his or her own." Tall order for a 16 year old, let alone a 36 year old. And this is where I now find myself struggling the most.
Is this fair to ask my students, a number of whom are only reading a given text because they are compelled by the need to get good grades or at least not get in trouble with their parents? Given that the majority of my students will not be English majors, or even liberal arts majors, how often in the future will they be asked to write something resembling a thesis driven essay? Particularly one that is "assessed" in part according to the originality of their idea and how well they borrow from other texts in order to support it? Probably not often.
So what skills, besides the aforementioned need to write well, do people need in our information saturated digital world?
Maybe my students would benefit the most at this point from investigating an idea by remixing or assembling what others have said, as the composition theorists Johnson-Eilola and Selber discuss in their article, "Plagiarism, Originality, Assemblage" (2007). According to them, and others, at least some writing assignments should ask students to investigate and "remix" what people have to say about a given idea or question by creating "assemblages." Instead of receding into the background to play a supporting role for the student's "original" idea, borrowed material becomes the focus as it is brought together in thought-provoking ways. Of course, the traditionalist in me recoils at this: "what skills is this teaching besides cutting and pasting what others have already said?" But the forward-thinking teacher in me says that they are learning higher order skills: analysis, evaluation, synthesis. Not to mention what Howard Reinghold calls "crap-detection" skills.
As I was completing my MA thesis, "The Kids are Online: writing and reading in the Digital Age," my adviser reminded me constantly that there is already a robust conversation taking place regarding my topic. Yes, ultimately I wanted to add my voice; however, his point was that I should "be a reader before a thinker" and get a sense for what others were saying, how ideas interacted, and what questions inevitably arose. In other words, I should not try to immediately transform the field with a novel concept. In some ways, my whole MA thesis could be viewed as a remix of ideas by some brilliant people: Larry Lessig, Henry Jenkins, Clay Shirky, Roland Barthes, Jane McGonigal, and many more. Undoubtedly, I found places to add my own perspective. But my role was to analyze and synthesize (remix, assemble), not revolutionize.
Increasingly, this feels like a lesson I need to share with my students.