On November 17 I attended Richard E. Miller and Paul Hammond’s talk “This is How We Write”, in which they discussed the influence of technology and widespread information on the way that students now learn and write. They were very enthusiastic about incorporating more technology and non-traditional media, such as online tools and reference platforms, into the classroom, in order to counteract the idea that there is a dearth of information and resources for student learning. For instance, there was the example of the class blog, which allowed students to incorporate sources from all over the internet into their writing, effectively turning their responses into multi-media presentations rather than simple essays. I confess my initial reaction to the increasing digitalization of learning is rather mild (I guess I’m a stuffy purist), but thinking back to Miller and Hammond’s presentation, I feel like I understand where the enthusiasm springs from. It really is fascinating to see what a student can make of a topic when they are not simply limited to text and reference books. In fact I have on occasion heard my roommate lament that she could not include a relevant video or photo series to her papers, especially because she is a history major with interest specifically in the latter half of the 20th century. From her, I draw an example of how useful the new multi-media approach to writing can be, especially for students whose academic endeavors are focused in the liberal arts.
Being able to draw from new and varied sources could definitely be useful and productive, provided one is prudent and doesn’t simply grasp at everything related to the topic that they can find. Often students do this even when working with a single text, such as the book of essays used for Expos. Some students still tend to pick out quotes without giving consideration to how they might fit into the argument they are trying to make; as long as it has one or two key words it, it can be mashed into the essay to take up the space for a length requirement – a practice which is obviously detrimental both to the process of learning how to write and to the final finished essay. This is why a significant focus of our tutoring program is to work towards understanding and actively working with the text.
Furthermore, if even one text may sometimes be too convoluted or overwhelming for a student to effectively use in his or her paper, then having the vastness of the internet and other electronic resources at one’s disposal is probably going to make it even more so. Several of the prompts one of my students and I worked with this semester involved working with videos or photos outside of their text. On its own, this idea is certainly creative and appealing, but I noticed that my student had trouble drawing connections between the already disparate essays in his text and with the outside source in question. In retrospect, I feel a little critical of a system that immerses students in discourses which they may or may not fully understand, and expects them to not only write, but compose video presentations about them. Having the world at our fingertips, as they say, is certainly exciting and enticing, but I think the dangerous hidden flipside of the perceived “lack of information” that Miller and Hammond are working to dispel is the overabundance of information which, if not simply irrelevant or suspicious, is undoubtedly overwhelming.
Finally, I feel that the main issue I still take with this whole business is the clunkiness of integrating new technology into the classroom. Because we are only at the cusp of this transition in educational practice, often times the incorporation of non-traditional resources is burdensome and awkward. Being able to use a tool requires understanding of how it works and how to use it, and I can recall a dozen or so instances in this past semester alone when either the instructor or the students were completely blindsided by some malfunction or funny-looking screen, which sometimes ended up in class simply grinding to a halt. One of my language courses attempted to make use of a multimedia disk which had readings and songs performed by famous actors, an interactive dictionary, and a number of thinking and reading exercises… it was all very exciting for about the first month, but then one day the computer malfunctioned and we sat there in silence for a while before just opening the textbook and continuing on our own. We never used the disk again, and it was all mostly just a waste of money in the end. Even so, the fact that we even had the option to begin with is an interesting change in the way learning and writing are practiced.
I certainly don’t want to be “that guy” sitting in the corner going “Bah humbug” at changing classrooms. I suppose my sentiment is more that, while Miller and Hammond’s certainly leaves a whole lot of room for optimism, the systems of education around us have exponentially more catching-up to do to technology, and technology is certainly not going to slow down and wait, so I can’t help but feel that the “new” classroom is always going to be, relatively, a little bit old-fashioned, even a hundred years from now, and so will the way we write.