Watching the Detectives: The Future of Writing

November 13, 2008

This blog must be brief, mostly because I’m over-committed to other forms of writing, but I do want to make a few comments about the terrific conference I got to attend last week at Irvine, The Future of Writing, and how it impacted me. As “inter-disciplinary” as my work is, it is always shocking to be reminded of the neat little silos in which we inevitably operate. At this conference, as is perhaps even more true for the one I’m attending next week, E-learn, I found myself in fruitful dialogue with scholars and teachers of rhetoric, writing, and education as well as the technologists who support, code and theorize the moving of our diverse practices and interests into the digital. It reminded me how much of my typical conference experience is about “content” (i.e. documentary or youtube videos) rather than about “process” (teaching, writing, making–whatever the content). As always, I learned a lot from fellow panelist, Liz Losh, who is carefully theorizing from and documenting her own experiments with teaching digital writing at Digital Rhetoric.

Most dramatically, many of we singing detectives seemed to agree that all these gizmos that we’re enthusiastically adding to our repertoire don’t actually seem to be improving writing, or reading, or teaching. Professor of Rhetoric and Writing, Lester Faigley,  in his talk “Considering the Possibility of Writing 2.0,” concluded that blogging has certainly expanded the number of writers and their many pages, but has not necessarily made this writing any better. Furthermore, the sheer number of words at our disposal has turned us all into skimmers and summarizers, even when the task at hand (writing a letter of evaluation for tenure, for instance) demands better. Before this, at lunch, I was chatting with Mark Marino, who teaches writing at USC and its interfaces with new media, electronic literature, and visual culture. Remember, we’re the people out there playing with this stuff. And he too lamented that old-fashioned paper and pencil writing instruction might lead to just as good writing as all the stuff he was inventing with his students through the nifty spy-gear he introduced to his students.

I left feeling like we needn’t go back, but we also need to be better at labelling how these tools move us forward, what they’re good at enhancing, and when we might want to shelve them.

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