Rip Van Winkle Wanders Into Web 2.0

Attending the 2009 Conference on College Composition and Communication

By Jeff Goldthorpe

Once upon a time, a “youthful” thirty-four year old graduate student in composition worked on an edgy thesis on integrating visual media into writing classes.  Rip even gave a presentation at a 1992 4C’s  conference about students writing analytically about TV commercials. Dissecting TV commericials went beyond many teachers’ comfort zones, but intrigued them.  It was fun to be intriguing, but it did not win him favor in the world of hiring committees and English Department meetings. He consigned his edgy thesis to an “ad essay” assignment and went to work:  he had two young children to raise, and thousands of compositions to grade, (not just grade, but thoughtfully, individually respond to).  He read, and he graded, and he diapered year, after year, after year.  His fingers turned an inky blue, his knuckles grew gnarled;  his hair fell out and turned grey.  His most important media device became ear plugs, to shut out the noise of bickering children, video games, and their Lord of the Rings DVDs.

Twenty years later, at age fifty-four, Rip hobbled into the San Francisco Hilton to attend the 2009 Conference on College Composition and Communication.  He dreamed of clasping his old thesis, now a sabbatical topic, close to his heart and find that a new generation of Internet savvy teachers would congratulate him for coming. But when he attended his first convention workshop on “Streaming Media,” Rip found that what he had worked on was passé.  This new generation, instead of assigning students write through one medium (the word processor) about a separate visual medium (television), were assigning them to write “multi-modal compositions,” which combined graphics, sound effects, music, video clips, and podcasts. These were “papers” composed in the same medium that gave the students their subject matter.  Their writing was a single ingredient in a multi-media soup, where several other modes of communication bobbed around simultaneously. Rip, in dire need of new glasses, could barely decipher the Power Point characters on the screen, and moved to the front of the room. Though he could not help rubbing his eyes, he mustered up every bit of academic authority and objectivity he had, and asked the presenters how these teachers of Multi-Modal Composition prepared themselves to teach graphic design, musical selection and placement, recording and editing of video and audio, as well as expository writing.  This occasioned laughter from the audience, whose sympathies he could not discern, until a voice in the back asked, “Where have you been for the past twenty years, Grandpa?”  The three presenters solemnly conferred, and Rip was told that teachers and students already shared rudimentary skills in operating digital cameras with sound, manipulating graphics, editing video and audio documents, and inserting and accessing hyper-links.  Just a common proficiency, not expertise, was expected in these classes.  Students already lived in multi-media environments, and that multi-modal compositions did not lead to new anxiety, but excitement.  Most of the grade depended on their writing.

Rip began to tremble all over and to channel Dana Carvey’s Cranky Old Man character, who’d been channeling some old geezer from The Real McCoys on fifties television:  When I was a boy, and we wanted multi-media, we didn’t have any Garage Band  programs, just crappy musicians bothering the neighbors with their wretched noise!  We didn’t  have any You Tube, we had to make copies of copies of copies of Black Flag’s “TV Party” video!  We didn’t  have any Dance Dance Revolution!  We did our slam dancing while listening to Gang of Four and watching experimental video art school outrage spliced together with 1940’s health education films AND WE LIKED IT!!

Okay, maybe I exaggerate about Rip.  But why did these presentations leave me feeling like a stodgy old man, or worse, an uneducated hick, gaping at the sophisticates from the big city?  There I was, 35 miles from Silicon Valley, a San Francisco hick (ironically most of the presenters were from Ohio State University, and Purdue University in Indiana).  Many of them expressed no anxiety about whether or not their students wrote clearly, or interpreted multi-media messages perceptively.  One community college instructor gave a presentation about  using Wiki Spaces as a writing environment for a transfer level composition class.  When I asked her about the basic writing classes at her school, she said that they were part of a separate program, and that Wiki was not on their agenda; it was a whole different program. Transfer level classes were moving onto the “information superhighway,” to use a Clinton-era term, and basic writing classes were on a dirt track in the woods, writing on word processors, with Internet access tightly controlled.

I did find conference participants who shared my concerns with a new digital divide.  At one workshop, Ohio State graduate students talked about their study of the educational hierarchy and media access.  In the most well-endowed schools, all students have laptops,  most classrooms are wired for Internet use, and schools lend students digital recording equipment to do their multi-modal compositions. As you go down the educational hierarchy, these resources are less and less available. At City College there are those of us who use blogs in writing classes, or upload resources onto their web pages.  But instruction in multi-modal texts, or even the phrase multi-modal composition, has not arrived.  Maybe the right metaphor for us is not hillbilly but impoverished third world nation. The conference for me became a painful reminder that our world is divided, not merely between those who do and do not have access to the Internet, but also those who have the knowledge, skills, and equipment to use “Web 2.0”  proficiently, and those who don’t, despite access.

As real as this picture of “Digital Divide 2.0” generally is, it is so inadequate.  Our students are obviously on Web 2.0, often more fully and deeply than we are. “Facebook addiction” was the most popular writing topic among my students this last fall, obviously because so many students are on it. Or there is older problem: while community colleges have probably always had a sizeable contingent of monosyllabic young men, many of them I meet today are caught up in the worlds of on-line gaming or gambling. Or try this exercise in observation: walk through the LAC computer lab on any given day, and I predict you will find 25% of those students will be watching Japanese anime, You Tube, or some other visual treats. Let’s get more immediate: what is the latest form of diversion at the back of the community college classroom?  Students are checking their I-Phones, with this tell-tale posture: faces downward, staring into their laps.  Our students are clearly highly proficient in some kinds of Internet use, and woefully deficient in others.  Teachers, this one included, have to consider that we often know much less about the medium and its mechanisms than do our students.   And for the foreseeable future, they will always know more, and learn it faster, than we will.  What will our teaching stance be toward our students’ involvement in Internet culture?  I’m not ready to make a general statement on that, but I’m sure we don’t want to reduce our position to a restrictive and prescriptive police action.

Neither do I want to imply that we all need to jump on the Multi-Modal Bandwagon.  You may wonder if I exaggerate the influence of one tendency in a large conference.  It is true that many workshops and plenary sessions went on with little reference to the Bandwagon.  But its rhetoric is ascendant:  in the 2010 CCCC Convention Call, the official theme is “The Remix” a music industry derived term referring to serious audio reconstruction of old, often classic recording.  This call is phrased to attract a new generation of teachers and grad students:  “From mashups to CLUSTERF*%#!s and all the wikis, flashbacks, multimodalities, and mapping in between, the presentations for this year’s conference promise to push our discussions further.  They might even tell us if Aristotle is in the DJ booth or on Twitter.”

The medium is not the only message, nor will that medium resolve any of the issues we face in the classroom. I recoiled at the insistence by some at the 2009 CCCC that teachers had to keep up with the multi-modal wave, when the advocates had not thought carefully about what new skills and competencies were involved, or how the new media was reshaping the message. Here we are, witnessing the money-driven rush to put California’s textbooks on line,  and move to deposit the entire literary inheritance of humankind into the benign embrace of Google.  In such a world, there is merit to the traditional linguistic conservatism of English teachers— “Slow down now.  What does this mean?”

And yet…these presenters were saying that the ground of discourse on which we are teaching and reading and writing is shaky ground.   Look at this blog, with its graphics, hyperlinked videos, texts, and who knows what other bells and whistles that I have not noticed.  This is now a normal text.  Even in The New York “All the News That’s Fit to Print” Times, photos and illustrations are ballooning, the sports page is growing, and who knows if comics are far behind.  In Orality and Literacy Walter Ong stated that when a new technology reshapes discourse, it does not eliminate the prior form, but assimilates and integrates the old forms into the new discourse. The Multi-Modalists have gotten me to thinking:  if writing is less and less used as a discrete, separate symbol system, whether in handwriting, print, or electronic media, will teaching writing as a separate mode of communication become archaic in my lifetime?

Further Reading and bibliography:

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