Stanford University hosted the 2005 Computers and Writing conference this past weekend. Each session was rife with “future of the book” food for thought. This is an informal summary, with apologies to all the fabulous presentations that I don’t mention (sorry, being only one person, I could not attend them all). Some of the major themes (which dovetail nicely with issues we are exploring at the institute) included: Open Source, new interpretations of literacy and “writing,” the changing role of the teacher/student, performance, multimodality, and networked community. It is important to note that these themes often blur together in a complicated interdependence. This thematic interplay was evident in the pre-conference workshops which included instruction in open source tools and applications like Drupal that allow for multimodality and the creation of communal authoring environments. Workshops in “Reading Images” and “Using Video to Teach Writing” addressed multiple modalities and new concepts of writing.
I was excited to see that the Computers and Writing community understands the potential of, and imperative for, Open Source. It’s practical advantages (free and customizable) and it’s philosophical advantages (community-based and built for sharing rather than for selling) make it ideally suited to the goals of the educational community. Open Source came up over and over during the presentations and was featured in the first town hall session “Open Source Opens Thinking.” The session challenged the Computers and Writing community “to consider a position statement of collective principles and goals in relation to Open Source.” Such a statement would be useful and productive; I’m hoping it will materialize.
The changing role of the teacher and student was evident in several presentations: most notably, the pilot program at Penn State (see my earlier post) in which students publish their “papers” on a wiki. The wiki format allows for intensive peer-review and encourages a culture of responsibility.
There was a lot of speculation about how writing will evolve and how other modalities might be incorporated into our notion of literacy. Andrea Lunsford‘s keynote speech addressed this issue, calling for a return to oral and embodied “performative literacies.” She referred to Tara Shankar’s MIT dissertation “Speaking on the Record,” which confronts the way we privilege writing above other modalitites for knowledge and education. She says: “Reading and writing have become the predominant way of acquiring and expressing intellect in Western culture. Somewhere along the way, the ability to write has become completely identified with intellectual power, creating a graphocentric myopia concerning the very nature and transfer of knowledge. One of the effects of graphocentrism is a conflation of concepts proper to knowledge in general with concepts specific to written expression.”
Shankar calls for new practices that embrace oral communication. She introduces a new word: “to provide a counterpart to writing in a spoken modality: speak + write = sprite. Spriting in its general form is the activity of speaking “on the record” that yields a technologically supported representation of oral speech with essential properties of writing such as permanence of record, possibilities of editing, indexing, and scanning, but without the difficult transition to a deeply different form of representation such as writing itself.”
The need for a multimodal approach to writing was addressed in the second Town Hall meeting “Composition Beyond Words.” Virginia Kuhn opened by calling for a reconsideration of “writing,” and the goals of visual literacy. Bradley Dilger reminded us that literacy goes beyond “the letter;” we need multiple interfaces for the same data because not everyone looks at data the same way. Madeleine Sorapure pointed out that writing with computers is determined by underlying code structures which are, themselves, a form of writing. She quoted Loss Pequeno Glazier, “Code is the writing within the writing that makes the work happen.” Gail Hawisher, talked about the 10 year process of incorporating multiple modalities into the first-composition courses at the University of Illinois. Cynthia Selfe addressed this struggle, saying: “colleges are not comfortable with multiple modalities.” She advises the C&W community to “think about how to give professional development/support to resistant colleges in ways that are sustainable over time.” Stuart Moulthrop also offered some cautionary words of advice. In addition to faculty and administration, Moultrop says students are resistant to multimodality. Code, for example, is fatally hard to teach non-programmers or visually oriented people. “There is a political problem,” Moulthrop says, “we are living through a backlash moment. People are very angry about how fast the future has come down on them.”
Some participants delivered “papers” that attempted to demonstrate these new multimodal imperatives. Most notably, Todd Taylor‘s presentation, “The End of Composition,” which asked, “Can a paper be a film?” Todd argues “yes” with a cinematic montage of sampled and remixed clips along with original footage, which was enthusiastically received by the audience (alt. review in Machina Memorialis blog.) Morgan Gresham‘s Town Hall presentation was a student-produced video and a question to the audience; is this just a remake of a bad commercial, or is it a “paper”? Christine Alfano‘s presentation experimented with a hypertext, “Choose Your Own Adventure,” style that allowed the audience to determine the trajectory of the talk. Once the selection was made, she dropped the other two papers/options to the floor. The choice, unfortunately for me, eliminated the material that I most wanted to hear about (Shelly Jackson’s Patchwork Girl). Additionally, “virtual” presentations were delivered during an online companion conference called: Computers and Writing Online 2005 When Content Is No Longer King: Social Networking, Community, and Collaboration This interactive online conference served, “as an acknowledgment of the value of social networks in creating discourse of and about scholarly work.” CWOnline 2005 made both the submission and presentation process open to public review via the Kairosnews weblog. Despite some flaws, I thought these experimental presentations pushed at the boundaries of academic discourse in a useful way. They reminded us how far we have to go and how difficult the project of putting ideas into practice really is.
Finally, the conference highlighted ways in which computers are being used to cultivate community across cultures and institutions; and between students, teachers, and scholars. Sharing Cultures, a joint project of Columbia College Chicago and Nelson Mandela University Metropolitan University, in South Africa “creates two interconnected, on-line writing and learning communities…the project purposely includes students who traditionally have not had access to, or have been actively marginalized from, both digital and international experiences.” Virginia Kuhn approached computers and community at the local level, with a service learning class called, “Multicultural America,” which asked students to write an ebook documenting local history. The finished work is part of an ongoing display at a Milwaukee community center. This project inspired an interesting reversal; community members who worked with students on the project are now (thanks to a generous grant) coming to the University of Milwaukee for supplemental study. Within the academy there are also exciting opportunities for computer-based community-building. In her Town Hall presentation, Gail Hawisher said that literacy on campus is, “usually taken care of by first year composition.” If we are to incorporate visual literacy into our definition of literacy then, “Perhaps we should be looking to art and design for literacy instead of just the English dept.” This is an incredibly smart idea because, short of requiring composition teachers to have degrees in art, film, AND writing, collaborative efforts with other departments seem to be the best way to ensure a deep and rigorous understanding of the material. I had an interesting conversation with Stuart Moulthrop about this. We imagined a massively-multi-player game environment that would allow scholars from around world to collaborate on curriculum across institutional and disciplinary boundaries. Wouldn’t it be great, we thought, if someone who wanted to teach an odd combination like, film/biology/physics, could put a course scenario into the game where it would be played out by biologists, film scholars, and physicists. In other words a kind of life-time learning environment for the experts, a laboratory for the exchange of knowledge across disciplinary boundaries, and place to weave together different strands of human insight in order to create a more complete “picture” of the universe.