Screencasting and other technologies in FYC: Yes, but…

I’ve been pretty swamped the last couple days because I had to write a proposal for the 2006 CCCCs (and while the NCTE software/site for all this is a bit clunky and/or unclear, I think I sent stuff off successfully), because I’m trying to get back into my textbook project, and also because I’m teaching a section of first year composition this spring term. (For the non-EMU-types: the term that runs from January to the end of April is known here as “winter,” the first half of summer school is called “spring,” and the second half of the summer school is called “summer”).

It is as both fy comp teacher and fy comp textbook writer I’ve been interested in a whole series of posts by Collin, Will at Weblogg-ed, Alex Reid, Derek at Earth Wide Moth, and I’m sure a bunch of other folks about this essay by Jon Udell called “The New Freshman Comp.” Let me sum this all up in a super-duper simplistic and dangerously reductitive fashion: we ought teach writing like we teach (and learn and understand and practice) technology, we need to get beyond composition as simple “words in a row” literacy, and we need to teach and practice with the tools that students actually use to communicate and interact with media: video tools, sound tools, PhotoShop,etc., along with more traditional writing tools like MS Word or what-have-you. Oh yeah– screencasting is pretty cool.

Now, I agree with all of this and all of the above quoted posts, more or less. I’d argue that this has pretty much been the underlying philosophy of about 75% of the presentations at the computers and writing conference for at least the past 15 years. I think screencasting has a lot of instructional potential, and yes Jenny, I think there is a place for podcasting in writing classes, too. In fact, I’m going to give that (and probably screencasting) a try for an online class I’m going to be teaching in the fall.

I’ve been teaching students how to make web pages for over 10 years now, I’ve been using emailing lists and other technologies for longer, and I keep trying to learn new tricks. This spring, one of my experiments is to use blog writing as a way for students to keep “research journals” about their on-going projects. The mantra in the 300-level class I teach all the time is “writing is a technology, writing is a technology.”

And actually, I think that a lot of other more “traditional” comp/rhet folks are coming around to this position, too. Collin says “Our emphasis on writing, and this despite the work of some really smart people, is really an emphasis on writing in the narrowest scriptural sense. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard otherwise sensible people fall back on the excuse that creating a web page isn’t really writing…” Yeah, I think those types still exist. But at the same time, the level of acceptance or even practice of more sophisticated technologies in writing classes across the board is so much higher than it was just a few years ago.

So, I agree, I agree, I agree.

But…

I have some problems with all this, too.

  • I don’t want to put on that “bona-fide expert with my PhD and experience and publications and junk” hat, but I don’t know if Jon Udell necessarily has the ethos to tell me how to change teaching freshman comp. For one thing, it sounds like Udell’s teaching experience involves work at an ivy league school, the kind of place where they don’t have a lot of regard for the need for freshman comp. Which leads to…
  • … my second point: at the first year level and in a class like freshman composition at EMU, I have students who have some serious problems with good ol’ fashioned words-in-a-row literacy. I’m talking about students who are “basic” writers, or who have basic writer-like sorts of problems with things like making paragraphs, writing complete sentences, orality in their written prose, etc., etc., etc.. What it boils down to is a lot of the students at EMU in entry-level writing classes are woefully unprepared for the experience. They didn’t have the same kind of successes in high school and earlier experiences as the kind of student who attends an ivy league school.

    These students need to work on these kinds of skills, and I guess I want to make a claim that is perhaps seen as common sense by everyone outside of the computers and writing community: students need to have a pretty good handle on words in a row (aka “print”) literacy before you can get much out of the sorts of literacy skills that comes with screencasting, podcasting, flash, etc.

    It’s not that they can’t learn more about writing with these things; obviously, they can. The problem is one of time and priorities. If I have to include time in a first year composition class to teach students how to make web pages or to allow them to work on web pages, then that is time I can’t use to discuss readings, to do peer reviews, to talk about revision strategies, or to do any number of other “more basic writing” activities.

  • Last but far from least, what we’re also talking about here is an access gap. I’ve written about this before, including as a response to Collin’s post on his blog. We don’t teach any sections of first year writing in a computer lab, and while I can assume freshmen will have some basic computer skills (word processing, email, basic web surfing, etc.) and will have access to a basic computer to practice these skills, I can’t assume much more than that.

    I don’t want to harp/whine about the access thing too much because, as Jeff Rice has pointed out before, this “lack of access” argument too often becomes an excuse/cop-out for not doing anything new. But I’ve got to say that when folks at other schools talk about all the cool stuff they can do with technology in their first year composition classes, well, I get jealous.

Of course, my ranting here is really just about first year composition. In junior and senior-level classes, I’m much more able to do what Udell et all are suggesting. Another story.

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