Can We Mobilize New Genres Without New Media?

Over the course of the last month, I have been reviewing the thought-provoking pieces in Writing New Media: Theory and Applications for Expanding the Teaching of Composition (2004) and The Routledge Reader on Writing Centers & New Media (2014)Both collections raise crucial questions regarding the relationship between writing center practices and new/emerging media.

chart

The above chart represents my own distillation of many of the articles featured in the collections as well as my observations regarding my center. At many educational institutions, new media continue to challenge print’s centrality in writing instruction. Starting in the upper left-hand corner of the chart and going down, we can see that traditional media, namely print technologies, are associated with traditional or conventional conceptions of literacy. In other words, printed materials have the potential to facilitate printed or textual literacy.

As new media possibilities offer new composition, creative, and instructional possibilities, new literacies have emerged: visual, technological, media/medial, and many others. The green diagonal arrow represents the implication behind many of the articles in the collections: new media not only create – and can be used to teach – new literacies, but they can also more effectively teach traditional textual literacy.

Naturally, the proliferation of new media asks writing center practitioners the extent to which they need to adjust their own practices. In his article “Planning for Hypertexts in the Writing Center . . . Or Not,” Michael A. Pemberton points out the ways in which new literacies demand new areas of expertise:

“If we believe that more and more writing classes will be taking Sean Williams’ advice to “think out of the pro-verbal box” and allow students to write and create documents that incorporate more visual, multiliterate forms of communication, and if the Internet is spawning entirely new textual genres with their own sets of critical features, not all of which are common to print texts (Bauman), then the consequences for writing centers are clear: more students with different texts in unfamiliar genres will be making new demands on tutor expertise.” (109-110)

Although students are writing in new media, they still are, in Pemberton’s formulation, producing “documents.” The “new textual genres” of these “documents” require tutors to be familiar with a broader range of “critical features.” Pemberton’s observation echoes Anne Frances Wysocki’s assertion that “new technologies do not automatically erase or overthrow or change old practices” (8). New media, as represented by the green arrow, are seen as straddling both new practices as well as the “old practices” Wysocki identifies.

In contrast, the red diagonal arrow, spoiler alert, highlights the implied assumption that print media are not as effective at creating or teaching the new literacies of our twenty-first century moment.

In response to Pemberton’s and Wysocki’s observations and drawing upon my past research in media studies, I want to consider whether or not we can mobilize new genres without new media.

During my time as an English instructor at New York University, I created no-stakes writing assignments I called Exercises of Engagement. These exercises used the features of the “unfamiliar genres” Pemberton identifies: the blog/Twitter/Facebook/Instagram post. In fact, I relied on those genres in order to guide students through the essay writing process.

First, I asked students to brainstorm ideas for a topic and send me a Twitter length summary, so 140 characters or fewer. Emojis, images, text speak, and shorthand forms of writing were all welcome. Then students converted the Twitter post to a Facebook post and then blog post. I also reversed the sequence in order to help students arrive at a clear and focused thesis statement (in future posts, I will elaborate further on the specifics of these exercises).

My point is a simple one: although students used the textual features of new media, their responses were never posted in the new media from which the genres originated.

I look forward to examining the implications of this fact in future posts.

To Be Continued .  .  .

Works Cited:

Pemberton, Michael A. “Planning for Hypertexts in the Writing Center . . . Or Not.” The Routledge Reader on Writing Centers & New Media, edited by Sohui Lee and Russell Carpenter, Routledge, 2014, pp. 105-116.

Wysocki, Anne Franes. “Opening New Media to Writing: Openings and Justifications.” Writing New Media: Theory and Applications for Expanding the Teaching of Composition, edited by Anne Frances Wysocki, Johndan Johnson-Eilola, Cynthia L. Selfe, and Geoffrey Sirc, Utah State UP, 2004, pp. 1-41.