Kathleen Yancey explores how composition has evolved in relation to digital technologies and “new literacies” in her article “Made Not Only in Words.” Her work contemplates the ways in which increasing accessibility to virtual environments and new digital writing practices, outside of institutionalized formal education, have contributed to a decline in the traditional role of the composition classroom. Despite a clear need to incorporate relevant contemporary pedagogies into composition instruction, Yancey critiques, teachers seem to cling to antiquated methods that add to the shrinking relevance of English Departments. These current traditionalist methods insist upon an individualized approach to writing reinforced by comfortable genres and solitary assessment. Such assessments contradict the social constructivist view of writing that virtual space privileges. Instead, Yancey proposes, composition teachers should “relate” writing to “real world genres,” determine the best, not the most comfortable, “medium” and “delivery for such communication,” consider how writing “transfers” from one medium to the next and how certain communication activities and practices “prepare” students “to become members of a writing public” (807). These criteria also constitute what Yancey considers the objectives of a composition studies program.
“Public” is the key term in Yancey’s conception of a revitalized and digitally situated composition major. To be successful, the program would need to focus on helping students write in locations and use genres of contemporary value in hyper-public spaces. As I consider some of the varying theories of composition (process, processes, world Englishes, even collaborative and service learning), the idea of adapting composition instruction to the multiple, plural authorship in a space layered by intertextuality, in words, images, videos, and sounds, nonlinearity, is truly groundbreaking, a seismic shift that changes the topography of the discipline. Unlike collaboration or co-authorship as currently conceptualized in the composition classroom (generating a class blog, creating a group project, or integrating activities that awkwardly attempt to assert technology into traditional curriculum), the digital social writer is at once writer-reader-responder-participant (I think of Lunsford and Ede’s 2009 article that reassesses their audience-addressed/audience-invoked theory). The dynamics of this type of public forum include specialized discourse, multimedia texts, multimodal structures, writing as active dialogue rather than the passive conversation common in print media.
Communication in this context does, as Yancey suggests, “create the new… based on the model of the old” (811). It reasserts a mediated orality into literacy, a rhetoric that amalgamates writing with speech, the asynchronous with the synchronous, the visual with and as text. Walter Ong’s claim that separative technologies create “intimacy” (48) through “relationalism” (35) is reminiscent of Yancey’s claim that virtual social media sites, such as Twitter, IM, Snap Chat, Skype, etc., make immediate the communication act in increasingly complex public genres.
I am at once both exhilarated by the idea of an updated and expanded composition major and anxious about letting go of tradition. On the one hand, I like the potential of new virtual landscapes in which writing truly functions as a social act of construction and a fulcrum for social change. On the other hand, I also worry about what the new composition and rhetoric program Yancey proposes entails, what must be sacrificed to the alter of change. I suppose it is the same with any transitional era: new technology, knowledge, and methods disrupt, problematize, and create disequilibrium. Prior to signing on to Yancey’s brave new comp/rhet world, I would ask a few questions:
1- How does one encourage wide scale buy-in and practice of the approach to composition instruction described by Yancey?
2- What training will be needed to ensure existing teachers are familiar with and willing to engage communication technologies and genres in relevant “real world” contexts?
3- How do we reconcile the instruction of the classroom with authentic writing in the virtual public?