Do As the Birds Do–Adapt

Kathleen Blake Yancey’s article “Made Not Only in Words: Composition in a New Key” has an underlying metaphor of “adaptation.” I read this article twice and both the times it reminded me of the “bird watcher,” a character in Anita Desai’s novel The Village by the Sea. The novel is all about clash between nature and culture, where nature stands for humanity and tradition, and culture stands for advancement and technology. On one level Desai seems to prioritize nature over culture since the technological advancements are a threat to the traditional way of life of the society that she portrays, but on the other side she presents us with the character of the “bird watcher” who advocates the point that adaptation is crucial for survival. There is a point till which we can resist the change but the change is inevitable and we have to adapt to it. This to me is the crux of Yancey’s essay.

Her insistence on “we have a moment” signals that this is the right time when we adapt to the change that has already seeped in in our everyday practices: “we teachers and students seem to have moved already—to communication modes assuming literacy” (307). So this watershed moment for Yancey is a call to incorporate digital modes into composition. She acknowledges that the

[M]embers of the writing public have learned…to write, to think together, to organize and to act within these forums—largely without instruction and…without our instruction. They need neither self-assessment nor our assessment: they have a rhetorical situation, a purpose, a potentially worldwide audience, a choice of technology and medium—and they write. (301-2)

This being the situation, keeping composition classroom a separate arena for producing ‘words on the page’ can do no good to all the parties involved—student, teacher, and academy. So Yancey’s proposal of a new curriculum seems appropriate for other wise, students will continue to invest their “energy and motivation” (298) in genres other than what they are required to do in class.

Another aspect that can be added to Yancey’s formula for a new curriculum can be expressivists’ idea of letting the students ‘take responsibility of their writing’ (see Burnham and Powell, “Expressive”). Once the students, for example, have the freedom of topic selection, they already start feeling comfortable. Letting them probe the exigence for their content may bring in the “energy and motivation” that they lack otherwise when they are ‘assigned’ to do certain writing tasks. This may raise a question however: If the technology is already teaching (dictating?) writers how to write, and the student is given full freedom in what to write, what would be the role of a teacher then? Going back to Yancey’s suggestion, perhaps the role of the teacher would be only to remind students that instead of just filling in the blanks of the templates that technology based genres provides, they can be dealt with invention and creativity.

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One thought on “Do As the Birds Do–Adapt

  1. I like the ideas of invention and creativity, of course, but how do we get students to actually DO these things? That they ARE creative whether they’ve typically identified as so or not? I struggle with this because some students tend to think that “creative” is a dirty word (which seems patently ridiculous to us, of course).

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