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Faculty Essay: Pamela Gay on technology and writing

Technology has changed the nature of writing; technology isn’t just a tool — it’s a new writing space.

Language changes. Experimenting with language is not dangerous; in fact, language play is good for linguistic development. The greater our ability to play with language, the more advanced will be our command of language as a whole.

Many students are more comfortable speaking than writing. Text messaging (TM) is a hybrid or bridge between oral and written discourse. It’s good that students are writing more — that they are verbalizing and learning communication skills. People can develop a large set of literacies, ranging from the formal to the relaxed and from the mainstream to the subcultural.

Text messaging, like instant messaging (IM), is an alternative literacy, a variant of English. It’s a different way of reading and writing and requires specific and unique skills. Academic literacy (school writing) is a different kind of literacy. Students need to learn to shift between different kinds of literacy. The fact is that literacies develop independent of each other.

If teachers wish to have their students craft better analytical writing, then they should focus on skills that relate to that goal. Students aren’t going to develop that ability spontaneously. If students are asked to present a researched argument but do not have the background to do so, then their final products will be a manifestation of a literacy that is inappropriate for the assignment. They may include informal freewriting or even an IM voice.

If students employ TM or IM literacy in the wrong settings, it is because academic or more scholarly literacy hasn’t been attended to well enough, not because TM or IM has damaged their literacy abilities or prevented the formation of these abilities.

I used to have students e-mail each other in class just to get their thoughts out and a conversation going. Now e-mail is so last millennium ;-).

Text messaging could be used for making notes to get started on a writing project. I wouldn’t teach text messaging, but if my students were text messaging daily and comfortable with that form of literacy, I would use it to advantage like Sharon Fellows is doing with students in engineering here.

I use blogging in class to get students thinking about a topic and to “talk” back and forth and build group knowledge — and then re-view, re-think and re-position themselves in more formal reflection.

I provide models for them — a blog entry by Riverbend (of Baghdad Burning book fame), for example. Recently they read a blog that included many participants from various locations (geographic, social class, political, cultural) “talking” about a controversy regarding a Nazi logo on a T-shirt found in Wal-Mart stores. The blog ended with a critical reflection by one of the bloggers. That’s the kind of blog entry I’m asking my students to write.

They are more eager to write. They want to be part of the conversation, and it’s exciting to have a “real” audience. It’s different than sending a “paper” to a teacher on a conveyer belt with the teacher pretending to be “the audience.” It’s real writing.

I try to find ways to use technology to enhance learning. I am experimenting with blogs as a genre of writing, and I’m excited about that.

Gay, associate professor of English and women’s studies, will give a talk about her blogging project at the National Conference on College Composition in New York at the end of March. She also plans to include blogging as an option in a textbook she’s working on to be titled Writers at Work: A Project Approach.
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Last Updated: 10/14/08