Saturday, June 10, 2017

Next Level: The Writing Process Gets an Upgrade

April 28th, 2013 was one of the best days of my life; after a year of hard work, I finally printed out my senior thesis in the college library. Two of my fellow relieved senior classmates and I walked down to Staples to have our essays bound, and then indulged in celebratory cupcakes. Back in my dorm room, I placed the booklet on my desk and stared at the glossy cover for a while. I was done. The thesis was printed, and therefore out of my head. No more second-guessing myself, no last minute edits. I could finally breathe.

Whenever I think back to that particular essay I wonder what the writing process would look like today. The thesising process was very old school even as recently as 2013. We were expected to print out everything along the way -- our proposals, our annotated bibliographies, the first 10 pages. Most of the feedback I received was handwritten by my advisor, or given verbally through conferences. I’m sure that, four years later, it’s become more technologically advanced, and maybe that’s a good thing. Students likely learn to use an online tool to better organize their sources. Feedback from professors and peers may have moved to some kind of digital platform. There might be more of a focus on digital humanities now, and fewer students are tied to the same printed essay format. If my writing process looked like this, I might have been more organized and less stressed.

In the second chapter of Because Digital Writing Matters, DeVoss describes the ways in which the writing process has been affected by these new technologies. Even after flipping through this chapter for the first time, I realized how much my idea of the writing process will have to change to serve my future students. Having learned to write in the not-so-digital age, the prospect of teaching students to research and write with so many different technological tools made me nervous. The main point threaded through this chapter is that the skills needed to write well, such as planning and revising, really haven’t changed (DeVoss 42). Knowing that writing itself hasn’t changed all that much -- just the tools and methods used to aid the writing process -- made me feel more at ease.

In spite of my initial trepidations, I am intrigued by many of the suggestions DeVoss offers for integrating technology into the teaching of writing. Using technology in the classroom grants students more opportunities to be independent and self-aware. The use of tools like blogs and wikis makes students more aware of the purpose of their writing, their audience, and even give them more motivation to revise and edit their work (especially if it will be published). I especially liked the suggestions given for prewriting and freewriting (51). So many tools are available to help students organize their research and their ideas. I think the importance of freewriting to the larger writing process is often overlooked. This is such an effective way to get students to develop their own voices and opinions, as well as come up with topics to write about. If students write these initial thoughts in a blog or record audio of their thoughts, these can be valuable ideas to look back on for later drafts.

I found the example of middle school students collaborating on chapter summaries to be particularly impressive. The use of a wiki in this lesson takes a relatively boring assignment and makes it meaningful, since the summaries will serve a purpose in the students’ literature circles. Student collaboration through the wiki improves the quality of the students’ work and, as the teacher discovered, still requires the same writing skills as the individual summary assignment. The use of the wiki does not make the teacher less relevant, as writing instruction and support are still very much needed, but this is clearly a very student-driven assignment that is engaging and full of purpose.

One conclusion I made from this chapter is that teacher support and engagement are invaluable to students as classrooms transition to digital writing. Digital writing requires that teachers teach writing skills like they always have, but that is not all. Teachers must also support students by helping them learn to use the digital tools properly, otherwise students could get overwhelmed. I remember finding the bibliography tool, Zotero, on my own in college, but without instruction on how to effectively use it to keep track of my citations, I got frustrated and ultimately went back to my trusty index cards. Teachers should also help students to communicate and collaborate online appropriately with other students and the greater online community.

I still have some reservations about this shift toward digital writing and its effect on the writing process. While I love using tools like Google Docs, I worry about students not saving multiple drafts. Yes, Google Docs does automatically save some so-called drafts, but it doesn’t catch everything. I (still) have at least a dozen drafts of my thesis saved on my hard drive, and being able to go back to early paragraphs I deleted as my ideas changed saved me in the end. With Google Docs, it almost becomes second nature to edit one document and not save multiple drafts unless you explicitly think to do so. At the end of the chapter, DeVoss even questions what a draft even is anymore (57). Do students still define “drafts” the same way?

I also question the idea of assignments and documents being “living documents” that are never really “finished” (53). While I embrace ongoing conversations about topics students write about and writing more about those topics, being completely “done” with a project brings peace of mind. Something tells me that if didn’t print out my essay and hand it in -- if it was submitted electronically and I had more time to edit -- I would have sat at my computer stressing out until the last minute. Is there still a place in today’s classrooms for the hard copy?


Integrating technology into the writing process has a great amount of affordances, but it comes with the pressure of learning new digital tools and keeping up with changes, for students and teachers. I want my future students to be active and engaged in digital spaces. I want them to be as savvy and confident as possible when it comes to expressing their ideas and sharing their research. I want them to be able to do everything, but I also want them to be able to breathe.

16 comments:

  1. I - and it sounds like we may have this in common - took from this section of the reading a new appreciation of methods and tools that can help bridge the gap between traditional writing (writing without the use of computers and like technology) and digital writing. One such example was freewriting. I agree that this stage of the writing process is overlooked and often undermined by the idea of pushing out a finished product. Freewriting, at least as many of my students see it, is a waste of time. They have developed a certain mindset that if something is not directly contributing to the final product, it is superfluous and optional.

    I use the example of freewriting because this is a wonderful way for students to begin their workings and future skills using digital technologies. To many of my students, the computer (especially writing programs and software) brings about a certain sense of formality and academia. They generally have a hard time starting their digital work because they doubt if their ideas on the topic are “good enough” for the Word document. However, the doodles and random ideas scattered throughout their paper notebooks offer a place of formulation and privacy that they don’t see on the screen. Freewriting on a computer, a dedicated time for students to jot down ideas on the prompt or subject using digital writing, is an amazing way for us to break the barrier and expectations they have about the computer. If they know that they are using this time to practice and just brainstorm on the computer, they will start seeing the computer as a place that they can form ideas instead of just finished products.

    When you talk about teachers having to teach digital writing and tools, it definitely makes me think to my own classroom. Many of my students have little to no idea of how to actually complete some of the assignments that their other teachers ask of them because of their lack of understanding and experience or discomfort with software or computers in general. Teachers, if they are willing to assign homework or activities using a technology, must also be willing to take the time to properly explain and train the students to use these technologies! However, I also concede that teachers need to be trained in these technologies as well, in order to pass the information off to their students.

    Last, I have to question the stress that people seem to feel about writing assignments and the “sudden” relief they feel once it is passed in. I completely understand the feeling of passing the physical final draft to a teacher and feeling, at least psychologically, as though it is out of my hands now. However, I still hold the belief that writing is an ongoing process; there shouldn’t be an “out of my hands” experience because your writing is supposed to be evolving with you. I am not completely married to Google docs, but I will say that the idea that students can constantly return to their writing and work on it is something I believe ultimately helps them in their writing process. This feeling of stress and anxiety over having the extra time to edit the document before electronically submitting it sounds more to be a course or teacher problem than anything else. If teachers began to view the writing process with more weight on a student’s grade than the “finished” product, I think that the stress felt in having this extra time would vanish.

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  2. Thanks so much for this thoughtful post, Christie. I especially appreciated your sharing your thesis writing process and your relief of getting writing "done." While I agree that there need to moments of "doneness" in the writing process (and for some pieces, for better or worse, we may never return to them, even if they are incomplete), I agree with Brandon that writing is an "ongoing process." Perhaps one of the worst and best aspects of digital writing is the degree of accountability that goes along with it. When we write something on the web, it is now out of our hands and available to a wider level of scrutiny than ever before. That places more of an emphasis on "revising" or even "retracting" our comments, that I believe is most often a very good thing.

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  3. "One conclusion I made from this chapter is that teacher support and engagement are invaluable to students as classrooms transition to digital writing. Digital writing requires that teachers teach writing skills like they always have, but that is not all. Teachers must also support students by helping them learn to use the digital tools properly, otherwise students could get overwhelmed." As a teacher, I found this idea overwhelming. Teaching writing is hard enough. It's already a multistep process. By adding technology into, you are adding so many more steps. At this point my students know how to successfully navigate Google apps but if I asked them to create a wiki or a podcast, I would have to dedicate at least a class period teaching them how to do that. I think they are great ideas and they would definitely foster learning and interest but I am also wondering if teaching students how to use these technologies takes time away from teaching them the actual content.

    I also really loved the assignment about the chapter summaries on the wikis. I would love to try something like this in my own classroom. Students generally don't find summarizing interesting. This idea really does take a dull assignment and make it more interesting to them.

    One thing that I also loved about this chapter is that it addressed English Language Learners. I think I started out this book concluding that it catered to a specific group of students. After reading this chapter, I don't think that is completely true. I loved the idea of having students do voice recordings as a way to practice using the language. I think this would even be an effective assignment for students fluent in English.

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    1. Jillian, I also appreciated the idea of employing audio recordings to facilitate the success of students across the translingual spectrum. Although the author did not account for it, the project seems to foreground that all composition is necessarily an embodied and multimodal process (another implicit theme of this text).

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    2. Jillian,

      Your point about teachers needing to be able to have the time to teach students a new platform is one of my fears as well. Brandon expressed the same concern when he mentioned the need to be trained in new technologies. That seems overwhelming since there are new technologies being invented all the time. What if it were okay just to learn with the students? I think this would take some of the pressure off even if it leads to clunky lessons. This concept is very Freirean since it takes the authority away from the teacher and the objective is a problem to be solved ("How can we use this tool to help us communicate our message"?) rather than knowledge to be transferred from teacher to student.

      In this chapter, the authors reference "the strands of work in the writing classroom" (42). One of these is "helping students analyze and understand the rhetorical situation for writing, including how to think about audience, clarify purpose, and work with form and stance in order to cultivate in students the flexibility and strategic thinking that help them address new occasions for writing" (42). Since digital writing involves constant new composing situations, I believe that digital writing teaches students flexibility and rhetorical awareness more effectively than assigning essay after essay.

      Erin

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  4. Christie, wonderful post. I agree that the chapter suggests that the writing process has not changed significantly. Throughout this book, the author foregrounds concepts such as writing to think, context, inquiry, drafting, reflection, etc. Indeed, the word “process” jumps out on nearly every other page. Consequently, I was also intrigued by the question: “what is a draft, exactly?”

    To get a sense of the history of the word, I looked it up on the OED, which defines draft in the compositional sense as “A preliminary sketch or rough form of a writing or document, from which the final or fair copy is made” (OED, draft, n. 5). The earliest attesting to this meaning occurred in the early 16th century. The notion of a “final” or “fair” copy may have been bound up in the ideology of a nascent print culture that privileged homogeneity, reproducibility, and authority – three values that are at odds with digitality in the age of late print. The connotation of “final” and “fair” suggest the privileging of the product rather than the process. This sense of “draft” privileging product is strengthened when one considers that the earliest use of “draft” as a verb is not attested to until the early 19th century, and is defined as “to make a draft or rough copy of (a document); to draw up in a preliminary form, which may be afterwards perfected” (OED, draft, v. 2). “Afterwards perfected” suggests a teleological understanding of the compositional process. Moreover, language such as “perfected” is perhaps even more dismissive of process than “final” and “fair.” The gap between the attestation of the noun versus the verb – some three hundred years – suggests that the product (noun), whether the draft or the final iteration, has been consistently privileged over process (verb) in the age of print.

    I think there is a real danger with digital writing in that one of the logics of the internet, immediacy, is predicated on the desire to erase all traces of mediation, hence traces of process, and the way this can feed into the ideology of print culture which privileges the product (see Bolter and Grusin). However, the opposite logic, hypermediacy, seeks to mediate things in such a way that we are aware of the very act of mediation (see Bolter and Grusin); hence we cannot escape reflexive consideration of our experience with the object as such, in turn holding out the possibility to save traces of process. The networked nature of various media platforms can perhaps be employed in the service of hypermediacy, and as a consequence, process – regardless of the protocols of Google docs.

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  5. With all this said, I find your concern regarding saving multiple drafts interesting, as this is not a practice I have engaged in. I had not previously considered Google doc’s rapid autosave function, and how this presents a problem for an educator (or student) who desires to preserve traces of the writing process. However, I wonder if traces of the process might be strewn across a variety of platforms to facilitate a hypermediated experience with the compositional (thinking) process. For instance, if students use something like Annotation Studio to keep a record of inquiry, record ideas on Twitter, then pre-write on a personal blog, draft on an audio platform such as Audacity, and then craft their essay on Google docs, aren’t the traces of the process, as well as, diverse (and in some cases abandoned) strains of thought preserved for future use? Additionally, if we spread the various phases of the process over a variety of platforms, doesn’t that serve to think each more critically individually and holistically? Moreover, if we limit our understanding of the compositional process to what occurs in a word processing program, do we run the risk of thinking the various drafts as discreet cultural artifacts, thereby privileging product over process anyway? I agree that we must scrutinize the conventions of various platforms as thoroughly as we probe their affordances. For me, the larger question that emerges is not “what is a draft?” Instead, the question is whether such language is useful, given its semantic baggage. Would we be better served by employing “revision” in regards to the process, and “project” when referring to the product? Revision, is defined as “to form a new concept of; to reinterpret” (OED, revision, v. 2). The benefit here is that the verb is not defined by a noun in the way that “draft” is, and there is no teleological movement from imperfect to perfect. This is just a mess of thoughts. Again, good post.

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    1. "Revision, is defined as “to form a new concept of; to reinterpret” (OED, revision, v. 2). The benefit here is that the verb is not defined by a noun in the way that “draft” is, and there is no teleological movement from imperfect to perfect."

      Nothing to add, my mind is just blown by that comment...
      :O

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  6. I’m really enjoying the back and forth on the nature of drafts and drafting, and I want to refer to a hypothetical example that DeVoss provides. In her discussion of drafting, she notes that “by its very nature, word processing software allows writers to manipulate and remove text to easily see how changes affect the overall flow of the piece” (52). Suppose, then, a student tries just that: shifting one sentence or paragraph. Are we now dealing with a different “draft?” I think Darisse’s exploration of the etymology of the word provides a better answer than I possibly could: in the noun/product sense, probably, but in the verb/process sense, there’s no such thing as a draft, so the question is moot. The logic of word processing software demands an understanding of composition that can easily account for the fact that “Words, sentences, and chunks [can] easily be moved around, reorganized, and reintegrated,” and from a practical classroom standpoint I’m wondering how we can best account for this shift while also addressing Christie’s concerns that something is lost when we lose the ability to go back and revisit previous versions of our work (47).

    As DeVoss mentions, software like Google Docs and Dropbox automatically capture snapshots of moments in a document’s history, and there’s certainly a software solution that could remedy our concerns by simply saving copies more frequently. But I think activities like those Darisse described in his call for hypermediacy will both enhance instruction and avoid the problem of essentially forcing a legacy notion of drafting on our students when the “Edit” button is so thoroughly entrenched in their ethos. Last Thursday, we discussed how reflection could help resolve some of our concerns regarding product over process, and it seems to me that the value that we get out of referring to older drafts is a sort of reflection—what changes did I make, why did I make them, and am I happy with the result? Drawing students’ attention to that reflective process by having them actually answer these questions during and after the drafting process rather than simply saving individual files offers a way of maintaining a useful record of what changes have been made (the sort of record previously maintained by saving discreet files) while also demanding that they engage in more deliberate metacognition.

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    1. I really like your suggestion to look at drafts as part of the reflection process. I once did a lesson where kids read fractured fairy tales after reading the originals, and how word choice, tone, and point of view changed the message of the story. I could see students doing something similar with drafts over time, and thinking critically about how the choices they make affect their message. I'd love to discuss this in class.

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  7. Christie, like you, I am a huge fan of free-writing and journaling, particularly in order to get my thoughts and views on track without the pressure of sounding coherent or intelligent, and these pieces are written specifically to my future self.. In Peter Elbows ‘Toward a Phenomenology of Freewriting,” he writes,

    “Unfocused exploring is probably my main use of freewriting: I have a thought, perhaps out of the blue or perhaps in the midst of writing something else, and I give myself permission to pursue it on paper in an uncontrolled way wherever it wants to go-even if it digresses (which it usually does). This kind of freewriting is precious to me because my mind seems to work best-at the level of ideas as well as of syntax-when I allow it to be uncontrolled and disorganized. I cannot find as many ideas or perceptions if I try to stay on one track or be organized.” (47-48)

    As you and Brandon said, when students are intimidated by the blank page (or screen), when they don’t feel like their ideas are “‘good enough’ for the word document,” a no-pressure free-write is the perfect starting point for the development of future ideas. For me, that is where Google Docs comes into play….my savior of all saviors.

    You mention your concerns with this program because it eliminates the process behind the product, and I completely agree. I’ve just begun saving my original drafts through Google Docs separately from my final project, and even more recently, I’ve begun listing the sequential order of my writing process at the top of my pages. I think that this is another problem that we as teachers can confront in the classroom. We not only need to make these tools visible to our students, but we need to teach them how to use these tools effectively. My own organizational skills are always evolving, but after 9 years of floating through the chaos of Google Docs, I’ve learned how to save myself some time in the future by developing particular folders and including particular document titles. These are skills that students will greatly appreciate, and if we give specific instructions regarding the drafting process (such as creating separate documents marked by draft #), we can ensure that our students use the program effectively, and thus, Google Docs can become an “ongoing archive for examination and reflection.” (Devoss, 480)

    I also completely agree with you when you say, “Integrating technology into the writing process has a great amount of affordances, but it comes with the pressure of learning new digital tools and keeping up with changes.” Even just this chapter listed like fifteen different sources for different tools we could use for specific rhetorical situations. However, I also think this coincides with the need for organization and guidance as teachers. For example, “Portaportal” a wonderful (but old-school) website which categorizes links to specific websites based on different topics. If we can continuously explore the digital tools available and point our students in the right direction clearly/easily, I think this will help relieve some of the pressure of the digital world for both ourselves and our students..

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    1. Amanda,
      I completely agree with your last point about exploration. If we teachers explore the available tools, then we will be better able to guide our students. The authors mention that digital fluency is more about perspective than being proficient using the technologies (57). This is where the willingness to explore comes in handy, along with our willingness to learn from our students' experience with digital tools.

      I also really like this quote from Troy Hicks:
      "If we engage students in real writing tasks and we use technology in such a way that it complements their innate need to find purposes and audiences for their work, we can have them engaged in a digital writing process that focuses first on the writer, then on the writing, and lastly on the technology" (DeVoss et al. 59). This means that the writing situation and assignment are primary, and the tools is meant to serve that communication need rather than being the focus of the lesson itself. For me, this idea really takes the pressure off of knowing all the new tools. As long as I can guide them through the assignment, then we can explore the tools together.
      Erin

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    3. Erin,

      I LOVE that you just included this quote because it was definitely my favorite one in the entire chapter (I put 4 stars next to it). :)

      I think it stuck out to me mainly because I had been expecting this text to have a completely opposite message. You're right, it takes the pressure off of our individual skills and focuses on a mindset necessary for technological growth, similar to that of a "novice learner."

      "Digital fluency" is an interesting term for this type of thinking and I haven't encountered it before, but I love that it specifically emphasizes "innovation" and "creativity" in regard to the incorporation of technology and writing. As you said, it's all about the teacher's willingness to explore and learn.

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  8. Great response to the chapter. I agree totally about the physical copy being a resting place for my writing. When I can no longer write notes or cross out words on my piece of paper because it must be turned in polished. I too get a giant sense of release. But the same goes for sending an email or submitting a paper once the 'submit' button is pressed, I feel similar to that printed copy.

    The other part I really sit with a lot is digital writing doesn't value or save original copies. Sentences can transform on the page, but they can also be over worked and cancerous. working a paragraph tirelessly while your original was successful but maybe not perfect. I too fear that I will lose ideas, or the ability to reflect on my growth and my writings growth.

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  9. After reading your comments and the chapter, I want to focus on a bunch of takeaways:

    - DeVoss reminds us that most teachers started small in integrating technology into the classroom (43). I think it's easy to be tempted by all the flashy digital tools and want to do it all at once, but some of the concerns above (ie the time suck for teachers to prepare themselves to learn new technologies and then to prepare students to use the technology) may be lessened if we start out small. This was a good reminder for me.
    - Like others in the class, I appreciated the authors' discussion of ELLs and students who don't have access to technology.
    - I appreciated the discussion above about drafting. My tendency would also be to worry about the loss of the ability to reflect on growth from draft to draft when drafts become obsolete with new technologies. But perhaps the benefits the new technologies offer in terms of encouraging more revision, creating varied audiences, etc outweigh the drawbacks. I also like the idea of measuring growth and learning over multiple assignments as opposed to across drafts (48). E-portfolio technology seems to be a good way to encourage reflection over longer periods of time and across assignments.
    -I really like the example of using blogs to encourage students' meta-processing. DeVoss writes, "...Blogs serve much the same purpose as researchers' notebooks on reflective field memos, but their public nature allows for a strong community of practice to emerge" (56). The public nature makes it so that students' thinking processes can be shared, taking away the mystery of what students who do well do and enabling sharing of challenges.

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