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.