Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Location and ownership, writing and reading

Location is a big deal for human beings. Location defines the weight or importance where we live, where we eat, where we buy our stuff. Location also defines how we relate to each other, politically, socio-economically, religiously, nationally, etc.  We situate ourselves in terms of our relationship to politics using locational metaphors; Left vs. center vs. right. The phrase "we don't eye to eye on this issue" "we're on opposite sides" "he's on the fence" "she taken a strong stance on _________" all seem to indicate that for most human beings locational awareness is pretty important. 
Location and ownership also have an important relationship. Explorers coming to new places (Everest, Antarctica, the moon) plant flags to state that the flag-planters were here first. Also that the found place which flies a particular flag has the implied allegiance to or ownership by the country who planted that flag. No one else has planted, for better or worse, a flag on the moon. You get there first (location) and plant your flag-the thing upon which you planted your flag is, at least theoretically, yours. Even if someone else owns, or claims to own, that thing upon which the flag is planted, large chunks of history bear out what happens when possession seems like nine-tenths of the law until force is leveraged.
Historically the repeated use of a particular location moves an innocuous place through continued use to transform that place into a landmark. If that landmark is disrupted or destroyed, it tends to be fairly disruptive to the collective psyche; i.e. New Hampshire's Old Man on the Mountain which was/is featured on NH's money, highway signs and was generally a state icon until it gave up being a mountainside and became a heap of rubble.
There is a similar type of shift happening in education and it is rather deeply messing with perceived expectations of location and ownership. A good example of this shift is Kathleen Fitzpatrick's recent bloggish article My View: Are electronic media making us less (or more) literate?. Read the article and then glance through the comments. The 325 comments that take up two quote unquote pages. Two tropes that run through the comments, housing varying degrees of snark, is a sense of ownership (writing means this and not that) and location (real writing happens like a research paper and not a blog). Reading happens in a book; writing happens on a physical page, with a pen-preferably a quill if you would believe some of these comments. However, Fitzpatrick captures the ethos that others, such as Andrea Lunsford and Cathy Davidson, whom I'll discuss more in a second, have championed, namely;

"Part of the problem is that "writing" is still seen by many as "producing words on paper," just as               "reading" may still be associated primarily with "books." Such equations run the risk of blinding us to what's   actually happening in contemporary culture. Students today may read fewer printed books, but that doesn't mean "no one reads anymore." In fact, there are many more opportunities for reading today than there have ever been, more platforms and devices and formats and spaces in which we are all constantly engaged in the process of consuming and interpreting text."

There is some serious psyche disruption happening with the ease of access to a wide potential audience that online writing offers. It is deeply, I think, wrong to not train/provide students with opportunities to develop in writing for various medium. But the growth of media for writing/reading affects some particular sense, for lack of a better word, that there is a way in which writing should be done and research papers are it.
For an excellent rebuttal/exploration of this idea would highly recommend Cathy Davidson's reasons posted in her post Should We Really ABOLISH the Term Paper? A Reply to the NY Times. (One of the things that I really like about Cathy Davidson's approach is that she sets up contracts with her students for the grade they want to earn that semester.) There's a bunch of great quotes/ideas throughout but I would like to highlight this one: "The Internet needs more people committed to its improvement, to serious discourse."
This discourse is not people talking; it's people typing. These students already have a sense of location in regards to what they can do online and how they relate to their digital selves. But this sense of location, even ownership, contrasts strongly with the 325 commentators who are pretty sure that their sense of location and ownership of where writing should occur is correct. Unfortunately for those individuals, I'm pretty sure the weight, if not force, is largely on the digital side of things. While not discounting the digital divide and economic inequalities that prevent a decent-sized chunk of Americans, at the very least, from being able to interact digitally, it's time to shift locales and work to develop student writers who might be able to produce a good research paper but have more importantly demonstrated their abilities to critically, articulately and responsibly argue their points in whatever medium and length they happen to be writing in or at.  Perhaps even more important than staking a claim to online writing versus paper writing is to conduct writing classes in such a way, as evidenced throughout Davidson's article, that prepares the students for the type of writing they will need to do.
Framing the discussion in terms of where writing should or should not take place misses the point. Writing is already happening online. It is necessary for those in the place to instruct to help students recognize the full potential of leveraging those places can look like both for the success of the student and the enrichment of of the writing process.

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