Teaching and Learning in the Digital Age (or being the guide on the side rather than the sage on the stage)

Andrea Lunsford, a celebrated scholar of writing and rhetoric, has hailed the digital age as “the greatest literacy revolution the world has seen in 2,500 years.” Moving away from traditional print media toward blogs, wikis, websites, social media, text messages, podcasts, and multimedia presentations has changed the very definition of reading and writing. Her work on literacy and learning explores the “new” rhetoric that emerged from this digital revolution and the challenges of educating students already well-versed in this domain.

Lunsford has researched and lectured extensively on rhetoric and composition for the past thirty years. She is currently on the faculty of the Bread Loaf School of English and was previously the Director of Stanford’s eminent Program in Writing and Rhetoric. She has also received major awards from the CCCC and the MLA. She is the author of several books, including Everything’s an Argument with John Ruszkiewicz and Bedford/St. Martin’s The St. Martin’s HandbookThe Everyday Writer, and EasyWriter. She recently co-published Everyone’s an Author in 2012 with long-time collaborator Lisa Ede. She has also authored over 100 articles and book chapters on the intersections between literacy, learning, collaboration, feminism, and post colonialism.

Lunsford’s latest venture explores the way writing, “one of the Western World’s oldest technologies,” and rhetoric, the plastic art of communication, have evolved in relation to new technologies. Writing Matters: Rhetoric in Public and Private Lives, a revised version of her 2006 Averitt Lectures at Georgia Southern University, describes the “new” rhetoric of the digital world as “epistemic, performative, multi-vocal, multimodal, and multi -mediated.” Anyone with access to the internet can find a niche community, receive instant feedback through blogging, and collaborate with hundreds of strangers on wikipedia entries. Those entering the gilded halls of higher education write on multiple  platforms. They know they can reach multiple audiences in record time, not with the stroke of a pen, but with the click of a mouse.

Lunsford argues that professors must rethink their teaching methods to engage these “compelling discursive modalities.” This might sound foolish at first. Why should educators incorporate blogs, wikis, podcasts, and multimedia presentations into their classes? What is the benefit of catering to the will of technology-addled youth? Lunsford explains that the “new” rhetoric students are employing outside of the classroom “are in some ways echoes of the scene of writing and speaking in fifth-century bce Greece, when the oral performance of discourse took precedence.” Writing took on some aspects of rhetoric while dropping others. Yet, they are both, at their core, about communicating in the most persuasive manner. The same is true of the newest “new” rhetoric.

Lunsford adds in a Stanford presentation, “The digital revolution has made writing more pervasive and potentially more powerful than ever, and it has opened the doors to writing for many anyone today can be an author for example) even as it has worked to limited access to many others.” Someone has to help students develop incisive writing skills that correspond with new mediums in order to harness the power of the digital landscape. Who can help students fulfill the newest iteration of Aristotle’s “art of discovering in any case all the available means of persuasion” better than their college professors?

Students respond well to a pedagogical model that includes blogging and podcasts, because they are performing for their peers. The collaborative aspect of blogging is a technological form of peer-review. Students write better, pay more attention to grammar, and have a clearer argument when they know their fellow classmates will evaluate and critique their work. Lunsford notes that students “plunge from one individual assignment to the next and hope for the best.” However, student blogposts live on long after their due date. Students put more time and more energy into writing for posterity and to a wider audience than they do for a professor.

Lunsford’s presentation titled “Teaching in the Digital Age: What’s Collaboration Got to Do with It?” expounds on this performative, collaborative nature of digital literacy. She maintains that collaborative learning and collaborative practices are essential to teaching and learning in today’s participatory culture. This is nothing new. Students have been learning from each other through off-the-cuff conversations, intensive study groups, and, as of late, series on YouTube. They think of themselves as part of a large social network, which they can readily approach for information.

She calls for a break from giving lectures and implementing peer-to-peer instruction in the classroom. This model pairs off students and asks them to explain core concepts to each other. She cites Eric Mazur’s strategy of setting up a class for five minutes, having students speak amongst themselves, and then answering questions with iClickers to test comprehension. Collaborative learning works with large classes just as well as it does with small ones.

Lunsford also promotes collaborative writing to cultivate “the different kind of mindset” that digital literacy demands. Digital literacy, according to her, is “more participatory, more distributive in nature, less print published, less individualized, less author-centric and less author-dominated.” Students need to learn how to operate in this brave new world after graduation, where bosses care about the end product rather than the individual efforts that created it. Lunsford believes semester-long collaborative research projects are the answer. The assignment must be designed so that individual students participate in each stage of the project.

She asserts that collaborative research and writing is transformative. And she would know. She has co-written two books and over twenty research articles with colleague Lisa Ede over the course of her thirty-year career.

Lunsford’s goes so far as to champion collaborative work in graduate study. In Writing Matters, she argues that “advanced work in the humanities increasingly calls for the kind of research that one solitary scholar is unlikely to be able to do.” In english, as well as in history, collaborative efforts could tackle a large-scale project, or a study requiring multiple languages, in a way that a single student could never do alone. She even promotes collaboration on the single-most important work of graduate education–the dissertation. Her call has fallen on deaf ears despite her extensive research on collaborative learning. Only two joint english dissertations have been submitted as of 2012. And one barely counts, since the powers-that-be forced the co-writers to split the dissertation in two. A quick Google search reveals that co-written and researched dissertations are just as rare in the history discipline.

She ends her talk on collaborative practices with these sobering words:

“We are, whether we want to or not, we are living and teaching in a digital age and each challenge we face opens up opportunities for us to expand our teaching and learning repertoires to join our students as learners and to engage in the kind of highly participatory, distributed, and performative practices characteristic in this age.”

Her final remark is humbling and daunting, especially for grad students. How can we rise to the challenges of teaching in the digital age when we occupy the lowest rung on the academic totem pole? In Designing History’s Future, we have discussed that professors, at least in the beginning, model their teaching on the way their professors taught. But what are we to do if, as many Lunsford and Mazur suggest, the lecture is dead?

Check out her full talk below:   

As well as her blog Bedford Bits: Ideas for Teaching Composition, which she updates frequently, here.

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