Playing Catch Up

I have to make a confession. I was so excited by all the resources I found on digital writing in English and Rhetoric and Writing that I frantically researched graduate programs in which I could enroll. Then I found that UT’s Rhetoric and Writing Ph.D. program is one of the best in the country.

I can safely say that my desire to become a scholar of rhetoric and composition was fleeting and that I am back to loving being a history graduate student.

However, my brief foray into the field did lead me to investigate the resources UT has to teach undergraduates how to writing on digital platforms.

One of UT’s greatest assets is the Digital Writing and Research Lab (DWRL). Housed in the Flawn Academic Center, the lab “dedicates itself—practically, pedagogically, and theoretically—to the identification and promotion of twenty-first century literacies.” To this end, it offers not only a wide array of tech such as computers, an array of software, digital voice recorders, digital cameras, and green screens, but also classes that teach students how to use them. They often hold workshops and post tutorials online for those not enrolled in lab courses.

The DWRL also has many opportunities for graduate students. For example, it offers a Digital Writing and Research Certificate that prepares students to apply technological skills in the classroom and marshal digital writing and research in their own work. (I’m looking into the requirements for applying!)

The DWRL’s Lesson Plans and Blogging Pedagogy blogs back up the arguments heavy weights like Andrea Lunsford have been making on the benefit of using digital technologies to teaching clear and persuasive writing.

Ty Alyea, a graduate student of English, has a different taking on using blogs in the classroom to develop writing skills and mastery of content. He created a semester-long project that had students pick topics on the syllabi to present. The assignment required them to submit a blog post on the readings and give an 8-10 minute presentation in class to jumpstart discussion. His description reads:

“This assignment requires a student to pick a selection from the assigned reading, examine it closely, and provide a formal/cultural/historical lens for looking at it. Two days before the class date, they will write a 500-word blog post on the class discussion board and I write an email to the class, encouraging the other students to take a look at it and, if so moved, respond. During the class, they will provide a brief snapshot of their argument about the text and use it as a basis for open class discussion.”

Alyea found that students were “more successful at communicating and developing their ideas when they become more aware that their writing is geared toward a concrete audience.” I have cited similar results before. This assignment has an added bonus of forcing students to “teach” their colleagues twice. Presenting their argument in different forms, once in writing and once through oral presentation,  solidified their understanding of the topic.

In another post, Cate Blouke introduces the blog not so much as a platform but as a writing community. She states that the less formal blog format allows students to express “their worries and concerns about the course generally, and to think about some of the issues they were struggling with in class – how to do better research, how to re-organize their papers, and how to deal with issues like procrastination and anxiety.” Reading about the challenge their colleagues face researching and writing makes students less anxious about their own work. A class blog creates a de facto writing group with whom students can share the difficulties they are facing. It also alerts professors to similar problems students are experiencing so s/he can help them work through it in class.

My task now is to find fresh perspectives on digital writing I have not encountered before. I even emailed the director of the DWRL to express my interest in using digital technologies to teach historical writing; however, she responded that she would probably not be of much help until I had a specific project in mind.

But how do I translate the work that places like the DWRL and Rhetoric and Writing departments are producing to the field of history?

And more importantly, how do I get rid of this gnawing feeling that history is so far behind in terms of digital writing and technology?

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