What’s This Digital Writing Stuff, Anyway?

It is better to prevent evil, when can, than to attempt to cure it.I’m speaking tomorrow with my wife’s college course for preservice teachers on the teaching of writing. I’m the featured expert on “digital writing.”

Whatever that is.

Over the last week, the students in the course have been jotting some questions and thoughts down on a Google doc in preparation for the session. I basically asked what it was they wanted to know about, because we have an hour to talk about what I’ve spent an awful lot of the last ten years of my live worrying and working on.

And as I’m prepping for just what I want to leave them with in the fifty five minutes, minus announcements and time for whatever else will come up tomorrow, I’m thinking hard about just what it is about “digital writing” that’s worth wondering and worrying about amidst the eight hundred thousand other odd things rolling around in a teacher’s mind as they begin a career of working with young people.

As I sketched out some ideas and a plan of action on a pad of paper with a freshly inked fountain pen, I was reminded that someone’s new toy is always someone else’s essential tool. And vice versa.

It’s not the digital of digital writing that matters. It’s the writing.

We’ve1 always been fumbling with whatever we’ve had available to us to use to communicate with each other, and to leave a mark beyond ourselves. The exploration of tools for communication beyond our voices in a crowded room is a five thousand year old pursuit. Paint. Sticks. Pencils. Cursors. Whatever we can get our hands on – we’ll write with it.

It’s rather silly sometimes to pretend that it’s only in the last five years or so any of that fumbling and reaching has actually changed the nature of the game. But that’s what we do. Every five years or so.

The nature of the game is that it’s always been changing, and teachers have always been fighting to make sure that we all use the same tools the right way, or that we only use the tools in the ways that the folks who teach the tools are comfortable with. Today’s “digital” is yesterday’s “ink” is tomorrow’s “3d2”.

William Alcott was a teacher in the 1840s who I often point people to when they get stuck on how different right now is from any other time in human history3. He wrote an engaging book on the integration into instruction of a new and modern technology of his time – the blackboard.  It’s worth your time.

He opens the book with fine advice for anyone seeking the answers to how best to teach digital writing today:

Should the teacher who takes up these “Exercises,” attend to the suggestions I have made both in this preface, and in several of the chapters, and instead of following, mechanically, the methods which are pointed out, attend rather to the principles of which these exercises are intended as illustrations, and thus be led to form his own plans and methods, my object will be far more perfectly accomplished than if he should transfer its scanty exercises to the black board, and there let the matter end. . . . Hardly any mistake could be greater than for the teacher, who should take up a book like this, to adopt its various methods without reference to existing circumstances.

Our contexts matter, folks. The why and what and whom we are writing for. That doesn’t change when there’s a tablet, a stylus, a camera, a keyboard or a piece of chalk in play as the primary writing tool. The differences with those tools are matters of technique. Matters we’d all be better off taking up once we’ve actually gotten serious about making sure our classrooms are places of deep creation, revision, and sharing.

So write on, with whatever you’ve got, is what I’ll say to those preservice teachers. Write and explore writing environments with your students. Play with lots of tools and toys and make the one that work for you your own. But try hard to figure out why the others don’t work for you – and who they might work for. And don’t bother teaching students how to write unless you’re writing yourself.

Maybe it’d be easier to just tell them to get to work on their Twitter accounts instead.

  1. The collective, societal we of all the people, ever. []
  2. Maybe. But probably something else. We are bad at predictions, too. []
  3. All the times have been more different than any other time in human history. Ours is a rich and fascinating tapestry, made no less extraordinary or fascinating by the fact that our shared sameness is actually the change we swear is different. []