I’m sitting at Denver International Airport this morning, waiting to board a flight to Austin, Texas, and the first meeting of a curators group on a project I’m involved in with the National Writing Project. The goal of my piece of the project is to help create a website, called “Digital Is,” that attempts to show what digital composition looks like here at the start of the second decade of the 21st Century.
As I wait to board my plane and anticipate the work ahead, I’m reminded of my conflicting thoughts on what composition looks like today. Howard Zinsser wrote in his book, On Writing Well, that:
“The new information age, for all its high-tech gadgetry, is, finally, writing based.”
I found that quote in a new report exploring what writing looks like in several classrooms today. In that same report, the authors write that:
Writing has never been more important than in this digital age. It is almost inconceivable to achieve academic success without good writing skills. And, while the fundamentals of good writing remain constant, new forms of writing are quickly evolving. Words are now regularly joined with images and voices.
Writing, or composition, isn’t all that different from the writing of generations past. Since we first started making markings on clay or stone or paper, we have been trying to capture thoughts in a way that would make them understandable to ourselves as well as others. We write to remember, to share, to understand. We compose to be heard, to stand up and say “This is True,” or “I am here,” or “This was scary” or “hard” or “dangerous” or “exciting”, or “emotional”, or whatever we would like to convey.
And although I make my marks today on an iPad, a device that makes the making of marks very easy, and almost immediately shareable to anyone who can get to the Internet, I am reminded of just how hard it is to say something in a way that accomplishes my goals as a writer, that captures what I am, or was, thinking, that lets you into my head and thoughts.
That we now have more tools for making marks, and that we have new kinds of marks – photographs, videos, complex visualizations – doesn’t make the essential task of making meaning any easier. In some ways, as our options for composition increase, it gets harder to decide, to choose which way of making marks will get the point that we wish to make across. Harder, too, is what we must do in classrooms to convey the power of language and to help make our students critical participants in the literacies and literatures of our/their/our futures/our pasts.
And what counts as “writing,” or “composition?” Is a tweet a text, or a piece of a larger text? Is a rambling audio podcast, recorded from the driver’s seat of my car, a composition on par with a Master’s thesis, or an essay? So long as a test or assessment or evaluation of a text occurs within a limited definition of what counts as writing, are these other forms valid? How do we who is a “good” writer? What is “good” writing?
Is “connective writing,” a term that Will and I and others use to describe blogging, a new form? What’s new? What’s different? What’s useful? What’s good? Who gets to decide such things?
And how in the world does a language arts teacher, sitting in an airport tapping away on a virtual keyboard, find himself in a place to ask such questions, or to attempt to answer them for others via this particular project?
Just a few questions, questions I always wonder about, that are surfacing for me as I prepare to embark on this work.