Towards a Digital Composition Curriculum@PSU: A Proposal

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What information consumes is rather obvious: it consumes the attention of its recipients. Hence a wealth of information creates a poverty of attention, and a need to allocate that attention efficiently among the overabundance of information sources that might consume it. -- Herbert Simon

The Infolanche


Numerous studies suggest that the ecology of communication common to both universities and the contemporary global workplace has sustained an enormous increase of information. Dubbed "information overload" by some, this burgeoning recording, retrieval, replication and ricirculation of information presents novel challenges and exciting opportunities for any society attempting to both transmit its (necessarily multiple) values of the past and open to the difference of the future. In the present, we can find clarity and intention for dealing with all the multiple modalities of information in joy and serenity. Richocheting from one information event to another, we forget even ourselves in a panic of frenzied and much ballyhooed "interaction."

First, the challenges: Awash in ubiquitous information, students read less and less. The skills of close and attentive reading encouraged by traditional rhetorical curricula, where students are taught to look at as well as through texts in order to understand their possible effects upon audiences, have withered as students become less readers than browsers. The forms of attention necessary to understand [the choices] available to any given writer in any given context and medium atrophy as we begin to surf rather than read.


Upon graduation, students will be called upon to write and communicate in primarily digital environments. In contexts such as the World Wide Web or corporate Content Management Systems writers compose non-compete agreements, post in search of a sustainable commute, and even make love in response to unprecedented global admixtures of audiences whose browsing habits mirror their own. These audiences also in some sense cease to be audiences at all, as distinctions between "author" and "audience" intertwingle in the collaborative writing environments and online forums of the global corporate workplace and National Security State. As writing becomes more interactive and less authorial, readers are also challenged - they must somehow evaluate the claims embedded in enormous quantities of information that emerge collaboratively from the noosphere as much as they are written by an author. Associational thinking - as in the much discussed link between Al Qaieda and Iraq -seems to be the norm in a hypertextual infoscape where argument often proceeds as much through the html link as it does from paragraph to paragraph. Perhaps it is not surprising that this ecology of parataxis often results in students and writers who can give numerous claims, but cannot sustain those claims with reasons. Rather than supporting a claim, many contemporary rhetors simply repeat it. Ironically for a rhetorical environment composed of links, students and writers are often incapable of articulating the connections between a claim - such as "I support the invasion of Iraq" - and the reasons supporting such a claim.


As the office responsible for teaching rhetorical skills to over ten thousand students each year, the staff of the Composition Office of Penn State University is prepared to address these challenges and leverage the opportunities presented by these new ecologies of communication through the rigorous teaching of argumentation in a digital context. Through the use of a web presence called a °wiki\" that can be edited by anyone who views it, students become immersed in rhetorical interactions under the guidance of a teacher offering instruction in simple rhetorical principles such as argument by definition, argument by analogy, causal argument, prolepsis, and evaluative argument. In piloted studies, these traditional heuristics have helped students orient themselves in an ecology of massive information increase through the (re)creation and discovery of larger scale patterns informing any given context. With required daily blogging, students learn flexible strategies of response and composition to already existing rhetorical patterns, and become effective diagnosticians of diverse rhetorical situations and forge creative responses to them. This flexibility is crucial if students are to remain mindful through the rapid changes in communication likely to emerge in the coming decade. In addition, the instant "publication" of online writing amplifies the intellectual property issues students are likely to face at the University and in the workplace, and students learn alternatives to copyright that can increase innovation while protecting content from unattributed use.


The Wiki Response


After careful analysis of these pilot studies, we propose to migrate all Penn State Composition courses ( e.g. 15, 30, 202) to online wiki web presences. The advantages of the wiki include:


(1)Students learn to use different media to achieve their rhetorical aims. By working with a medium most students have never interacted with ( wiki), students intuitively learn the difference medium makes to their writing. Being reflective about medium is crucial as media diversify and proliferate.


(2)Students write in response to each other as well toward problem solving endeavors. Rather than writing for judgment by instructors, students write in response to each other and a webbed infosphere, modeling likely workplace writing. In addition, students write collaboratively and individually to produce writing of pragmatic value such as guides, manuals or histories. For example, I am preparing a grant to support a project to write the history of Penn State through a ¡°wikipedia¡± style interface.


(3)Students learn to work productively with analytic tools of argumentation. This helps them filter and evaluate the information of their daily lives and their work and work critically and creatively with existing forms of argument.


(4)Plagiarism, which is an increasing problem in composition classes, is eliminated, as all assignments require students to respond to another student's writing. In addition, the migration of student writing online would enable software filters to locate unacknowledged replications quickly and easily.


(5) Students write much more than in previous versions of our curriculum in rhetoric. With daily blogging and responses, it is not unusual for students to write over one hundred ¡°pages¡± in a semester. Like many other skills, writing improves through repetition and practice, and the result of this constant writing is a significant improvement in rhetorical fluency.


(5a)This rhetorical fluency supports and encourages sustainable reflective practice, a critical life-long intrinsically motivated skill that all liberal arts institutions should aspire to teach. Unlike course management systems, wikis provide an authentic social context for scaffolding these behaviors. This recognition of the importance of context is mimed in current work involving the implementation of e-Portfolio solutions.


(6) Class meetings become livelier and focused on the pragmatics of student writing. Students report that they have a greater sense of community in wiki'd classes.


(7) Wiki text is easily incorporated into Eportfolios for nicer fit and finish. Graduates will leave with a well presented record of their work at Penn State. More than a resume or CV, Penn State graduates will enter the job market with personalized web presence reflecting their research and interests.


(8) All of these advantages strategically and collaboratively orient learning processes and practices toward the students as the focal point of the practical and engaged learning that takes place. Learning about writing, how the world communicates, and the role students play within this context are significant steps towards making Penn State a more student-centered learning environment.


Proposal Needs


The Composition Office plans to migrate new instructor courses online by Fall 2005. To do so, we need the following:


(a) A scalable wiki web presence to support first 5,000 and eventually 40,000 students. The wiki could also be offered to PSU Commonwealth campuses, creating a consistency of curriculum and linkage between University Park and Commonwealth campuses. This web presence could either be supported by the University or an outside provider ( see Opportunities ) Penn State Portal traffic could be significantly increased with this measure.


(b) Given the continual writing associated with the wiki, both students and instructors need ubiquitious access to the tools of composition. This means a wireless campus with universal wireless laptop adoption. Philadelphia plans to become a wireless city, and it would seem appropriate that the flagship state university should follow suit. Student computing requirements are proliferating at benchmark institutions (e.g. University of Florida, and Penn State must avoid falling behind on this front. With Penn State's large size, the University could likely secure agreements for wireless laptops in the $500-$600 range. Such universal computer access would also enable student purchases of ebooks rather than expensive hardcover books, resulting in substantial savings and helping to stem the rising cost of books, particularly in technical majors. By making computer ownership mandatory, students would be able to apply financial aid to their purchase of computers and software. Cheap laptop alternatives could also achieve the same functionality with the right network support.



(c) We will need sufficient technology classrooms or projectors to support in-class writing work. One of the benefits of the wiki is that it allows instructors to use class time to focus on the details of student writing. Besides wireless laptops, instructors would need access to a large screen display. These projectors are portable and a pool of them could service all instructors not working in a technology classroom.


(d) Funds to train instructors in the new model of teaching. These would not be enormous, but a consensus has emerged that new instructors should begin their pedagogical training for a month prior to teaching in the Fall.


(e)Funds to hire outside consultants to evaluate program at year 3.




(a)A wireless campus will free up lab space. Instead of filling rooms with computers, lab space will become usable as classroom or common space.


(b) We will deliver the attention of 40,000 students to a web site. Significant revenues could be raised through advertising and the possible marketing of demographic information. Privacy concerns can be easily addressed through anonymous posting or other solutions. Upon graduation, alums could be awarded more web space in order to keep them coming back.


(c) We will offer a nationally prominent digital curriculum with skills that will feedback onto all other classes offered by the University. Students with critical thinking and writing skills learn better and continue to learn after graduation.


(d) We will have access to an unparalleled archive for research on the teaching of writing. We could learn much about how to effectively teach persuasive writing by looking carefully at this enormous, searchable archive, and the wiki will likely generate several Ph. D. theses. Already, graduate students will submit articles for publication in a special issue of a major rhetoric and composition journal devoted to wikis.



(e) Graduate students and faculty could collaboratively write online textbooks for use in composition classes. These books could be free and open source, yet generate significant revenues through advertising.


Future Growth and Transformation


Given the rate of change in information technologies, students will likely move toward more visual and animated rhetorical forms in workplace composition. With the adoption of an online writing space, we will be well situated to integrate other rhetorical technologies into the curriculum, such as digital images, animation, video and sound. Technical writing and research, for example, increasingly requires a facility in XML as well as digital animation, and with this plan we could integrate such skills into our curriculum within a few years. IST and Visual Arts are interested in integrating pedagogical gaming into their curriculum, and here again we would be well placed to benefit from this convergence.



Richard Doyle - Director of Composition - Penn State University -



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