Online Composition or Composition Online

As I prepare for the fall semester, the impact of technology is more present than ever in my approach. This past year, multiple opportunities engaged me in online course design and adaptation. During these experiences, a core question continually presented itself: are we, as composition educators, changing as the nature of composition changes?

Technology is driving dramatic transformation in writing and publication. The production of content is growing exponentially. In addition, rate of publication is faster than ever. Being the first to say something is vital to ensure being heard. Grammar and style is valued less; sourcing is valued less. Furthermore, unique content is still important, but commentary and opinion have risen to prominence. Articles are a more collaborative process than in the past. Pieces will have multiple authors bouncing ideas off several other formal and informal works. This changes composition at its core.

Recently, my institution was looking to update a composition course. It was already offered online, so the format reflected that. As I was updating the course, I added a lesson where students learn how to use online review tools to peer edit. With these tools, students can send papers to one another, mark and respond to them, and then return the paper. I was excited to add this lesson and felt it really engaged the students in the idea of online writing and editing.

After a few days of patting myself on the back, it occurred to me that I was using the online space to teach composition in the old way. The tools were online, but they merely mimic what would happen in the classroom. Is this giving the students a true experience of contemporary composition? Shouldn’t I have them using software that allows them to work together on a single document simultaneously? Am I preparing them for a new way of writing or merely reinforcing the old way with new tools?

Later, I was reviewing basic style lessons for another introductory course. These lessons enforce the rules of structure and style that we, as academics, consider the backbone of composition. Yet, that same day, I read online content full of style errors and adaptations. A part of students must view their work as meaningless if, while they learn about proper style, they read errors in well-respected publications and see authors communicating with adapted spelling and grammar in social media. Again, I asked: am I engaging my students with the current revolution in language or providing content that prop up antiquated rules?

These questions are part of a larger theoretical point: how does education respond to the rapidly changing world of writing and language? We can’t cast-off everything that was ever done. That would be throwing away our foundation. Yet, educators often take for granted their ability to say one thing and do another. We adopt new techniques while acknowledging their roots in past studies. We know the rules and we know how to break them. Unfortunately, we only teach the first part of that equation. This leaves our students ill-equipped, disenfranchised, or both.