Hey you! I see you. You are procrastinating on a writing assignment. You are sitting at your laptop, looking desperately for something to do that will let you ignore the multiple tabs of articles you pulled up from the library website. So, you turn to social media. When Instagram won’t load, you migrate to Facebook. You scroll through your news feed and watch a video with a catchy headline deconstructing Tomi Lahren’s latest rant. You click on a link to an interesting Medium article, but it’s too long and can’t keep your attention. So out of desperation, you begin taking quizzes on Buzzfeed. You convince yourself that knowing what type of Halloween candy you are is absolutely essential to your future. After all, who knows what kind of crazy careers will be open to you after graduation?
You just consumed a whole lot of forms of digital media, perhaps without even realizing it. As college students, we are inundated by academic (i.e. those articles you are ignoring), personal (i.e. Facebook), and entertaining (i.e. Buzzfeed, Medium) digital writing. It may seem like processing digital writing is automatic, but taking a class examining digital writing will help you approach your daily life – from studenthood to adulthood – with a more informed, critically engaged lens.
Who am I to tell you this?
I’m an English major pursuing a career in social media marketing, here to explain to you why you should take a course in Digital Writign. If that hasn’t immediately stopped you from reading this essay, then great! It’s obvious that a class in Digital Writing makes sense for me. It boosts my English major (and not just because it’s another elective on my transcript), it’s a perk on my resume (it could be on yours too!), and it will give me critical skills to help with my (hopeful) future job.
But what if you are not me, living a life that orbits around writing online? Well, technology and digital writing are still parts of our lives, whether we like it or not. Learning to write in digital environments is relevant not only to your life as a student, but also to your life as a critically engaged citizen. And if that label doesn’t apply to you yet, then a class on digital writing will help you get there.
How will studying digital writing help your writing?
Let’s start with your immediate concern: graduating college. If you attend a liberal arts college, that means writing papers. A digital writing course can help your writing by diversifying your style, opening your writing to personal creativity, and giving you a glimpse of the real world from within the college bubble.
Writing on a digital platform requires a distinctly different tone and structure than the more rigid academic writing that we students are taught to churn out. Why do you think you are so much interested in 19 Grammar Fails That Will Make You Shake Your Head Then Laugh Out Loud than an academic article on the Investiture Controversy? For one thing, that Buzzfeed article appeals to your inner grammar snob, but it also has pictures and lists instead of a long stretches of critically dense writing. When writing online, you are free to write how you would like to read: creatively, on interesting topics, and with lots of fun pictures.
In their article on digital writing, Jarrett and Cummings suggest that “a blog offers an opportunity to engage with and write about one’s area of study in a far less constrained way.” Although this claim is aimed more at professors and doctorates, students too can always use a “reminder that one’s knowledge and creativity are not pressed only into the service of professional goals and a quest for approval” (Jarrett and Cummings). A blog project in a digital writing class, even if it is graded, provides a refreshing break from prescribed essay topics. We are free to choose our own topic, tone, audience, and design. It gives a taste of independent writing within the academic framework.
Exploring creativity and a more informal tone do not only help with writing online projects for class. Beyond making your personal Instagram captions much more professional, these skills can easily translate to traditional academic papers. Even though I do not use an informal tone for traditional assignments, I have a new sensitivity to maintaining an authorial voice. Plus, academic papers require us to answer the same questions on author/audience and form/content interaction, albeit in different ways.
It is also worth considering this use of web communities to build a writing process. Writing for a public space requires a certain amount of vulnerability. To use David Rorabaugh’s metaphor, posting digital writing is like exposing the “organs” of the writing process, especially in a digital writing class that requires posting drafts and peer comments. Even if a post is a “final” draft, writing online inherently encourages community input (and we all know how that can turn out). Learning to write in a digital space exposes us to a more community-based model of writing and helps develop the dynamic process of thinking instead of churning out a paper three hours before the deadline.
Now that we are talking about knowledge creation, let’s take a brief step beyond the world of immediate deadlines to study the big picture of academic conversations. Studying digital writing opens up a whole new way of thinking about academic writing. David Parry suggests that movement from traditional published academic work to a more inclusive digital community requires authors to “start thinking of what we do as participating in a conversation, and ongoing process of knowledge of academics.” Although we are not academics yet, creating a public blog means taking independent responsibility for entering an existing community and building upon conversations. By studying digital writing, we can take a step into the real world from within the classroom.
How does digital writing change my reading?
Now, let’s step back from the classroom. Walk home, grab a snack, and take a deep breath. Phew. Remember that video you watched on Facebook earlier? The article your friend shared? Knowing the steps that go into digital writing helps us read all digital media, including our personal news feeds, more critically.
Our new digital world isn’t all sunshine, rainbows, and trustworthy sources. Although the internet inarguably provides us with more knowledge to information, that information is not always accurate. Kris Shaffer calls this dark side of digital writing “coordinated digital deception, powered by sock-puppet Twitter accounts, SEO expertise, and a Facebook algorithm that privileges fake news.” As Shaffer points out, actually writing a blog or creating a Twitter bot helps “awaken … students to these new practices of digital deception, and help them face them effectively” far more than learning conceptually about the dangers of “fake news.” After becoming digital writers ourselves, we become conscious of the ways that words, images, and layout can be tailored to cater to any given audience, and how those practices can change the content that is presented.
Beyond fake news, a co-operative class on digital writing also teaches us to be conscious of the “echo chamber” effect. Consider the video on Tomi Lahren that you watched earlier. Facebook algorithm’s work to tailor content to your interests, meaning that similar posts will now appear more frequently on our news feed. However, discussing the creation of media bias with other class members helps us break out of the echo chamber and open our minds to new ways of considering our digital world.
Okay, but how is digital writing relevant to my future?
But what if being able to critically engage with sources isn’t enough for you? You want some real, concrete results from a digital media class. Well, no matter your career path (unless, perhaps, that career path is as a Henry David Thoreau impersonator), you will probably consume digital writing in some capacity in your job. Whether you are pursuing work in data analytics or creative writing, digital literacy is transitioning from a perk on a resume to a requirement for all employees. Soon-to-be graduates are in a prime position to take full advantage of a skill set that comes naturally to us. A recent discussion with the Dickinson Career Center suggested that recent graduates may even have an advantage over more experienced employees in the digital literacy field. Taking a class on digital writing can go on your resume as concrete evidence of your critical background and new skill set for engaging with digital media.
But your career isn’t all that technology will affect. While there are many people (more knowledgeable than I) who will debate what the future of technology holds, there is little question that our future will be defined in some way by the digital world. For instance, Vivek Wadwha paints a picture of fully customized education supplied by Artificial Intelligence. Beyond our social systems, Nicholas Carr’s book The Shallows suggests that our very brains could be (or are already being) changed by technology. Carr describes a new “networked thinking process” that is replacing our existing “linear thought process” (Karp qtd. in Carr). He proposes that our brains after the Net crave “information in short; disjointed, often overlapping bursts – the faster, the better.”
Think about that Medium article you tried to read. It may have only been three pages, but that was too long and slow for your new “hungry” brain (Carr). Digital media is not only changing the world around us, but quite possibly the world inside us. A class on digital writing gives us the framework to understand this brave new world, and face the changes head-on.
So, the next time you sit down to mindlessly procrastinate on an essay, consider the layers of depth and manipulation behind those short bursts of texts. Consider your own reaction to them. Consider taking a class on digital writing.
Or, you could just write your damn essay.
Carr, Nicholas. The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains, W.W. Norton, 2011.
Cummings, Alex Sayf and Jonathan Jarrett. “Only Typing? Informal Writing, Blogging and the Academy (2012 Revision).” Writing History in the Digital Age: a born-digital, open review volume, ed. Jack Dougherty and Kristen Nawrotzki, Michigan UP, 2013. https://writinghistory.trincoll.edu/collaborative/cummings-jarrett-2012-spring/. Accessed 31 October 2017.
Parry, David. “Burn the Boats/Books.” Hacking the Academy: New Approaches to Scholarship and Teaching from Digital Humanities, ed. Dan Cohen and Joseph T Scheinfeldt, Michigan UP, 2013. https://muse.jhu.edu/chapter/833150. Project Muse, accessed 31 October 2017.
Rorabaugh, Pete. “Organic Writing and Digital Media: Seeds and Organs.” Digital Pedagogy Lab, 21 June 2012. http://www.digitalpedagogylab.com/hybridped/organic-writing-and-digital-media-seeds-and-organs/. Accessed 31 October 2017.
Shaffer, Kris. “Truthy Lies and Surreal Truths: A Plea for Critical Digital Literacies.” Digital Pedagogy Lab. 8 December, 2016. http://www.digitalpedagogylab.com/hybridped/truthy-lies-surreal-truths/. Accessed 31 October 2017.