It is widely accepted that digital media in the twenty-first century has transformed our professional and personal lives. Teens, college students, and most adults are constantly plugged in to their iPads, laptops, and cell phones. Across liberal arts college campuses, cutting-edge courses that critically examine digital writing are cropping up and gaining in popularity. But what’s so special about digital writing? Sure, you’re reading this essay on a screen, but don’t the basic principles of writing remain the same? Isn’t writing writing?
To the contrary, research suggests that if used carefully and thoughtfully, digital writing is a unique tool that has the potential to transform academic scholarship and invigorate the classroom. The multimodal, collaborative, public, and democratizing features of digital writing facilitate student engagement and learning in the classroom by employing authentic activities, making scholarship relevant, and improving the rhetorical skills necessary for success in work and life. In conjunction with this research, my own academic and co-curricular experiences in college have shown me the far-reaching possibilities of digital media in today’s rapidly changing society.
Digital Writing as Multimodal
Digital writing or web writing is often set apart from analog writing by its multimodality—that is, its “flexibility” (Rajchel) or its ability to engage many senses by transmitting content in a variety of modes.
Yet Kristin L. Arola, Cheryl Ball, and Jennifer Sheppard make clear in their journal article “Multimodality as a Frame for Individual and Institutional Change” that multimodal is not merely synonymous with digital. Instead, they define writing and composing as thoughtful “design” and expand the definition of multimodality to encompass all written, oral, and visual communication.
In seeking to endow students with a “rhetorical toolkit” filled with a variety of modes and genres to best suit the student’s particular rhetorical purpose, Arola, Ball, and Sheppard echo Jen Rajchel’s argument in “Consider the Audience” that successful digital writers must carefully choose a technological platform according to their specific audience, content, and purpose:
“One of the biggest challenges and opportunities in digital publication is reaching out across multiple audiences with varied interests and deciphering which platforms are best suited to one’s content” (Rajchel).
Both of these articles thus suggest digital media’s role in turning students into empowered “rhetors” capable of skillfully navigating the multimodal “rhetorical environments” inside the classroom and beyond (Arola, Ball, and Sheppard).
By reframing writing in this way, digital media has the pedagogical potential to change how students think and write. In “Tweet Me a Story,” Leigh Wright discusses social media as a creative pedagogical tool to invigorate the liberal arts classroom. Her students use Twitter to write journalism headlines and conduct screenwriting exercises; they also live Tweet events and curate class Tweets with Storify.
Wright argues that the 140 character limit that Twitter imposes actually causes students to think and write differently. As a result of these social media projects, students developed their own voices and styles, built audiences and connections, and became more pithy, engaging, and focused writers overall (Wright). These sorts of authentic activities or “hands-on learning” (Arola, Ball, and Sheppard) within unique digital environments clearly help students grow as critical, creative writers and thinkers.
Digital Writing as Collaborative
One of the most distinctive aspects of digital writing—its collaborative nature—also contributes to its pedagogical potential as an authentic project. Throughout her essay, Rajchel explains that digital writing is a way to extend student work beyond the bounds of the classroom into a larger, ongoing conversation. Web writing provides an open venue for students to engage in “a broader dialogue among scholars and texts” (Rajchel). By seeing the real-life application of their work, students become more invested in their writing (Rajchel). Because they view their writing as meaningful, students spend more time making connections and developing their thoughts more deeply.
In “Hybrid Pedagogy, Digital Humanities, and the Future of Academic Publishing,” Sean Michael Morris and Jesse Stommel too highlight the collaborative nature of digital writing, particularly in academic contexts:
“Scholarly research is no longer a solitary activity. Reading, writing, and publishing in the digital must and always already do take place in public, collaborative spaces.”
By bridging academic and non-academic communities through collaboration, web writing has the potential to broaden the scope and relevance of scholarship.
Digital Writing as Public
In discussing digital writing as collaboration, these authors also acknowledge that digital writing carries greater responsibility because of its ability to educate and reach a wider audience. Morris and Stommel explain that in a post-print environment, scholars must write “not for rarified audiences, but for unexpected ones.” Whereas traditional academic publishing was “private, gradual, and deliberate,” digital publishing is “public work, packaged and poised for ready distribution” (Morris and Stommel).
Indeed, the “public” nature of digital writing is one of its most exciting and contested features. Natalia Cecire in “How Public Like a Frog: On Academic Blogging” foregrounds this debate as she argues that academics not only need to write in public, but actually think in public. While the transparency and accessibility of online platforms such as blogs provide the perfect venue for this public thinking, Cecire acknowledges that it carries an element of vulnerability:
“Thinking in public is a difficult habit to get into…Blogging with any regularity in essence means committing oneself to making one’s intellectual fallibility visible to the world and to the unforgiving memory of the Google cache.”
As Cecire suggests, the publicness of web writing is tied to the problem of permanence; what’s written on the web is there forever. Yet Cecire agrees with Morris and Stommel in advocating for academia’s need to embrace the digital. Through the very publicness academics fear, web writing makes scholarship more accessible and relevant to “the real world” (Cecine).
Along with this publicness comes the anonymity of the Internet, which poses additional issues related to scholarship. While Rajchel asserts that citations are necessary for “creating a path to discussion,” both Cecine’s and Morris and Stommel’s articles note that the “responsibility and credit” so central to academia lies in tension with web anonymity (Cecine).
Yet the anonymity of blogs has the potential to serve as a safe space for disempowered or marginalized voices (Cecine). In seeking to broaden the bounds of the academic journal, Morris and Stommel, too, suggest the democratizing capacity of web writing. Although structures of power and privilege are still inevitably present, previously silenced voices can gain access to authorship through digital environments (Cecine).
Digital writing as a multimodal, collaborative, public, and democratic enterprise has the potential to engage twenty-first-century students in unprecedented ways. As such, it is no wonder that digital writing courses are taking root in our nation’s top liberal arts colleges.
Digital Writing and My Experience
My own experiences affirm my research on the potential of digital writing to revolutionize our lives and careers. More and more, I have realized the need for organizations and individuals to use digital media to remain relevant.
As President of Belles Lettres Literary Society at Dickinson College, I am working on launching a website, increasing the organization’s social media presence via Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram, and creating an online submissions manager. Through these platforms, we have already expanded our membership and increased our presence on campus. Digital media is necessary for our club to be relevant in the shifting world of creative literary publishing, as professional magazines like The Paris Review demonstrate with their strong web presence.
My summer internship at the James A. Michener Museum in Doylestown, PA also confirmed the importance of using digital media and social networking sites effectively in a business setting. I published a post called “Summer Camp Spotlight: Making Handmade Books” to the museum’s blog and created my first personal Twitter account in order to publicize the museum’s temporary art exhibition.
Moreover, as an aspiring writer, I think social media and blogging is essential to build an audience, as Jennifer Weiner explains:
“Whatever it is, polish it, edit it, give it the same attention that anything else you were going to publish is going to get. Make it funny, make it trenchant, make it pithy and relevant and smart, and the followers will come” (qtd. in Wright).
Indeed, many of the blogs that I follow have turned into book projects, a natural evolution that demonstrates the reciprocal nature of digital and analog writing nowadays. I hope that I might one day develop my current blog project, “The Art of Peregrination,” into a book and achieve my dreams of becoming a published writer.
As I have progressed through the English major, digital writing has become a more and more prominent element in my academic career as well. As a senior looking forward to graduate school, I have been critically examining ways to use the Digital Humanities to make my scholarship meaningful.
My research with Professor Jacob Sider Jost on how poets in the 1730s made a living spurred my interest in this issue.
I am synthesizing existing information from various databases to ascertain biographical and publication information for over 200 poets. The scope of this project would have been impossible years ago, so technology has clearly increased the possibilities of scholarship. But I also began to envision ways that I could take this experience in the Digital Humanities to make my scholarship in graduate school even more collaborative and public…
One of the main reasons I am wary of pursuing higher education is that I view academia as very insular—an “ivory tower” that caters to a very small audience. However, I agree with the scholarly articles cited above that digital media has the potential to change the infrastructure of higher education for the better. By utilizing blogging platforms, social media, and the Internet, I think scholars can make their work more accessible and relevant to the public, thereby democratizing academia and increasing their level of civic engagement. Public scholars could collaborate with the community to develop digitized archives of historical photos, letters, and diaries rotting in people’s attics. We could create projects, such as Dickinson College’s House Divided Project, that provide resources for teachers and students to learn about topics of interest.
As an Education minor interested in secondary as well as higher education, I also see the potential of digital media to engage reluctant learners, revolutionize linear methods of composition and learning, and assess ability via more varied and authentic methods than simply writing a traditional essay.
In my own observations in Carlisle-area schools, I’ve seen students respond enthusiastically to integrating technology into lessons. For example, my current host teacher has a “Twitter Wall” that students post their responses to on Post-It notes. Digital media can better prepare students to be savvy readers, writers, and thinkers in today’s world.
Whether I find myself in business, secondary education, or academia down the road, I know that digital media will play a central role in my personal and professional life. An understanding of the nature of digital writing will unlock its vast potential in helping me achieve my goals beyond Dickinson.
Arola, Kristin L., Cheryl Ball, and Jennifer Sheppard. “Multimodality as a Frame for Individual and Institutional Change.” Hybrid Pedagogy. 10 January 2014. Web. 29 October 2014.
Morris, Sean Michael and Jesse Stommel. “Hybrid Pedagogy, Digital Humanities, and the Future of Academic Publishing.” Hybrid Pedagogy. 29 April 2014. Web. 29 October 2014.
Natalia Cecire. “How Public Like a Frog: On Academic Blogging.” Arcade (blog). Stanford University. 20 April 2011. Web. 29 October 2014.
Rajchel, Jen. “Consider the Audience.” Web Writing: Why and How for Liberal Arts Teaching and Learning. Eds. Jack Dougherty and Tennyson O’Donnell. Trinity College ePress edition, 2014. EBook. 29 October 2014.
Wright, Leigh. “Tweet Me A Story.” Web Writing: Why and How for Liberal Arts Teaching and Learning. Eds. Jack Dougherty and Tennyson O’Donnell. Trinity College ePress edition, 2014. EBook. 29 October 2014.