What is a Writing Technology?

Over the course of the semester, I've posted a few times about the "Writing Technologies" class I'm teaching. The class has two parts:

The first part involves the exploration of writing technologies as significant in any act of composition, and to get at that students read about various technologies, conduct historical and ethnographic research into technologically mediated composition, and compose using a range of tools.

The second part involves an in-depth inquiry into one currently fashionable set of technologies: html, css, and javascript. This, in a sense, is a class within a class since, on Fridays, we meet in a computer classroom and students have been learning to hand code increasingly complex and sophisticated web sites. These sites connect to the first part of the class in that the sites students make are about the technologies they've studied and used. So the first website was about writing on clay, the second about handwriting, the third (a wiki) about typewriters and typewriter composition, and last week they "turned in" websites featuring typefaces they invented.

[An aside, and something to post about later: the "invent your own typeface" websites are soooo cool!]

You might not be able to tell from the way I've been going on in recent weeks, but this class is not the only one I'm teaching. My other class is great; I'm just excited about the way the structure of this "Writing Technologies" curriculum is facilitating interesting student projects.

Physical Technologies Students Have Written With So Far include
  • clay/stylus
  • pencil/paper
  • pen/paper
  • manual typewriter/paper
  • electric typewriter/paper
  • Etch-a-Sketch™/screen
  • MS Word/screen
  • online word processors/screen
  • PhotoShop & GIMP/screen
  • NVU html text editor/screen
  • and then things like dental floss

Physical Technologies They Will Soon Try
  • an online word processor, invented here at UIUC, that automates research in linked databases
  • IBM ThinkPads
  • AlphSmart Keyboards
  • The Fly PenTop, assuming I can get my hands on one

One of the many things that is nice about focusing on technologies of writing, I think, is that such a perspective begins to erode any clear sense that writing technologies are things we can touch and/or hold in our hands. As a result, this kind of inquiry gets us to a point of wondering where does technology end and rhetoric begin?

Less Physical "Technologies" Students Have Deployed
  • technologies of typographic document design
  • technologies of image/text relations
  • technologies of kinetic images
  • technologies of code and display
  • information architecture
  • form
  • genre

I'm teaching a "Composition Theory and Practice" course next semester, the kind of course that is commonly taken by future teachers (at UIUC, that means English Education majors), and it's increasingly clear to me as a teacher of composition/rhetoric that understanding the significance of writing technologies is part of a rhetorical understanding of composition.

While I've been toying with the idea of going back to one-technology-composition (having students post all of their work to blogs, say), such an approach is seeming increasingly limiting.

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