Defining Digital Writing

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It seems that Digital Writing Month is off to a roaring start for everyone involved. So far, there has been a collaboratively-written poem and a collaboratively-written novel is still in the works. Many participants are busy exploring new methods and forms of digital writing, while others are happily adding to their existing digital media sites. Despite the daunting goal of 50,000 words in thirty days, inspiration and collaboration are flowing freely and it’s a beautiful thing to see and be a part of.

But for some, the challenge of Digital Writing Month is not so much the word count as it is figuring out what exactly digital writing is (and is not). Do emails count? What about retweets? What about images and videos? How do you “count” those? What about all of the words we delete during the process of drafting and revising? Do those count even though they’re no longer “there”? How much does context/format matter? If you publish the same words in multiple contexts/formats, does your word count double or triple? Which digital “words” don’t count? Hashtags? Links? And what about those collaboratively-written digital texts? Do all of the words count for everyone who contributes or must you keep track of which words are yours alone? Where do ideas end and authorship begin?

While some of these questions may be addressed by the DigiWriMo founders and community, ultimately it’s up to the individual author to determine what they define as digital writing. But I think that the questions about what constitutes digital writing that have arisen over the past few days are interesting because of what they say about our attitudes toward and beliefs about digital writing. Digital writing, even for those who do it often, is a problematic experience. Partly, perhaps, because it is so new, but mostly, I suspect, because it defies categorization and definition. It is organic and, as such, is constantly evolving, expanding, adapting, evading, presenting, restructuring, dying, re-emerging. Fundamentally, our questions about digital writing reflect many of the same questions we have about ourselves: who is the real me? The private me or the public me? Where do I end and others begin? How much do my contributions to my community count? Am I simply a string of code? Who wrote the code and how much of my code is pre-written and how much do I have the power to (re)write? What parts of me, if any, are permanent? Which are disposable and forgettable?

Take the questions about email, for example. Email is obviously a digital form of writing. So why are some DigiWriMo participants questioning whether or not it should count toward their 50,000 word goal? I think that it has a lot to do with the idea of openness. Many of us consider the terms “digital writing” and “open” to be synonymous. For those who do so, digital writing is a political and social act. We see being open as a democratic principle and we value making our ideas accessible for anyone and everyone to consider and use as they wish or need to, and we are suspicious of those who refuse to share their ideas openly. Emails are private exchanges, seen only by those we choose to make privy to them. Access to the exchanges is only granted to those who can be trusted and for whom the exchanges are directly relevant. But many who advocate and participate in digital writing question ideas of limited trust and relevancy. We question whether or not emails “count” during DigiWriMo because other members of the DigiWriMo community cannot see them; by being exclusive, email challenges the community’s standards regarding openness.

Similarly, digital writers value collaboration because they see the openness of digital writing as both democratic and rhizomatic: ideas and media are freely shared, borrowed, referenced, adapted, remixed, mashed up, and revised. Digital compositional softwares such as Google Docs now support peer revision as opposed to peer review, allowing the author and editor(s) to synchronously negotiate changes to a piece of writing. Such software also provides a space for authorial collaboration, as has been demonstrated with DigiWriMo’s collaboratively-written poem and novel. But some have questioned the importance of individual authorship when considering word count, especially within such highly cooperative contexts. This question brings to light the issues with co-ownership. Ownership is problematic in digital writing because of its organic, open, rhizomatic nature. Established norms regarding citation no longer work and new norms have been slow to develop. But even with digitally-enabled citation methods being used, some question where one author’s word count ends and another’s begins and where, and if, they ever overlap. What if you retweet someone else’s tweet? Does the other author’s words count toward your goal? Does agency equal authorship, such that the act of sharing those words within a different context (your followers’ timelines) gives you co-ownership of the tweet (and thus, co-authorship)? What if you author a tweet that contains a quoted tweet? Should we differentiate between the words you wrote and those you’re quoting? Or is this a new composition, with the original tweet wholly absorbed and remade, the way mixed-media art absorbs and remakes found objects?

Speaking of mixed media, even more problematic for some participants in DigiWriMo is how to “count” images and videos. I was pondering this very question as I was considering the webcomic I plan to try my hand at this month. After all, the graphic aspect of comics is of equal importance as the text. And for me, the graphic aspect would be the most challenging to author. It was disconcerting to think my effort would not “count.” One DigiWriMo community member, Kevin Hodgson, came up with the answer: count the code. Kevin, also creating webcomics as part of the project, created a webcomic about how to “count the words” in a webcomic by counting the code. This solves the problem of images, as well, since most programs convert images to code once they’re embedded. Other forms of media are still problematic, though, and this, again, reflects the organic nature of digital writing. Some of us tend to write in still or moving images (or both); some of us combine images and text. What “counts” as writing and how do we convert still and moving images into a quantifiable measurement that’s equal to words? Some of us, especially bloggers, borrow images from others to help illustrate our writing. So, do we count the images we borrow as part of our word count? After all, we have essentially re-contextualized and re-interpreted the image–given it new life, if you will.

As important as renewal is to digital writers, death is just as concerning. We must constantly tend to our digital creations, monitoring pingbacks and shares and responding to new comments (new life!), as well as checking to make sure hyperlinks, embedded media, or blogroll listings have not disappeared (death). For some, if it does not digitally exist at this moment in time, it may as well have never existed (although it is still out there, for those who know how to locate digital ghosts). What about all of those words that get deleted during the process of digital composition? Some of them, like those created in Google Docs, still exist in perpetual stasis, awaiting rediscovery and reversion. But some (like those I am deleting as I draft this post) disappear forever. Do they count? They are, after all, the breath that nourishes those words that manage to survive the process of digital birth.

Aside from the content that will be created, Digital Writing Month has forced many of us to confront our beliefs and biases about digital writing (and non-digital writing, as well). While we may not be any closer to a definition of digital writing by the end of the month, we at least will have come closer to understanding what draws us to it and what challenges it presents for us. We will, I believe, have a better conception of the shared values and community practices inherent in the act of digital writing, as well as those values and practices that are intrinsically personal and, therefore, more ephemeral.

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CoRE Partnership Building Workshop

  1. CoRE stands for Collaborative Regional Education, a partnership between regional preschools, K12 schools, and Jacksonville State University. On Nov. 1, 2012, we unveiled our hopes and plans for CoRE. These are my notes from the workshop.
    The first talk of the workshop was by Dr. Billie McConnell and Mr. George Saltsman of Abilene Christian University.
  2. TanyaSasser
    3 trends in Ed.: rich media, social connections, content access; all coalesce into mobility #pk20
    Thu, Nov 01 2012 06:59:26
  3. TanyaSasser
    Facebook has 1,000,000% of images in Library of Congress #pk20
    Thu, Nov 01 2012 07:00:29
  4. TanyaSasser
    75% of all homeless youth use social media #pk20
    Thu, Nov 01 2012 07:01:18
  5. TanyaSasser
    7 out of 10 children are tablet users #pk20
    Thu, Nov 01 2012 07:02:28
  6. TanyaSasser
    Problem of print age was finding info.; the problem of the digital age is assessing info. #pk20
    Thu, Nov 01 2012 07:06:23
  7. TanyaSasser
    Teachers: if you are giving your Ss the answers and/or giving them the questions, you are robbing them #pk20
    Thu, Nov 01 2012 07:08:04
  8. TanyaSasser
    Mobile tech is restructuring formal learning and informal learning and redefining literacy, community, & authority #pk20
    Thu, Nov 01 2012 07:11:34
  9. TanyaSasser
    21st c learning needs to be student-centered and use tech w/a purpose #pk20
    Thu, Nov 01 2012 07:17:16
  10. TanyaSasser
    Standardized testing means there’s only one answer and it’s the only one that’s right: standardizes thinking #pk20
    Thu, Nov 01 2012 07:25:34
  11. TanyaSasser
    By putting tech in the teacher’s hands w/minimal training, we’re still supporting old pedagogy but expect different outcomes #pk20
    Thu, Nov 01 2012 07:27:22
  12. TanyaSasser
    There’s still a disconnect between learning and learning; tech is slowly abandoned & old status quo is re-established #pk20
    Thu, Nov 01 2012 07:28:37
  13. This note should read “There’s still a disconnect between learning and technology . . .”
  14. TanyaSasser
    When tech fails, we blame the tech & hope the next great tech will be the answer #pk20
    Thu, Nov 01 2012 07:29:19
  15. TanyaSasser
    Ss need: access to today’s tools; prepared for global, technological, informational, & collaborative world; to learn independently #pk20
    Thu, Nov 01 2012 07:31:38
  16. TanyaSasser
    Future teachers will continue to think inside the box if WE continue to teach inside the box b/c they don’t know anything else #pk20
    Thu, Nov 01 2012 07:33:12
  17. TanyaSasser
    Standardization kills creativity: kindergarteners are most creative; creativity decreases w/ each year in school #pk20
    Thu, Nov 01 2012 07:34:51
  18. TanyaSasser
    When we teach Bloom’s from bottom up we never make it 2 the top (due 2 time & test prep) but Ss learn 2 think 4 themselves at the top #pk20
    Thu, Nov 01 2012 07:37:43
  19. TanyaSasser
    Some kids are good at memorizing things and make A’s without having to think about the content #pk20
    Thu, Nov 01 2012 07:39:38
  20. TanyaSasser
    Some people think college’s job is to teach kids to think #pk20
    Thu, Nov 01 2012 07:40:13
  21. TanyaSasser
    What if we taught Bloom’s backwards? What if I gave you the problem before the knowledge/understanding of content? #pk20
    Thu, Nov 01 2012 07:41:15
  22. TanyaSasser
    What if we make Ss go get the knowledge needed to solve the problem? Makes information immediately relevant #pk20
    Thu, Nov 01 2012 07:42:14
  23. TanyaSasser
    What if Ss don’t need the teacher to learn the information? What if they learn on their own or from peers? #pk20
    Thu, Nov 01 2012 07:43:50
  24. TanyaSasser
    Or they may choose to learn from teacher. #pk20
    Thu, Nov 01 2012 07:44:09
  25. TanyaSasser
    We don’t know what the world will look like 5 yrs from now, but we’re preparing Ss for it #pk20
    Thu, Nov 01 2012 07:46:37
  26. TanyaSasser
    We like to use word “rigorous,” but really mean “hard.” This is not a viable model. Outcomes are not going to change. #pk20
    Thu, Nov 01 2012 07:48:51
  27. TanyaSasser
    HEAT framework for 21st c learning: higher-order thinking, engages learner, authentic learning, technology use #pk20
    Thu, Nov 01 2012 07:50:19
  28. TanyaSasser
    Focus should be on learning, not technology for tech integration to be successful #pk20
    Thu, Nov 01 2012 07:53:41
  29. TanyaSasser
    What do we want Ss to look like at the end of elementary, middle school, and high school? #pk20
    Thu, Nov 01 2012 07:54:52
  30. TanyaSasser
    Teaching & learning and technology need to be wholly integrated as one; 21st c is not about tech, it’s about people solving problems #pk20
    Thu, Nov 01 2012 07:56:16
  31. TanyaSasser
    Tech is a tool to solve a problem, not find answers that already exist #pk20
    Thu, Nov 01 2012 07:57:02
  32. TanyaSasser
    21st c classroom needs to be about thinking, collaborating, and creating #pk20
    Thu, Nov 01 2012 07:57:51
  33. TanyaSasser
    We’ve got to change the culture of school, not just the pedagogy or the tech or where we spend money #pk20
    Thu, Nov 01 2012 07:59:14
  34. TanyaSasser
    To create culture change, 15%-30% is all you need for critical mass–committed sardines; allow rest to self-select out #pk20
    Thu, Nov 01 2012 08:00:33
  35. TanyaSasser
    Teacher prof development has to be ongoing and long-term; hit or miss PD doesn’t work #pk20
    Thu, Nov 01 2012 08:01:19
  36. TanyaSasser
    Preschool, K12, and higher ed. have to be co-learners and co-teachers to make culture change #pk20
    Thu, Nov 01 2012 08:03:12
  37. TanyaSasser
    We have to start learning from our failures in education #pk20
    Thu, Nov 01 2012 08:04:21
  38. TanyaSasser
    PD can’t just be about learning how to use technology #pk20
    Thu, Nov 01 2012 08:05:01
  39. TanyaSasser
    We tend to use tech in the same standardized ways we use everything else, then tech becomes a part of the problem #pk20
    Thu, Nov 01 2012 08:06:36
  40. TanyaSasser
    Ss don’t want to use tech for standardized learning (giving/collecting assignments, taking tests, fill-in-the-blank) #pk20
    Thu, Nov 01 2012 08:07:40
  41. TanyaSasser
    Focus on teachers who are willing and desirous of ed. reform first; the rest will follow via their influence and successes #pk20
    Thu, Nov 01 2012 08:49:16
  42. TanyaSasser
    Ed. reform needs to be system-wide so we’re all sharing same vision, going in the same direction, and focused on same outcomes #pk20
    Thu, Nov 01 2012 08:50:51
  43. The second talk was given by Dr. Alicia Simmons, Executive Director of the Office of Planning and Research at JSU.
  44. TanyaSasser
    Research and evaluation are important to measure success and effectiveness of change #pk20
    Thu, Nov 01 2012 08:51:33
  45. TanyaSasser
    Research and evaluation allow us to share what works with others #pk20
    Thu, Nov 01 2012 08:52:04
  46. TanyaSasser
    Dual enrollment increases first-time freshman retention, even with Ss with low entrance scores #pk20
    Thu, Nov 01 2012 08:52:58
  47. TanyaSasser
    Dual enrollment is an integral part of PK12/higher ed. partnership #pk20
    Thu, Nov 01 2012 08:53:50
  48. TanyaSasser
    Teacher prep is essential to ed. reform #pk20
    Thu, Nov 01 2012 08:54:37
  49. The third talk was given by Monte Rector of Apple.
  50. TanyaSasser
    Education is not a business; it’s a personal experience #pk20
    Thu, Nov 01 2012 09:00:58
  51. TanyaSasser
    Culture eats strategy every day of the week. #pk20
    Thu, Nov 01 2012 09:08:40
  52. TanyaSasser
    Our culture needs to be learning. #pk20
    Thu, Nov 01 2012 09:09:05
  53. TanyaSasser
    Schools need to be learning ecosystems #pk20
    Thu, Nov 01 2012 09:11:27
  54. TanyaSasser
    Without collaboration and cooperation, ecosystems can’t survive; all members of ecosystem are interdependent #pk20
    Thu, Nov 01 2012 09:13:33
  55. The final talk was given by Jolanda Westerhof of AASCU.
  56. TanyaSasser
    Ed has been arranged marriage: PK12=placement service, higher ed was selective ivory tower detached from process of preparing the Ss #pk20
    Thu, Nov 01 2012 10:49:21
  57. TanyaSasser
    3 domains of college readiness: academic, social, and personal #pk20
    Thu, Nov 01 2012 10:51:07
  58. TanyaSasser
    88% of dropouts were struggling in 3rd grade #pk20
    Thu, Nov 01 2012 10:52:34
  59. TanyaSasser
    High school is too little too late (same can be said of college) #pk20
    Thu, Nov 01 2012 10:53:03
  60. TanyaSasser
    We need long-term investments in ed that we may not see payoff for immediately #pk20
    Thu, Nov 01 2012 10:54:40
  61. TanyaSasser
    Don’t wait for change to come from others #pk20
    Thu, Nov 01 2012 10:58:00

Practicing What I Preach: Digital Writing Month

Some rights reserved by Pink Sherbet Photography

For a while now I’ve been preaching to my students about the importance of learning how to create and develop a digital presence and the essential role that writing plays in doing so. I was one of the first in my department to adopt blogs as the main form of writing in my classes. Once my First-Year Composition classes became hybrid, I also began to require students to use Google+ to create digital profiles and communicate, network, curate, and share information. To be honest, I wasn’t exactly practicing what I was preaching. Oh, I was building my digital presence on Twitter, but that was about it. I didn’t blog (didn’t have time, I argued) and I didn’t actively and consistently participate in other kinds of digital writing (didn’t want to juggle too many social networks, I demurred). This past summer, I saw the error of my ways and began this blog. It has been a life- and career- altering experience in several ways that I won’t go into here and now. Suffice it to say that it has been the single best professional decision I have ever made and it has also provided me with much first-hand experience that I can now pass along to my students without feelings of hypocrisy.

But I’m a firm believer that complacency leads to stagnation. As teachers, as soon as we become too comfortable with what we’re doing, we’re in danger of becoming irrelevant. Just as we encourage our students to do more than the minimum requirements and to push themselves beyond what’s easily attainable, we should resist feelings of confidence and certainty. It’s only when we’re pushing the envelope and testing the waters that we’re resisting the temptations of “good enough.”

When I was first invited to participate in Digital Writing Month, my immediate instinct was to pass. I’m in the middle of a hectic semester: I’m teaching five classes (three of which are composition classes and all of which are in the throes of Challenge-Based Learning projects), maintaining my blog, serving on a very active committee (under whose auspices I am spearheading a summer technology camp for local K12 students), keeping ten hours of office hours each week, and helping my nine year-old to adjust to fourth grade. The last thing I need is one more thing to do. Yes, the project sounded exciting. But 50,000 words in one month? Bananas!

But the more I thought about it, the more I realized what an important project Digital Writing Month is. Many of the reasons why I think it is so important will become evident in the article that I’ve submitted as a featured contributor to the project. My reasoning has much to do with the political and artistic power that I see digital writing embodying. But some of my reasoning is more personal. Right now, I’m feeling a little too digitally complacent for my own good. I’m happy with a blog post every other week or so and an occasional smattering of tweets. I’m comfortable with what I can do digitally. I haven’t tried anything new in a while and I’m not sure that I’m feeding my networks as well as I should be in terms of promoting pedagogical disruption. It’s time I made myself a little uncomfortable.

Some of the things that I’m planning to do as part of the project are:

  • Blog at least once each week (potential post topics include: designing a blogging workshop for students, unplugging the classroom, teaching bento-style, hashtags as exquisite corpse, using Google+ as an LMS, using Stephen King’s On Writing to teach FYC, Challenge-Based learning in the introductory speech class, screen casting feedback on students’ blog writing)
  • Live-tweet my notes/thoughts on pedagogically-relevant books and articles that I read during the month
  • Create a webcomic (I’ll be giving students in my upcoming graphic novel class the option of doing this, so in the spirit of never asking students to do something that I haven’t tried to do myself, I’ll be giving it a go; however, I don’t expect a contract offer to come my way as a result of my efforts)
  • Comment on all of my students’ blog posts (normally, I only provide feedback to students privately via Word or screencast, but for the month of November I’ve decided to switch to only providing comments publicly on each of the students’ blog posts, shifting my focus from teacher-centered comments on organization, style, and grammar to reader-centered comments on content and ideas; I already require students to read and publicly respond to each others’ posts, so again, I’ll be walking the walk)

Since project participants are encouraged to curate their digital writing for the month in one place, I’ll be publishing, Storifying, and linking to my work here.

I’m hoping that if there are others who are feeling that the project is just not easily attainable for them right now, you’ll reconsider. If you’re not sure why you should, then I hope that you’ll at least follow the project on Twitter (@digiwrimo) and consider adding your voice when and as you can. You may end up inspired to push yourself beyond what’s comfortable.

It’s going to be a wild, unpredictable, organic, collaboratively-driven ride!