A Medial Feedback Loop

In my current research, as well as several blog posts, I examine the ways in which new media affect instructional practices. I hope to use this post to consider how educators can show students the medial feedback loop that exists between traditional and emerging media.

In “Students Who Teach Us: A Case Study of A New Media Text Designer,” Cynthia L. Selfe examines a crucial attention shift in English composition courses, a shift towards what she terms “new media texts” (43). Selfe uses the concept of “new media texts” to describe “texts created primarily in digital environments, composed in multiple media (e.g. film, video, audio, among others), and designed for presentation and exchange in digital venues” (43). Her work is a passionate yet pragmatic call to arms for composition instructors to mobilize new media texts “in their classrooms to teach about new literacies” (44). Selfe tells the story of David John Damon, a student whose educational and professional journey shows “the importance of different literacy values” (44). Despite coming from a difficult background, Damon displayed tremendous talent and eventually became quite dexterous with new media such as Photoshop, HTML, Java, Shockwave, and Flash. However, “his skills in communicating in Standard English remained seriously underdeveloped” (49). In Damon, Selfe recognizes the “contested nature of the literacy landscape David inhabited,” a sort of instructional and evaluative showdown between traditional essays and the features of new media texts (50).

For Selfe, Damon’s eagerness to learn and technological skills should have played a more active role in his literacy education. Building on and quoting from the landmark work of the New London Group, Self notes that the task of the instructor must change to acknowledge new literacies and meet the demands of the modern age: “If educators hope to prepare citizen who can ‘participate fully’ in new forms of ‘public, community, and economic life’ . . . we must teach them to design communications using ‘modes of representation much broader than language alone'” (55). Indeed, forces such as the economy and job market do not consider background or access to resources; citizens must be prepared to meet their demands. Ultimately, Selfe calls for instructors to “design a meaningful course of study for composition classrooms that accommodates a full range of literacies, especially those literacies associated with new media texts” (56).

I want to take a cue from Selfe and discuss what students here at WCC have taught me. While she asks instructors to recognize that new media texts can aid in teaching more traditional forms of literacy, I want to consider how traditional forms of literacy instruction can help students feel more comfortable composing new media texts.

In our center, we recognize that new media texts provide an opportunity to reinforce key aspects of traditional writing assignments. For example, I helped a motivated non-traditional student in his 80s design his professional website. Rather than starting with the technical components of website design, I asked the student to reflect on what he wanted to achieve with his website; I even turned the computer off. He discussed wanting to share his short stories with a regional audience who would connect with the specific places and events he wrote about in his fiction. I then asked him to organize his stories in the way that felt most natural. He decided that the stories focused on characteristic aspects of each of the counties in which he lived; therefore, we outlined a layout based on counties in southeast Alabama. Having this structure in place made the task of selecting an appropriate theme and creating drop-down menus much easier.

We also discussed how his chosen organizational structure could help him curate his writing. After all, he still needed an author bio, author photo, and a few more design elements. By turning the website into an opportunity to reflect on individual stories as well as his entire writing career, we were able to shift gears away from technology and focus on how traditional forms of literacy could help guide him through the new media text of the professional website. We tackled the technical components incrementally and knew what we wanted to achieve at each step.

Furthermore, students in our developmental writing program have visited our center for help building professional websites, Linkedin profiles, or online portfolios. Unlike the student I discussed above, these students are usually not as comfortable with their writing, let alone the idea of sharing it with a larger audience. When working with such students, my staff and I emphasize the relationship between their writing assignments and their digital project. For example, we tell students to think about the website identity or about page as a sort of thesis statement or statement of purpose. In this formulation, the drop-down menus and subsections emerge as key words or concepts that they would put in the topic sentences of their essay. We help students use outlines, or even reverse outlines, to begin to think through possible structures.

During a session with a student in our developmental writing program last semester, I asked her to make a list of the key things she wanted to include on his professional website. After she compiled her list, I asked her to go through her list and highlight related ideas different colors, a standard reverse outlining technique. I then asked her to use punctuation to separate her lists even further: commas between closely related ideas, semicolons between ideas that were connected, and periods between different ideas. This exercise allowed us to review punctuation while determining the relationship between the key phrases that would become the main sections and drop-down items of her website.

The two examples I mention reinforce a key observation from Jay David Bolter and Richard Grusin’s landmark work Remediation. In their work, Bolter and Grusin argue that “Media (especially new media) become systematically dependent on each other and on prior media for their cultural significance” (59). Therefore, the new media texts that Selfe identifies are “dependent” on other pre-existing media for their meaning.

We can see this trajectory at work in Selfe’s account of Damon as well as my examples from WCC. In the case of Damon, mastery of new media texts was not enough to create meaning because he had not become comfortable with the “prior media” that help create their “cultural significance,” namely effective written communication. Selfe rightly observes that new media texts had the potential to teach Damon the more fundamental aspects of writing and guide him through composing traditional genres.

In contrast, the examples I discussed show how print and traditional written genres can provide students with strategies for thinking through the new media texts that universities and employers may require them to create.

In short, the contested relationship of the literacy landscape risks overlooking the potentially productive feedback loop between traditional and emerging media and literacies.


Works Cited:

Bolter, Jay David and Richard Grusin. “Mediation and Remediation.” The Routledge Reader on Writing Centers & New Media, edited by Sohui Lee and Russell Carpenter, Routledge, 2014, pp. 57-65.

Selfe, Cynthia L. “Students Who Teach Us: A Case Study of A New Media Text Designer.” Writing New Media: Theory and Applications for Expanding the Teaching of Composition, edited by Anne Frances Wysocki, Johndan Johnson-Eilola, Cynthia L. Selfe, and Geoffrey Sirc, Utah State UP, 2004, pp. 43-66.