As I begin to teach a new group of students in WRTG 121, a first year writing course focusing on research writing, I find myself wondering what I can bring to these students that is new and innovative. They have spent their lives using digital technologies. I fear that suggesting they transform their research paper into a multimodal project such as a Prezi or a Glogster is more a reflection of my enthusiasm for the “newness” of these technologies than the enthusiasm of my students. While there is no doubt that we instructors are enamored with what we perceive as “new,” I can’t help but wonder what would be “new” for my students. Conversely, those of us who do not embrace the latest technologies risk appearing as Luddites, ignorant of what is happening in the real world. Looking back to ancient Greece, there is a long historical precedent of discounting new writing technologies. In “Phaedrus,” Plato uses Socrates as a mouthpiece to complain that the “new” technology of writing will lead to weakened minds and forgetfulness. Ironically, Plato’s lament is communicated through the written word, despite his rumination over its perceived flaws.
Plato’s historical opposition to writing as a technology strikes me as similar to opposition we have seen against new digital technologies. Do we believe those who argue that students’ minds are weakened by texting and tweeting, or do we acknowledge that they are writing more than ever with these new technologies? It seems to me that, unlike the digital natives in my class, older generations tend to be resistant to new technologies and look for reasons to discount the technology before it gains wide acceptance. As the saying goes, “haters gonna hate.” But eventually, acceptance does come, with the written word in ancient Greece, and with new forms and technologies of writing today.
Dennis Baron, in “From Pencils to Pixels: the Stages of Literacy Technologies,” points out the steps that all writing technologies move through on the path to wide use and acceptance. Just as Plato explains that the spoken word is much more effective than the written word, Baron explains that all new technologies are first compared to previous technologies and then must be authenticated in order to earn the trust of potential users.
While I wonder what would be a “new” technology for my students, I find myself reflecting on Walter Ong’s claim that writing serves to distance the thought from the writer and allows for deeper consciousness and reflection than speaking does (“Writing is a Technology that Restructures Thought”). I agree that writing, even in the form of brief Tweets, allows for a slowing down of thought, a reflection on the best way to phrase the idea. There are valuable lessons to be learned in taking complex ideas from a research paper and transforming them into clear, succinct Tweets. And I cannot discount Brook and Grabhill’s argument in “Writing is a Technology Through Which Writers Create and Recreate Meaning” that digital technologies allow for greater distribution of writing by more people. Perhaps my concern over not introducing my students to technologies that are newer than the digital technologies they have grown up with is less important than teaching them how to move information across different writing technologies.