Tuesday, February 9, 2016

Feral Children

In his 2001 article "Ten Commandments for Computers and Composition," Todd Taylor states:

"As of the year 2001 almost none of us attended computerized kindergarten; thus, instructors and students alike tend to lack the tacit understanding and socialization necessary to operate successfully in the new computer environments. In a way, we are all feral children in the new classroom because we do not yet know how to behave" (237).

I want to use this space to serve the purpose of reexamining such a claim.

Are we are all still feral children? 15 years later, are we domesticated? What is the difference? I tend to interpret the feral child as a teacher who is completely unfamiliar with technology, fears it, and thus rejects it. Meanwhile, I believe that those of us who are domesticated are very familiar with technology, comfortable with/in its presence, and thus embrace it. While being domesticated is certainly better than being feral, such a position is dangerous because it can result in an uncritical stance on technology.

The goal, then, is to situate oneself somewhere in between--it is necessary to be familiar with technology, and thus to be fluent in digital literacies. When such fluency leads to emphatic embrace that rules out healthy skepticism, we become dangerously domesticated.

Where are we? Not as individuals, but as a department? It may seem unreasonable to assume that we could trace and identify a collective location on the feral-domesticated spectrum. But I think such a practice is healthy and beneficial, even if we fail in finding its location. Besides, a lack of ability to locate ourselves may be an indicator that our location resides with the feral children.

Lets start with goals. In the 103 and 104 course goals, outcomes, content, and format sections, there is no mention of key terms "computers" or "digital." There is, however, the terms "a variety of media" for both 103 and 104. Of course, "a variety of media" does not have to include computers or aspects of digital literacy. In considering this alongside the reading, this seems problematic. However, if we consider the spatial layouts of the classrooms that teach composition (at least those that I have worked within, such as 112, 113, 114, and 115), I think that the lack of those key terms fits within our approach to writing. First, we must consider that out of the five possible spatial layouts for classrooms teaching composition with and through computers--lab design, theater design, pod plan, perimeter design, and laptop design-- the composition classrooms 112-115 would fit into laptop design, which is designed for a program that "encourages each instructor to shape courses in individualistic ways within the program's broad, general rubric" (236). In my short time here, with my limited understanding of how the Writing Program functions, I would argue that our program embraces this model. I also think that this is a good model to embrace. But now I want to return to Todd's assertions that, as WPAs in charge of Writing Programs, we simply must be as up-to-date as possible with computers and their abilities in the composition classroom. Does our program do enough to ensure that this is true? More to the point, how does a program that "encourages each instructor to shape courses in individualistic ways" continue to develop and push for an agenda that is computer-based without losing our commitment to individualistic ways of shaping courses?

I think that simply endorsing an ideology which protects the individual teacher's right to construct and teach a class from his/her own values, experiences, beliefs, etc. is proof enough that we satisfy the 1st commandment, putting people first. I think that our program principles, in being as open-ended as they are (remember the wording "a variety of media"), are being satisfied as well. And I honestly haven't been here long enough to discuss the 3rd commandment concerning starting simple. I will say, however, that it seems to me that we are lacking in numbers 4, 5, and 6.

As a new instructor, I have not had hands-on training with any technology. I was not made familiar with how to use Blackboard, for example, and I still am uncomfortable with the site and how to post things. I am learning as I am going, but it has been a 100% independent process. I have not been shown how to activate turn-it-in or safe-assign. I have not been educated on any sites that may be useful in the composition classroom. I don't even know how to work with Vizi, which was developed in-house and contains many of our own alumni. The only things I know about Vizi were told to me on our very first day of graduate school orientation, when Dr. Ranieri passed out information and discussed it with the entire English department. This was maybe a 30 minute presentation couched within a dozen other presentations in the first few hours of me being on campus. I am not suggesting that I couldn't go out of my way to ask for help. I believe if I did I would immediately get help. But I think as a WP administration we should devote more time than that. We ought to teach our instructors how to use these spaces and tools, especially if we believe them to be important or valuable assets to our program. If hands-on instructor training is too expensive or out of the budget, then we should re-examine our budget, or at least spend time with first year teachers on how to work with blackboard, possible pedagogical tools, and how to use Vizi.

In terms of the 6th commandment, consulting with others, I think that this is a fantastic idea, and one that need not rely on the already over-worked, multiple hat wearing WPA team. I would love if teachers had a space where we discussed teaching with technology (maybe a FB group? Even if it was among just the graduate students, it would be helpful. Come to think of it, Alyssa made something like this last year. Is this still up, Alyssa?). I know that I would love to share with others the fantastic collaborative possibilities for 103 and 104 classes inherent in Genius.com. I know that my peers in Rory's "Teaching with Tech" class have all spent time learning, writing, and developing agendas through online spaces and tools. But if we continue to teach independently, and fail to share our own unique findings, then we greatly reduce the opportunities we have as teachers and scholars.

As Todd pointed out, graduate students are some of the best prepared to teach with and through computers. Perhaps this is why, when we prep student teachers, we overlook the importance of undergoing hands-on instructor training. When I look over our 10 commandments, I feel all the more compassionate for the difficult work and heavy workload WPAs have. But I also feel like we could be doing more to channel the power of the Internet for use in our classrooms.

So, are we domesticated or feral? Probably somewhere in between....What (and where) do you think?


  1. I think one thing you are getting at here is that there is a difference between being comfortable with technology as an individual (i.e., for personal use) and as an instructor. Making this distinction is important, because you shift from being just a user to a demystifier--I'm not really sure how else I want to say this. In short, the goal is to assist students in making meaning with digital technologies, which requires a lot more than when we use technologies in isolation. I think this can be intimidating, especially for instructors who feel unprepared to do so.

    Also, the other question becomes: how do I teach digital rhetoric without also teaching about technology to some degree? How do I have time to do all of this? I think many of us, especially for the multimodal assignment, suggest students use technology that they are already familiar with to bypass this problem, but when doing so I think students are less apt to think about the rhetorical features of the texts they are creating.

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  3. Joel, I did make a blog that included my lesson plans for teaching personal narratives in English 103 with an intentional incorporation of technology. The idea was primarily to get people from all over talking about how we can effectively use technology in our teaching.

    I think it might be beneficial to have designated spaces (fb as you suggested, Joel) or a bi-monthly informal gathering to discuss technology issues in our classes at Ball State. There are SO many good resources for using technology or incorporating multimodality, such as Andrea Lunsford's blog "Mulitmodal Mondays"