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Dush, Lisa. When Writing Becomes Content. CCC, Dec. 2015. Posted 02/21/2016.

Dush, Lisa. “When Writing Becomes Content.” College Composition and Communication 67.2 (2015): 173-96. Print.

Lisa Dush compares the concept of “writing” that has historically grounded writing studies to the new forms of written communication engendered by technological change. In these new forms of communication, what has always been thought of as writing must now be understood by keeping in mind its nature as “content.” Extant ideas of what “writing” means, she contends, should not “be erased”; rather, the field should understand and acknowledge the tensions created by writing’s migration into new spaces and forms (183).

Dush argues that “writing” and “content” are metaphors with “attendant bundles”; those surrounding writing can be hard to identify (179). For Dush, writing implies an “agentive composer” producing what Jodie Nicotra calls a “discrete textual object” (181); an audience that can be analyzed and known to some degree (177); specific spaces; and specific and known social and professional roles such as “author, editor, and publisher” or relationships such as “famous author to fan, good writer to bad” (179-80). For Dush, this metaphor does not capture the emergent features of writing for digital spaces and does not furnish the conceptual tools to adequately critique or respond to the changes (181).

Dush defines “content” as “conditional, computable, networked, and commodified” (176; emphasis original). “Conditional,” she writes, refers to the degree to which creators of texts cannot easily know exactly where and how their work will be used; content is “characterized not by being finished or published, but rather by [its] availability for repurposing, mining, and other future uses” (176). It is “computable” in the sense that it is composed of numeric data, a form that allows “machine audiences” to “mine, rank, process, match, reconfigure, and redistribute it” (176); its format may change and fragments might appear in such places as search-engine lists (177).

“Networked” denotes the relationship of content not to the “speaker-audience dyad of classical rhetoric” but rather to audiences so vast as to call for machine analysis; because the audience cannot be authoritatively known, texts must tend toward “adaptation” to various audiences rather than “prediction” of an ideal fit (177). Dush cites Clay Shirky to note that the networked nature of content favors the production of more rather than less text, and “more arguably, democratic participation over hierarchy” (177).

Finally, content is “commodified.” Dush builds on John Trimbur’s distinction between “use value— . . . how well a thing meets human needs— and exchange value—value based on profit” (178; emphasis original). She illustrates this feature by noting that a tweet is not valued for its utility but for “the number of clicks and retweets it accumulates,” thus metamorphosing into advertising revenue (178).

Dush argues that recent attention to multimodal composition has not abandoned the metaphorical implications of “writing” as opposed to “content” (181), an approach that is not attuned to “what Jim Ridolfo and Danielle Nicole DeVoss call ‘rhetorical velocity'” (qtd. in Dush 182): that is, the rapid circulation of material via the manipulation of managers and strategists, both human and machine. Dush points to the ways in which this shift from “writing” to “content” risks a “disempowered” view of writers (183). She quotes Rahel Anne Bailie and Noz Urbina, authors of Content Strategy: Connecting the Dots Between Business, Brand, and Benefits, who recite a list of the ways that “[w]riters can’t be expected to be experts” and should therefore be subordinated to managers versed in content manipulation (qtd. in Dush 184). Dush responds that writing-studies professionals should take up this challenge: “[T]o avoid being written out of the work of writing, perhaps writers must indeed become experts at working with writing-as-content” (184). Such a focus, she argues, should be part of the curriculum at all levels of writing instruction (184).

This refocus, she writes, should embrace the fact that some of this approach already appears in some writing curricula, and, moreover, central aspects of writing-as-content lend themselves to applications and critiques grounded in rhetorical theory (184-85). She examines the “quad,” a figure from Kristina Halvorson and Melissa Rach’s Content Strategy for the Web, that surrounds a “core strategy” with four quadrants: substance, structure, workflow, and governance (185-86). Substance, Dush states, involves choices about the appropriate information in a message; she relates structure to James E. Porter’s arguments addressing the relation of circulation to delivery and cites work “in writing studies about composing in networked space” (187). Workflow and governance are the “people components” that echo writing studies’ emphasis on the “social and material nature of writing” (188).

Dush suggests that in considering where elements of content management are already being taught, for example in technical communication and in courses such as Writing for the Web, compositionists can move beyond document design to considerations of platforms and the rhetorical concerns that arise as information moves across them (188). Course designers should consider including more “content” vocabulary both in curricula and in course titles in order “to better signal to employers that our students are prepared to do content work” (189). Multimodal courses can move beyond applications that limit students’ ability to apply strategies central to content creation like tagging and search-engine optimization (189).

Dush addresses challenges raised by the shift to “content” such as inadequate working conditions imposed by the need to be constantly connected to social media and the disparity between the “humanistic” values of writing studies and the profit- and efficiency-driven impulses of the content-oriented workplace (191). She sees as important concerns the degree to which writing itself may be “devalued” and the possible corollary that writing as traditionally understood will no longer be “a feasible profession” (191).

For Dush, in order to foster the values of writing studies while addressing the shift to content, the field should determine appropriate “core strateg[ies]” to place at the center of Halvorson and Rach’s quad. Using knowledge of content management to further humanistic organizations and causes, developing critical language to interrogate such phenomena as the effects on working conditions and consequences for users, and resisting the naturalization of the changing relations between writers and industry should direct the field’s response to the shift (192-93). Ultimately, Dush writes

the risks of ignoring writing-as-content or, likewise, dismissing it, are that we may miss an important opportunity to expand the conceptual, research, and pedagogical purview of writing studies in ways that are appropriate to the digital age. (193)

 


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Cox, Black, Heney, and Keith. Responding to Students Online. TETYC, May 2015. Posted 07/22/15.

Cox, Stephanie, Jennifer Black, Jill Heney, and Melissa Keith. “Promoting Teacher Presence: Strategies for Effective and Efficient Feedback to Student Writing Online.” Teaching English in the Two-Year College 42.4 (2015): 376-91. Web. 14 July 2015.

Stephanie Cox, Jennifer Black, Jill Heney, and Melissa Keith address the challenges of responding to student writing online. They note the special circumstances attendant on online teaching, in which students lack the cues provided by body language and verbal tone when they interpret instructor comments (376). Students in online sections, the authors write, do not have easy access to clarification and individual direction, and may not always take the initiative in following up when their needs aren’t met (377). These features of the online learning environment require teachers to develop communicative skills especially designed for online teaching.

To overcome the difficulty teachers may find in building a community among students with whom they do not interact face-to-face, the authors draw on the Community of Inquiry framework developed by D. Randy Garrison. This model emphasizes presence as a crucial rhetorical dimension in community building, distinguishing between “social presence,” “cognitive presence,” and “teacher presence” as components of a classroom in which teachers can create effective learning environments.

Social presence indicates the actions and rhetorical choices that give students a sense of “a real person online,” in the words of online specialists Rena M. Palloff and Keith Pratt (qtd. in Cox et al. 377). Moves that allow the teacher to interact socially through the response process decrease the potential for students to “experience isolation and a sense of disconnection” (377). Cognitive presence involves activities that contribute to the “creation of meaning” in the classroom as students explore concepts and ideas. both individually and as part of the community. Through teacher presence, instructors direct learning and disseminate knowledge, setting the stage for social and cognitive interaction (377).

In the authors’ view, developing effective social, cognitive, and teacher presence requires attention to the purpose of particular responses depending on the stage of the writing process, to the concrete elements of delivery, and to the effects of different choices on the instructor’s workload.

Citing Peter Elbow’s discussion of “ranking and evaluation,” the authors distinguish between feedback that assigns a number on a scale and feedback that encourages ongoing development of an idea or draft (376-79; emphasis original). Ranking during early stages may allow teachers to note completion of tasks; evaluation, conversely, involves “communication” that allows students to move forward fruitfully on a project (379).

The authors argue that instructors in digital environments should follow James E. Porter’s call for “resurrecting the neglected rhetorical canon of delivery” (379). Digital teaching materials provide opportunities like emoticons for emulating the role of the body that is important to classical theories of delivery; such tools can emphasize emotions that can be lost in online exchanges.

Finally, the authors note the tendency for responding online to grow into an overwhelming workload. “Limit[ing] their comments” is a “healthy” practice that teachers need not regret. Determining what kind of feedback is most appropriate to a given type of writing is important in setting these limits, as is making sure that students understand that different tasks will elicit different kinds of response (379-80).

The authors explore ways to address informal writing without becoming overwhelmed. They point out that teachers often don’t respond in writing to informal work in face-to-face classrooms and thus do not necessarily need to do so in online classes. They suggest that “generalized group comments” can effectively point out shared trends in students’ work, present examples, and enhance teacher presence. Such comments may be written, but can also be “audio” or “narrated screen capture” that both supply opportunities for generating social and teacher presence while advancing cognitive goals.

They recommend making individual comments on informal work publicly, posting only “one formative point per student while encouraging students to read all of the class postings and the instructor responses” (382). Students thus benefit from a broader range of instruction. Individual response is important early and in the middle of the course to create and reinforce students’ connections with the instructor; it is also important during the early development of paper ideas when some students may need “redirect[ion]” (382).

The authors also encourage “feedback-free spaces,” especially for tentative early drafting; often making such spaces visible to all students gives students a sense of audience while allowing them to share ideas and experience how the writing process often unfolds through examples of early writing “in all its imperfection” (383).

Cox et al. suggest that feedback on formal assignments should embrace Richard Straub’s “six conversational response strategies” (383), which focus on informal language, specific connections to the student’s work, and maintaining an emphasis on “help or guidance” (384). The authors discuss five response methods for formal tasks. In their view, rubrics work best when free of complicated technical language and when integrated into a larger conversation about the student’s writing (385-86). Cox et al. recommend using the available software programs for in-text comments, which students find more legible and which allow instructors to duplicate responses when appropriate (387). The authors particularly endorse “audio in-text comments,” which not only save time but also allow the students to hear the voice of an embodied person, enhancing presence (387). Similarly, they recommend generating holistic end-comments via audio, with a highlighting system to tie the comments back to specific moments in the student’s text (387-88). Synchronous conferences, facilitated by many software options including screen-capture tools, can replace face-to-face conferences, which may not work for online students. The opportunity to talk not only about writing but also about other aspects of the student’s environment further build social, cognitive, and teacher presence (388).

The authors offer tables delineating the benefits and limitations of responses both to informal and formal writing, indicating the kind of presence supported by each and options for effective delivery (384, 389).