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Shepherd, Ryan. Digital Writing and Transfer. C&C, June 2018.

Shepherd, Ryan P. “Digital Writing, Multimodality, and Learning Transfer: Crafting Connections between Composition and Online Composing.” Computers and Composition 48 (2018): 103-14. Web. 4 Apr. 2018.

Ryan P. Shepherd conducted a survey and interviews to investigate the relationship between multimodal writing students did outside of school and the writing that they did for their classes. Shepherd focuses on students’ perceptions as to what constitutes “writing” and whether they see their out-of-school work as “writing.” He argues that these perceptions are important for transfer of in-school learning to new contexts (103).

He notes that scholars in the field have argued for the importance of drawing on students’ past writing experiences and their knowledge of those contexts to enhance their classroom learning (104). Some scholarship suggests that students do not see a relationship between the writing they know how to do for social media and school assignments. This scholarship indicates that one implication of this disconnect is that students may not apply the knowledge they accumulate in the classroom to the broader range of their writing activities (104).

Shepherd sent survey links to composition instructors and received 151 replies from first-year-writing students. He reports that the responses were skewed toward larger, doctoral-granting schools (104-05). In choosing 10 students from among 60 who were willing to be interviewed, Shepherd included Research 2 and Masters 1 institutions but found his population did not fully represent a diverse range of students (105). Interviews took place in Shepherd’s office or on Skype.

A principle question in both the survey and interviews was students’ definition of “writing.” Shepherd notes an emphasis on “expression” and “creativity” in these definitions, with 25% referring explicitly to the use of “paper” (105). In contrast, of the 132 definitions of writing in the surveys, only five brought up “digital” or “computer” and all five also included the word “paper” (106). The word “digital” did not occur in the definitions provided in the interviews.

At the same time, 92% of survey responses indicated experience with social media and 99% had used email (106). Forty-six percent of survey respondents had posted on four digital platforms: Facebook, Snapchat, Instagram, and Twitter, while only 5% had not posted to any of these venues and “only one participant had not written on social media at all” (106).

Similarly, interviewees reported extensive experience with social media. Students on both the surveys and in the interviews reported that they wrote “as much or more” outside of school than in class (107). In addition, students seemed uncertain as to whether they had done multimodal writing for school, “sometimes saying they ‘might’ have used images or charts and graphs with their writing at some point” (107).

Shepherd concludes that the students he studied did not connect the multimodal writing they commonly did outside of school with their schoolwork and did not include this use of social media in their definitions of writing. However, when encouraged to think about the relationship between the two kinds of writing experiences, “students were quick to make connections without prompting” (107).

For Shepherd, these finding impact recent discussions in composition studies about the transfer of academic knowledge to other contexts. He contends that many uses of the “transfer” metaphor do not completely or accurately capture what compositionists would like to see happen (108). This “incomplete” metaphor, he argues, implies that knowledge acquired in one place is simply carried to a new place. Thinking this way, Shepherd maintains, echoes the “banking model” of education in which knowledge is something teachers have provided that students can subsequently “withdraw” (108).

More appropriate, Shepherd writes, is the idea of transfer as a “bridge or connection between one area of knowledge and another inside of the learner’s mind” (108). He uses an analogy of knowing how to drive a car and later having to drive a “large box truck.” He posits that using prior knowledge in this new situation involves “generaliz[ing] the knowledge” by “creat[ing] a larger theory of ‘driving’” that encompasses both experiences (108-09). This re-theorization, he states, does not involve transporting any knowledge to a new place.

Shepherd reviews theories of transfer, arguing that similarity between two experiences is central to successful transfer. The comparison between driving a car and driving a truck is an example of “low-road transfer,” in which the two situations are easily seen to be similar (109).

Many kinds of transfer, in contrast, are “high-road transfer” in which the similarity is not necessarily obvious. Shepherd develops an example of relating knowing how to drive to learning how to ski. Theories suggest that in order to see connections between disparate activities like these, learners need to apply what Gavriel Salomon and David N. Perkins call “mindful abstraction” (109). According to Shepherd, related terms used by compositionists include “reflection” and “metacognition” (109). Shepherd argues that what matters is not so much whether or not the activities are clearly similar but rather the degree to which learners can come to perceive them as similar through metacognitive reflection (109).

In this reading, high-road transfer consists of “backward-“ and “forward-reaching” efforts. “Backward-reaching” transfer involves drawing on past experience in new contexts; Shepherd argues that composition uses this form less than “forward-reaching” transfer, which encourages students to think of how they can use classroom learning in the future (109-10). Shepherd maintains that his study supports the claim that both kinds of transfer are “quite difficult”; students need to develop a more complex “theory of writing” to see the necessary similarities and may require guidance to do so (110).

Shepherd suggests that theory-building can begin with students’ own definitions; they can then be challenged to explain why specific modes of communication, for example in social media, do not fit their definitions (111). Teachers can also ask students to teach kinds of writing in which they may be skilled but may not recognize as writing (111). Throughout, teachers can press for “guided reflection” (111) and “mindful abstraction” (112) in order to foreground connections that students may not see as self-evident.

In introducing students to multimodal work in the classroom, Shepherd suggests, teachers can show students that these kinds of assignments are actually familiar and that the students themselves “might already be experts” (112). To design curricula that facilitates the creation of these connections across writing contexts, Shepherd writes, research needs to address “two key areas”: “what students know” and “what students need to know” (112). More attention to the kinds of literacies that students practice outside of the classroom, Shepherd concludes, can equip teachers to apply this kind of research to teaching for more productive transfer.

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Cohn, Jenae. “Devilish Smartphones” and Students’ Online Practices. C&C, Dec. 2016. Posted 11/10/2016.

Cohn, Jenae. “‘Devilish Smartphones’ and the ‘Stone-Cold’ Internet: Implications of the Technology Addiction Trope in College Student Digital Literacy Narratives.” Computers and Composition 42 (2016): 80-94. Web. 01 Nov. 2016.

Jenae Cohn analyzes student attitudes toward online and social-media interactions, arguing that student “skepticism about how social media impacts their relationships and literacy practices” (91) has not been adequately studied in computers and writing research (83). In general, Cohn states, composition theorists and instructors believe that online media should be included in writing curricula but have not taken into account how students themselves see their use of digital communication and literacy tools (91).

She examined 75 “digital literacy narratives” from first-year students at a large California research university with a majority Asian/Pacific Islander or White population. She found that 35 of the 75 students preferred face-to-face “embodied” interactions over digital ones while another 15 were “ambivalent” (82).

Keyword searches revealed the prevalence of the “addiction” trope when students discussed uncertainty about their online activities (82). While “addiction” was not the most common keyword (most common was “technology,” followed by “computer” and “Facebook), Cohn states that it was the most common word with a “clear affective charge” (82). Cohn details case studies of four students whose narratives about their use of social media employed the “addiction” trope (82).

Cohn explores the possibility that adults have created and spread the trope that teens are addicted to social media and notes as well that “addiction” is one of a set of powerful “popular tropes” that permeates discussions of media use (91). She argues that the adoption of this trope by the student writers reflects a true student concern rather than a effort by adults to, in the view of danah boyd, “gain control over a space that teenagers have claimed for themselves” (cited in Cohn 83).

Similarly, Cohn reviews criticism of the literacy narrative as a possible invitation to students to produce attitudes that they think mirror their teachers’ views of social media use as an interference with more serious writing (85). She contends, however, that taking the narratives “at face value” provides insights into how “myriad ideological influences” have impacted student views (85). She hopes as well that her own digital literacy narrative assignment will allow her a glimpse of how students who are presumed to be “‘digital natives’ . . . actually see themselves” (84).

In her view, her examination of these narratives suggests that the students she studied have accepted a common assumption that face-to-face interaction is inherently better than mediated communication like the kind required by social media (84). In this kind of narrative, Cohn writes, the shift to a “new technology” entails what Marita Sturken and Douglas Thomas characterize as a sense of “loss of connectivity, of intimacy, of desire, of authenticity in some way” (qtd. in Cohn 85; emphasis original). Moreover, according to Cohn, students see digital and “embodied” communication as binaries, generally rejecting the possibility of overlap (84).

Examining especially narratives that focus on cellphone use, Cohn distinguishes between two types of addiction narratives. In her view, the “distraction” narrative presents virtual communication as functioning to extract users from “real” experience, substituting less authentic relationships (88). As an example of a student’s concerns about cellphone use, Cohn presents “Lisa,” who, on a trip to London, decided that her desperation to stay connected online left her unable to remember any details of her London experience. Only after curtailing her phone use did Lisa claim to able to participate in what she saw as the “normal” life superseded by her phone use (86-87).

Cohn notes Lisa’s “clear bifurcation” (87) between her digital life and her embodied one. Recalling the trip, Lisa does not mention any use of her phone to take pictures to help her recall events. Cohn suggests that a cellphone might also have allowed a student like Lisa to share pictures with friends in an embodied social setting (87).

“Jack,” author of another “distraction” narrative, also laments the power of the phone to interfere with what he casts as “normal” life (87). Thinking he would use the phone for schoolwork, he claims that he soon found himself playing games and listening to music. Jack ultimately settles into a more nuanced view in which his inability to stay away from the phone “sham[es]” him (88) but also in which he tacitly acknowledges the usefulness of the phone for maintaining connections (89). Cohn posits that Jack is “nostalg[ic]” for a life without the rhetorical complexities imposed by digital communication; Jack insists on the importance of maintaining a sense of an embodied self not entangled with his online persona (89).

Cohn emphasizes the degree to which these two students saw themselves as completely passive before the power of their phones to distract them (88). Authors of the second kind of addiction narrative Cohn analyses, the “loner” narrative, also tend to see themselves as controlled by the technology and “pathologiz[e]” cellphone use (90) as a deviation from what they see as the normalcy of embodied life (89-90). In this kind of narrative, virtual interaction actually threatens normal existence (89). “Loner” narratives present the availability of cellphones as a temptation to “avoid face-to-face interactions” (89) and to “compensate” for “shy behavior” that is seen as “a source of shame” (90).

“Carly” sees herself as addicted to texting because she finds it emotionally easier than face-to-face interaction, while “Albert” describes himself as unable to articulate verbally in a classroom, isolating himself instead in a darkened room where he addictively communicates with strangers online (89-90). Both of these students arrive at a conclusion that virtual devices have benefits but that fellow students should seek “balance” (89). According to Cohn, they continue to endorse the view that “fluency in face-to-face interactions is more normative than fluency in online interactions” (90).

Cohn argues that writing teachers should teach critical literacy before assigning literacy narratives so that students can be more aware of how popular tropes can influence their conclusions about their literacy experiences (91). She notes that teachers should be alert to the ongoing rhetorical framing of literacy practices so that prompts can elicit more nuanced observations and attention to how different communication modes can accord with the exigencies of differing contexts (92). The article provides specific suggestions for classroom activities that can help students see both the distinctions and overlap among the different communicative practices they employ and can encourage them to value a wide range of skills (92).



Shepherd, Ryan P. Facebook, Gender, and Compositon. C&C, Mar. 2016. Posted 03/06/2016.

Shepherd, Ryan P. “Men, Women, and Web 2.0 Writing: Gender Difference in Facebook Composing.” Computers and Composition 39 (2016): 14-26. Web. 22 Feb. 2016.

Ryan P. Shepherd discusses a study to investigate how gender differences affect the use of Web 2.0 platforms, specifically Facebook, as these differences relate to composition classes. He argues that, although a great deal of work has been done within composition studies to explore how gender manifests in writing classes, and much work has documented gender differences in online activities in fields such as psychology, education, and advertising (16), the ways in which gender differences in Web 2.0 affect students’ approaches to composition have not been adequately addressed by the field (14).

Shepherd notes that discussions of gender differences risk essentializing male and female populations, but cites research by Cynthia L. Selfe and Gail E. Hawisher as well as Nancy K. Baym to contend that evidence for different behaviors does “persist” across studies and should be considered as composition teachers incorporate digital practices into classrooms (15). Without attention to the ways online composing relates to “aspects of identity and how these aspects shape composing practices when integrating social network sites (SNSs) into FYC [first-year composition] classes” (15), composition teachers may miss opportunities to fully exploit Web 2.0 as a literacy experience and meet student needs (15, 24).

The data come from a survey of FYC students about their Facebook activities and attitudes toward Facebook as a composing platform. Developed through multiple pilots over the course of the 2011 academic year, the survey gathered 474 responses, mostly from freshmen enrolled in some form of FYC at Shepherd’s institution and at other “large, doctoral-granting institutions” from which Shepherd solicited participation via the Council of Writing Program Administrators’ listserv (17). The survey is available as a supplemental appendix.

Shepherd argues that Facebook is an appropriate site to study because of its widespread use by college students and its incorporation of “a number of literacy practices,’ in particular what the 2004 CCCC Position Statement on digital writing calls “the literacy of the screen” (15). Shepherd first explores discussions of Facebook as it has been recommended for and incorporated into writing classes since 2008 as well as studies of student use of the platform (16). He then considers comprehensive work outside of composition on gender differences in the use of Facebook and other SNSs.

These studies vary in their results, with some showing that men and women do not differ in the amount of time they spend on SNSs and others showing that women do spend more time (17). Some studies find that women use such sites for more personal uses like email, compared to the finding that men are more likely to “surf” (17). Women in some parts of this body of research appear to engage more in “family activity,” to provide “more personal information in the ‘about me'” areas, and to worry more about privacy (17). Shepherd discusses one article about student use of Facebook that reveals that women use varied media more often; the article expresses concern about student comfort with online spaces and urges careful scaffolding in incorporating such spaces into classwork (17).

Shepherd presents his findings in a series of tables that reveal that gender had “a more statistically significant effect on more questions and often with more significant differences than any other independent variable” (18). The tables focus on the aspects in which these differences were evident.

In Shepherd’s view, gender difference significantly affected participants’ “rhetorical purposes,” their “different view[s] of audience,” and their varying “rhetorical stance[s]” (21). In general, he states that the data suggest that women are more concerned with “communicating with a broad audience,” while men appear more likely to see Facebook as a way to engage in “direct, personal communication” (22). Evidence for this conclusion comes from such data as the degree to which women and men invested equally in comments and chat, but women were more likely to post status updates, which Shepherd suggests may be a type of “announcement . . . to a large group of people at one time” (22). Women are also more likely to visit friends’ pages. Shepherd’s data also indicates that women think more carefully about their posts and “were more mindful” about the effects of photos and other media, even to the point that they might be thinking in terms of visual arguments (22). Shepherd believes these findings accord with conclusions drawn by Linda A. Jackson, Kevin S. Ervin, Philip D. Gardner, and N. Schmitt in the journal Sex Roles, where they suggest that women are more “interpersonally oriented” while men are more “information/task oriented” (qtd. in Shepherd 23).

In general, women were “more aware of audience on Facebook” (23). Shepherd cites their tendency to consider their privacy settings more often; he proposes that women’s tendency to post more personal information may account for some part of their concern with privacy (23). Moreover, he found that women were more likely to be aware that employers could access information on Facebook. In short, it may be that women “tend to have a greater awareness of people beyond the immediate audience of Facebook friends than men do” (23).

Shepherd sees differences in “rhetorical stance” manifested in the ways that men and women characterize Facebook as a location for writing. In this case, men were more likely to see the platform as a site for serious, “formal” writing and argument (23). The data suggest that men saw many different types of Facebook activities, such as posting media, as “a type of composition” (23). Shepherd posits that because women tend to do more multimodal posting, they may be less likely to think of their Facebook activities as writing or composition (23). He urges more investigation into this disparity (24).

Gender is just one of the differences that Shepherd contends should be taken into account when incorporating Web 2.0 into writing classrooms. His study reveals variation across “age, year in university, language, and attitude toward writing” (24). He suggests that women’s tendency to reflect more on their writing on Facebook can be helpful in course work where reflection on writing is called for (22); similarly, women’s use of multiple forms of media can be leveraged into discussions of visual rhetoric (22). In particular, he writes, students “may not be aware of the rhetorical choices they are making in their Facebook use and how these choices relate to the audience that they have crafted” (24).

Attention to gender, he contends, is an important part of making exploration of such choices and their effects a productive literacy experience when Facebook and other SNSs become part of a composition class (24).