Professional Development as Shared Responsibility: A Response

Blair, Kristine L.

My colleagues Christine Denecker and Christine Tulley invited me to contribute this perspective on technology and faculty professional development to their special issue of The Writing Instructor, and it is an honor to do so. In their own emphasis on the need to advocate for faculty to have intellectual space for curricular experimentation and innovation, Denecker, Tulley, and their contributors push our understanding of technological literacy beyond the mere functional (Selber) to critically and rhetorically consider the material conditions that enable and constrain faculty integration of teaching and learning. Denecker and Tulley aptly characterize the “current moment” to be one in which many practicing writing teachers are trying to “catch a collective breath” as the concept of what it means to read, write, and research in digital environments is changing and in an era where technology evolves faster than either pedagogy or ideology.

As I shall posit in this response, the emphasis on professional development in multimodal composing not only prepares current and future faculty but also helps to ensure that multimodal curricula is a more standard part of the undergraduate writing classroom, creating more haves than have nots among both students and faculty. Yet Denecker and Tulley conclude that “a large segment of practicing writing teachers at the secondary and at post-secondary and even graduate level have had scant professional opportunities to study, let alone integrate, the theories and practices of composing through a variety of modes, including video, audio, new media, and visual arts.” Certainly, we can’t teach digital writing, literacy, or communication unless we are trained to do so and unless our curricular approaches presume that digital, multimodal reading and writing are a vital part of what we do as ‘writing’ specialists. To that end, the contributors to this special issue have established themselves as change agents at their institutions and literacy sponsors for those faculty and students seeking to subvert the privileged place of print text in academic writing.

In light of the ideological and curricular constraints that reinscribe the power of print, it may not seem possible to find opportunities to more fully integrate multimodality into the professional development experiences of faculty and to create the type of comfort level with using new media composing tools that will translate to future classroom experiences with undergraduates. As a result, I rely primarily on the work of the special issue contributors to advocate for spaces in which professional development and digital literacy can and should occur. Inevitably, I shall argue that in order to enable current and future faculty and their students to have rather than to have not we must move away from a white-coat syndrome (Hawisher, et al.; Zeni) where one person, usually from rhetoric and composition, is deemed “the technology person” and charged with all things digital within more traditional departments of English. Who, other than a department technology specialist, can and should share the responsibility of technological training? It may seem easy to identify the composition director as the responsible party, as most graduate assistants in English, regardless of program, typically teach first-year writing. However, it is equally important to consider other faculty and student mentors. Within the space of this response, it is not possible to detail all possibilities, but our contributors feature a range of activities and spaces that provide the potential to create more shared responsibility for technology-based professional development and also provide more access to teacher training. To shirk this responsibility impacts the current and future relevance of writing studies in the 21st century, in our undergraduates’ critical reading and writing practices, and in the increasingly digital dissemination of techno-pedagogical knowledge in the field. The remainder of this essay will address both challenges and opportunities relating to our collective responsibility to establish reciprocal mentoring models of multimodal literacy sponsorship.

Most discussions of multimodality give the historical and theoretical nod to the New London Group’s 1996 “A Pedagogy of Multiliteracies: Designing Social Futures,” in which this group of ten international scholars contend that

What we might term "mere literacy" remains centered on language only, and usually on a singular national form of language at that, which is conceived as a stable system based on rules such as mastering sound-letter correspondence. This is based on the assumption that we can discern and describe correct usage. Such a view of language will characteristically translate into a more or less authoritarian kind of pedagogy. A pedagogy of multiliteracies, by contrast, focuses on modes of representation much broader than language alone (64).

This broadened focus on literacy as something other than alphabetic creates a series of challenges for teachers and students, including the reality that while literacy and writing technologies continue to evolve dynamically, for many teachers, curricular and pedagogical approaches have remained static. Indeed, as Randall McClure notes in his contribution to this issue, “Writing teachers, particularly late(r) adopters, are uncomfortable teaching students to be researchers in a digital age,” in part because they either discount or are unprepared to address the ways that 21st-century students find, evaluate, and use information. For that reason, McClure implies that our deployment of a pedagogy of multiliteracies must include an emphasis on information literacy by integrating students’ existing strategies for managing and navigating the multimediated infoweb, and by providing them with opportunities to reflect upon those strategies so that they might improve upon them in both academic and non-academic contexts. Using the composing processes of the web such as remixing and mashups, as opposed to print processes of cutting and pasting, teaches not only information literacy but also ethical literacy in the emphasis on a form of synthesis and intellectual property that acknowledges rather than ignores the intertextual nature of knowledge-making.

A large part of McClure’s argument involves establishing a point of entry for students that meets them where they are at in terms of research rather than forcing them to mimic or, ala David Bartholomae (1985), “invent” forms of scholarly research that may have them meeting quantitative benchmarks in terms of citation numbers but not actually developing in terms of the range of literacies required for both academic and critical citizenry. Joe Wilferth makes a similar call for entry points in his emphasis on assistive technologies, powerfully arguing that we reinscribe a culture of have nots: “training in multimodal technologies and the pedagogical implications of these technologies simply falls short when it fails to include assistive technologies (AT) that are designed to maximize access for students with disabilities.” Perhaps the best trainers in this context are the students themselves, who bring to the classroom a strong awareness of various resources available to them; as Wilferth notes, “students do not arrive on our campuses without knowledge of their disabilities…so they are aware of the various assistive technologies that may be at their disposal.” Ultimately, Wilferth advocates a Universal Design for Learning Approach (UDL) that emphasizes inclusion as well as on curriculum development that acknowledges differing learning styles through multiple forms of representation, expression, and engagement.

In many ways, the emphasis on engagement connects to Chris Gerben’s advice in this issue to avoid integrating technology for its own sake, such as his example about the use of SMART boards, but rather to align any use of technology with curricular goals and pedagogical objectives, a connection where instructors often receive little to no professional development opportunities. Speaking of his own students, Gerben contends “They didn’t need a SMART board to be engaged and motivated; they simply needed a teacher who could tap into their desire to interact with one another via popular, everyday technology” that they were already using and at which they were expert. Thus, Gerben provides writing instructors with an overview of a range of tools that are (1) free to use, (2) intuitive, and (3) easy to learn, concluding that the best technologies should be accessible, “both in their functionality and how they relate to course goals in writing instruction.” Each of these first three pieces suggests that one solution to the academic labor and time constraints is the need to share the “teacher role” with students themselves, allowing their literate and textual practices to drive curriculum development. While this is not a new idea in writing process theory, it is an important reminder that aligns with Cynthia Selfe’s mandate that we "understand how such texts are changing our understanding of what it means to be literate in the twenty-first century and help us understand our own role in relation to change" (44).

Despite this consistent call by Selfe and other new media literacy specialists, all too often, the binary between students as digital natives and teachers as digital immigrants (Prensky) is reinscribed when writing program orientation and training programs for both graduate students and faculty continue to privilege the academic essay as the genre of process-based composing as opposed to one genre among many. In other words, even with all the theory-building that appears in the pages of our journals and is based on curricular innovation at a number of leading research universities, in practice, much of our undergraduate writing instruction remains monomodal rather than multimodal. We have not realized the New London Group’s definition of multiliteracies, in part because the spaces in which professional development occurs are not consistently available or accessible within the context of English studies. Nevertheless, sustainable, replicable professional development models are the key to the future of the discipline and the professional success of both graduate and undergraduate students.

One of the most common models of technology and professional development is through a college faculty development unit or an educational technology center. Depending on which type of unit is providing training, two problems typically emerge: (1) if it is an educational technology center, the emphasis is primarily upon functional literacy with regard to a tool, and usually one that is institutionally supported by the technology infrastructure, such as a course management system like Blackboard. And (2) if it is the faculty development unit, there may indeed be an emphasis on a broader range of digital tools, including social media, but the curriculum and pedagogical discussions that accompany that training are often very generic, not allowing for an in-depth discussion of how these new tools impact our understanding of literacy and learning. Compounding these constraints are the typical delivery models for professional development: the short-term workshop that, while effective, doesn’t sufficiently motivate or prepare faculty to continue on their own when they get back to their offices and have stacks of print-based papers to evaluate.

In their contribution to this special issue, Laura McGrath and Letizia Guglielmo address this challenge through their advocacy of “in-house” professional development, chronicling their own English department’s technology workshop, “Technology, Pedagogy, and English Studies.” This three-day event was designed to share knowledge gained from the facilitators’ time at the Digital Media and Composition Institute (DMAC) at Ohio State University, directed by Cynthia Selfe and Scott DeWitt. As McGrath and Guglielmo report, the goals of the workshop were to also “promote attention to multimodality and the new work of composing and…to help faculty take advantage of available classroom technologies in pedagogically effective ways.” Rather than focus only on the functional, their efforts also include the important work of building multimodal assignment and assessment practices to realize the transition from workshop to classroom. While the authors address the successes of their in-house workshop, including a more consistent emphasis on multimodal genres across the English curriculum (digital journal, visual argument, poetry portfolio cover), they also acknowledge the resistance on the part of several faculty to the paradigm shift form alphabetic to multimodal literacies.

As McGrath and Guglielmo model for their readers, it’s important that we question the extent to which the format and timeframe of any workshop could reasonably counteract such resistances or address the ongoing material and culture conditions that negatively impact faculty, including workload and employment status (graduate students, contingent labor, or tenure-track). In truth, it is an unrealistic expectation, and as a result, professional development opportunities have to be structured for all groups, from the graduate student writing instructor to the department chair, from pre-tenure to senior faculty like Debra Journet from the University of Louisville, who like McGrath and Guglielmo, attended DMAC and has since urged senior faculty to “advocate for technology” and not “leave digital media to the ‘new kids’” (108).

Given this significant role of DMAC in the paradigm shift from the alphabetic to the multimodal, it is clear that the institute represents a form of literacy sponsorship as it draws a broad range of writing instructors from across the country each year and provides opportunities for local graduate students as well. DMAC is an intensive introduction to multiliteracies in a curriculum that blends theory and practice and leads to a deliverable, digital project for the classroom or for larger distribution, such as an online journal article or other resource site. As Scott DeWitt and Cynthia Selfe explain in their video interview for this collection, “We hear that teachers don’t have a lot of opportunities to become students again. And they come here and in a lot of ways we make them check their egos at the door…. There is a leveling of the playing field…. It is an opportunity for us to remember what it means to learn something new…' Cause we are asking our students to do a lot of things they have never done before” (DeWitt). Equally significant, DMAC is about fostering a sense of agency in its participants to return to their home institutions and collaborate with colleagues in creating supportive, sustainable spaces to question what it means to teach writing in the 21st century, as Denecker and Tulley, McGrath and Guglielmo, and Journet have done.

Due to the limited numbers of participants able to attend an institute such as DMAC, Dewitt (interview) reminds us that what writing program administrators and department chairs don’t want to do “is to send one person and have one person come back and be responsible for being the ‘digital media’ person.” To do so would be to reinscribe that “white coat syndrome” that initially limited the field’s ability to integrate technology into the teaching of writing on a broader scale at both the local and national levels. We must continue to advocate for shared responsibility for the shift to multiliteracies in writing programs and English Departments, and understand the impact on our relevance as a discipline when our students are reading, writing, and researching in different modalities and genres than our curriculum, or our colleagues, acknowledges.

Denecker and Tulley begin this special issue with the important point that not every graduate student or new faculty member has a technology mentor to introduce them to multimodal literacy practices and pedagogies in either their graduate program or their first-year composition program. We cannot ignore the ongoing ideological, generational, and resulting curricular divide between those who have access to technological literacy sponsorship in the form of sustainable professional development throughout their professional careers and those who have not. Our collective role as change agents, positions that the contributors to this special issue all occupy, is an ongoing one and must trickle down from larger nationally-recognized initiatives such as DMAC to our local department communities so that we avoid talking only to ourselves about the importance of fostering multimodal literacy, but instead talk to those who have been reluctant to listen or to those who have not been part of the conversation. In this way, we foster the same points of entry for writing faculty that we advocate fostering for our writing students.

Works Cited

Bartholomae, David. “Inventing the University.” When a Writer Can’t Write: Studies in Writer’s Block and Other Composing-Process Problems. Ed. Mike Rose. New York: Guilford. 1985:134-166. Print.

Hawisher, Gail, Paul Leblanc, Charles Moran, and Cynthia Selfe. Computers and The Teaching of Writing in American Higher Education, 1979-1994. Stamford, CT: Ablex, 1996. Print.

Journet, Debra. “Inventing Myself in Multimodality: Encouraging Senior Faculty to use Digital Media.” Computers and Composition 24 (2007): 107-120. Print.

New London Group. “A Pedagogy of Multiliteracies: Designing Social Futures.” Harvard Educational Review 66.1 (1996): 60-92. Print.

Prensky, Marc. “Digital Natives, Digital Immigrants.” On the Horizon 9.5 (2001): 1-6. Print.

Selber, Stuart. Multiliteracies for a Digital Age. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 2004. Print.

Selfe, Cynthia. “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. Eds. Ann Wysocki, Johndon Johnson-Eilola, Cynthia Selfe and Geoffrey Sirc. Logan, UT: Utah State University Press, 2004: 43-66. Print.

Zeni, Jane. “Literacy, Technology, and Teacher Education.” Literacy and Computers: The Complications of Teaching and Learning with Technology. Eds. Cynthia Selfe and Susan Hilligoss. New York: MLA, 1994: 76-88. Print.


This text was accepted for publication after an anonymous peer review process.

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