“Age of Composition” Revolutionizes Writing

Tory Glerum

In a report published on February 23, 2009 by the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE), Kathleen Blake Yancey discusses the evolution of composition and writing instruction in America and argues for a re-conception of, as the report is aptly titled, “Writing in the 21st Century.” Colgate professors of writing seem enthusiastic about the report’s ideas and hopeful about the future of 21st century writing at Colgate.

Yancey, NCTE’s former president and a professor at Florida State University, begins her commentary with “a call to action, a call to research and articulate new composition, a call to help our students compose often, compose well and through these composings, become the citizen writers of your country, the citizen writers of our world, and the writers of our future.” Before articulating how we should understand writing in the 21st century, she provides a historical context for her argument by discussing 20th century American perceptions of writing and also trends regarding the study and teaching of its process.

According to Yancey, the 21st century, is, pardon the pun, a different story from what has gone before. Digital technology has given us the opportunity to write e-mails, text-message, compose Facebook messages and post on blogs as a non-institutionalized, personal way to communicate with each other. We live now in the “Age of Composition,” where people write to encourage dialogue and to participate in what Yancey calls “an extracurricular social co-apprenticeship,” where our composition is “newly technologized, socialized and networked.”

In the remainder of the report, Yancey identifies three tasks that writers and educators need to take up in order to adapt the practice of composition to 21st century culture. First, everybody must conceive writing apart from the practice of testing and link it instead with public communication. Second, the writing curriculum that is implemented from kindergarten to graduate school should be reconceived to address new, complex methods of research and information gathering and to incorporate the modern, socialized conception of writing. Finally, teaching models should be enacted nationwide to carry out this new curriculum.

So what do writing instructors at Colgate have to say about the accuracy of Yancey’s argument and her call to 21st century action?

Jenn Lutman, Director of the Colgate Writing Center, is a member of NCTE herself and was thus familiar with the report andthe types of arguments that Yancey made withinit.Lutman said she thinks thatYanceyis right on in her discussion of writing in the past and thather ideasabout reconceiving composition in the 21st century could be applicable to the Colgate writingcurriculum.

“I loved what she wrote about us remaining haunted by the culture of writing as testing,” Lutman said. “Writing has carried a negative connotation in the past because of its being perceived as grammar and labor-intensive and constantly connected with school. I fully agree with Yancey’s call to action. It is mygoal as a writing instructor to change the perception of writing as drudgery and get students to see it as a subject of study we can use to engage ideas and new ways of thinking.”

Lutman said that the Writing and Rhetoric department is working on expanding its mission to study the power of writing and its functions for politics and community action by adding more coursesthat incorporate new media and technology, such as the one currently taught by Assistant Professor of Writing and Rhetoric Suzanne Spring titled “The Narrative in New Media.”

“Educators tend to teach from a print-based model,” Lutman said. “But technology has exploded, and we need to look into new opportunities to take what young people are doing outside of school and tap into that energy. I know it will be a challenge for professors to get to know all the new technologies and incorporate changes into their curriculums, but it is the way of the future. Yancey’s statement that learning to write is a life-long process really stuck with me. Our relationship with writing is always changing, and the opportunitiesfor the futureare endless.”

Spring was equally enthusiastic about Yancey’s report and its applications for 21st century writing.

“Yancey is making the right call at the right time,” Spring said. “She has immersed herself in our culture and sees thetensions between academic writing anddisciplinary thinkingand the type of writing students do outside of school. She is asking us to radically reconceptualize the notion of writing but also attend to its tensions.

Spring agrees with Yanceythat technology and new mediashould be incorporatedintothe academic writing curricula.

“I believe thattechnology has the power toshape our logics and the way our minds work,” Spring said. “It is up to writing instructors to see what is being lost and gained by the notions of sound bytes, multitasking and connectivity,and to bring new ideas to the classroom.The powerof the image is something we will also have to confront.Visualcreativity is not separate from rigorous intellectual engagement. Students have the potential to do alot with writing by harnessing their creative energies and reaching beyond the boundaries of traditional academics. It’s truly an exciting time we are living in.”