Crafting Writers: A Discussion of Technology in the Writing Classroom


By Rachel Stevens, IWP intern, RTW MA & TESL Certificate Student

I am not a writer.

This is what I have been telling myself for years, through one English degree and then another, through teaching and tutoring others about how to write. I have identified as a teacher, an editor, a freelancer, a blogger, and a lover of words, but one thought has stubbornly remained:

I am not a writer.

Stubbornness notwithstanding, my time interning with the IWP and teaching my writing students has made me question my own resolve to maintain a non-writer identity.  How can I expect my students to believe me when I say that we are all writers if I stand rather hypocritically outside the writer’s circle? The simple answer is that I cannot. And so, after two years of exploring writers’ identities, a year of teaching composition, and a semester of addressing student writer needs across disciplines with the IWP, the time has come for me to finally acknowledge that I am a writer

As it turns out, I am in good company. In her keynote address at this year’s Association of Writers & Writing Programs (AWP), world-famous author Annie Proulx made this astute observation:

These days the label ‘writers’ includes an enormous range of people: bloggers, diarists and memoirists, tech writers in fields from endocrinology to tree ring analysis. Novelists, sci-fi and mystery writers, writers of serious literature, cookbook writers, essayists, journalists, political and intellectual thinkers, producers of romance, vampire and chick-  lit books, political predictions and maledictions are all writers.

Proulx’s quote is humbling; she so effortlessly points out what we writing instructors try to convey to our students: if you write, you’re a writer. I have even argued this point in a previous post, asserting, “All students are, for the 16 weeks they’re in my classroom, writing students” (The Face of Writing Students). In that post, I primarily talked about how to maintain students’ writer habits once they leave the English composition classroom, but as this semester comes to a close and I receive feedback from my composition students, I am now looking inward. Taking a step back into the writing classroom. And I now wonder how do English faculty nurture students’ writer habits while they’re in the classroom in order to lay the foundation for students’ writing identities?

How do we craft writers?

Notably, my research on this topic has highlighted an interesting trend in articles regarding collegiate writing: the conversation appears to be moving out of the English classroom. That is, there are a considerably higher number of articles regarding writing in math, science, and humanities courses than how to bring math, science, and humanities into writing courses. And so, I shifts my research focus to see if there were studies that demonstrated how English instructors could incorporate cross-discipline learning to improve student writing. Were there techniques, say, that would give students opportunities to become a member of Proulx’s writers list?

The short answer is: yes. But it requires us writing instructors to not be afraid to get creative and push our own boundaries. For the purposes of this discussion, I want to talk about one particular approach that I have been trying to incorporate in my own teaching: technology in the writing classroom. I am choosing technology because its use addresses an important aspect to creating student-centered learning in our classrooms: student motivations and interests. It also provides students with the opportunity to incorporate other disciplines in their writing, and the very act of incorporating technology and student technological literacies is, arguably, addressing interdisciplinary concerns.

One of my personal favorite suggestions (full disclosure: I may be biased) is guided student blogging, which provides students with an opportunity to take a step outside of the five-part essay and write in a more engaging and interactive format. As Clark notes in “The Digital Imperative: Making the Case for a 21st-Century Pegagogy” (2010), “there will always be new technologies; increasingly, virtual gaming worlds or social networking environments are challenging our notions of the boundaries of the classroom and our pedagogical assumptions about learning” (p. 28), and from academic blogs to The New York Times to cooking how-tos, blogs have carved out a place in the technological realm. They have also proven to be useful tools in writing classes, helping students practice writing on specific topics for targeted audiences, as well as providing ESL students with an opportunity to interact with the English language, through creating and commenting on blog entries (Hashemi & Najafi, 2011). The iwrite blog is an excellent example of this interaction; with few exceptions, this blog’s entries have been written and commented on by IWP student interns. It is a platform on which we can explore ideas and writing practices beyond an academic essay.

Blogs included, technology in the writing classroom also gives students a chance to have a ‘hands-on’ relationship with their writing. In “Why Teachers Must Learn: Student Innovation as a Driving Factor in the Future of the Web” (2011), Frost notes how “provides students an entirely new plane of interaction as well as an opportunity to learn to navigate the shift between digital and physical spaces” (p. 274). In other words, technology—in Frost’s case, social media—gives students a new platform to explore and interact with writing while also exposing them to the different cultures. Frost’s research, which involved her first-year composition students’ interaction with the in-class materials through technology such as electronic assignment submission, blogging, and creating a wikipage, found that “[b]y letting student innovation drive pedagogical practice—just as social media creators let user innovation drive the digital structures they produce—composition teachers can be assured of having a text for critique that blurs the lines between student underlife and classroom practice” (p. 275).

I have had similar successes in my own classroom this semester. While I did not incorporate blogs in my curriculum, my students had opportunities to become website contributors, writing resource researchers, and Google Docs creators. Through the use of computers and social media, they also learned how to explore a multitude of academic and professional interests while also gaining crucial technological literacy skills. And, from writing rhetorical analysis essays to writing for the class Padlet page (http://padlet.com/rs877/Eng105WriteStuff), theybecame writers. 

As Proulx noted, writers come in all shapes, sizes, and genres; in academic terms, they come from all different majors, fields, and have innumerable interests. The important link between them all is the simple fact that they write, and for many, their academic relationship with writing begins in the college composition class. And, crucially, their experiences in that classroom shape how they write and approach writing; if nowhere else, the English composition classroom is a space where writers are crafted. My own students often reflect on how surprised they were by their writing improvement in 16 short weeks of English 105. Whether it’s through incorporating blogs or emails, online paper submissions or website projects, I encourage fellow English instructors to continue finding new, innovative techniques to develop students’ writing, because we are all writers

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