Here’s the opening line from the first email I saw this morning:
Using smart phones for word processing in the English classroom is becoming more and more common in the 21st Century.
Oh, god. Really?
Forget the unwieldy noun phrase. Forget also the tired tech-rhetorical appeal to what century we’re in (got it, thanks) and what’s “becoming more and more” (a nice turn on my favorite phrase to hate, our increasingly digital X …).
Let’s focus instead on the perverse image of the classroom this email invites us to imagine. It’s a classroom filled with students equipped with smartphones. And of all the interesting, innovative things that those students could be doing with their devices, they are using them for word processing—a term which, if Wikipedia is to be believed, The New York Times labeled a buzz word. In 1974.
This is why I despair. This email, from the National Council of Teachers of English (see? they come by unwieldy noun phrases honestly enough), may be the only information on technology and pedagogy that some English/writing teachers see all semester. Oh my word, I imagine these teachers exclaiming to themselves, my students are still word processing on a… a… a… I can’t even say it! …a laptop computer.
And then I imagine two things happen: A.) the word processor gets further ensconced as the proper piece of technology for writing classrooms; and B.) the device, the lump of hardware du jour might command teachers’ attention, but only through the lens of the safe and familiar stuff (like word processors).
Like the desktop and laptop before it, and like the tablet computer, too, the smartphone becomes just another device to write through, rather than part of an expansive platform (the Web) to write for.
The NCTE email represents the lack of innovative engagement that too much has come to mark technology in the classroom, as represented by flagship professional organizations as much as software vendors. (And here let me call out the idiots at Blackboard, who note that instructors should avoid “HTML, which cannot be viewed from a smartphone or tablet device.” Which is, of course, a lie—unless they added the qualifier “running our pricey but lousy Blackboard Mobile Learn platform” to the end of that sentence. But of course now anyone who Rs Blackboard’s FM might think HTML can’t be viewed on mobile devices. Nice.)
Word processor documents, whether as printed artifacts or email attachments/LMS submissions, have a single destination: the instructor. As rhetorical objects capable of affecting real change in the world for broad audiences/publics, the word processor document has almost zero power. It works well as a one-to-few medium for communication (witness the insufferable office secretaries who are intent on attaching .docx memos to emails), but the word processor document was never intended to be accessed in any open, device-independent way. They’re still formatted (in the US, by default) for 8.5 × 11 paper, for god’s sake (PDFs, too).
But I’ll never tire of saying this: the Web is the platform for writing. Not just digital writing. All writing. These miraculous mobile devices, despite their quirks or their walled-garden app stores, have web access on the very short list of commonalities shared with each other, and with traditional desktop devices. And that commonality is not just a technological thing; it’s a rhetorical one, too.
If they’re not going to take initiative themselves (and of course, some do), then writing teachers must have professional leadership that encourages them think beyond the traditions of the classroom and “the paper” (and by extension, in the case of the word processor, the office-cube missive or the academic journal submission), and consider instead a life of rhetorical action that our students could be given in our classes: one built upon open frameworks, web standards, and the possibility of audiences and rhetorical action that the Web (not just Facebook or Twitter) makes possible.
The first step, though, is to resist the reflexive, unconscious response to double-click on the Word icon in the face of any given writing task. And of course, that’s a tall order. But it’s made taller when a professional organization suggests students and teachers whip out their smartphones and start cranking out the Word documents.