Writing in a Digital Age: Part 3 – Individual Questions and Bios

by | May 14, 2018 | 0 comments

Nancy Herther

By Nancy K. Herther, Sociology/Anthropology Librarian, University of Minnesota (herther@umn.edu)

In Part 3 of this series, Nancy asks a specific question tailored to each of the top experts who she interviewed in part 2 and whose work is helping understand and define the new 21st century world of writing. The question focuses on a major issue and elicits a candid response from each of our experts.

(Click here to read Part 1 and Part 2.)


NKH: Your mETAphor article provided a wonderful defense of newer technologies and methods for writing: “this creative exploration of language is happening massively, from things as simple as image macro memes to more sophisticated electronic literature.” Most social media today is used for informal communication. Your work describes how individuals are able to individualize their messages, reach audiences impossible before this. What impact do you see this having beyond the social (e.g., long-term, academic, business, etc.)

Leonardo Flores: I think this is already having a significant impact in writing, particularly for journalism and popular writing.

Leonardo Flores

We are increasingly seeing sophisticated ideas prepared for distribution in digital media and social networks as videos, interactive diagrams, and multimedia features. For example, take a look atFive Feet Undera wonderful work of long form digital journalism written in Norway. There are academic journals which produce texts for the Web, such as Kairos. Academics produce videos to deliver their scholarship, such as Anita Sarkeesian does with Feminist Frequency. Also data is being incorporated into more sophisticated interactive charts (see Google’s), which have many professional applications. One major shift comes from software like iBooks Author, which allows for the creation of iBooks which incorporate images, audio, video, links, quizzes, and interactive elements in the iBooks it produces for its iPad and iOS platforms. The point is that when you start writing things that are not designed for the printed page, but a digital device, it allows for a wider range of options. You can’t print out a how to video, so if you’re writing for print you have to break it down into a step by step visual guide. But since we’re slowly moving away from the constraints of the page, we are able to incorporate videos, audio, and other multimedia information into our writing. And we can even write on the video itself. As new generations raised with multimedia writing technologies enter the workplace, we will see how these communication styles shift.

NKH: In your book Crafting Presence: The American Essay and the Future of Writing Studies, you speak about the devaluing of the essay – and perhaps writing in general – in our society. The issue today, of course, is the fast pace of communications technology change and integrating this into the curriculum in ways that meet learning goals. How well are we doing?

Nicole Wallack

Nicole Wallack: My book argues for the enduring relevance of the essay as a genre for students to learn, regardless of the medium in which it appears, and across its spectrum of humors, subject matter, length, registers, and contexts. Something that we’re calling “essays” appear on exams and in some of our curricula from primarily school through university, but these essays often do not have almost anything in common with the kinds of essays that we read and write outside of school. That is, they do not often begin because a writer has a question about their materials, and end with a work that pursues an inquiry into them, shaping the fruits of that good labor into an experience for one’s own readers. But I work often with teachers from middle school through university; we are doing well because we are dissatisfied with the essay as they see it in school, and are figuring out why. If we trust ourselves and our colleagues more, if we work with them in school, and talk about why we like the essays we do, we can make profound differences in the writing we will get from our students. Also none of the work we have to do on improving student reading and writing in school has much of anything to do with speed—nothing needs to get sped up.

NKH: Your co-authored book on Language and Learning in the Digital Age, for me, was groundbreaking. In it you note the easy availability of material to be studied: Most social media today is used for informal communication. Your work describes how individuals are able to individualize their messages, reach audiences impossible before this. What impact do you see this having beyond the social?  And especially in academic areas in which tradition continues to favor the printed page and written word?

James Gee: Social media (just like video games) can be used for good or bad, for important things or trivia.  What I have

James Gee

called “affinity spaces” use social and digital media, and sometimes spaces in the real world, as well, to allow people to organize around an affinity for a common cause, endeavor, or practice.  Good guys do this (e.g., women’s health sites, some fan-fiction genre writing sites, and many activist sites) and bad guys do it (e.g., identity theft sites, terrorist sites, off-shore money sites, and some sorts of hacking sites).  Social media has given rise to great polarization and echo chambers, on the one hand, and great collaborations across diversity, on the other.  We are humans, so we do both good and bad, and lots in-between.  It was no different with books.  There is this problem, though: the bad guys often do modern tech better than the good guys.  I believe that groups with strong black/white beliefs are better at organizing and proselytizing than are more mixed and nuanced groups.   Furthermore, just as it will always be easier to sell human beings ice-cream and pizza than broccoli and yogurt, so, too, it will always be easier to attract humans to spaces that are easy, comforting, or ego-satisfying. 

NKH: Your book  Literacy Theories for the Digital Age, was able to “provide an essential guide to the emerging strands of writing and literacy research across diverse digital cultures, generating new themes of inquiry and consolidating others.” Most social media today is used for informal communication. Your work describes how individuals are able to individualize their messages, reach audiences impossible before this. What impact do you see this having beyond the social (e.g., long-term, academic, business, etc.)

Kathy Mills

Kathy Mills: I think business is already playing a big role in social media, when we think about sponsored YouTube sites, product placements within vlogs, app and in-app purchases, Facebook advertising and so on. Social media is a business for many. In terms of the impact of social media on academic life or education, teachers and students across all levels of education are using these technologies in creative ways to support their work. Teachers share about their work on Twitter, classes use dedicated Facebook pages, teaching tips are circulated on Pinterest, and teachers use social media apps, such as Class Dojo to connect with parents and students. There is also the marketization of education, where every academic organisation these days has a dedicated Twitter handle and a Facebook page.

NKH: Your co-authored book on Researching Language and Social Media, for me, was groundbreaking. In it you note the easy availability of material to be studied: “The sheer amount of interaction which takes place within social media contexts means there is a wealth of material that can be considered.” Most social media today is used for informal communication. Your work describes how individuals are able to individualize their messages, reach audiences impossible before this. What impact do you see this having beyond the social (e.g., long-term, academic, business, etc.)

Ruth Page

Ruth Page: In the academic world, there is a stronger expectation that we as teachers will use technology to communicate our teaching resources to others. This has given rise to models of education like MOOCs and the ‘flipped classroom’, which arguably can support longer, life-long learning in the first case and can give us more time in face-to-face settings for discussion and practice, rather than simply conveying content. For businesses, they now have the opportunity to manage their reputation and reach out to customers/clients online. They need to be able to respond quickly and effectively to complaints and inquiries in a way that can be seen in the public domain more easily than before.

Final thoughts on the topic by Mark Warshauer

Mark Warshauer

Let me mention two changes that I address in my own teaching. One, this is the first generation that has free and easy tools to produce multimedia, in other words, to compose not only with words but with images, video, and audio. In some of my courses, I leverage this by assigning not only traditional essays but also video essays, or digital stories.

Secondly, while collaborative writing has become predominate in industry and academia for decades, this is the first generation that can collaboratively write in a real-time or synchronous manner, using tools such as Google Docs, and I provide opportunities for my students to do so and hopefully to learn to do so well.



Currently serves as Vice President of the Electronic Literature Organization. His research areas are electronic literature and its preservation via criticism, documentation, and digital archives. He is the creator and publisher of a scholarly blogging project titled I♥E-Poetry (http://iloveepoetry.com) and co-editor of the Electronic Literature Collection, Volume 3. For more information on his current work, visit http://leonardoflores.net.

  • Nicole Wallack
    Lecturer in Discipline in English and Comparative Literature and Director of the Undergraduate Writing Program, Columbia University
    email: nw2108@columbia.edu

Interest areas include rhetoric and composition; history of the essay; 19th-century Scottish literature and ethnography; memoirs; diversity studies. She works as a Writing Across the Curriculum consultant in high schools and colleges around the country. Currently, she is preparing a book manuscript based on her dissertation, Finding a Form: Crafting the Writer’s Presence in The Best American Essays 1986-2003, and co-authoring a book on revision.

  • James Paul Gee
    Mary Lou Fulton Presidential Professor of Literacy Studies and a Regents’ Professor,
    Arizona State University.

Mr. Gee is considered one of the founders of New Literacy Studies and has written extensively on the value of video games for learning engagement, Two of his most recent books are Teaching, Learning, Literacy in Our High-Risk High-Tech World: A Framework for Becoming Human (Teachers College Press, 2017), and Introducing Discourse: From Grammar to Society (Routledge, 2018).

  • Kathy Mills
    Professor of Literacies and Digital Cultures
    Learning Sciences Institute, Austrailia, ACU Brisbane

    email: kathy.mills@acu.edu.au

Professor Mills has published over 90 works in total, including 5 sole-authored books, an award-winning edited Routledge volume with USA editors, and 54 scholarly journal articles and chapters. Professor Mills is an Associate Editor of the Australian Educational Researcher. She leads two Australian Research Council grants, researching Indigenous ways of knowing and being in multimodal literacy practices in school, and developing the multimodal expression of emotions of socially and economically disadvantaged primary students.

  • Ruth Page
    Senior Lecturer in Applied Linguistics,
    University of Birmingham, UK
    email: r.e.page@bham.ac.uk

My main research explores the language people use when they tell stories, particularly in social media contexts. My research interests focus on narrative analysis, computer-mediated communication and language and gender.  My research includes both literary-critical and discourse analytic approaches to narrative, exploring storytelling examples found in literary, conversational, and most recently, social media contexts.

  • Mark Warschauer
    Professor of Education and Informatics
    UC Irvine

Dr. Warschauer is director of the Digital Learning Lab at UC Irvine, where, together with colleagues and students, he works on a range of research projects related to digital media in education. In K-12 education, his team is developing and studying cloud-based writing, examining new forms of automated writing assessment, exploring digital scaffolding for reading, investigating one-to-one programs with Chromebooks, and analyzing use of interactive mobile robots for virtual inclusion. In higher education, his team is looking at instructional practices in STEM lecture courses, the impact of virtual learning on student achievement, the learning processes and outcomes in Massively Open Online Courses (MOOCs), and the impact on students of multi-tasking with digital media.




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