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When Shift Happens: Teaching Adaptive, Reflective, and Confident Writers

digitalwritingThe following post is from Matthew Kilian McCurrie, an Associate Professor of English at Columbia College Chicago where he teaches undergraduate and graduate courses in composition. It is excerpted from the full piece with permission from the Writers Who Care blog. 

The teaching of writing, at any level, is about more than job preparation or problem solving, but how do we prepare writers for a future we can’t fully anticipate? …Our teaching must shift. Teaching the mastery of genres and texts we agree are important today does not prepare writers for the future. We do, however, know at least one thing that students will need to know in the future: how to learn. We need to set students up to learn outside of school for the rest of their lives.

A writing curriculum that highlights change, and the transformational energy it produces, would better equip writers for the future to learn to read and write the texts that none of us are even imagining now.

The new curriculum we’ve developed for first year writing at Columbia College Chicago tries to accomplish all these goals….We organize our course around 10 key concepts, but three that seem most important for understanding writing in the 21st century are kairos, ethos, and affordances.

Kairos is an ancient Greek rhetorical concept that literally means “time,” but not the linear sense of time we associate with the Greek word chronos. Kairos refers to a qualitative sense of time, as in timely or appropriate. A moment is kairotic when something happens that couldn’t happen at any other time or place. When we are able to find the kairotic moment, we can seize it and put our ideas out there. Students are already assessing kairos when they tweet or “like” something.  They know that if they hit on something that responds successfully to what others are thinking and doing at a particular moment, they stand a better chance of making an impact, getting retweeted or “liked.” Learning how to locate or even create the right moments for communicating with others will enable writers to assess the changing contexts for writing.

Affordances refers to what one resource for communicating (genre, image, sound, platform, to name a few) allows the writer to do that another does not. Like the concept of kairos, students already think about affordances and constraints when, for example, a group of students consider how to advertise their band’s next performance. Twitter and Facebook posts circulate widely, but the novelty of a carefully designed flyer or invitation can be more effective at capturing an audience’s attention, especially if it’s delivered by a friend. Both the social media post and the flyer will allow students to communicate about their band in specific ways, but it’s only when students learn to carefully consider the affordances and constraints of each in relation to their purposes that they make the most informed decisions.

Ethos is another rhetorical concept that refers to ways of persuading or connecting with others that derive from the speaker/writer’s credibility or trustworthiness. Authors can persuade their audience by communicating their virtue, their understanding of the issue at hand, or their good will toward the audience. One person can communicate some or all of these qualities, but so can a college, a website, or a corporation. One way of thinking about ethos today is to consider the design of something like Facebook. When my students complain about the many constraints of Facebook, they are really questioning its good will towards its audience or its ethos. Still, we continue to flock to Facebook and other social media sites because they offer us ways to connect with others and construct an identity. What’s important for our students is that they are able to see how the choices they make using social media affect their ability to communicate with others. When I polled the students in my class to see how many had posted something to social media that they regretted, almost everyone raised their hand. In most cases, students regret these posts because others let them know they sounded “stupid” or “mean.” It’s easy to see that students already know something about constructing ethos as well as assessing other’s ethos, but the opportunities for conveying our messages and the means to do so continue to expand. As the contexts and resources for communicating continue to expand, ethos will become more complex and varied, and understanding how it works more important than ever.

Students are most successful when they have the opportunity to practice these concepts, compose, and reflect on the process. Students learn how to learn the new forms of reading and composing they will encounter in their future lives when they work with new and emerging platforms and technologies and apply concepts like [those above].