“Ancient History:” discussing Williamson and Lanham

Here’s where we’ll kick off our readings for our first online portion of the term, the essay “The Case for Filmmaking as English Composition” by Richard Williamson from way back in 1971 and the comparatively modern (but still “ancient” relative to the other things we’re reading and doing this term) essay by Richard Lanham first published in the early 1990s, “Digital Rhetoric and Digital Arts.”  These are both available via eReserves.

I have a tendency to say too much to start these discussions, so I’m going to try to work on that a bit this term and not be quite as chatty.  But a couple of thoughts to at least prime the pump after the break:

 

  • What strikes me now about reading these again (Williamson is less familiar to me than Lanham) is the “revolution” in the air as they introduce their arguments. Williamson goes so far as to discuss the literal violence and revolution happening in higher education in the late 1960s. Both Williamson and Lanham argue that a lot of this revolution was against “the conventional,” which is what is creating an opportunity for these new and non-words-in-a-row sorts of texts in “English” classes.
  • Williamson clearly has things like television and movies in mind– the “American culture” of his students– and teaching in mind, while I think that Lanham is making a somewhat more abstract argument and one that is really is more about digital publishing and technologies more or less “after” film, not to mention a lot of abstract art. I think that’s actually evidence to a claim Lanham makes at the beginning of his article, that “way back when” (like when Williamson was writing), computers were seen as purely computational devices and not for creating texts of any kind– not even word processing!
  • I have to say as someone who has been teaching a long time now (I started as a grad student in 1988!) a lot of the concerns that Williamson has about “the 5 paragraph essay” and the patterns/problems of student writing seem to be kind if eternal, way back then, way back in the late 80s, and nowadays too.
  • One thing that’s a shame with the copy of the Lanham essay you have is its missing some of the images/illustrations of what he’s talking about. I’ll bring in the book I have next week to share, though if you google some of these things you can see what he’s talking about.
  • One of Lanham’s key points here (and this is repeated in some of his other essays) is “AT/THROUGH,” by which he means the way we can study a text as an object that is drawing attention to itself as such, rather than as a text that is not doing this. Most technical writing/technical documentation is very much about “looking through” because it’s presented in a style/fashion that doesn’t try to draw attention to itself. I suppose the same can be said of a lot of realistic fiction (think of the kind of book/movie where you get “lost” in the story versus books/movies where the way its being presented constantly reminds you you’re reading a book) and the like. Anyway, this “oscillation” between the two is a big deal for Lanham relative to discussing the impact of “electronic” texts.

39 thoughts on ““Ancient History:” discussing Williamson and Lanham

  1. Jonathan Furlette

    I really enjoyed Lanham’s essay! It helped me to put in perspective the evolution of sharing information; first in oratory tradition, then through print, and now in the digital age. In particular, it was intriguing to read how the limitations of written language (in print) have debilitated us in ways, especially from experiencing the world around us by using our other equally important senses. I like the idea that information provided in a digital medium is helping us to expand our understanding of everything to unthinkable levels (Mona Baby). I also like the idea that living in a digital world is helping to fight illiteracy (in ways) and at the same time is giving us something that has been missing for years, a chance to “play” with information, to change and tailor it how we see fit, much like humans did when oratory tradition was the most common practice of sharing information.

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    1. Danielle

      I also enjoyed the mini-lesson on the evolution of sharing information in Lanham’s essay. I also appreciated Williamson’s explanation of how our schooling system was designed to help immigrants become “American” through conformity, and how that model just can’t work anymore. I do wonder how much progress has been made in this regard; personally, I feel like a lot of my classes have incorporated audio or video or some other form of multimedia in some way. However, I wonder about other students’ experiences (especially those who go through different programs). Ultimately, I agree with Williamson’s contention that “In an educational system for the common good, the school can no longer be dispensary of knowledge but must become a place in which a youth can experiment with applying the knowledge he gets from other sources” (132). I think this kind of creative freedom in my own classes has helped me to reach a fuller potential than I would have otherwise.

      Reply
  2. Molly McCord

    Williamson:
    Like Steve noted, Williamson addresses the “revolutionary” nature of unconventional techniques like filmmaking being used in the composition classroom. Even though he makes his stance in favor of alternative writing techniques clear from the get-go, I was a bit taken aback at his comment that “English teachers in particular seem to loath reform to their curriculum” (132). But after initially feeling defensive, I had to admit that I see this resistance to change on a regular basis at my workplace. Making any major (or sometimes even minor) changes to the English composition curriculum requires a tremendous amount of effort on the faculty member(s)’ part, not to mention division consensus to approve the changes. While I would like to try some of Williamson’s filmmaking ideas in my own composition classroom, what if my students end up taking their next English course with an instructor who adheres to a more traditional essay writing pedagogy? Would I be doing my students a disservice by allowing for alternative forms of expression when they might very well be required to write words-in- a-row in a future course? I keep thinking that the entire English division would have to buy into the filmmaking idea to make it work; it may be a worthwhile endeavor, but as I mentioned earlier, achieving consensus in a division with so many different writing philosophies can be daunting.
    Lanham:
    Like Steve, I found Lanham to be more abstract in his discussion of digital rhetoric. His “at/through” point about digital/electronic text vs. traditional printed text is interesting. He mentions how the traditional book/printed text lacks the self-consciousness that an electronic text often possesses. We look “through” the words on a physical page, but “at” the words/images/devices present in the digital world. In a digital environment, I’m very aware of not only the arrangement of words and images, but I’m also using a computer or other electronic device to manipulate different elements in my reading experience (clicking on hyperlinks, scrolling down the page, etc.). I think this is what Lanham might mean by the self-conscious nature of electronic text. Anyone else have a different (or similar) take?

    Reply
    1. Adam Czarnecki

      I responded to your comment on the other posting so I’ll try not to repeat myself here. :) I’m fully on board with this stuff, myself, but when I imagine being a composition instructor telling students that it’s okay if they hand in, say, a short documentary they shot and edited together, I agree that I’d feel like I’d be doing them a disservice because the bottom line is that they still need the “tools” necessary to put together words-in-a-row at some point.

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      1. skrause Post author

        I agree, Adam, and I have to say that I have some reservations about the ways that things like audio and video get incorporated into some classes like first year writing where I think there ought to be more emphasis on doing the sort of library research writing most students are likely to do in other classes. That said, it’s not really an either/or kind of thing anymore.

        The analogy with computers in writing pedagogy is useful to consider here. Way back when, like the mid 1990s or so and before, there really was a lot of debate about how it might not be a great idea for students to be so dependent on computers in writing. Besides the problems of how spell-checkers and grammar-checkers make for “lazy” writers/students, there was a sense that writing with computers was “worse” than not. Lanham mentions this a bit on page 6, actually. There was actual debate as to whether or not writing with a computer/teaching writing with computer was a “good” or a “bad” thing.

        Well, skip ahead 20 years and no one debates that anymore because it doesn’t really matter– people use computers to write, period. Even if there was some kind of study that proved that better writers first wrote things out with pencils on paper, I think the convenience and power of writing with computers has kind of won the day.

        So that may be (what is?) happening we’re going to get to the point where the use of tools like audio and video and whatever is coming next will be just taken as a given. I am hearing more of this from students actually, that they are being asked to create little multimedia projects for their other classes.

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        1. Adam Czarnecki

          I was just recently was having a conversation with someone where we were talking about how different it must have been having to type a paper, or worse yet, having to write it by hand, in ink. This is so different from anything I’ve ever needed to do, and as a result I think this has changed how my brain approaches things–when I’m writing on paper with ink and lack the ability to “play around” with things, I feel kind of… mentally constipated (if I may borrow the spirit of Lanham’s “verbal flatulence” on page 6).

          Anyway, I’d agree that it’s not either/or, but only because I’m not quite ready to view what happened with computers as the same thing that’s happening with video and multimedia.

          When computers shook things up 20-something years ago, I feel like the argument boiled down to computers being seen as a kind of “cheat” at getting to the final product. But both final products still look the same (words on paper), no matter if it came from a typewriter or a word processor.

          With audio/video and multimedia, on the other hand, I feel like the argument boils down to multimedia being a substitution… not a cheat, but a way out. So while our answer to these arguments might be the same–that this is still writing–I wonder if we’re constrained by looking at both “issues” the same way.

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          1. Danielle

            Adam, the conversation you’ve had is one I’ve had as well. I feel that writing with a pen on paper is way different than writing in a word processor. Part of that is, like you mentioned, the easy editing that writing on a computer affords. However, I also think there’s something more personal and creative (at least, for me) about writing pen-to-paper.

            I used to write pen-to-paper as much as I could. I took notes in a notebook, wrote in a journal, made grocery lists on paper, etc. However, over time, that has changed. I now take notes on my laptop, store grocery lists in my phone, and while I still keep a journal, I find myself blogging more. I think computers have just become so natural to me, and as Krause mentions, I think that may ultimately be the same case with audio and video. I think a curriculum should reflect this, but as Williamson mentions, some schools are still too prescriptive.

          2. skrause Post author

            In 516 and some other undergraduate courses, especially where there is a more detailed discussion about the implications of writing and literacy itself being a technology (I’m thinking of Walter Ong’s work in particular here), I have had students do a project where they had to write something but make their tools to do so. In other words, no computers of course, but also no paper, pens, pencils, etc. Some students get very creative with this, but the point is to expose that the tools do matter, that writing is (and always has been) dependent on the tools we use to write.

            As for the audio/video being a substitution or “easy way out” of writing: well, let’s see how this plays out with the projects and the like. Spoiler alert: I suspect you will feel differently about that by the time we’re done with the class. :-)

          3. Adam Czarnecki

            Oh, I didn’t mean to imply that’s what I think. It’s certainly not an easy way out. I was just trying to step into the shoes of a “traditionalist”, who may look at it that way.

          4. Danielle

            I already know that the tools we use in this class will not be an easy way out, haha. Everything is so far out of my comfort zone; I’ve never even used Audacity or GarageBand and I feel like those are becoming pretty commonplace nowadays. At the same time, as Williamson claims, the world is evolving and it’s starting to become expected of people to be able to use these tools. That’s why I think this class will be valuable, albeit challenging.

          5. Jennifer B.

            “How different it must have been to type a paper” you make it sound like that was 100 years ago. LOL. I actually went all the way through college using a typewriter. There were pretty much no computers in individual dorm rooms back then and computer labs were available only in limited quantity and always packed. I remember being told to over-space paper drafts to leave room to write in edits before you re-typed the whole thing to turn in.

            I actually find myself to be the opposite of Adam when it comes to paper vs. electronic composition. I find my ideas flow much more freely when I am sketching them out with a pen on paper. Even if I do start an outline or notes electronically, I pretty much always print them out and make handwritten notes – which to me feels like the REAL beginning of my design process.

    2. Lisa Pignotti

      Molly, I think you make a great point by questioning whether or not English teachers would be doing a disservice to students by not teaching them traditional methods of written composition. Academia has an expectation about student writing that they are looking to the composition classroom to fill.

      I think giving students foundational experience and understanding of the composing process that can be translated to other situations is what the ultimate goal should be. Composing in a different medium can achieve this goal, but I think it should be in conjunction with “traditional” written composition techniques. In a way, I think composing in other media reinforces written composition.

      Reply
    3. Tracey Sonntag

      I’ll add my agreement here as well; I think first-year comp needs to be at least partially about “how to provide what’s requested.” Most instructors will be asking for text for at least a portion of the course’s deliverables, and each instructor may have very specific requirements on the style, tone, and content of that writing. If we don’t teach students what the rules are, how will we able to help them break them? Writing across the disciplines requires that solid foundation provided in first-year writing, and if we fall short there, we are indeed hindering our students.

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      1. Molly McCord

        Tracey, I like how you said, “if we don’t teach students what the rules are, how will we be able to help them break them?” This is really how I feel about my approach to teaching writing to many of my students, and particularly the ESL population. I want them to have a strong base (grammar, vocabulary, essay organization) before they move on to more advanced courses and assignments that possibly require them to draw upon different forms of composition that may involve digital writing.

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  3. Adam Czarnecki

    As I said in Molly’s comment, I’m fully on-board with the stuff being advocated for here, but I can’t help but feel like I’d be doing students a disservice if I said that it would be okay if they shot and edited together a short video instead of a written essay, because at some point they still need the “tools” necessary to put together words-in-a-row.

    I wonder, then, about Williamson’s observation: “Few students are eager to write papers for an audience other than their instructor, and this audienceless-ness accounts for much of the vagueness and circumlocution in written compositions. ‘After all,’ reasons the student, ‘I’m just writing this to get a grade’” (134).

    Couldn’t another solution be to look at what’s being written in an attempt to make it more relevant? In other words, in a world that values or puts less emphasis on written text, why not skip the vague exposition and focus on something “practical,” like how to compose an effective cover letter? (I’m not arguing one way or another here, by the way.)

    Reply
    1. Tracey Sonntag

      Starting to veer off on a tangent here, but…

      Adam, I’ve been a strong advocate of the “practical” curriculum, and I think composing resumes and cover letters should absolutely be part of every program. Of course, those documents are going to be different based on the program / career path… perhaps it should be included in the “upper level writing intensive” course required in each EMU major? Something to think about.

      Similarly, I couldn’t believe that EMU didn’t offer any courses in the software used by technical writers. No RoboHelp, no FrameMaker; while there is a course in InDesign, I found very few job postings from companies that appreciated desktop publishing knowledge & experience.

      Reply
      1. Adam Czarnecki

        Tracey,

        I’ll go with you on the tangent! Having taken both of Benninghoff’s technical writing courses here I feel like I know why there aren’t any RoboHelp or FrameMaker courses. In short, I think the answer to what you ask in your second paragraph is answered by your first.

        I’m only speaking for myself here but what I think the MA writing program is trying to do is teach us to be Chefs rather than cooks (this is a Benninghoff analogy, btw). What this means is that it’s easy enough to pull out a cookbook and figure out how to make something by following a set of instructions line by line. But that doesn’t do much good to the writer (cook)–all they’ve learned how to do is follow steps within a limited framework. What happens when they need to compose something outside of that framework, e.g., when there are no onions or garlic (RoboHelp or FrameMaker)? They’re stuck. They’re a cook without a cookbook, whereas a Chef can look around and create something new.

        So if the TW program offered those courses, they might be very helpful in the short-term (i.e., very practical), but they’d likely be no good to you ten years from now. (Besides, you can always take a software specific crash-course if you need a good overview of a particular tool for a lot cheaper than what one might cost as part of a degree program.) Again, I’m not making any value judgements here, just kind of tangentially speaking off-the-cuff…

        In an attempt to tie this back to the readings, I think this is all to say that there is probably a continuum of “practicality” on which writing instructors should balance. On the one extreme, we don’t want students to be so uninterested and uninspired by “vagueness” and “theory” that they don’t see the value in what they’re doing, but on the other extreme we don’t want to just give them templates to fill in because, as you said, they’d be very different from program to program.

        Reply
        1. Tracey Sonntag

          Ha! *highfive* I’m a Benninghoff-alum, too, and yet I have to disagree about the value of a course on getting your feet wet in a–any!–help-authoring tool. When I first started using Windows, our office productivity software was Corel: WordPerfect and QuattroPro. Learning those apps allowed me to easily adapt to Lotus123 and then finally MS Office. The last couple of versions of Office have included some extreme changes, but once you get the “logic” down for a certain type of program, you can adapt. Likewise, learning one help-authoring tool would let you pick up a similar tool quickly, and as long as you continue to use such tools, that knowledge doesn’t become extinct.

          I made a case for software and video games as a type of literacy earlier this year in another class, using the same reasoning. Once you’re “literate” in a particular game genre or application type, that literacy translates.

          Mind, I don’t think the TW program should make students masters of software applications, but I do think a single hands-on course would have been helpful.

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          1. Adam Czarnecki

            True, there is something to be said about “jumping in,” particularly if someone has never done it before. (Like some of the stuff I anticipate us using this semester…)

      2. Molly McCord

        I was actually thinking about the “practical” issue as I read Williamson’s piece, too. I thought, what about offering a “Filmmaking as Composition” course for students who are interested in pursuing a degree in the digital arts, etc., and simultaneously offering an essay-based composition course for students who prefer a more traditional writing experience? Both courses could fulfill the same requirement, but would cater to different student interests/offer some practical options for their courses of study. Just a thought…

        Reply
      3. skrause Post author

        I might be veering into too far of a tangent here too, but let me respond to two things that Tracey and others are bringing up:

        * When it comes to the teaching of writing at all levels (but particularly in secondary school settings and in classes like first year writing), there’s pretty good evidence that too much focus on things like rules, grammar, and things like that actually do more harm than good. For students who struggle with such things, writing becomes more of a minefield of rules to avoid not breaking than it about thinking, creating, communicating, etc. This is not to say there’s no role for this in classes at this level; one of my previous colleagues used to say about first year writing “we do not not teach grammar,” which I still think is a pretty clever line.

        * I think you’ve already covered why we don’t teach stuff like RoboHelp, Framemaker, inDesign, etc. There’s a pretty good tech writing program at Washtenaw CC and we get a lot of those students in our undergrad program, and what I see from those students is they really know how to work the software but they don’t know very much about the concepts– this is the cook versus chef thing in my view. But besides that, there are two other very pragmatic reasons we don’t stick to specific (and expensive!) tools too much. First, these tools change and with surprising quickness. As I understand it from speaking with some of our alum and professionals in the field who are in some way “friends of the program,” a lot of companies have moved away from RoboHelp and Framemaker for whatever reason. Second, we can’t afford this software both because the packages themselves are very expensive– like $700+ per seat– and it would require us to probably upgrade some computers. No wonder a search for robohelp immediately brings up “alternatives.”

        And by the way, this is the main reason why we’re working with open source and/or inexpensive media tools.

        Reply
        1. Molly McCord

          I agree that too much focus on grammar can have an adverse effect on students’ writing–and more importantly their approach to and feelings about writing. I struggle with the grammar/surface structures vs. content issue a lot with my ESL students. They need some help with the language, for sure. But I try not to make grammar a major focus in my pre-freshman comp ESL courses since eradicating surface errors is both unrealistic and unnecesssary (most students can make themselves understood without using correct grammar). That being said, I have colleagues who are strict grammarians and hold these students to an unachievably high standard simply based on surface structures. It’s hard to convince everyone that “we do not teach grammar,” even though I really like that philosophy!

          On a more digital writing-related note, I heard this story on NPR this morning, and thought of this class, as it involves a digital media artist with Detroit Future Schools…just thought I’d share:)

          http://stateofopportunity.michiganradio.org/post/making-school-more-human

          Reply
  4. Jonathan Furlette

    I really like the quote that Adam picked out above; in my opinion, it illustrates the greatest advantage to gearing curriculum towards digital presentations rather than presentations of information through writing alone. I do think that it is important to teach students the traditional ways to read and write, however as technology advances rapidly, so decreases the need for traditional educational methods. In an age of “iPad babysitters,” and really touchscreen everything, I have discovered that the next generation can do some amazing things with the common tools they were born and raised with, when given the opportunity. One is just as likely (if not more) to find a multi-media device lying around as a pen and paper. One of the most important things that young students can learn today is how to function best in society; given the current trends, I am not convinced that a word processor and printer (paper…yuck!) is the best way. In teaching students (what they already know, I’m sure) about digital media, we are best preparing them for the future.

    Reply
      1. Jonathan Furlette

        No. I’m quite sure that the public education system has fallen far behind in terms of technology and the number of students that they are able to reach. There are many reasons why, including: tenured teachers are unwilling to adapt their teaching styles to contemporary ones, some teachers are not willing to learn the new technology well enough to offer a multimedia option for students, and funding at the state and governmental levels have decreased exponentially in the last ten years (just to name a few).

        Reply
        1. skrause Post author

          Oh, I think it’s a lot more complicated than blaming the teachers. If you’re teaching in a school system where something like a third of the students are living below the poverty level and/or are qualifying for free lunch/free breakfasts from the school, you’re dealing with a population of students who have some pretty complicated problems. Plus there’s all the problems of teaching to the test, of a lot of “surveillance” from the government (it’s amazing how many legislators with absolutely no experience in education feel entitled to tell teachers what to do), a lot of “union bashing,” etc., etc. I certainly wouldn’t want to be a secondary school teacher nowadays.

          That said, I think you’d be surprised at the ways that a lot of this stuff is being incorporated into K-12 schools. My son is a junior in high school– and okay, he goes to a fancy private school– and there have been many opportunities for simple video projects in the last couple years. When I introduce simple multimedia projects to my students in first year writing, a lot of them report having done similar things while in high school.

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          1. Jonathan Furlette

            I was speaking from my own experience, though I was not trying to blame the teachers solely for the decline in academic performance of young students in this country. It seems that we are in agreement that there are many contributing factors; the pressure that teachers feel to teach “to the test” so that their school can get more funding is ever-present. The “government monitoring” of the education system is visible, and I can certainly see how it can inhibit teachers from being more creative with their lesson planning. Students have no more room to explore and try new things at school when they are forced to “learn by the numbers,” so to speak. This pressure puts constraints on the teachers; they are primarily evaluated on their ability to improve students test scores, thus less likely to deviate from the standard methods of teaching.

  5. Lisa Pignotti

    I think Lanham’s comparison of digital writing to postmodern art is interesting. With both mediums, the at/through concept seems to occur simultaneously. Meaning is not only created through the manipulation of a medium, but by design as well.

    Reply
    1. Seth

      I agree with you here, Lisa. The at/through thing was an interesting discussion, and I think it was best illustrated (for me) by the Running Fence example, “The work of art is really right now, and here….” Lanham’s whole focus on making everything fun and playful and interactive was a little more difficult for me. I think I might be too far indoctrinated, but I would like to keep some of our “Mona Lisas” where they are, behind bulletproof glass in the Louvre. I wonder what your take on that is, as a lover of art…?

      Reply
      1. Lisa Pignotti

        Lanham focuses on contemporary art to illustrate its at/through similarities with digital text because it often focuses on the process…the viewer can clearly see or experience it. Contemporary art is very different than Renaissance, but in a way, all art kind of has this at/through idea happening. Like with the Mona Lisa, we focus on the subject, but then also look at the brush strokes, composition, and other techniques for the created realism…right?

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  6. Tracey Sonntag

    Williamson & Lanham:

    I find it really interesting how applicable some of this commentary remains today, nearly 45 years after it was first written, in some cases. It’s also pretty amazing to look at how much English composition has changed. I was in junior high in the 1980s, and I can remember how annoyed and derisive my mom was when our young “language arts” teacher asked us to make movie posters. Apparently that teacher was “too good” to be called an English teacher, according to my mom, and what could we ever hope to learn about how to read and write by gluing magazine pictures to a piece of poster board?

    I took the bulk of my undergrad classes in the English and Business departments, and I have to say that nearly all of the courses with an ENGL prefix have been fun and interesting–I can think of only two where I had little interest in the topics and projects. And, if I’m going to be honest, Nietzsche kind of grew on me so maybe only one class with an interest issue. :)

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  7. Seth

    It defense of Williamson, I think he wants to convey that this new strategy would actually result in more writing. That writing (critical papers, scripts and rationales) would “grow from the work at hand” rather than from the traditional methods of topic development. So students would, presumably, end up with the composition skills needed in other classes, but through alternative means. I do, however, agree with Molly, john and others who worry about doing a students a disservice by messing with the curriculum.

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  8. Adam Czarnecki

    To those who come from the Teaching of Writing track, is it worth differentiating between “composition” versus “writing”? I’m almost embarrassed to ask, but I really don’t know.

    In our readings, I think I was throwing myself off by using the two interchangeably. Whereas Williamson was arguing that composition courses could be made up of any kind of medium in which students are required to compose something that articulates a thought, this would be much different from arguing that a writing course should be made up of different media? Right? Or am I splitting hairs?

    Reply
    1. Tracey Sonntag

      I think this very course is an example of how writing can also be done with various tools, unrelated to putting pen to paper or printing out word-processed documents. :)

      Reply
        1. Molly McCord

          I thought about this, too, Adam. I suppose I have always used the terms interchangeably, and I know different schools use different termilology in their course titles (“writing” is used for courses at the college where I work, but I know “composition” is used elsewhere), but now I’m beginning to feel like “composition” is a more general term…like an umbrella term under which “writing” and “digital artwork,” among other terms, might fit. I’ve begun to think of composing more as creating something (digital media, more traditional essays, music, video)…

          Reply
          1. Adam Czarnecki

            Yeah, I agree that I think “composition” is more likely to be the word that evolves and change with new media, rather than “writing”. If these words have been used interchangeably in the past, I think it might be beneficial to start making efforts to further differentiate them.

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