Literacy isn’t going to hell in a handbasket: The NC Symposium on Teaching Writing

On February 4th and 5th, The First-Year Writing Program hosted the North Carolina Symposium on Teaching Writing. For a weekend one month into the semester, The CRDM showing was strong, both in audience members and presenters. Dana Gierdowski and Robin Oswald presented “Altering Our Assumptions: A Study of the Digital Literacy Skills of First-Year Writing Students.” The detailed their first round of very interesting quantitative results concerning (you guessed it) digital literacy of students in the composition classroom. Lauren Clark, Meagan Kittle Autry, Kate Maddalena, and Wendi Sierra presented a panel titled “The Hybrid Composition Classroom: Teaching from Two Platforms.” After one semester of hybrid teaching (a mix of face-to-face and online teaching) under their respective belts, the four discussed challenges, the roles of teachers and students in a hybrid environment, and strategies for effective hybrid teaching.

But one of the main highlights of the symposium was the keynote address, given by Dr. Andrea A. Lunsford who teaches at Stanford. Dr. Lunsford’s talk was titled “The Role of Rhetoric and (New Media) Writing in 21st Century Universities.” She tackled an issue that often rears its head in contemporary discussions of composition teaching; how is new media successfully incorporated into traditional studies of rhetoric and writing?


Dr. Lunsford does not subscribe to the idea that the youth of today are less intelligent and more illiterate than in the past; she was vehemently against the idea that literacy is “going to hell in a handbasket.” Rather, she argued that students are writing more (and more frequently) than ever before and, additionally, they are learning that their writing has consequences. I hastily took this to mean the consequence of writing in public fora; blogging, Facebooking, and the like. But Dr. Lunsford instead focused on how students are using writing to create, shape, and change their world. “Good writing,” she said, “makes something happen in the world.” Moreover, she argued that the new forms of literacy are collaborative, participatory, performative, and less expert-centered. She cited Knobel & Lankshear to point out that new literacies are characterized by a “cyberspatial post-industrial mindset,” and thus that young people are thinking of traditional textual ownership (and writing in general) in new ways.


One of the best parts of Lunsford’s talk was that she followed up these assertions with cogent, timely examples of how her students engage directly with their world through the use of writing. One student created what Lunsford called an Invention Engine: a database of Shakespeare poems, Tupac lyrics, and his own poetry (which he viewed as being a part of a “larger poetic commons”) to allow students to mix, and remix, to create new works of poetry. This particular example highlighted students’ evolved notion of authorship and ownership; the Invention Engine creator makes his own poetry available through the database he created, yet also included copyrighted works without batting an eye. Clearly — and thanks in large part to the Internet — students are thinking of copyright in different ways. This means composition instructors have to approach class discussions of plagiarism from new perspectives. As Lunsford said, “New literacies are not bound by traditional notions of intellectual property.”


Along the same line, Dr. Lunsford also discussed the need for instructors to figure out what is necessary to retain in the vein of traditional rhetoric. Rhetoric is a plastic art, she argued, and will have a place in society unless we evolve into a totalitarian regime [insert joke about Sarah Palin and literacy here]. However, she noted that instructors must decide what needs to be retained within the practices of “old” literacies, and in turn what we can learn from new literacies. The evolution of copyright is just one example of this shift from old to new. There are myriad other issues to work out, but the main point is that both new media and evolved understandings of rhetoric are playing major roles in teaching composition today. Dr. Lunsford closed with what she sees as the goal of rhetoric and writing: to “help us learn to live — and to live well and ethically and productively — in the world.”


The North Carolina Symposium on Teaching Writing was a great success; big thanks are in order to all those who helped put the symposium together. And I think it is clear that, by both the marvelous keynote address and the excellent panels I saw, that current college instructors are doing important, cutting-edge work in their writing classrooms. It is obvious that with teachers like these, the handbasket that houses literacy is miles away from hell.

In fact, one could argue that being in a first-year college writing course is simply heaven.




Filed under conferences, professional development

4 responses to “Literacy isn’t going to hell in a handbasket: The NC Symposium on Teaching Writing

  1. Pingback: Tweets that mention Literacy isn’t going to hell in a handbasket: The NC Symposium on Teaching Writing | CRDM @ NC State --

  2. A very thought provoking post! I agree that students these days are writing more. However, as important as Facebook and blogging and other informal forms of writing are, they do not teach the writing skills needed for college and the real world. I believe that the quality of academic writing is on the decline. Still, we should recognize the importance of interactive and proactive writing today. I loved the idea of the Invention Engine.

    • Kevin Brock

      Hi Haley –

      Not to speak for Dr. Lunsford, but her address suggested that students are likely to produce higher quality writing outside of academic contexts because they can see a result – that it has some impact on the world beyond receiving a grade from a teacher. (It’s easy to focus solely on stuff like tweets, Facebook, etc. but Lunsford looked at sound-bytes prepared for the press during student activist events, posters created for charities, and so on.)

      Perhaps if we could figure out ways to help students see that academic discourse – and traditional forms of academic writing – also have noticeable impacts, then we might be able to move further along in that direction (if you’re in the boat that thinks student writing quality is declining).

  3. Pingback: Come take a look, it’s on the blog (for 36 months and counting) | CRDM @ NC State

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