Web Writing: An invitation to a book-in-progress for teaching & learning

Note: MediaCommons launches a month-long "Teaching with Technology" discussion with this one-week special cluster by the editorial team of Web Writing.

When I began teaching my undergraduates how to enhance their expository writing at my liberal arts college, I was surprised by how little had changed since I was in their seats several years ago. Despite the potential to reach broader audiences with the Internet, most college essays still were written for exactly one reader: the professor. But the recent growth of freely accessible web-based authoring, annotating, and publishing tools inspired me to redesign some writing assignments to connect with broader audiences, both inside and outside of our classroom. My students and I learned how to manage a "crowd-writing" exercise, and also how to organize simultaneous peer review with Google Documents. We published student web-essays on WordPress and wondered: if you build it, will they come . . . and comment? Posting work on the web can be a powerful, authentic motivator for student authors, but in my role as the instructor, it also introduces legal issues on balancing the competing interests of public writing and student privacy.

Sitting down with my faculty colleagues to discuss the teaching of writing on the web generated far more questions than answers. Why should (or shouldn't) we integrate the Internet into our college-level essay assignments? How does student learning and faculty pedagogy shift when we share drafts of our ideas and comments on the public web? To what extent does the content of the writing change? What types of digital tools deepen -- or distract from -- thoughtful reading, authoring, and editing? What are the potential rewards and hidden risks of web-based writing for liberal arts education?

Since no book satisfactorily addressed all of these questions, we decided to write one, and invite you to join us as co-creators. Our work-in-progress, Web Writing: Why & How for Liberal Arts Teaching & Learning, is a born-digital edited volume, where readers and contributors actively shape its direction during its developmental stages. Participate in our open call for "Essay Ideas & Proposals" (through June 15th, 2013) by posting and responding to comments on our discussion page. The Center for Teaching and Learning at Trinity College will award five $300 subventions to support the authorship of outstanding essay proposals (with preference based on financial need). All contributors are welcome to submit full essays by August 15th, in preparation for the open peer review by designated experts and general audiences in Fall 2013. We are particularly interested in works that blend the “why and how” by making effective use of the open web platform to blend thoughtful insights with illustrative examples (including links, screenshots, images, etc.). Essays selected by the editorial team to advance to the final round will be revised by authors and copyedited for an open-access digital publication, sponsored by the Center, possibly in partnership with an academic press, in 2014. Web Writing builds on innovative models in scholarly authorship and publishing, including Kathleen Fitzpatrick's Planned Obsolescence and other works by MediaCommons Press, and my experience as co-editor (with Kristen Nawrotzki) of Writing History in the Digital Age (forthcoming from the University of Michigan Press). Learn more about our editorial process and timeline. Share your response here, and/or post a comment directly on http://WebWriting.trincoll.edu.

Image on front page by ted_major and available on Flickr. 


Thanks for directing us to this project, Jack. As alluded to by Kirk McDonald in his recent WSJ piece, the workforce your current undergrads are entering prioritize basic coding skills. Even a basic competency with HTML - achievable through developing a Wordpress blog - is a solid footing for further exploration. I wouldn't be surprised if the college composition course was the sole opportunity where students of any discipline could foster these skills.

The looming question in my mind surrounds issues of code-switching and learning to write in a tone and style that is appropriate for the medium. For example, when assisting with an online advanced composition course, I noticed the wide spectrum of attitudes with which the students were required to write. Aside from short essays and weekly online chats, they were required to compose weekly forum postings. Writing in a space that is "traditionally' informal, students seemed to struggle with finding a voice that was appropriate for this space: is this a short essay? a casual conversation piece? 

As you said - more questions than answers!


I'm not surprised that students are puzzling over an appropriate tone for writing on the web, as many of our faculty colleagues struggle with the same issue. Two years ago, when Kristen Nawrotzki and I launched our call for essays for a related volume, Writing History in the Digital Age, the most common question we fielded came from prospective authors who wondered if web-based publications had a different style, perhaps more "breezy" or "conversational." Here's how we responded in our editorial guidelines:

Our readers will hold these online essays to the same high standards as other forms of scholarly writing, and we expect imaginative analysis backed by insightful use of evidence. Some authors have asked about our expectations regarding the “tone” of the essays and whether it should differ between online versus paper publications. We believe that good writing stands on its own two feet, regardless of the format. Pending final approval by the Press, our volume will be published in both digital and paper editions. Write in a clear and compelling style that makes the reader want to turn — or scroll down — the page. Given the wide variety of essay ideas and our encouragement of diverse voices, we do not expect that a uniform tone will encompass the entire volume. Nevertheless, we rely upon our authors to intellectually engage with one another to bring a sense of cohesiveness to our collected essays.

Our advice remains largely the same for contributors to Web Writing. Of course, we need to teach students about different genres, and how writing styles and rhetorical strategies differ across them. But the audience's general expectations should set the tone for our prose, not the print versus web technology that delivers the text. I certainly agree that web-based writing creates wonderful opportunities for authors (such as supporting visual evidence, links to additional references, etc.). Yet this seems less to do with tone, and more about the potential to enhance and supplement the words we write.

Here's an interesting exercise. Ask yourself: "What makes a good web-essay?" List the criteria or qualities you value most. Then ask yourself the corollary question, "What makes a good (traditional) essay?" Even better, find a list or set of guidelines that you used (as a teacher or a learner) from five or more years ago, before you began writing for the web. Do your criteria for traditional versus web-essays differ? If so, how? I tried this exercise for my first draft of "What Makes a Good Web Essay?" and was intrigued by the stronger similarities than differences. But if others see stronger contrasts in their writing criteria, or how they teach writing to others, I'd be interested in learning more through comments here and/or on paragraph #13 of the "Essay Ideas" page on Web Writing. For most of us, this is new terrain, and we're looking for meaningful markers to lead the way.

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