Made to Broken/Broken to be MAde


Trimbur's (1991) own conclusions noted that there was, in fact, a literacy crisis in American education; however, he also noted that what put literacy in crisis was "the appropriation of literacy by a stratified educational apparatus and the wider meritocratic order of a credentialed society" (p. 294). Similarly, the coding crisis operates in a similar manner. Major corporations are reaching out for young programmers to fill a perceived need in a technology-based economy. Their contention is that education, as a system, is failing students by not incorporating the knowledge that would best benefit their own companies. The function of education must not be to bow to the needs of corporate and economic systems. Still, this does not mean that utilizing the best aspects of technology, of code, and of programming should be disregarded.

This essay calls for an inclusion of these resources as grounds for students to find and make their own meanings. The tools and necessary knowledge have been democratized and are readily available to expand composition; the goal of code may very well be to create new, rhetorically-savvy tools (web extensions, mobile applications, traditional desktop software, websites, etc.) which are crafted by students, for students.

The arguments against taking composition to a place beyond the alphabetic essay are rapidly diminishing. There is a place and a need for the alphabetic essay, I believe, but over time I have come to see that mode of expression to be one of several viable forms. The affordances of the alphabetic essay, that of critically engaging with a set of ideas, research, and crafting a cohesive and coherent piece of writing does indeed provide a set of unique learning opportunities as well as a set of skills that are able to be applied elsewhere. But the fundamental questions of composition are rapidly shifting in digital contexts: what is the goal of composition? Do we teach for the university or for students' life beyond college? How do we fit in the grand scheme of education? These are larger questions and I don't pretend to be able to answer all of them. Code, or the simple act of applying new digital technologies beyond the word processor, offers more than a closed-off essay sequence. The affordances of code sidestep the literacy crisis discourse as act of direct engagement with such rhetoric. Code, as a modality, offers a different kind of valuation, a different experience for students.  What follows is a brief introduction to code; even in such a small first step there are lessons to be learned about syntax, variables, and the rhetorical value of code:

Similarly, Selfe (2009) notes "teaching students to make informed, rhetorically based uses of sound as a composing modality and other expressive modalities—such as video, still images, and animation—could help them better understand the particular affordances of written language, and vice versa" (p. 643).  And she's absolutely right.  Incorporating technology that, perhaps, uses language tangentially, affects students' understanding and use of language.  At the same time, we can go beyond this.  Too often our students think that they have to conquer the "big issues" because that's what they think professors want.  Some of our students genuinely want to tackle those issues, and multimodal forms will help them accomplish those dreams.  But for many students code is a means to keep their work personal, a way for students to focus on what's relevant to them and to give them another means to lend their voice to what they actually value and care about.

Coding offers students a platform for self-expression and critical engagement—two hallmarks of composition frameworks. Undeniably, coding will involve, to a varying degree, writing. Not the "syntax" of code structure; real writing. After all, we are teaching communication. Traditionally, this communication has taken the form of the essay, but it no longer has to. The coding revolution will not be televised, simulcast, or live on YouTube—it probably won't even happen. We don't need a revolution; we need to understand that there is an evolutionary process to writing, one which we cannot stop.

Nor should we. Embracing code as another compositional modality means embracing a new means to combine the best of what has been tested in various incarnations of composition: the precision of current traditionalism, the passion of expressivism, the judgment and awareness of cognitivism, and the engagement of social epistemics all work together for students to create something wholly new in digital environments. It is a revision of composition in the most literal sense: as a re-vision, a new way of seeing an old idea. Code and digital expressions mark a new path that, even if not fully embraced, deserve acknowledgment of their presence in and importance to the future of composition.