What a first-year writing MOOC would teach

The other day in our Teaching Practicum we were discussing Kathy Yancey's 2004 CCCC address, republished in CCC, "Made Not Only in Words." In it Yancey observes

it seems to me that in all our efforts to improve the teaching of composition-
to reduce class size, for instance, to conference with students,
to respond vociferously to each student paper,
and to understand that in our students' eyes
we are the respondent who matters-we seek
to approximate the one-to-one tutorial model.
Quite apart from the fact that such an effort
is doomed-about a hundred years ago, Edwin
Hopkins asked if we could teach composition
under the current conditions, which conditions
then are the same conditions we work
in today, and immediately answered, "NO"-I
have to wonder why we want to work this way,
wonder why this is the neo-Platonic mode to which we continuously

The general, negative reaction to the idea of MOOCs for writing instruction is based on this premise: that writing instruction must occur through some approximation of the tutorial model. (And of course fears about what a MOOC would do to the economics of composition instruction, but that's a different matter.) This post isn't an argument for or against MOOC-based writing instruction, but rather a consideration of how the MOOC challenges this value.

As such I want to begin with two points. First, as I have argued here before, it is an error to approach online instruction of any kind with the question "how to can I import my traditional classroom activities into an online environment?" Asking this question generally ends up with the worst of both worlds: only those things that can be done in both contexts. Second, following on that, the appropriate question is not to ask how (or if) MOOCs can teach us what physical classrooms teach us, but rather, more neutrally, what kinds of learning happens via a MOOC? If the traditional classroom was/is modelled on the industrial model and prepared students for work on an assembly line, then it is fair to wonder if the MOOC is/will be modelled on a postindustrial model and prepare students for work in a distributed network.

What kinds of literacies, rhetorics, and cognitive processes (the art formerly known as critical thinking) will be appropriate in the emerging model? Perhaps the answer, somewhat tautologically, is those that are taught via networks (i.e. some future version of the MOOC). Industrial-print literacies are clearly linear in nature. And even though we assert the recursive nature of writing processes, they still smack of the assembly line in a way that is very different from the experience of thousands of particpants composing media in a collective, real time fashion (which is what massive, open online composing would be… a different MOOC). Change the process of composing and change what is meant by communicating. Change what is meant by communicating and change what is meant by learning. Change learning and change pedagogy and evaluation. Or in thise case, try to make that system go backward by changing pedagogy and evaluation first. 

The most obvious model for a composition MOOC would be freemium. At the free level there is a textbook. lectures, online discussion, and perhaps some kind of automated activity. There would be crowdsourced evaluation of writing and maybe some collective writing project along the lines of a wiki. In other words much like you have now. Then one could purchase tutorial sessions where one would get professional feedback on one's writing. Finally one could submit a portfolio and pay for some evaluation. Undoubtedly cheating would be possible, but in my view cheating is always possible. Since I call this the "obvious" model, I'm not offering it up with much endorsement. It is a model that still tries to reassert the tutorial approach to writing instruction. Another technocratic model might imagine some kind of artificial intelligence that would serve as tutor (and evalutor). These models still presume that we want to create individual writers in a traditional humanistic sense. However my argument would be that those writers never existed (at least no in the way we described them) and so we clearly never taught students to become them.

Instead, in sci-fi speak, in a MOOCC (the two Cs are "composition course"), students are the wetware nodes in a writing network, participating in a larger, emergent, rhetorical-decision-making structure. On a "massive" enough scale, those decision become statistical. Indeed even in the traditional writing seminar (and certainly on the level of program assesssment) the statiscial nature of student writing choices become apparent. The same rhetorical variables are recognized by the students, a predictable set of student responses can be identified, common errors (rhetorical and grammatical if you like) are visible, writing behaviors are largely consistent across the population. This is not unlike the way the Kindle identifies commonly highlighted passages. In other words, when one starts to think about 2000 or more individuals composing essays in response to a curriculum, one inevitably starts to see trends: common quotations, common theses, common organizational structures, etc. Arguably, the purpose of FYC is to normalize student writing in a particular way, to produce predictable outcomes with certain generic features. One could almost see this happening in real time with the right technical affordances as a kind of cybernetic feedback loop. This would be the post-industrial equivalent of assembly line composing.

To be clear, I'm not suggesting that as desirable, as something I would want my kids to experience. However, I do think that there is likely some future MOOCC in store for us, and it will require us to recognize a few things:

  1. That symbolic behavior involves nonhumans (e.g. technologies) in a networked environment that is increasingly digital in character.
  2. That rhetoric and composing, which have always been collective activities, will be more palpably collective due to the speed of networks and the accessiblity of data. This intensification is reaching a point where some becoming is emerging (i.e. we're not just hot water anymore, we are coming to a boil).
  3. That the tutorial model of writing instruction is not necessarily the best model (let alone the only one).

As I always tell my practicum students, teaching writing implicitly assumes an ontology. It begins with some assumption about how thinking and composing arise. It assumes something about the agency of students, about the choices that are available to them and the practices that they are free to adopt. Millions of people can collaborate to compose Wikipedia or the archive of YouTube or the Web for that matter. Generally all composition classes do is say that that stuff shouldn't be trusted. To be honest, what FYC (and academic writing in general) really must say is that the web isn't possible, because it violates many of its assumptions about how writing takes place. 

We ask scholars to produce scholarly writing because that writing is supposedly evidence of their capacity to think and to know their subject. We ask students to write academically for the same reason. But what if thinking and knowing didn't work that way? What if thinking and knowing were more distributed activities and what we were measuring with composing was not some inhered characteristic of individuals but rather their capacity to participate in certain networks? Networks that shift over time. In that case, rhetoric and composition would be about learning to participate, to relate, to particular networks in ways that are productive of thinking and knowing in certain paradigmatic ways. That's what a MOOCC would have to teach,, I think.