robots and writing? a #cwcon update

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After a few years personal hiatus, I’ve returned to the Computers and Writing conference, which is taking place just an hour down the road from me at St. John Fisher’s College. The conference, and really the field, find themselves at a moment of reflection with the retirement of several founding members, including Cindy Selfe, Dickie Selfe, and Gail Hawisher. Following on that moment, the conference began with a presentation of microhistories of the conference (which started in 1984 I believe).

In many ways, these histories were panegyrics, which is fine in itself. There is a time for all things, etc., etc. Many things have been accomplished and should be remembered. At the same time, I think there’s a reasonable question about where that history has led us. One way of thinking about that is to ask whether or not the title of the conference, “Computers and Writing,” or its sister journal, Computers and Composition, really still works. Maybe they do, but if so, it’s because we’ve accepted the significant mutation of computing in our culture over the last 30 years. We all know there’s more computing power in the car you take to the grocery store than there was in the Apollo rockets we sent to the Moon. We probably need to realize that the birth of “Computers and Writing” occurred in an era of computing closer to that moonshot than to your car’s manufacture. Today, computing is so ubiquitous that even discussions of ubiquitous computing seem passé. If, when this business started, computers and writing described students with word processing software or maybe local networks, staring at monochrome monitors, then today, what does it mean? I know Will Hochman will be discussing the matter of the conference title  in his presentation on Saturday, so we’ll have to see what conversation comes out of that.

As some will observe, the early battles of computers and writing to get people to recognize the compositional and rhetorical capacities of computers are over. We won in a landslide, though probably not so much as a result of our own efforts as the inexorable force of technological development. It’s likely that our closest colleagues remain the staunchest opponents to this reality. Needless to say (but said anyway), there are plenty more battles, but maybe the end of those battles means “computers and writing” has run its course. We’ve become a mainstream part of rhetoric and composition. Maybe.

In looking at alternatives, some are content with the “digital rhetoric” appellation. I find it acceptable. Maybe there’s a conference title in there. Of course I never really referred to myself as a “computers and writing/composition” specialist, so I don’t personally feel like I’m losing much. Before digital rhetoric, I would have gone with new media rhetoric. There’s also techno-rhetoric or even cyber-rhetoric I guess. However, I wonder if there’s a reason the field has eschewed “rhetoric” for so long, at least in terms of its title.

Despite the title of this post, I’m not seriously suggesting “robots and writing” as a replacement, though it has a nice alliterative ring to it. Instead it’s suggestive of Jeff Grabill’s keynote this evening. Grabill’s talk focused on the various robots being developed around writing instruction. He pointed to the destructive pedagogical consequences of many of these robots that promise to evaluate student writing at scale… provided of course that teachers shape their classrooms to suit what the robots can do. Grabill quite forcefully called out his audience to get involved in this situation, arguing that it is not sufficient for us to decide that our scholarly interests don’t really coincide with addressing the ways that writing instruction, especially at the K-12 level is becoming roboticized. Furthermore, critique is not enough. We need solutions, which is what Grabill has been working on with many others in the form of the ELI Review program.

I don’t doubt Grabill’s assertion that these writing robots lead to bad pedagogy that tends to hurt the most vulnerable of our students first and the worst. But let me set that aside for a moment.

Or more precisely, before we get to that, there’s a prior argument that I think needs to be made. It starts with recognizing that there are nonhumans (robots or whatever) that are reading and writing and that are shaping human rhetorical capacities. To be clear, they are not just mute extensions of human will. They are doing their own thing.

In the morning session, many of the microhistories pointed to a “pivot” that took place around 1993-4. You don’t have to be much of a historian to figure out what happened then that might have changed the way we looked at computers and writing. As I was discussing with a few friends over lunch, one might see a related pivot about a decade later around the arrival of social media. Somewhere around there it seemed like there was a tipping point in terms of the average rhet/comp tenure track position expecting a level of technological competence that would have made one a specialist in the previous decade (e.g. an ability to “teach with technology”). And while I don’t want to diminish the social media-mobile technology revolution, we are on the brink of, maybe already in the midst of, something far more substantive in the form of spimes, smart objects, robots, whatever you want to call them.

It’s tricky for us digital rhetoricians/computers and writing folks, because these things aren’t really media in any conventional sense, but they are rhetorical devices. And sure, one can say, as I have, in a new materialist vein that all objects might have rhetorical capacities, but this is something a little different. I’m talking about devices that are designed to perform rhetorical actions with us and other nonhumans. There’s nothing especially abstract, speculative, or theoretical about your smartphone’s rhetorical behaviors.

I think you have to understand this general situation before you can get to Grabill’s argument. Whether or not one gets involved directly in the struggle Grabill describes over the shape of writing education, it does seem like we require some new terminology (and concepts) to address an emerging situation with these technologies.

Honestly, I would be surprised if there was a title change any time soon. And I don’t have much at stake in the matter. I do think there’s a growing sense that “computers” are not necessarily what we are talking about and that maybe even “writing” is stretched to its limits. I suppose the danger is that we become so diverse in our interests that there’s nothing really holding us together except a somewhat illusory notion of our being “about computers.” While I feel comfortable with my own scholarly direction, I’m not sure how it fits into a larger picture or what that larger picture is or should be of computers and writing.