One reason for surveying and interviewing our graduates was to perform what is often called “program assessment” in academe—that is, a process of gathering information that might help the faculty in the five programs we considered make decisions about how to improve what we teach and how we teach it. All of us have spent years in graduate school trying to develop expertise in particular areas of study. But when you teach writing, and particularly writing that has direct applications, both professionally and within various public spheres, the ground tends to shift beneath your feet quite regularly. The digital revolution, with its extremely rapid iterations, has only placed this truth in sharper relief, and made acting upon it more urgent. We are so far into that revolution now that it seems easy to forget general use of the internet only began 15 or 16 years ago, along with e-mail and ever growing capabilities to mix media in our texts. The rapid expansion of blogging is a phenomenon that has occurred within the last decade. Faculty in places like Slippery Rock, where a normal teaching load is four classes a semester, populated by as many as 150 students, have to do what they can to keep up, and to reflect on how the theory they learned about rhetoric and pedagogy can be applied to the changing world of written communication.
Interviews with the graduates made clear that certain tasks inherent to a liberal arts education since the Middle Ages remain of utmost importance, such as the development of the ability to think critically, to generate research questions, and to construct schemes or narratives for carrying out investigations. One of our foremost charges, in first-year writing, literature, and more advanced research courses, is to help students develop those capabilities. Both the graduates and the speech writers I interviewed a few years earlier recognized the role courses with no obviously or directly vocational function played in creating and encouraging intellectual curiosity, expanding the scope of one’s interests and vision, and providing a context for the specific writing tasks one might undertake.
The venues visited and genres read and written do vary from our pre-digital world. Our graduates are less likely to turn into a row of shelved books in the library “stacks,” and much more likely to “google” a word or phrase, and then recognize the need to make astute judgments about the value of the information found in the ensuing set of links. They appreciate being taught how to maneuver their way around databases found at a library’s web site. But they also are as likely to gain information by seeking out an interview, or making direct observations, or constructing a survey that can be completed on-line. So… writing programs have to make sure students learn to make critical judgments about web sites (even if the program is just “servicing” undergraduates in all majors), and to receive practice in conducting interviews and constructing and distributing surveys.
Digital technology is, perhaps, most pervasive when we listen to accounts of the equipment and software used when writing, or developing the content for writing. What I found quite interesting, as I interviewed the graduates, was that practices like browsing the World Wide Web or using e-mail are so engrained in their daily activities that they seldom even thought of the particular software enabling such practices. At the same time, graduates are quite aware of the value in practicing with software that enables the integration of visual with verbal and sometimes even audio elements. Practice in using such programs now appears essential to any writing program. In addition, while graduates engaged in journalism were generally the ones found using digital cameras and voice recorders, their use could be encouraged by anyone seeking to work multiple media into what were once labeled the expository and persuasive modes. A recent article by Jenny Edbauer Rice in College Composition and Communication argues for expanding English teachers’ notion of “mechanics” beyond usage, or the accepted practices found in various kinds of writing, and into inclusion of the new communication tools, along with the rhetorical choices those tools create.
Regarding a comment written last Friday the 5th, when I mentioned that four of the interviewed graduates were working for newspapers in some capacity I was including one who is not full-time but a regular contributor, who will be profiled later. At this point in our nation’s economic history it may be difficult to precisely define what a “real job” is. In our examination of persuasive and public writing by college graduates, we are less interested in drawing sharp lines between writing done as an employee and writing done as a “private” citizen than in considering all such writing that gets done. I encourage other readers to please emulate that commenter, nonetheless, to click the “Comments” link at the end of each posting, and to help this blog fulfill its main purpose of creating an ongoing conversation about our writing and how we can best prepare students for that writing.