The fact that words have power has always been the case, but now, with the advances in digital communication, that power is magnified. How does the ease of communication and the speed and distance with which words can travel and mutate influence written communication and writing as a genre? Professor of English Lisa Lebduska, whose area of scholarship focuses on writing studies, explores how digital technologies impact the way writing is taught, learned and used. During the spring semester at Wheaton, she delved into these issues through her “Advanced Writing: Digital Controversies” course, which required students to consider the complexity of communicating in the 21st century and to write about it using various means—print and digital.

First, talk about your overall area of scholarship.

My field is writing studies, also known as composition and rhetoric. The composition side focuses on how people learn to read and write in various contexts—broadly understood, it is the theory, research and practice of teaching writing. For example, how do people improve at writing? How do they learn the genres and discourse of a particular discipline? How do they develop a voice? How do they learn about audience and purpose? How do they learn to apply and transfer practices and approaches from one writing context to another? What kind of feedback is most useful for helping people to improve their writing? How does peer review influence people’s approaches to writing? The rhetoric side focuses on how arguments (written, visual and oral) are made; how persuasion works.

Tell us about your current research.

Right now, I’m very interested in this area called “literacy panics.” Every time there’s a new technology, there’s a lot of anxiety around what this means to society and to the culture, which scholars have written about before. We can go all the way back to Plato’s Phaedrus, in which Socrates tells a story about the god Theuth wanting to give the king Thamus the invention of writing. Thamus rejects the gift because he believes that it would discourage the use of memory and the acquisition of wisdom. In this work, Plato is capturing an anxiety about writing, an anxiety that returns whenever we face a new mode of communication.

How is anxiety over new technology currently manifesting?

Now, with digital communication—whether we’re looking at people texting or emailing or even watching videos—there is a concern about what these ways of communicating mean in terms of people’s ability to connect with each other, to communicate clearly, to focus, to develop ideas. I’m very interested in the extent to which these are genuine concerns and how these technologies are affecting the way people are learning to write, and even what “writing” is right now. I became interested in this as I’ve been talking to my students over the years about texting, their use of social media and how they think about writing. They are constantly writing—within the academic setting, yes—but also outside of it, although they don’t consider texting writing but “talking” or a hybrid of the two. In many ways, they’re probably writing more than some generations before them—if you just looked at words per day. So the question is less about how much writing people are doing but more about what kinds of writing and for what purposes.

How is technology impacting written communication?

Digital composing has heightened our awareness of visual rhetoric. All writing has a visual component—even in an all-print document there are questions of spacing, punctuation, alignment, bolding and font that affect the presentation and reception of the written word. Word processing allows writers to make choices about those elements much more easily. Moreover, composing on and for the Internet also allows writers to make, alter and use graphs, tables and images. There is an increasing need for people to be able to learn to work with images, to really focus on the visual messages they are communicating. I’d like my students to be able to analyze, use and reflect on visual components in their reading and writing. I would say more so than when creating a print document. In the absence of face-to-face communication, we’ve also become more aware of using visual markers to provide social cues—whether it involves adding exclamation points or tagging on emojis in an effort to clarify our tone. And the timing and speed of how writing can be circulated also needs to become a consideration. For example, people need to be reminded that when they receive an email, they shouldn’t instantly react. There is a need to stop, take a beat and reflect, whereas traditional communication had pauses built into it. In the past, even if you “whipped” off a letter, it was a much slower process than firing off an email. We have lots of examples of people tweeting without fully considering what they’re posting or how others might read that post. The public nature of writing is also very different. Anything that’s digitized is easily circulated. You might send an email to one individual, but you don’t really know what that individual is going to do to that email. So, now, timing and circulation become parts of the rhetorical consideration that a writer needs to have in mind when composing.

Does all of this impact the way you teach writing?

Yes. I spend more time encouraging students to reflect on their writing, to think about the medium. I don’t want to demonize the technology; I want the students to really think about the choices they make as writers. I created the “Advanced Writing: Digital Controversies” course not only to expand the work that students do in “First-Year Writing,” but also to encourage them to question and explore the complexity of what it means to “write” in the 21st century. Writers have more choices and more decisions to make in what and how they compose. This course offers students an opportunity to engage in the challenges of digital composing from both the inside (as composers) and the outside (as scholars asking critical questions). Andit seeks to bridge traditional print writing and digital composing so that students improve their skills and their understanding in both. Students are already immersed in digital environments—they’re posting to Instagram and Tumblr, reading blogs and maintaining YouTube channels. I hope this course provides them with insights into some of the scholarly conversations about these digital environments. I would like us, as a class, to see the nuances and distinctions to be made in discussing communication related to digital technology (and in comparing it to face-to-face communication)—whether we’re analyzing and writing about texting, Wikipedia or surveillance cameras. I would like students to understand that there’s much to enjoy and learn about writing byond what they learn in English 101.