I gave another Prezi workshop lately, introducing students to presenting as an instance of digital storytelling. I like Prezi for its intuitive user interface, because it makes the one-to-many part of teaching pretty straightforward and allows me to quickly step back, let students go about their own business and be ready for any questions that pop up along the way. As always, Prezi impressed newcomers with its specific qualities, but students also soon found out about how it changes the way presentations are being given and its shortcomings and this is where the magic happened that led to this blog entry: During the workshop, no one who hit a wall gave up on Prezi, no one denounced the tool, no one lost their patience, but all of them concluded “Oh well, I’m sure there is a workaround, and I guess I’ll find it.” And this is exactly the kind of attitude I often miss in academic staff. The students I taught today showed a real interest in the tool – not for itself – but because they were eager to find out about how they could use it to accomplish their goals. They didn’t moan, they didn’t complain, they just used the tool as what it is: a tool. The workshop therefore wasn’t forced to remain on the purely technical level – it was, just as I had hoped, about digital storytelling. Students began by asking themselves: what do I want to tell my audience, what is the message want to get across in my presentation, and only then they looked at the tool and figured out how it could help them. I am confinced that a digital writing pedagogy should always place the writer(s) first, then the writing and only then care for the tools.

Tools can change quickly, they come and go. But skills last and can be used as a basis to built upon. And so the workshop got me thinking about the situation of digital writing in the German-speaking writing center world. Over the last few weeks, I had the chance to answer a couple of questions about digital writing, mostly about tools. And that already kind of struck me, because to me it seems strange to just ask questions about tools and not consider pedagogy. As if the only task were to force these damn digital tools into the teaching of writing and be done with it. As if digitalization didn’t bring with it major changes in the art and craft that is the beating heart of writing centers – as if writing didn’t change. I am convinced that things are not that simple. Don’t we have to talk about pedagogical implications first?

I quickly turn noncommittal when it becomes clear that questions take on a form of “I am looking for a tool to mention to some clients, but I don’t have any interest in really dealing with it and getting my hands dirty – just name one that is tried and tested.” Or “I want to do X, Y and Z and I want you to name ONE tool that can do it all. If you can’t, because there is none, then digitalization sucks.” No one should have to answer questions that the asker herself can find out by just showing some interest and setting her hand to the tools she’s interested in. GIYF. Asking questions can yield answers, but what is missing is experience. Questions can’t give you that, only participation will.

If you can’t be bothered to actively inquire, if you’re afraid of the internet, if you’re afraid of communication, if you’re afraid of sharing, if you want to free-ride but not participate – then please, by all means, do not attempt digital writing, let alone teach it.  Establishing a healthy environment in which digital writing can be taken serious and flourish does not mainly require changes in the medium in which we write, but changes in engagements. The first step should therefore be to ask myself, what the idea of a participative culture means to me and whether and to what extend I am able and willing to be engaged.

Digital writing differs from ordinary writing in various ways. One of the most important is that digital writing is a much more powerful tool for interaction than pen and paper ever have been. Write your thoughts down on paper, and you don’t have to worry much about privacy. You are the only one who can read it, unless you pass it on. Write them down in a blog, and things are radically different. If you don’t want to share your thoughts with others, if you don’t want other people to share their perspective with you – why blog? Digital writing is about participation – about yours and about the participation of others. And participation requires a certain mindset, one that is very different from what universities have taught us and are still teaching today.

Digital writing badly needs professional development and professionals badly need experience with digital writing. Being an active participant in digital environments is foundational for the professional development of both digital writing and writing teachers, because that is where experience is gained. In addition, professionals have to establish formats and spaces in which they can reflect on and learn from digital writing. An inquisitve frame of mind as described in the introductory paragraph is the sine qua non vantage point.

More in the next post.