We often hear the term thrown around and we see examples of student work in a digital space, but what are the differences with digital writing?
What exactly is
The Rhetorical Situation:
choice and meaning
When students write in a digital space, they must become much more conscious of the rhetorical situation. As digital composers, the choices that they make have real consequence for the text. The digital composer's choices have real meaning for the text. Choosing to change the size or color of a font or bringing the reader's focus to an enlarged image changes the meaning of the piece.
Since the digital essay does not have to exist in a flat, linear, or one dimensional space, the decisions surrounding organization and structure become paramount. There is no specific beginning nor ending point, so the the text should make sense no matter where a reader begins the piece. Also, the structure and organization itself can be representative of the piece. For example, in the digital essay on the right, it is structured as squares in squares to represent record album covers since the piece is exploring the rhetorical theories of a musician.
Although the textual aspect of a digital essay often remains the most important aspect, the digital world offers a wide variety of media to enhance the text. Writers and composers must make careful decisions when searching for and selecting the "right" media to best enhance their argument or to further illustrate an idea. By representing an idea using various media, the author can give a more realistic and holistic representation of how he is thinking about the subject.
This use of multimedia also plays into digital composition's tendency toward multimodality. If multimodality "describes how we combine multiple different ways of communicating in everyday life," (Arola, Ball, and Shepherd in Writer/Designer) then digital composition creates multimodality as soon as the text meets the screen.
A digital writer is able to appeal to a reader's main modes of communication: visual, aural, gestural, spatial, and linguistic. Rather than simply talking about something, the writer is often able to show the reader what he is trying to say. Similar to how a newspaper uses pictorials, photos, and graphics to enhance the paper's text, the inclusion of these elements in a digital essay will bring richer meaning to the text itself.
One of the most important (and yet often overlooked) aspects of the digital essay is the ability to use hyperlinks within the text itself. Hyperlinks offer the reader a more holistic understanding of what the writer was thinking when she composed the piece. We think in messy, complicated, and connected ways, and by hyperlinking her text, the writer is able to show those connected ways of knowing to her reader. It is a great tool to enforce student reflection on her own writing and progress as a writer.
These links can lead the reader to other websites, pages within the digital composition, or even to openable documents. It is also important to note that the composer can hyperlink images, graphics, and buttons as well.
Hyperlinks can be used to provide further information, to give a specific example, to show a concept's transferability, and to let the reader see what the writer is thinking. For example, as I am writing this section, I cannot help but think of all that hyper-- means to me. I think about Hypercolor shirts from the 80s, about going into hyperdrive, and about creating Hypercard presentations on my family's Apple II...if I wanted my audience to know my train of thought, then I could simply set up a hyperlink to take them to that moment in my thought process. It provides a more holistic context for your readers and mimics how writing is read and linked online.
Digital.Composition / E-ssays / Digital.Design
"The use of multimodal literacies has expanded the ways we acquire information and understand concepts. Ever since the days of illustrated books and maps texts have included visual elements for the purpose of imparting information. The contemporary difference is the ease with which we can combine words, images, sound, color, animation, video, and styles of print in projects so that they are part of our everyday lives and, at least by our youngest generation, often taken for granted."
The e-ssay or the digital essay is writing that has been created to exist in a digital rather than a physical space. In other words, this writing is meant for the screen rather than the page. How you think about composing and what composition means must change too. Rather than simply transposing the flat, linear genre of the academic essay into a digital space only to remain flat and linear, digital writing should explore the constraints (both limitations and affordances) of the digital space by using hyperlinks, audio, videos, and images as well as consider the visual and textual composition. (Please see more of Dr. Joseph Harris' thoughts on the digital essay here.)
Digital composition allows the reader to add another layer(s) or dimension(s) to his work. It asks students to make new and complicated decisions as writers and composers. In the digital space, not only do writers make decisions on the textual level, but they also must carefully consider:
the rhetorical situation
layout, structure, and genre
connections and reflections
how to compose for public spaces
how to create purpose and authority
“What happens when text moves from page to screen? First, the digital text becomes unfixed and interactive. The reader can change it, become writer. The center of Western culture since the Renaissance—really since the great Alexandrian editors of Homer—the fixed, authoritative, canonical text, simply explodes into the ether."
—Richard Lanham, The Electronic Word
NCTE Position Statement on Multimodal Literacy
Writing in Public Spaces
In my class syllabus, I make my students aware of the public nature of the writing in our class. I explain: "Much of the work in this class will be public—whether it be on Moodle, in peer writing groups, on a public website, or on your e-portfolio. Please make sure that you are comfortable with others being able to access your final works and your work in process AND that you are comfortable with others commenting on and/or evaluating your work."
After ensuring their level of ease with the presence of the work online, we discuss WHY we work with our writing in public spaces.
Layout and Structure
And since there is no set structure or expected format in a digital composition, students are given the authority to choose HOW the lay out their piece to best present their ideas and writing.
Making Connections, HyperLinking, and Reflection
They recognize that the audience has moved beyond you as a teacher and toward a wider public audience. A public audiences has greater consequences for student writers.
They also extend their understanding of the purpose of the assignments as completing it for reasons other than getting a grade--they are essentially becoming published writers of their work. Context also comes into play because the composition must exist in a space outside of the classroom--context must be established for an uninformed reader.
For example, the student writer in the above video chose to use visual images to represent the different sections of her piece since part of her purpose was to question the subject's image.
I have also used hyperlinking to deal with issues of plagiarism and lack of online image source information. Students are asked to hyperlink to original sources of images in order to avoid copyright issues when they can't find original creator, title, or source.
Multimedia, Multimodality, and Intertextuality
Student writing often operates in a vaccuum where students write a piece, turn it in to the teacher, get the piece back, and repeat that process with the next piece. The writing never leaves the classroom space and the student rarely connects with the piece on an accountability level because the writing is only accountable in that space. However by opening up the audience from one person to many, it creates a greater SENSE OF AUTHORITYand ownership for student writers because they are ACCOUNTABLE for what they write to a greater number of people.
Since digital composition is MULTIMODAL and therefore MULTI-LAYERED, students also invest more time and more of themselves into digital pieces. They develop a connection with and an authority over their work because they have produced the text to such a deep and individualized extent.
Writing in public spaces for a classroom also allows the student to practice their methods of public writing. 21st century writers tend to do most of their writing in public or online spaces such as social media, gaming communities, and email communication. By practicing how to effectively and critically compose texts online while in a classroom environment, students learn how to be responsible composers of online text.
FIVE MODES OF COMMUNICATION
AT WORK IN DIGITAL WRITING
Visual: Style, color, images, and video
Aural: Music, video, and audio
Spatial: Layout, structure, arrangement
Linguistic: word choice, writing style
Gestural: How the reader interacts
or moves through the text
"All these texts are the interminable preface to another text that one day I would like to have the force to write or the epigraph of one I would never have the audacity to write..."