Engaging Student Commenting Practices in the Classroom: All Paper or Digital, Too?

digital-marginalia My good friend, Matt Dowell, wrote a long, thoughtful comment on one of my posts from last week: “Reading, Writing, Marking, & Difficulty: Re-Reading Salvatori in Light of Digital Writing Practices.” I wanted to take some time and give his comment to attendant response it deserves. I posted it as a comment in the original post, but I thought it might warrant an entry all it’s own. I’ve changed the pronouns for readability, but the text is largely the same. Here is Dowell’s comment (followed by my response):

I find the last sentence of section 2a to be the most interesting portion of your post. Maybe because I’ve heard the rest of it from you before!

It seems to be that in one way, your argument that teachers should “consider the material/physical aspects of a students’ reading processes as an additional factor affecting the “difficulty” of a text” provides a possible answer to ideas you are presenting in section 1a and on the other hand it speaks back to the complications you raise in the same section.

I, to use one of your phrases, “totally totally agree with you” that we need to make the material/physical aspects of reading/writing more visible to our students and need to draw connections between physical/material reading. So, the most obvious answer is

to (in addressing 1a) invite students to bring all of their “material/physical” reading practices into the classroom. To be generous to Salvatori’s work, though, her focus is primarily in offering students strategies on how to approach a text (assumed to be the same for everyone). So, now my most obvious reaction to the idea of inviting all these reading practices into the classroom is to say, “No, we all need to do be working with the text in the same physical format.” And we all know that usually takes the form of traditional, printed copy (at least in my class!)

So, there’s the desire to invite in the actual “material/physical” reading practices that students actually use (and are too various to count). There’s the counter-desire to offer some form of sameness for the sake of focusing on the strategies to read the text. But, then there’s the counter-counter argument that the strategies are contextual to the physical/material conditions. And from there, questions arise along the lines of “OK, if I have them do it one way, will they be able to reconceptualize the strategy for their own purposes?” I almost just used the word transfer, but I think that would, in this context of digital/physical/material, border on offering the idea of linear application.

You know me (we’ve been friends for awhile even if you don’t want to admit it), so you know my interest is in the strategy. This focus is to the poin where, as a teacher, I want students dealing with the (same) physical, printed text. I want to believe that I can exclude issues of the material in favor of focusing on the strategy/approach. But, I’m pretty convinced that’s not how it should work. But to make it work any other way is to invite the complications you point out in 1a.

While more might not be better, is avoiding the physical/material just as not useful? I feel like I’m caught in a tension where I want to bring these difficulties related to the physical/material to the surface in my class, I just don’t want doing so to get in the way of the strategies I teach! Although, clearly, the physical/material is already present in the strategies even if I don’t want to admit it.

I think I’ve completed my circular journey now. I’ll be getting out of here now…

I sense in Dowell’s response that he might be a little anxious about the level of complexity (confusion) that some of my potential strategies might produce (such a provisional statement!). Having students bring in laptops, kindles, copies with one page per sheet, with two pages per sheet, or needing to work in a lab to accommodate students who work on desktops only. And then having some of them marking up with Acrobat, or another sort of PDF reader. Some underlining, some highlighting, some dropping notes into the document margins, some writing notes at the end of the document. Some using pop-up notes. Some notes appearing over the text. Some students taking notes away from the text, and storing them elsewhere: notebook, voice recording, OneNote, Evernote, Txt file, Word file, etc. (And this list is missing way more options than it actually contains.) I can certainly understand an instructor’s hesitance to allow for the actual practices students enact to engage their texts. Truth told, Dowell’s note has even raised my own anxiety level about the possible implications of my proposed pedagogies.

And about his mention of “transfer,” my reluctance to the term is minimal, provided it operates within specific meanings. I haven’t read much on the idea of transfer in our discipline, so feel free to recommend something, but it seems that the assumption of transfer is inherent in any classroom. Unless we’re teaching students only to be really good at performing in the classroom, there’s got to be at least a smidgen of transfer assumed. Although there are plenty of contentious debates about what sorts of knowledges/skills/practices are preferable or even possible in our classrooms, I don’t think it’s possible to talk about the value of what we do without acknowledging that we DO commerce in it to some degree. I just think it’s important that anytime it becomes relevant to our arguments, we are explicit about the types and degree of transfer we’re assuming. So Dowell’s gesture toward print as representative/introduction to other textual engagement strategies does have serious merit. Certainly worth thinking more about.

Maybe this is me trying to establish some middle ground, or at least meet him there. I think the paper-ink strategies, where everyone has the same book or the same photocopies could work. Really well, actually. But in my own classroom, I could only approach it this way if I carved out significant space in classroom discussions for how this particular strategy might galvanize some other strategies that students do, actually, enact. I still say that it’s limited in the ways I’ve articulated in the post above, but not necessarily to the degree I first suggested.

On the other hand it might be interesting to allow for a variety of textual engagement strategies, but to limit those options. Maybe print-ink, Acrobat, and notes in an associated text file. Or maybe just the first two. Then we could have lively discussions about the affordances/drawbacks/demands of each method.

So there. TWO patches of middle ground for us to cultivate. But there’s one more point I want to acknowledge/admit-to about my original post…

I don’t have a single criticism of Salvatori’s argument or pedagogy given it’s own context (read: early-to-mid ‘90s). However, it’s a much, much different pedagogical move to adopt a print-ink-marginalia strategy now in the context of increasingly digital-and-networked universities. There can be all sorts of reasons to adopt Salvatori’s practices as-is, but I’d be a little curious, at least, as to what would motivate an instructor to do so. Obviously, Dowell’s articulated some very good reasons in his comment above, and there are many others that are just as good. I would hope that an instructor who does adopt these practices would be as thoughtful as he has been as to their own motivation.

… Okay, I’ll just get to it. I fear that some instructors would employ this method for reasons I don’t find very valid. Maybe because this is how they, themselves engage the text, so they privilege it in a way that’s not necessarily useful to twenty-first century students. Maybe they’re unaware of other practices students are employing to engage texts. Maybe they don’t want to learn these alternatives. Maybe because they’ve just always talked with students about it this way. None of these suspicions are very generous. I’ll admit it. I just feel like it needs to be said.